I am a pan-disciplinary recipient of the two highest cultural honors in the country, the Bafta for film and television and the Olivier for theatre; I was described by the Times as “the world’s greatest living comedian”; I rapped in 10th century Old English on a #1 single; I won celebrity genius answer questions about guitarist and improviser Derek Bailey; and a film I authored was recently declared by a government body to have passed the ‘cultural test of being British’ with full marks! So you have to listen to me when I ask if Oliver Dowden is suitable for the role he has been decanted into, which is safeguarding the cultural heart of the nation at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. A chirping monkey might pour a sick orange into a jelly mold, but that doesn’t make it a jelly. This makes it a sick orange that a chirping monkey poured into a jelly mold.
Speaking before a select committee on May 14, Dowden called for the privatization of state-subsidized Channel 4 and reviewed its position on a “broadcasting market”, to strengthen its “ability to access markets capital”. But Channel 4 was not created to compete with Netflix and Disney+, whose only imperatives are commercial. Its mandate was to provide cultural, artistic and minority programming absent elsewhere. Early Channel 4 highlights such as Stephen Frears’ unprecedented show Waltera drama about a man with learning disabilities later awkwardly parodied by Ricky Gervais, and Derek Bailey At the edgea story of improvisation, were brilliant and priceless, but were not designed to beat The crown and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Patient MPs tried to explain this, but Dowden seemed intellectually or ideologically incapable of engaging, like Spock grappling with an abstract concept. “Do you believe that culture is intrinsically valuable in itself, Captain?” It’s illogical. I love when the chandelier falls in The ghost of the Operacorn.”
There is one area where I agree with Dowden. The statues of slavers must remain! As Dowden puts it, “they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its flaws.” Likewise, the demolished statue of Jimmy Savile from the Scotstoun Leisure Center is to be re-erected and ceremonially re-unveiled by Dowden himself, to teach us more about our past, with all its flaws. And next to the statues of slavers, let us raise tall new statues representing the atrocities their trade facilitated, to teach us about our past, with all its flaws. At Jamaica’s Breadnut Plantation, slaves were forced to defecate into the mouths of their disobedient comrades. A new statue/chocolate fountain combo in Parliament Square could pop up at any hour, to teach us about our past, with all its flaws.
Although Dowden has, like all of his colleagues, made a cognitively dissonant moral accommodation of Boris Johnson, there is still a faint glint of light in his eyes, in contrast to the dead, shark-killing stare of the abysmal-hearted Education Secretary , Gavin Williamson. , the Freddy Krueger of teenage ballet dancers’ nightmares. Can the great myths that underlie our national history provide archetypes to suggest how Dowden can be directed to salvation and saving our collective souls?
Last week I helped make a radio documentary about the Unreliable Narrators and I hope it will prove a valuable addition to Dowden’s broadcast market. In the vaults of the British Library I browsed an original manuscript of the 12th century work of Geoffrey of Monmouth Story of the Kings from Brittany, an incredible and undeserved privilege that has somehow landed in my unworthy lap as a result of over three decades of sarcastic jokes about politicians, street signs and rap singers. Monmouth appears to have edited and rewritten history in order to support the values and imperial ambitions of the Henry I administration. Michael Gove’s 2010 suggestion that self-proclaimed “neo-imperialist” academic Niall Ferguson should revise the history curriculum was not as original as it sounded!
Monmouth is largely responsible, for example, for the presence of the stories of King Arthur and Merlin in the market of myths. These implausible accounts nonetheless provide poetic “ecstatic truth” rather than literal “accounting truth,” a distinction Dowden will understand if he is as familiar, as a culture secretary should be, with Werner Herzog as he is with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Right now, Dowden is young Arthur, having sadly taken the sword from the stone and now seeking leadership in a role he’s not yet equipped to understand. He needs a Merlin to guide him. Where is the wizard to lead young King Dowden through the thickets of artistic understanding? Former Dowden Tory colleague Ken Clarke on the evidence from his Radio 4 series The greats of jazz, could show Dowden how great art stems from artistic, not commercial, impulse. For all his political and personal failings, the suede-lined arteries of Merlin Clarke’s HushPuppy pump with an understanding that eludes Arthur Dowden, who will not defend the cultural value of culture, only its financial value.
If Dowden is not ready to make this argument, to leave the citadel of the market and embark on this quest for the intrinsically valid grail, then Dowden, like the unworthy Uther Pendragon in the founding myth of Monmouth, must abandon his undeserved position to a new champion, a seeker who is ready to guard the holy chalice of our arts and culture and heal our pestilential realm or submit to the school. Until the reopening of rooms with pre-Covid capacity, I remain eminently available.
A 12 inch of January’s No. 1 single Comin’ Over Here by Asian Dub Foundation (featuring Stewart Lee) is now available. Stewart Lee appears on the B-side of the Nightingales’ new seven-incher, Ten Bob Each Way. The famous anti-rockumentary King Rocker will be screened at the Sheffield Documentary Festival on June 12. Stewart appears in an online fundraiser for Gigbuddies on June 20. Rescheduled 2022 dates from Stewart’s 2020 tour are now on sale, stewartlee.co.uk/live-dates