Wednesday, October 22, 2014

All aboard The Holy Holy Bus as Brassneck's brand new production takes audiences on a side-splitting tour #BelFest

The Holy Holy Bus left the front of Clonard with its three passengers and tour guide setting off on its annual pilgrimage around Ireland’s religious shrines and relics. Last night’s packed Waterfront Studio audience strapped themselves into their seats as Brassneck Theatre Company delivered an exhilarating and entertaining performance of their brand new production which is premiering at Belfast Festival.

Lily (played by Stella McCusker) is coming to terms with illness and old age. She’s the kind of woman who confesses to murders to wind up visiting priests. Her daughter Sally (Roisin Gallagher, fresh from Pentecost in the Lyric) is childless, divorced and reluctantly agrees to accompany her mum on “one last big adventure”.

Tour guide Perpetua (Claire Connor) is devout, devoid of a sense of humour, and takes a condescending attitude to the loud Shankill taxi-driving bleached “pradestant” Rita (Caroline Curran, bringing a copy of 50 Shades with her) who joins the other three women on the bus “for the craic”.

Five picture frames mounted across the simple black backdrop ground each scene with simple images and the occasional well-placed video.

The laughs flow continuously with banter, truisms, facial expressions, a touch of slaggin’ and topical references to Garth Brooks and the Metropolitan Tabernacle. One joke about Bulimia jars amongst the otherwise measured script. Audience members couldn’t keep themselves from joining in the singing and humming along with the music played between acts.

As the play progresses, the Holy Holy Bus morphs into a secular bus and spiritual renewal is totally replaced by dreams of sexual fulfilment. In fact, some of the material in the second half perhaps unnecessarily turns it into 15+ show. While the production moves substantially beyond the initial character stereotypes to get to the heart of the pain that is driving each woman, humour ultimately propels the show towards its finale as much as true healing.

The mother/daughter scenes between Stella McCusker and Roisin Gallagher are incredibly fond and moving to witness. While going on a physical journey could have become an enormous cliché around the production’s neck, Pearse Elliott’s well drawn script, strong cast and Tony Devlin’s intelligent direction mitigate the risk and deliver a great night’s entertainment.

The Holy Holy Bus is the tightest, feel-good comedy theatre I’ve seen in years, with believable on-stage chemistry and a cast with the ability to switch an audience from belly laughs to silent pathos in an instant.

This isn’t high theatre with beautiful soliloquies and speeches that school children will ever be forced to learn by rote. However, it is the kind of populist alternative pantomime deserves to be the worthy successor to the tired Grimes and McKee yuletide shows. Last night’s Waterfront Studio audience – young and old (the most diverse I’ve seen at this year’s festival so far) – loved it.

The Holy Holy Bus departs from the Waterfront Studio at 8pm every night (except Sunday) until 31 October before going on tour to Lisburn, Newtownabbey, Newry, Strabane and beyond.

Now if I could only get the tune of Hallelujah out of my head …

- - -

Grania McFadden's review of The Holy Holy Bus in the Belfast Telegraph.

Other theatre worth checking out later this week includes An Enemy of the People (Thu-Sat), More than a Flag (Thu-Sat) and Makaronik (Fri-Sun)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Elsewhere ... Jonathan Powell, Paul Conroy, UUP conference review and #BelFest treats

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about:

Jonathan Powell's talk at the Belfast Festival in which Tony Blair's Chief of Staff and now political negotiatior around the world spoke about his book Talking To Terrorists, admitted that "terrorists are often better negotiators than governments", and offered a view on the latest set of political talks at Stormont.

War photographer Paul Conroy is speaking at Belfast Festival tonight. The original event sold out but there is now a 'late show' at 9.15pm with some tickets still available from the festival box office on 028 9097 1197.

Saturday's UUP autumn party conference saw DRD minister Danny Kennedy poking fun at other Executive ministers a few minutes after stating "more than ever we are witnessing the politics of the playground". Party leader Mike Nesbitt talked about victims, the military covenant, and proposing a DUP/UUP Westminster electoral pact in North Belfast/Fermanagh & South Tyrone. You can listen back to the speeches. (The previous Saturday afternoon was spent at the PUP conference - with audio available too.)

And don't forget that there's lots of great theatre coming up this week at Belfast Festival including An Enemy of the People (Thursday-Saturday) which I highly recommend having previewed the show in the Barbican a few weeks ago, More than a Flag, The Holy Holy Bus Tour, and Makaronik.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Celebrating William Rowan Hamilton in the Linen Hall Library on Thursday ... it's Irish Maths Week

It's Irish Maths Week. Whether deliberately tied in or not, the Linen Hall Library are celebrating the life of nineteenth century William Rowan Hamilton on Thursday evening at 6pm in Belfast.

Poet and Fellow Emeritus at Trinity College Dublin, Iggy McGovern will perform pieces from his sonnet sequence A Mystic Dream of 4 based on the Irish mathematician's life.

Hamilton's son is quoted describing his father's approach to problem solving:
He used to carry on, long trains of algebraic and arithmetical calculations in his mind, during which he was unconscious of the earthly necessity of eating; we used to bring in a 'snack' and leave it in his study, but a brief nod of recognition of the intrusion of the chop or cutlet was often the only result, and his thoughts went on soaring upwards.
Admission is free, all welcome.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Listen back to Roger Trigg, Colin Harvey and Michael Wardlow speaking on Equality, Freedom and Religion at PCI's second Church in the Public Square conference

Do we need a Bill of Rights? Is Equality a Biblical value? Are human rights all about me?

These were some of the questions addressed at today’s The Church in the Public Square conference organised by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Today’s event focussed on Equality, Freedom and Religion. It was curiously appropriate that as delegates arrived the music wafting up from the Spires shopping arcade underneath the conference venue was “I can’t get no satisfaction”!

Three speakers each addressed the audience of a hundred in Assembly Buildings for thirty minutes, before being interrogated interviewed about their remarks.

Roger Trigg is the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Warwick. Speaking under the title of “Religious Freedom in a Secular Society”, he began by suggesting that religion is on the defensive as Europe becomes more aggressively secular. He argued that the act of saying someone is immoral doesn’t necessarily equate to saying someone is of lesser worth.

In what came across to me as quite a defensive talk, Roger commented that people desire respect for the right to do things (that some Christians may disagree with) and then also want respect for doing them. He saw conflict between religion and an emerging egalitarian orthodoxy. Later in his presentation, Roger asserted that “just because you believe something doesn’t mean you should impose it on other people … we’re given freedom [by God]” adding that Jesus didn’t use his power to make people believe.

Roger also highlighted the use of phrases “freedom of worship” and “freedom of religion”, the former supporting “going to church on a Sunday but keeping quiet about it for the rest of the week”. He criticised attempts “to make the state neutral” and to privatise religion, concluding that a neutral state stands for nothing.
“What I do not mean by equality is that all beliefs are equal. That would be relativism and “the path to nihilism”.
Roger's comments on the need for "conscience clauses" in legislation triggered a reaction from the National Secular Society!

The second speaker was Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen’s University of Belfast.
“Human rights are intrinsically relational and social … If I engage in the public square and I argue for human rights, surely I am not in the public square simply arguing that only Colin Harvey has human rights. At the core of the argument for human rights is that all human persons should have these rights as well. It’s an awful tragedy in much of the modern portrayal of human rights that that social and relational, understanding of human rights belonging to all human beings universally is neglected and underplayed in favour of a more individualistic discourse of human rights.”

Colin recognised that locally some people struggle for human rights and equality because of their faith. But he called the church to reclaim engagement and participation in the language of and discourse in human rights. They shouldn’t walk away from the debate.

“Healing conversations” were required by society around complicated and difficult issues and areas. It would help if a Bill of Rights was seen for the benefit of everyone rather than any particular group or section of society promoting its introduction. Arguing for the right of religious expression and the right not to be discriminated against would by its very nature also support religious pluralism.
If the only time I hear my voice out loud in the public square is talking about me, I worry about that. I think human rights for me starts with the human rights of the other, how we can better serve the other and a recognition of the humanity of the other … a recognition of who is my neighbour.

Colin then widened the scope and asked delegates to stand up for the rights and welfare of refugees, asylum seekers and the millions forcibly displaced across the world. He dared the delegates (and implicitly the church) to go beyond food banks and to find out how human rights could challenge the economic structures that make foodbanks a reality today.

After lunch it was the turn of Michael Wardlow, the Chief Commissioner at the Equality Commission for NI. Michael was addressed the not-exclusively Presbyterian audience as a practicing Christian holding the public appointment. Prior to this role (and a number of others be holds/pursues in parallel) he spent fifteen years working to promote and support the integrated education sector, and worked in Uganda and the Eastern European. Fixing broken things is a career trend.

Time doesn’t allow me to transcribe Michael’s every word, but you can pick up the gist of his fast-paced talk by flicking through the slides.

He outlined the Bible’s call to equality, suggesting:
What we have from the Bible is not a bland, levelling equality: rather we have an equality that is the by-product of love – the seeking of an imbalance in favour of the other according to his or her needs. [emphasis added]
Reminding the audience that discrimination is not necessarily unlawful, Michael highlighted examples of mass discrimination throughout history and explained the Equality Commission’s scope and framework.
Legislation is like scaffolding built up around a building until it becomes stable.

Two case studies looked at religion and gender, with legislation assisting a big improvement in the Catholic workforce, though a more patchy increase in female representation in different jobs.

Michael finished his prepared address with a call for a generosity:
If we’re people enthused with grace, our grace needs to be imbued with generosity.
Responding to questions after his talk, Michael rejected the suggestion that the Equality Commission was targeting Christians. Due to the stage in the process that has been reached, he was limited in what he could say about the Ashers Bakery “cake” complaint, but he explained the process that the Equality Commission follows and the questions that are asked:
  • Is there a point of law that hasn’t been tested?
  • Is it an unrepresented group?
  • The commission doesn’t go out looking for complaints: they wait for people to get in touch.
  • Their legal funding committee considers applications.
  • Every year ECNI supports about 80 cases of which about 10 end up in court.
Earlier in the day as delegates arrived, some people picked up leaflets urging support for an Ashers Bakery petition (labelled as being distributed by "Christian Soldiers - UKIP") and "When the salt loses its savour" tracts (with rusty staples).

While numbers were down on the first Public Square conference earlier this year, there was representation in the room from many political parties and public bodies like the PSNI.

Converting PCI to a position of using the language of human rights and equality – never mind engaging with the concepts and willingly applying them to others – will be a long process. However, with a many assistant ministers (“licentiates”) in attendance along with a range of ordained clergy (as well as elders and general laity) at least the conversation, if not the conversion, has started.

While not explicit in the programme or the on-stage introductions, the conference implicitly limited itself to the Public Square in Northern Ireland. It would be good to see the Presbyterian Church of Ireland finding imaginative ways of exploring its situation on both sides of the border. While the format avoided confrontation, there were people and opinions present in the room whose views were limited to their table discussions and were not aired to the full audience. At some point, the ‘Freedom’ in the title will have to extend to hiding fewer elephants under the rug and facilitating dialogue across the breadth of belief.

Pits and Perverts - Lyric Theatre (until 11 Oct) - the story of two strange bedfellows

In July 1984, as the miners' strike intensified, the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) group was set up in London. A Sun newspaper said:
the gay community's support of the miners is an unholy alliance of Pits and Perverts.
While at first these two feel like strange bedfellows, members of both groups shared experiences of being arrested and charged with offences they didn't commit, police brutality, fighting for rights, and media misrepresentation. With National Union of Miners bank accounts frozen, support organisations were twinned directly with mining communities. London's LGSM financed the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valley miners, and held a fundraising benefit gig - "Pits and Perverts".

Micheál Kerrigan's debut play delves into this social history, distinct from the recent film Pride.

Sean (played by Conor Maguire) escaped from Derry after his best friend Jim (Alex Wilson) was killed on Bloody Sunday. Nightmares and trauma continue to haunt him as he lives in London with partner Gene (Michael Johnston), a talented music student. With experience of army raids in 'Free Derry' it's a short jump for Sean to support the pit workers. South Wales miners David (Jason Davies) and Rhys (Patrick Buchanan) come to stay, and are at first very uncomfortable with their hosts and accommodation. Added to the mix is Gene's final year concert partner Candida. Orla Mullan superbly played the toffy-nosed Tory singer who thinks the miners should go back to work as the picket line chorus of "Maggie Maggie Maggie, out out out!" accompany her Mahler rehearsals.

Last night's performance of Pits and Perverts by Sole Purpose packed in the facts about the early 1980s. Characters reminded the audience about hunger strikes, the mining dispute and the Thatcher government as well relating the experiences of the gay community. Still images from the era were projected onto the plain walls of Gene and Sean's flat.

Cimabue's Crucifix along with the works and life of Michelangelo were threads running through the play. There were moments of profound observation along with more stereotyped set-piece encounters and situations. At times the calls of "we're all in this together" smacked more of David Cameron's Big Society than 1984 industrial dispute.

Pits and Perverts took a while to warm up and perhaps ticks too many boxes as it combines aspects of Derry, South Wales and London. Conor Maguire's portrayal of Sean - at first stuttering and always prone to emotional outbursts - is very believable. Lighter moments in the second half nearly descend to farce as musical traditions are shared.

By the end of the play, more than just the strike had finished and there were fresh beginnings for many of the characters as the ambition to fight for other people's rights spread. (One real-world consequence of the LGSM's support for miners was the adoption of lesbian and gay rights as equality issues by the TUC and Labour party.)

The Lyric Theatre autumn programme seems dominated by plays featuring ghosts and the on-stage playing of music instruments!

Pits and Perverts is in the Lyric Theatre at 8pm this week (until Saturday 11) at the end of its UK tour. Tickets £10.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Will and Testament - a fond and personal nod to Tony Benn whose life could never be summed up in 100 minutes

The only time I saw Tony Benn in person was in the Elmwood Hall as part of a 'BT Talks' event at Belfast Festival. The former MP, trade unionist and socialist who renounced his inherited peerage spoke with passion and fervour, captivating the audience with his anecdotes, asides and reflections on the problems in the current political system.

A diarist who abandoned written notetaking and instead recorded his memory of and reflections on the day into a tape recorder before going to sleep each evening, Tony Benn amassed a considerable archive of his life throughout the war (RAF), parliament, the miners' strike and beyond.

Over a hundred minutes, the producers of Tony Benn: Will and Testament combined interviews with the politician in his humble kitchen and inside the House of Commons chamber with archive photography, news reel and TV reports.

But it's not the recollections of the war, his ministerial posts, or the woes of New Labour that stand out. It's his honest reflection.

What was missing in Ian Paisley's interviews with Eamonn Mallie screened on BBC One NI earlier this year was any kind of self-reflection, any kind of realisation that he'd made mistakes and that Northern Ireland would have been better-served by different decisions and actions.
I've made a million mistakes in my life - I'm not ashamed ... that's how we learn (Tony Benn)
The Labour MP performed a U-turn after his early support for nuclear energy which at the time he believed to be cheap, safe and peaceful, but later discovered was expensive, dangerous and supplying plutonium for US warheads.

Once an interesting politician that the media liked to quote, Tony Benn was later demonised.
When the media turns on you, they're a very powerful assassination squad ...
... a statement by Tony Benn that reminded me of Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People (a powerful play coming to Belfast as part of Belfast Festival). Tony Benn's family suffered as the media camped outside their house, ringing the doorbell through the night and taunting his children to say something newsworthy. His wife Caroline understood.

During the film Tony Benn spoke about the influence of his parents. But his fondest words were reserved for his wife who he said taught him how to die through her four year illness with cancer. It was Caroline who suggested that he "leave Parliament to devote more time to politics". He bought the bench he proposed to her on in Oxford and placed it opposite her grave.

While the film jumps around between locations, much of the imagery is beautiful, and the moments of silence in the narrative allow the story to breath. There's no reference to his opinions and pronouncements on Northern Ireland and the role of Sinn Fein.

Will and Testament is a fond and personal nod to a politician whose life and principles could never be summed up in 100 minutes.

There's one last showing of Tony Benn: Will and Testament in the QFT on Sunday evening (5 October) at 8.50pm followed by a recorded 'satellite' discussion from earlier in the day in London.

Equality, Freedom and Religion - PCI's second Church in the Public Square conference (Thu 9 Oct)

Back in January, they brought together Scottish Free Church theologian Prof Donald MacLeod (who could teach Ed Miliband a thing or two about speaking without notes for an hour), Dr Jonathan Chaplin (with a background in Christian ethics and political thought) and NI's Attorney General.

John Larkin QC took the opportunity to take exception with the British Supreme Court's ruling which upheld a judgement against Christian guesthouse owners Mr & Mrs Bull who refused to provide accommodation to a gay couple. At least three Executive ministers not to mention Assembly committee members attended along with 200 delegates.

I'm firmly of the belief that churches deserve to be in the public square, but they need to take the initiative to elbow their way into the crowded agora and have something worthwhile to say. While peace and reconciliation efforts were made both at grassroots and denominational levels, over the last 40 years some inconvenient issues were ignored. There is much that the church could challenge, holding up Gospel values against Executive policies nevermind Executive politics.

So it's good to see Presbyterian Church in Ireland holding a second Church in the Public Square conference. On Thursday 9 October, Union Theological College and PCI's Church and Society Committee are hosting a conference addressing Equality, Freedom and Religion. The organisers say:
The equality agenda is important in building a just and equitable society. Yet this raises many very important issues which have scarcely been debated, never mind satisfactorily resolved. Whilst freedom of religious belief is widely accepted, there is much less consensus on the issue of freedom of religious expression and practice within a modern democracy. This is one of the core themes that will be explored at this day conference, with the help of our three key speakers.
Given the title, it's unfortunate that all three of the main speakers are men (again).
  • Religious Freedom in a Secular Society - Prof Roger Trigg (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick)
  • Faith in Human Rights and Equality - Prof Colin Harvey Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast)
  • Facing Equality: What’s the Story? - Dr Michael Wardlow (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland)
Michael Wardlow's comments will much particularly anticipated in light of this summer's correspondence between the Equality Commission and Ashers Bakery over what became known as the "gay cake".

Update - listen back to the three talks.

Thursday 9 October in Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast. Registration from 9.30am for a 10am start; finishing by 3.30pm. Tickets can be booked in advance (£20 including lunch, £12 full time students) by Monday 6.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Discover the revamped area for 8s and under in W5 - music, animation, water & a Fiat 500

A revamped Discovery zone opens in W5 on Saturday 4 October.

Aimed at under 8s - though plenty of fun for under 42s too! - the brightly coloured area on the second floor is tucked in beside the ClimbIt structure.

It's amazing to see kids fearlessly climbing on and through the petals on the enormous sculpture, untroubled by being several storeys up in the air, but feeling safe and cocooned by the netting that envelopes the structure.

Quite a feat of engineering as the timelapse video of the ClimbIt build shows.

Inside the new Discovery area, little visitors find a town with 16 themed areas. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the shiny Fiat 500 that's sitting inside a faux Donnelly Group garage.

A brand new model was ordered and then mechanics stripped out the engine, gearbox and even the empty fuel tank.

The suspension was changed so there would be no way tiny fingers could get trapped, edges were smoothed, seats were raised, and holes were securely plugged. But what's left is a doorless car that kids can climb into and drive, pressing buttons and flashing lights in complete safety.

Elsewhere Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be very impressed with the mandatory water feature (with very cute waterproofs for budding messers) and several wooden railways with lots of extra track.

There's a health centre (with a smelling display that will elude by missing olfactory sense), a boat, a farm, a music studio with flashing lights and foam guitars and a stop-go animation workstation that's going to have a long queue behind it when doors open to the public on Saturday morning.

Elsewhere in W5 it was good to nose around and discover that there have been major updates since my last visit with extended family.

Local MLAs should head along to the opinion polling exhibition and think about the merits of renewable energy. Budding crane operators can have a go with a mini-Samson (or Goliath). And the car building/racing track and musical staircase are still there.

W5 opens Monday-Saturday at 10am and Sunday at 11am. My advice would be to go early if you can and enjoy the less crowded hands-on exhibition areas.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Just Living conference (Sat 4 October) - linking local with global justice

Struggling to understand how to live ethically in a culture of greed and commodity?

Wondering how or if we can make a difference to worldwide injustice - poverty, exploitation, child mortality - from here in Northern Ireland?

This Saturday, a one day conference Just Living: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere is running in the Duncairn Centre in North Belfast, organised by Contemporary Christianity and other organisations.

It will look at how local acts can be linked with global justice, and how simple everyday choices can lean towards justice and have a lasting impact on ourselves, our communities and the wider world.

Saturday 4 October, 9:15am-2pm. Booking is online and the cost is just £5.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Reflections on Ofcom's 2014 Communications Market Report for Northern Ireland

Over the summer Ofcom published their 2014 Communications Market Report (CMR), an annual snapshot of communications, broadcast, digital media and postal markets. [I’ve a habit of blogging about the CMR report every year.]

Earlier today, an Ofcom seminar explored some of the Northern Ireland-specific aspects of the research and invited discussion. In the end, those present focussed almost solely on digital media literacy and the state of local and devolved government websites and their ease of access to online and offline users. I’ll return to that subject, but first some comments on some findings in the report that the room didn’t want to focus on!


CMR2014 provides evidence to back up what we all know. More and more people are using more and more of the internet on the move. A consequence of this is that websites that aren’t responsive or tailored for phones, phablets and tablets see their usage go down.

Over the last two years, tablet ownership in NI has risen from 9% to 29% and up to 45%.

Smartphone ownership jumped 10% up to 55% in a year as old mobile plans finish and upgrade cycles leave few alternatives to ‘smart’ mobiles. But beware a digital notspot is opening up of people who can’t afford or can’t manage smartphones. Consumer plans are not cheap if you want a modern handset. Online first strategies by public and private sectors can never fully replace Human-to-human interfaces. Citizen Advice Bureaux and libraries have a role. However, it’ll take pubs, schools, third sector organisations, churches and frankly everyone in the community to fill the gaps and help.

Accidental border roaming is still a thing. For me, Three Free at Home is a godsend for roaming. I’m only interested in data. But voice, texts, data used as if you were at home in Ireland, France, Switzerland, US, and 12 other countries. Hopefully a disruptive offering that spreads.

3G coverage is Northern Ireland has always lagged behind Great Britain. At the same conference last year I’m pretty sure I bemoaned how poorly mobile companies were treating NI customers. A single UK-wide coverage target for 3G operators frankly did nothing to encourage rollout in NI. In the last year our 3G coverage has risen from 61.9% to 82.1% … largely on the back of 4G rollout and the rollout of new masts.

4G licenses for traditional operators came with regional targets which will help, though they’ll only be measured at a point in the future, many years into the licence. Definitely more carrot than persuasive stick.
  • 79.2% of premises in Northern Ireland have outdoor 4G coverage.
  • Well above the UK average of 73% and miles above Scotland 57% and Wales 45%.
  • That’s must be mostly down to EE who have reached 72% of premises in NI in a year (over a third of NI geographically). Frankly, that’s outstanding.
  • O2 went live during the summer; Vodafone seem to be active too. With shared masts – like the one outside my house – their 4G coverage is in a belt that basically covers Belfast, Lisburn, Castlereagh and parts of North Down councils. Nothing in Derry.
  • Three are promising to hit Ballymena, Belfast, Lisburn and some other locations by the end of the year, but not Derry or Newry.
  • It’s not all good for EE. My mobile SIM switched from Vodafone network to EE yesterday and at home in Lisburn I’ve gone from great Vodafone signal (the mast is literally a stone’s throw away) to a really weak EE signal that barely supports EDGE.
Shared infrastructure brings its own consumer challenges. When you're inside your house with the windows closed and can clearly hear the fans of the grey base-station cabinet on the other side of the street, there are no phone numbers, no operator names, and no markings on the boxes. O2 picked up a tweet about the fault, Vodafone didn't take any interest. A third party firm installs and maintains them and ended up sending someone over from Scotland the next week to scratch their heads and ponder why the fans were all running at full speed.


I got my first DAB radio at the end of 2000. A Psion Wavefinder. I brought it with me as a prop to the Ofcom seminar, but it remained on the stage under my chair as the conversation never made it to radio! Psion reckoned it would be a design icon. Still looks better than most DAB sets. Unfortunately, it was a struggle to use beyond Windows XP Service Pack 1.
  • There weren’t a lot of stations on DAB to listen to in NI back then.
  • 14 years later there is a noticeable improvement in the number of stations, and the variety of coverage.
  • However, quality [which was always a point of debate even back then] has tanked, with commercial channels squeezing two mono music channels into the space of a single stereo channel.
  • DAB has really turned into digital AM … with bigger batteries.
  • I drive a small car, a Toyota Aygo. The new totally revamped Aygo was launched this summer. It’s got a touch screen, sat nav, go faster stripes. But the basic model doesn’t have DAB. Nor the next model up. Only when you get near the top of the price range is a DAB set provided.
  • DAB radio is still seen as a costly gimmick.
DAB radio ownership in Northern Ireland was 19% five years ago, 28% three years ago [some kind of survey blip?] down to 24% last year and now back to 30%.
  • Way below the UK average of 44% and rising slower than Scotland and Wales who have already caught up with England. We’re behind and will get further behind.
31 DAB stations (13 BBC, 18 commercial) now that the national commercial multiplex has been extended to NI. Only 4 local commercial stations on DAB. Barrier of entry (financial and technical) needs to fall.

There’s good news with improvement in some receivers that present themselves as radio tuners and make no distinction between bands. You flick between FM and DAB and internet-streamed channels by turning the dial, oblivious to the distinction between the frequency band or transport medium. Good audio sells; DAB on its own will not.

There have been some improvements in DAB transmitters and coverage.
  • BBC transmitters in Ballycastle, Bangor and Newtownards … though they won’t help DAB reception Radio Ulster (the biggest station in the country by some measures) since it’s on the commercial multiplex.
  • But will Radio Foyle ever make it onto the DAB platform?

With DAB growing slowly, equipment that’s been on kitchen worktops for 10 years may start to fail. There may be an upgrade cycle. Which is good news for trials of DAB+ (which offers better compression and ultimately offers more channels in the same frequency allocation); the introduction of a new (dare I say, better) standard that isn’t supported by early DAB receivers may not be quite so consumer unfriendly.

Community radio is still alive with 12 station in NI still broadcasting. But the going is tough. Thirteen months after further licences awarded in June 2013, none of the new stations are on air.


Northern Ireland households continue to value satellite as the main TV platform.
  • 52% of households in NI; up to 56% in rural areas.
  • (Overall NI is 11% above UK average of 41%).
  • Reflects cable network rollout being less pervasive in NI.
  • Not great news for a community TV station like NVTV which launched on Monday on channel 8 Freeview, Channel 159 on Virgin Media, but not on satellite. Only 41% of households (assuming Belfast largely follows the NI trend) primarily use Freeview (33%) and Cable (8%). Some will find NVTV online.

From memory, NI were quick on the uptake of HD television sets. But with that upgrade done, we’re thran when it comes to investing in smart TV sets. Wise in my opinion given the many competing standards, support and apps. Purchase levels are much lower than GB and rising more slowly.

We hold our own with levels of online TV/video watching.

In terms of share, the report shows NI as the only nation with share of the 5 PSB channels (BBC1, 2, channel 3/UTV, Channel 4 and Five) less than half (49%).
  • Regionally, London only area with lower share (46%).
  • I wouldn’t panic. Lies, dammed lies and statistics.
  • If you were to view RTE as PSB – but data not directly available as BARB TV monitoring doesn’t include RTE - then I reckon Northern Ireland’s PSB share would be higher and out of the comment zone.
  • However, there is a general trend that Wales, Scotland and NI have less viewing of the ‘establishment’ channels than English regions. And if you view London as a very diverse city with many people living and working there but not born there, perhaps that explains London’s overall lack of connection with the establishment too?
  • Ofcom NI’s James Stinson also pointed to the very different picture if PSB broadcaster’s overall family of channels are added into the mix. Adding in BBC 3, 4, CBeebies, CBBC, news, Parliament, E4, Move4, 5 USA etc means that the PSB broadcasters still have the lion’s share of viewing.
I’m been off the BBC Audience Council for two and a half years now, so I’m rusty. But from a BBC licence fee perspective, the figures look like Scotland and Wales continue to hit the network production targets more consistently than Northern Ireland.

While I’ve heard a spirited defence, I worry when the studio and crew of a series like Sunday Live moves to London that the production roles remaining behind are still valuable, but capacity and reputation is not being built in the sustainable manner that was intended. Network production in the nations is not yet working as intended.


There’s an annex to the CMR report that looks at adult media literacy.

One disturbing chart shows claimed hours of internet usage a week.
  • Across the UK 16.9 hours but only 13.8 hours in Northern Ireland.
  • Home usage down at 10.1 hours (against 11.2 hours UK). Not too significant.
  • The big drop is usage at work or place of education, down from 4.0 hours nationally to 2.4 hours in NI. That's NI running 40% below UK average.
  • Despite the talk of the internet freeing us from our desks, rural digital hubs, the knowledge economy, Project Kelvin’s fast fibre optic link to North America, we’re either not as addicted (hard to believe) or behind in exploiting the opportunities.
Shrinking from 26 to 11 district councils (one aspect of the Reform of Public Administration) is a huge opportunity to revamp the accessibility of local government services and have a much more level playing field, sharing applications and services across councils. (After all, rates do affect the housing market, but not as much as they should.)
  • I see little public effort being made to develop local government service frameworks that could be adopted by all 11 councils to cheaply offer the services that larger (and more go-ahead) councils have implemented. And the facilities offered by the NI Direct portal fall far short of Gov.UK.
  • As my generation grows old and the one behind adopt Google Glass and are glued to screens, the pattern of phone calls to access services needs to efficiently move online.
Ofcom’s Digital Quotient research [you can still take the test] suggests that children between the ages of 6 and 7 on average have a higher digital confidence than adults between the ages of 45 and 49.

(At the moment, peak confidence is at ages 14-15.) I’d argue that standard deviation for the 45-49 year old bracket (and the subsequent age categories too) will be such that the quotient ranges are very wide.

With a subset of the population unable or unwilling to take advantage of online service provision, they must not be left behind, even in an age of austerity and taking people out of the loop.

The Millennium Generation have been blessed with new technology!

Lastly I note that Northern Ireland is falling behind contributing to Wikipedia. There is a twitter account @StormontEdits that should automatically tweets when someone up at Stormont modifies a page on Wikipedia – could be for a good reason or could be for a less. Looks like our shared wiki future is some way off.

- - -

Several parts of this afternoon’s discussion took my mind back to a week spent in Louisville, Kentucky just over two years ago. Part of a group of eleven from NI/RoI on a US State Department-sponsored Boston College-organised study trip about e-Governance, we visited a community broadband organisation Connect Kentucky. Broadband penetration in rural parts of the Kentucky state were appalling with huge gaps in provision due to cost and lack of commercial return.

When Louisville Free Public Library flooded, the opportunity was taken by its director Craig Buthod to convert space on the first floor into adult literacy classrooms and a jobs/CV club with staff teaching adult to read, and helping them prepare application forms to seek employment. The library was a place of learning and opportunity. Libraries NI do a little of this, but like bank branches, the library network is shrinking. Ahoghill no longer has a library. Nor a Citizens Advice Bureau. But it does have a health centre and pubs.

My third memory from Kentucky was a visit to the state capital in Frankfort. A very small IT team were truly agile, churning out new state government web services and citizen journeys, taking weeks to implement and deploy new applications for the Commonwealth of Kentucky that could also be reused in frameworks shared with other states.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Preview - Schaubühne's An Enemy of the People - personal & political powerplays ... and paint at Belfast Festival #BelFest

Dirty politics, abandoned loyalties, live music, paint thrown around and questions about the role of individuals and the state … The plot of An Enemy of the People could be a big screen thriller in the cinema. Instead this is probably the best of a new generation of theatre that will play on the island of Ireland this year, courtesy of the Belfast Festival. It’s also the only time you’ll ever see a paint fight in the Grand Opera House. Get a ticket and don’t miss it.

A spectacular play, with the cast of seven – not to mention a huge dog that gets its own hotel room – delivering gripping performances as they delve into the personal and political powerplays behind a stinking spa town and our putrid society.

Spa baths are built in a town to offer health treatments to people feeling under the weather and to attract tourists to the region. All goes well until Dr Thomas Stockmann – who first suggested the baths – discovers that the life-giving water is poisoned by upstream factories and is causing illness. It must be fixed.
The town isn’t as extraordinarily healthy as people think … our baths are a pesthole … a filthy brew seeping into the groundwater [causing] infections, diarrhoea and skin rashes.
A local councillor who runs the baths – his brother – fights back saying that closing the facility for two years while issues are rectified would be disastrous for the economy and burden local residents with the upgrade costs. It must stay open.
The opposition will sensationalise the results [of the water testing] and then we’ll have an inquiry.
Thomas takes his fight to the local newspaper whose staff offer support until they come under pressure from the council. Is disclosure a confidence-reducing scandal? Or is suppressing the truth a bigger scandal? Can they opt to silence and demonise the whistle-blower, covering up the truth “for the common good”?
Politics are always about achieving a balance of interests. I can’t take on all the politicians at once. [Newspaper editor]
A blogger might argue that Thomas should have self-published his analysis online and hoped that his message would go viral. The press today still have enormous power, and a responsibility to wield it wisely. With Wikileaks and Edward Snowden’s revelations, and closer to home staff speaking out in the NI Fire Service and NHS, the establishment’s reaction to whistle-blowers has dominated headlines.
It never hurts to have the majority on your side.
Can the doctor remain true to his convictions or does everyone have a price for which they’d conveniently suppress their conscience and community spirit in favour of personal gain and an easy life?

The Stockmann household is bourgeois and maybe even a tad bohemian, with the thirty-somethings jamming in a band around the kitchen table while a baby tries to get to sleep. Amongst the politics there is space for humour – both funny lines and playful acting. Live music (classic covers like David Bowie’s Changes and Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger) punctuate the first few acts before morphing into beat-boxing and eventually silence.

Lit from the front rather than above, long shadows are cast over the volatile action. The set is a giant blackboard whose chalk annotations are amended and painted over as the plot progresses. Close up personal interactions between the characters are as beautifully directed as the explosive paint-bombing from the stalls that accompanies the final character assassination.
The contaminated water comes from another morass, the morass of our politics … The scandal must come to light.
Two thirds of the way through the production, theatrical boundaries are pushed to one side when a public assembly is organised to give Dr Stockmann a platform to voice his concerns about the state of the town. He ignores the specifics of the spa and instead addresses “bigger things” – the wider ailments that cripple society – including mass personalisation, individualism, rampant depression and political disaffiliation.
The economy is not ‘in’ crisis; the economy is the crisis.
The floor is opened up for the audience to have their say as actors step through the fourth wall and encourage dialogue. I can’t imagine Belfast Festival audiences turning down the opportunity to get a few things off their chests about our local economic and political situation.

The original 1882 Henrik Ibsen script has been updated by Florian Borchmeyer for Schaubühne, the leading German repertory company. With a full time ensemble of actors they première ten new plays every year alongside their catalogue of 30 existing productions. At the moment, they’ve six productions running, three of which are touring internationally.

I was fortunate to see the play last week as it passed through London’s Barbican, after which it paint-bombs its way to Moscow, Belfast, Cluj and Lausanne. The play is performed in German, with English surtitles (like subtitles) appearing above the cast. You quickly adapt to catching the dialogue as the lines appear, and filling in the gaps as you become engrossed in the high energy physical interactions.

An Enemy of the People is in the Grand Opera House from 23-25 October as part of the Belfast Festival. Not to be missed.

With the actors unwilling to rehearse in the hour before the play opened in the Barbican, An Enemy of the People’s director Thomas Ostermeier sat down in an empty dressing room to be interviewed. (Grania McFadden also writes about the play and its director in the Belfast Telegraph.)

He’s taken the play around the world over the last two years. Earlier this year, performing in Istanbul on the eve of the anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, a newspaper accused Schaubühne of “an act of propaganda by Germany to bring down the Turkish government”.
Everywhere I go people tell me ‘our town is a perfect spot for this play’.
Audiences in different countries overlay their own local circumstances on top of the plot. Ostermeier knows his theatre is powerful. With communication between the West and Russia shattered in the aftermath of revolution and military intervention in Ukraine, the director says:
... it is important that arts still go [to Russia] and try to keep the thin line of exchange and communication [open].
While Ostermeier hasn’t been in Belfast before but shares that one of his favourite books is Eureka Street by Northern Ireland author Robert McLiam Wilson. By the time the three night run is over he’ll have a better understanding of our politics and what matters to audiences.

Brought up in an area of Bavaria that he describes as “very Catholic” and “very conservative”, as soon as the Berlin Wall came down he moved across to study and train in East Berlin. Ostermeier and Schaubühne have been slowly working their way through Ibsen’s plays, updating them and reimagining their endings. Only one remains – Rosmersholm – which the director is now carrying around in his coat pocket.

While Ibsen is “quite a mechanical well-made playwright”, strong storylines provide the scaffolding Ostermeier adapts to reflect the “conflict of nowadays”, making the characters “more colourful and ambivalent”.

He senses that our 21st century “crisis of democracy” is really a “crisis of our political system”. And the financial crisis has political roots “started in the 1980s with the deregulation of financial laws”.

From last Wednesday night’s experience, Ostermeier and his Schaubühne company succeed in performing a contemporary and thought-provoking play that is very relevant and tuned into society’s heartbeat.

There’ll be a post-show talk “Has Austerity been Good for Europe?” with director Thomas Ostermeier and members of the cast in the Grand Opera House on Friday 24 September.

- - -

Lots of other great events spotted in the Belfast Festival programme. In a previous post I highlighted:

Saturday, September 27, 2014

e and Euler

Thanks to Norwin/Destroy All Onions for a tip off the other night that e and Euler were being features on Radio 4’s In Our Time.

My first PC in work – some twenty years ago – was a 486 (50 MHz) machine. In those days, staff could choose their own hostname, and since there was already a series of computers named after mathematicians on the floor, I added to that list and plumped for Euler.

Euler is long dead – both the mathematician (died in 1783) and my first PC (which is no doubt rusting away and polluting a landfill).

Leonhard Euler was born in 1707 and schooled in Basel (Switzerland). He was nearly pushed into being a pastor, but went into mathematics, worked and married in St Petersburg (Russia), and transferred to Berlin before later returning to St Petersburg.

Married to Katharina, they had 13 children; however only 5 survived beyond childhood. After her death, he married Katharina’s half sister Salome Abigail. He became almost blind in his right eye, developed a cataract in his left, before becoming almost totally blind.

Not an easy life, but a tremendously prolific and productive one mathematically.

No pun intended, but Euler was a polymath, curious about nearly every discipline of mathematics in those days. He provided the solution to the Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem. He also contributed to physics and astronomy. To modern students of maths, he’s probably best known for Euler’s formula and the beautifully elegant Euler’s identity.

(Beautiful since it combines addition, multiplication, exponents, equality as well as five basic constants 0, 1, e, π and i.)

As I type this up I realise that I’m bound to have mentioned Euler on the blog before. And sure enough he got a mention on his 300th birthday back in April 2007. In that post I explained that Euler’s Identity is:
… the only piece of mathematics that I’ve had to prove from first principles since graduating from university. During an afternoon coffee break ten years or so ago, a summer student in work (who did engineering rather than applied maths), wondered how it could be proved. One paper napkin later, happy student. But my maths has faded, so don’t ask for a repeat performance.

Thankfully lots of other (non-mathematical) parts of by three year degree have come in useful during twenty years of employment in the IT industry: mostly social skills and tea drinking, though debugging programmes and learning Unix for fun might feature too.

You can find out more about the history and simplified explanations of the mathematics behind Euler’s number and the man himself by listening to this week’s episode of In Our Time. It was a great listen while mowing the lawn for the last time this year.

Melvyn Bragg was joined by Colva Roney-Dougal, June Barrow-Green and Vicky Neale for the episode that I suspect the presenter will glad to put behind him!

Google marked Euler’s 306th birthday with a doodle.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Belfast's new community TV channel NvTv launches at 6pm on Mon 29 Sep - Freeview, Virgin and online

Local digital TV stations are popping up in EPGs and list of channels across the UK as the Ofcom-awarded licencees finally come on air.

On Monday 29 September at 6pm, Freeview channel 8 and Virgin Media channel 139 will switch from a testcard to NvTv’s new schedule of programming for Belfast and the surrounding towns. The programmes should be streamed online too.

NvTv will be the first new station in Belfast … since NvTv launched the last time! It previously broadcast as a community TV station from an analogue transmitter for around 4 years until digital switchover ended its run. Jeremy Hunt MP - the then Culture Secretary - championed the revival of community stations on a UK-wide basis, saying that local TV would "offer communities a 'new voice' and provide local perspectives directly relevant to them".

I spoke to Dave Hyndman in Northern Visions at lunchtime today to find out more about the channel and what viewers can expect. A countdown clock in one of the offices noted that there were 60 hours until launch.

Hyperlocal TV is a very different beast to most of the channels we're used to. With a variety of economic models and very limited finance, the programming and genres may be more limited than BBC or UTV - Dave describes their programmes as offering "a lot more room to breath” - but the ambition is unrestrained.

Northern Visions is a non-profit organisation, and its management see themselves as artists rather than media moguls. A portrait of artist Neil Shawcross will be broadcast on the opening night. And NvTv promise to continue their programming with young bands.
"There’s nothing as strong as any programme which people see the people in it and identify with them, they can see them as their friends, their relatives - that has always been our strength." (Dave Hyndman)

With many years of working with community groups, musicians and running practical media training, Northern Visions have amassed a rich archive of content as well as strong contacts for new material. [Disclaimer - I've recorded a couple of interviews for the station: don't let that put you off!]

With eight local TV stations already launched [at the time of posting], the Birmingham licensee has gone into administration and London Live has recently unsuccessfully asked Ofcom to vary the balance of programming in the schedule they signed up to in their application. [Update - London Live were successful on 8 October in their second bid to Ofcom, and will reduce local programming repeats by 4 hours to just 6 hours a day (from an hour and a half to zero in peaktime).]

Dave is sanguine. While he notes the strong local advertising sales in Nottingham, he also admits that the community TV industry is bound see some changes and licensee swaps as the “experiment” evolves. However, he's confident that Northern Visions have the experience and formats to sustain their channel.

From Monday evening, the viewers can decide.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pentecost: a play with a bigoted ghost, strains of trombone & signs that our past still haunts us

Set around the time of the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974, Stewart Parker’s last play Pentecost feels like it was written to get a lot of things off his mind and shared in perpetuity. It’s a multi-layered affair that continues to speak into a fractured Northern Ireland more than 25 years after it was first staged, though perhaps with less power as audiences refresh and direct experience of the conflict fades.

Cast of Pentecost L to R: Will Irvine, Paul Mallon, Judith Roddy and Roisin Gallagher in Stewart Parker’s play Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre until 18 Oct. To book tel: 028 90381081 or Pic Credit: Steffan HillAt its simplest, the play concerns an estranged couple. Lenny (played by Paul Mallon) has inherited the last terrace standing in a contested slum area of Belfast, complete with its dead tenant’s furniture and possessions. His wife Marian (Judith Roddy) is in the antique business – “trading, buying and selling, that’s what I’m good at” – and he offers her first refusal on the contents. But she surprises him by announcing that she’s sold the business and instead wants to snap up the whole house to live in.

It’s also a play about leaving, whether dying, divorce, or walking away from an abusive relationship. Ruth (Roisin Gallagher) comes to stay in the house after being hit once too often by her policeman husband. And it’s a play that painfully references childlessness, through cot death, miscarriage, infertility or abandoning an out-of-wedlock baby.

Above all of that is the toll of conflict on society, the stresses it puts people and their relationships under, the impact on mental health and the excuses people make for behaviour that in any other environment would be called out as unacceptable.

Oh, and a touch of religion. The only outwardly Catholic character Marian has more than a nod towards Mary about her nature. And then there’s the play’s title, the final scene, and Peter ...

Due to a burglary, Lenny moves into the house he’s selling to his ex-partner. Ruth joins them. And when bohemian Peter (Will Irvine) arrives home on a visit from England, he completes the foursome. But they are not alone.

Judith Roddy as Marian and Carol Moore as the ghost of Lily Matthews Lenny in a scene from Pentecost by Stewart Parker at the Lyric Theatre until 18 Oct. To book tel: 028 90381081 or Pic Credit: Steffan HillAs Marian battles with her own demons she encounters the ghost of uber-Protestant Lily (Carol Moore), the former tenant. Picking through the possessions, photos and diaries she pieces together Lily’s own less-than-straightforward past.

Peter is the outsider, and mirrors Stewart Parker’s own experience of moving away from his Sydenham upbringing to England and the US. Perhaps Peter’s “exileophilia” (“the opposite of homesickness”) and the constant critiques of Northern Ireland’s dysfunction can be seen as the ghost of Parker?

The five scenes all take place in the beautifully recreated period front room and tiny kitchen of the terrace house – a house “eloquent with the history of this city”. There’s a dresser full of non-matching crockery and gas lights above the fire. Through the magic of Alyson Cummins’ set design, the grimy flowery wallpapered walls become translucent when the action moves into rooms behind them.

Actress Roisin Gallagher who plays Ruth in Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre until 18 Oct. To book tel: 028 90381081 or Pic Credit: Steffan HillThe gloomy set also acknowledges the power and fuel cuts during the UWC strike. Intentional lighting casts stark silhouettes on the sparse walls. Bell-bottom flares, patterned dresses and a particularly garish yellow blouse adorn the characters trapped in the two-up, two-down.

Despite the inclusion of a ghost, and the Troubles vibe, it’s not an exciting play that really has you on the edge of your seat wondering how the situations will resolve. Parker’s dialogue is deliberate and Jimmy Fay’s direction honours it. The second half begins with Harold Wilson’s “spongers” speech playing on the radio. Amongst the depression and the strife – and the sniping at politicians and sectarianism – Parker gets laughs with some funny lines …
Nobody takes photographs at a funeral - except Special Branch!

... and a left field Dennis Potter-esque conversation about nuns frolicking in the surf on a deserted beach.

The play seemed to resonate most with the older half of the audience who could be heard reminiscing about the UWC strike during the interval and as they left the Lyric Theatre. Younger audience members struggle to bring that context with them into the theatre and end up experiencing a very different play. (Though Connal Parr’s essay and timeline in the programme are very useful.)

Cast-wise, I was unconvinced that there ever could have been a spark between the distant Marian and layabout Lenny. Whereas the shameless flirting between Ruth and Peter was much more believable and they turned out to be the most watchable characters in the five-hander. However, a scene after the interval between Marian and the ghost of Lily is perhaps the most touching of the production.

Stewart Parker didn’t restrain himself from commenting on and critiquing the exploits of community activists during the strike. Nearly two years after the flag protests broke out, his scolding analysis feels surprisingly contemporary.
“Spare me your vision of the Third Reich of Ballyhackamore”
The play gets its name from the final scene which takes place on Pentecost Sunday and includes the disciple Peter’s “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” address. Parker gets to preach his final sermon. With zealots on each side, he calls on the community to embrace each other’s humanity and seek the Christ inside us all. The ghost in the play departs, and perhaps the four remaining characters finally listen to each other.

Actor Paul Mallon as Lenny in a scene from Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre until 18 Oct. To book tel: 028 90381081 or Pic Credit: Steffan HillPentecost was my first – albeit belated – experience of a Stewart Parker play. While it had a great set and filled in a lot of historical background that I missed from my cot, I do wish that this production had tried harder to make me care about the fate of the characters.

Pentecost is in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 18 October. It’ll be the first (and last) play you watch that features a bigoted ghost and a trombone! Update - though a couple of weeks later the Lyric served up a play with a ghost and a guitar!

PS: I hope the Lyric remembered to invite the National Trust to last night’s opening!

You can hear actors Adrian Dunbar and Barbara Adair discussing Stewart Parker’s play Pentecost at a June conference in QUB marking the 40th anniversary of the Ulster Workers Strike.