Friday, 17 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday: The Cenotaph

There comes a point in every researcher job when you feel like Everest would be an easier summit to reach, against the mountainous pile of decrepit post-it notes to your left.

That moment has come and gone and come again.

The BBC broadcast of Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph is such a mammoth logistical task for all parties that it can only take time to work your way through - only there is no time.

With 3 days to go, I was still piercing together the notes from over 262 contingents taking part, listing wreath layers, confirming live interviews and working my way through far too many chocolate biscuits. Of course, a lot can happen in three days. For 2 weeks I'd been in the office 12hrs a day. Because this is one you want to get right.

Not only are you working with broadcasting legend David Dimbleby, you are entrusted with the knowledge that for some of those on parade, it will be the last time. Many WW2 veterans are too elderly to walk the 2km route or stand for 2hrs, and many have sadly crossed the bar in recent years. A whole generation who fought for our freedom, will soon be lost and it is you who are given the knowledge of who is taking part in the event this year and who may not be here to see in the next.

Ernie Searling
The oldest veteran on parade is WW2 Royal Marine Ernest Searling at 99yrs. Broadcasts like this are our last chance to walk with these men, and women, as they salute those who did not grow old with them. It is an honour to read, hear and learn about the experiences of so many.

Ernie said during the programme: 'I feel very humble seeing so many hundreds of men and women on parade today. So very, very humble. And I'm thinking of those who are not with us on this parade today and some of the fine, fine people I served with and we've lost them. But all I hope is that the future generations can see this parade, see some solidarity in it and see that the betterment of mankind, in England, especially Great Britain should be at its highest level'. It is hard not to realise then, how lucky we are to have heard from men like Ernie and to have witnessed the solidarity embodied by this event each year.

Speaking to Heather Wood, who lost her husband Charlie in Afghanistan it made me realise how important the good times are, how serving women and men like Charlie give their lives so that others might live a better life. 'Don't be bitter, be better' she says. And I have taken on those words in my work. I am not bitter about the long hours I've chosen to work because I know that to the 8700 people on parade and to those watching at home, it means something.

And that is the overwhelming feeling when working on events like these. That you don't want to miss a moment, whether it is a serving bugle major's last hours in the job, or a man who will march carrying the photo of a fallen comrade. Whether it is an injured serviceman who has defied the odds or a firefighter who won a gallantry award for placing his life in danger for the service of another. Or if it is the daughter marching in memory of her father who at 18 was on the field of battle in Italy and last month sadly left us, or a Falklands veteran who lost his friends on the islands and who plays his pipes in their memory.

A WAAF wireless operator receiving a message in morse code.
I have spoken to a lady who wrote the orders for d-day, a serving woman who suffered PTSD following service in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan and has since competed in the Invictus Games. I've spoken to ladies of the special operations executive, and women who worked in anti aircraft batteries defending Britain at home and another who traveled from America by ship in total darkness so as not to become a target for the enemy and spent the weeks leading up to her 17th birthday sitting on the steps outside the WRNS office until she was old enough to join.

'When I am laid in Earth...remember me, remember me'.

There are men marching who survived Far East prisoner of war camps - remembering so many of their colleagues that did not. There is a captain from C Company, The Rifles who remembers the men he lost in Afghanistan and a Navy veteran who remembers the men who died aboard HMS Coventry.

For many, Remembrance Day is every day. And I feel the weight that falls on my shoulders to give each story their moment. We want to capture it all and of course, every year, we fail. Because every person on parade at the Cenotaph, in the hollow square, in the service, in the march past, has their own story. And every one of them are fascinating.

It has been a pleasure to immerse myself in their world for a short time. They are each an inspiration.

Reggie Yates: Hidden Australia

A new series from Reggie and the team is something I always look forward to and they certainly lived up to my expectations. It seemed a challenging series for Reggie, coming face to face with addicts of all kinds. The series asks him to delve deep into people's stories and understand why they turn to substances and other means of escape from everyday life. Reggie is honest, he asks the questions, he listens to the answers and he challenges where he thinks he should. It's been great to see another two-part series hit the screen because I just can't get enough.

Episode 1 - Black in the Outback
Reggie is sad to find that the first people he meets in Wilcannia - a town with an 800 strong population where 80% are indigenous - are alcoholics. The programme follows him as he tries to unearth the origins of this stereotype and ask if there is more to this town than meets the eye. What he discovers is that this problem is not a recent one and stems from a vivid segregation from 'white' society. It is a town where business has gone away, employment has followed it and alcohol is about the only form of entertainment. Young people feel as though there isn't much hope for a future and many want to leave the town as soon as is possible. But it's not just the negatives that get the spotlight. We do meet some great characters, the owner of the only supermarket in town, the local radio station, a young teenager who made music as a young child that traveled the globe
A middle aged man dedicated to keeping the indigenous culture alive

Social deprivation is one thing, but so is the spirit of the younger people who live there. There is hope but there is also no denying the damage that yeas and years of institutional racism that has plagued Wilcannia.

Episode 2 - Addicted to Ice
Like Reggie, I find it hard it to completely understand drug addiction. I do understand however, the desire to remove ourselves consciously. I have suffered from depression and I suppose in a way, from addiction too. It took the form of self-harm and perhaps it took me a while to see it as a coping mechanism, a way of escape. Three years on, depression is no longer a problem for me but a new battle takes it's place, this time, it's anxiety. There are days I wish I could turn my brain off, make the anxiety go away. Days I shake or feel overwhelmed at the simplest things. That need for escape is strong and it's easy for me to understand how some are drawn to drugs as a way out of our heads.

The range of people we meet really bring the issue home. Brett, once a successful tri-athlete representing his country, but for whom nothing was ever good enough. He turned to Ice and everything changed. We meet mother-of-two Sharni who wants to get clean for her two twin boys and who has had by her side a real rock of an aunt along the way. We meet residents of Gatwick House who freely use on camera and seem far from wanting to get out of their dangerous relationships with Ice.

It's an episode that really hit home. It reminded me to stay vigilant about the desire to escape my anxiety and to do so in a healthy and positive way. More than that though, it left me wishing that my own relative's story could have ended like Sharni's in the programme. I only wish that he could have run out of rehab into the arms of his family having come so far in just 9 days. The outcome of his story was sadly different and I struggled to make it to the end without a few tears.

A great piece of television with some honest Reggie-style film-making. The kind of programme I aspire to make and one to watch to anyone who wants to understand addiction.

Thursday, 16 February 2017


Our first play of the year came a little later than usual but on Tuesday 7th Feb we travelled to the Dorfman at the National Theatre to see 60mins of 'Us/Them'.

My Theatre Mates

A family friendly show about a terror attack - doesn't quite add up when you think about it does it? But the more you do, the more you realise that Carly Wijs' direction might just be genius. All too often when we retell moments of our past, we embellish and adapt - particularly when we are children - my nearly-3-yr-old niece would of course deny this entirely.
But when children witness traumatic events, how much of it sinks in? How much do they let it? Kids are more resilient than we think, but they're also like sponges, they take in the world at a rate that dizzies us as adults. So what if, in a place they all feel safe, like at school, they endure something terrible?

National Theatre

Us/Them is directed in a way that addresses this. As we begin with chalk drawings of the school's layout, a competition of information between our two leads and some essential facts to present the provenance of our piece, we are slowly lulled into a comedic security, brimming with innocence.

However, as the piece unfolds we are pulled ever closer to the truth, the REAL terror attack on these young children on a day that held them captive for 52hrs, killing 184 children and 148 adults. But we never really get there, the truth. The truth remains suspended in the well constructed strings that span the stage amidst a maze of conclusions and childhood storytelling.

The Stage

Our leads are enthusiastic and convincing in their confidence, as well as in their coyness. As they traverse the stage energetically, we are drawn to them even if we never really know much about who they are. Chalk drawings and imaginative commentary provide the basis of the all-too-familiar 'Us and Them' argument, with seemingly no understanding of why 'they' are 'them'  and'we' are 'us' - or of why they are being held hostage in their own school.

As a family show, Us/Them definitely helps broach the subject of death in the family if you don't have a pet that's likely to kick-the-bucket anytime soon. But it's also a fun show that incorporates dance with energy that never really allows for sombreness or pain in a concentrated quantity. It's full of imagination, both in script and staging but it's story holds a truth that makes it as devastating as it is entertaining - that is if you take a moment to Google the Beslan Massacre.

Exeunt Magazine

Read more about the production and the real event here:


Saturday, 4 February 2017


I deliberately went to see 'Denial' without reading up about the film, or the facts about David Irving or Deborah Lipstadt.
Moment Magazine

What greeted me was a whole host of emotions in a film about the 1996 libel suit in which David Irving accuses Penguin books and Deborah Lipstadt - who, in her book 'Denying the Holocaust' wrote that 'David is a liar, racist and extremist' - of slander and a conspiracy to debunk his reputation.

I'm a young ambassador for HET, a charity dedicated to educating young people and empowering teachers with knowledge of the holocaust and highlighting the roles of the ordinary people that lived to see it and experience it. We speak regularly on the subject alongside survivors and try to be visible both in our communities and online.

I have often, during my time as an ambassador been named on social media as 'part of the conspiracy'. In 2014 for example, myself and two young colleagues ran a 10km to raise money for the charity and were met with direct Twitter comments including this one (pictured). I, like Deborah, struggle to separate my emotions when comments like this are made. In fact, twitter is an engine that has given voice to many more deniers than before were heard. During the launch of a London exhibition early last year, I was asked via Twitter if holocaust survivors would be present - quite an innocent question it seems, until I did some digging and found that the user was in fact a holocaust denier who has previously directly targeted survivors.

Over Facebook I also received a direct message, as a result of a post I'd written about the rise of the far right in Greece with parties such as the Golden Dawn with a view to championing multi-cultural society. It might not be holocaust denial in this instance, but a direct attack on the very foundations of a society that values the lessons we have learned from it. I think this response speaks for itself...

I've received direct messages like this since my work began at 18 and it is sad that we must be so vigilant.

The film 'Denial' did highlight the question of what to say to these deniers. Do we stay silent and let the facts speak for themselves? Or do we give in to our emotions and respond? Can we be educated enough to do both? There are many of my peers I believe could be one day - but none of us can ever be armed with enough, can we?

There were more parallels than this though. Young lawyer Laura Tyler stays up late into the night incessantly working on the case, much to the annoyance and intense misunderstanding of her partner who managed to sum up what many peers have thought of me and my work as an ambassador and probably of Lipstadt too.

The Telegraph
They have asked me, 'isn't it time to let the past be the past', say 'you're obsessed', ask me 'why do you even care, you're not Jewish' and tell us there is 'more to life than the holocaust'. But in the same room the question has been uttered 'What is the holocaust?'. For me, it is impossible NOT to involve myself in the continuance of holocaust awareness and education. Because once you have looked truth in the eye, walked the rubble and ruins of Jewish cemeteries and visited Auschwitz, you cannot live with a version of yourself that is silent. I cannot be uncaring, I cannot forget, and I cannot deny that it ever happened.

Denial wasn't just about the libel suit, but the absolute passion for truth, that the holocaust HAPPENED. It was about speaking against all prejudices and facing denial in all it's forms, from bedroom-denouncings to outright racism.
I've been to Auschwitz and 'Denial' managed to capture the exact essence of the place that remains through some respectful film-making - although I am sure that many early mornings were needed to find the place so empty. From the shoes and suitcases of Auschwitz 1 to the endless rows of barracks and razed crematoria at Birkenau. Upon my visit I did not cry but since then, I have come to consider many holocaust survivors I work with, as friends or extended family even. To see that place again, was as though I was seeing it through fresh eyes, and I cried. (This helped me to gain some idea of why some second and third generation survivors cannot bring themselves to know their family stories in detail). The stillness of the shots, the mist, the coldness of the image, the quiet - it was exactly the eerie place I remember. Somewhere you can almost feel the past vividly. 
The film reflects and values this experience. It also asks us to be vigilant in our analyses and critique those who claim to be experts in the field but he film above all, champions that the truth is ultimate. The outcome of the case was as it should be, and Deborah and her legal team can indeed say that the voices of the victims were heard as justice was done.

The fact that posters for the film were defaced with anti-Semitic comments and drawings here in London, tell us exactly why it's important to show it at present. The fight against denial did not end when Lipstadt and her team won the case. It continues today and is rife in social media. What comes next is up to us but it's important I think that we take from the film, that truth is ultimate. Do not deny truth. Be someone that fights for it.

Friday, 27 January 2017


The Arts Desk
Oil begins in 1889, with no escape from the bitter cold but by the sparse candlelight dimly lighting the table. But then an American man appears, promising the light and heat that comes with burning oil. The family at the farm have no interest in this new thing, but May is pregnant and her eyes look to the horizon and one night she needs to take a walk, and she keeps on walking.

Fast-forward a few years and we arrive in Tehran, Persia, 1908. A desperate mother seeks work serving diplomats and military men whilst her daughter, fluent in Farsi, mourns the loss of her teddy bear. May is not silent in her emancipation, as she speaks freely in her opinions alongside fellow waiter who accuses the men of scheming against the young king, getting him drunk and offering him less than the fruits of his land's resources.

Time Out

Time Out
Back to Britain 1970 Hampstead and May is an exec of an oil company, regularly under addressed as foreign companies talk instead to her male colleague. 15yr old daughter, Amy is less than impressed and as she explores her sexuality and pushes the boundaries of her and her mother's relationship, we can't help but feel an unspoken love and understanding between the two strong independent women, with high hopes for the future. Amy converses with our foreign visitor in Farsi, much to her mother's distraction, and the lack of empathy and mutual understanding between nations when this encounter is denied, is gaping and obvious. ('Libya is in Africa, not the middle east')

The Telegraph
Persia - Our young females are getting more vocal as a daughter comes to Persia to build a life among new friends. She speaks their language and denies all links to her own culture. Her protest against her mother, who works for an oil company. This tone quickly turns on it's head as her new friend tells her to be grateful for her mother and for what she has - for she has been left with nothing from the years of war that have gripped Persia (now Iran). Is she so unaware as to deny her own part in the system? Is she so ungrateful to those who lost their lives in her country so she should have heat and light in her home? It's a plaguing thought for an audience.

The Arts Desk
Back in Britain, Cornwall, 2051, a cold, oil-less Britain. When a Chinese saleswoman appears selling nitro-fusion.

It's a scarily probable future, where energy resource is so sparse that it costs a fortune to use and so we are thrown back to layering our clothing and shivering even in our own homes. When along comes another resource; cheaper, ever-lasting, independently controlled. It seems that we will not be content with emptying our own planet of its resources, but we will travel to the moon to exploit that too. Where will it end, when will humanity orbit away from exploiting everything it touches?

Oil was an intimate exploration of the mother/daughter relationship through time, packing a powerful anti-exploitation punch thrown in the direction of oil companies and entitled and ungrateful Brits. It was a fly the flag moment for strong female characters, grasped beautifully by the talented Anne Marie Duffy and Yolanda Kettle. it also warns of the consequences of misunderstanding being 'strong' with being 'unfeeling' or 'greedy'.
Some brilliant writing (Ella Hickson), some great live music/sound, minimalist lighting, projections and minimalist staging from Vicky Mortimer that worked so well to give us the versatile set that a story spanning so many generations and locations needs. And two months later, I still can't stop thinking about it.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
The Young Vic's A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing has had good reviews across the board from the critics.

I have to applaud the efforts of Aoife Duffin, who holds the stage with a raw quality we learn to appreciate quickly.

But I'm not entirely convinced.

I have admitted many times before that I struggle to appreciate one-woman shows. This was slightly different in that, the title suggested she wasn't just a woman. She appears fragmented, which is no surprise as we progress to learn about her past.

Aoife Duffin rises to the challenge of multi-rolling... or is she replaying these moments from her past in her head? We never really find out. So instead we allow ourselves to forget that it is just Duffin onstage and are captivated by the puzzle before us.

From troubled siblings, to an unappreciative mother, to an abusive uncle - Duffin's character finds herself swept away in seeking love elsewhere, which often leads her into manipulative relationships and in danger of being mistreated.

Overall Duffin aided the script to bring it a tragically living, breathing power, with a stellar performance from our lead which helped earn her a place on the shortlist for the Emerging Talent Award at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards 2016.

(Written in 2016 - delayed post)

Thursday, 26 January 2017

School Swap: Korea Style
Kids in South Korea can rack up a huge 90 hours of learning in just 5 days. In fact, it is even considered the norm. Kids here in the UK spend only 6.5hrs or so at school each day - sometimes less - dedicating themselves to education. Of course there are exceptions, but the differences across the two education systems, are staggering and plain to see.

South Korea is rated at the top of the PISA education rankings table, Wales is (at the time of broadcast) rated 36th. However, if you look at the happiness levels of the same pupils, it becomes increasingly obvious that South Korea falls at the bottom of the table. So why the disparity?
The suicide rate of young men aged between 10 and 30 in South Korea, is the highest in the world. we meet one man, who lost two close friends to suicide along the way, put down to educational pressures and exertion. And with up to 18hrs of studying a day leaving kids sleeping at their desks, it's no wonder that the figures are that bad. In a country that's economy has rocketed over the last ten years, where illiteracy feels almost phased out and where education is embedded as part of religious ceremony, exam results might just be the most important date in the calendar, which is an undeniable achievement, but is also putting an incredible amount of pressure on young people.
In South Korea teachers are respected and education is valued, seeing approx 99% of students continue to study beyond the age of 16, as opposed to around 50% of Brits. As our Welsh students maintain, there is definitely something to be learned from their education system, though perhaps the way forward is to find a middle ground. There needs to be a culture of self-improvement, a desire to be educated in the UK, that simply isn't there at the moment. The 6 kids seemed to unanimously agree that a system somewhere in between the two cultures would be a healthy compromise. A system that allows time for creativity, for free expression for recreation and relaxation but one that also values learning, offers additional support and encourages educational engagement.
The show couldn't have chosen more polite kids to partake in the 3 day experiment. After 3 days of intense study and lack of sleep, our kids from Wales were definitely pleased to get back to the UK's more relaxed approach to schooling. There may not be roads filled with private tutors open until 10pm, nor schools that are open until midnight but there is an education system that allows us not just to memorise facts but to learn, think, form our own opinions and challenge our knowledge and others. Perhaps trips like this are the way to inform our governments on how to reach a happy medium that will allow us all to better ourselves intellectually but never at the expense of our happiness.

Read more about the School Swap here:
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