I am a pan-disciplinary recipient of the country’s two highest cultural accolades, the Bafta for film and television and the Olivier for theatre; I have been described by the Times as the “world’s greatest living standup comedian”; I have rapped in 10th-century Old English on a No 1 single; I won Celebrity Mastermind answering questions on the 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 must listen to me when I ask if Oliver Dowden is suitable for the role he has been decanted into, safeguarding the nation’s cultural heart at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. A chittering monkey could pour some orange sick into a jelly mould, but that does not make it a jelly. It makes it some orange sick that a chittering monkey has poured into a jelly mould.
Speaking before a select committee on 14 May, Dowden called for the privatisation of publicly subsidised Channel 4 and considered its position in a “broadcasting marketplace”, to help its “ability to access capital markets”. But Channel 4 was not set up to compete with Netflix and Disney+, whose only imperatives are commercial. Its remit was to provide cultural, artistic and minority programming absent elsewhere. Early Channel 4 highlights such as Stephen Frears’s unprecedented Walter, a drama about a man with learning disabilities later clumsily parodied by Ricky Gervais, and Derek Bailey’s On the Edge, a history of improvisation, were brilliant and invaluable, but were not built to beat The Crown and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Patient MPs tried to explain this, but Dowden seemed intellectually or ideologically unable to engage, like Spock struggling with an abstract concept. “You believe that culture is inherently valuable in of itself, Captain? That is illogical. I like it when the chandelier falls down in The Phantom of the Opera, though.”
There is one area where I find myself in agreement with Dowden. The statues of the slavers must remain! As Dowden says, “they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults”. Likewise, the statue of Jimmy Savile, torn down from Scotstoun Leisure Centre, must be re-erected and re-unveiled by Dowden himself with full ceremony, to further teach us about our past, with all its faults. And alongside the statues of the slavers, let us raise high new statues depicting the atrocities their business facilitated, to teach us about our past, with all its faults. At Jamaica’s Breadnut plantation, slaves were forced to defecate into the mouths of their disobedient fellows. A new statue/chocolate fountain combination in Parliament Square could splurt on the hour, to teach us about our past, with all its faults.
Although Dowden has, like all his colleagues, made a cognitively dissonant moral accommodation of Boris Johnson, there is yet some faint glimmer of light in his eyes, unlike the dead, killer-shark stare of the catastrophically cold-hearted education secretary, Gavin Williamson, the Freddy Krueger of teenage ballet dancers’ nightmares. Can the great myths that underpin our national story provide any archetypes to suggest how Dowden may be steered towards salvation and salve our collective souls?
Last week, I helped to make a radio documentary on unreliable narrators and I hope it proves a valuable addition to Dowden’s broadcasting marketplace. In the vaults of the British Library, I perused an original manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, an incredible and unearned privilege that somehow landed in my unworthy lap as a result of more than three decades of making sarcastic jokes about politicians, road signs and rap singers. Monmouth appears to have edited and rewritten history so it supported the values and imperial ambitions of the Henry I administration. Michael Gove’s 2010 suggestion that the self-described “neo-imperialist” academic Niall Ferguson should overhaul the history curriculum wasn’t as original as it looked!
Monmouth is largely responsible for, for example, the presence of the stories of King Arthur and Merlin in the myth marketplace. These implausible tales nonetheless provide a poetic “ecstatic truth” rather than a literal “accountant’s 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. At present, Dowden is the young Arthur, haplessly having pulled the sword from the stone and now looked to for leadership in a role he is not yet equipped to understand. He needs a Merlin to guide him. Where is the wizard to lead the boy king Dowden through the thicket of artistic understanding? Dowden’s old Conservative colleague Ken Clarke, on the evidence of his Radio 4 series Jazz Greats, could show Dowden how great art derives from an artistic impulse and not a commercial one. For all his political and personal failings, the suede-lined arteries of Merlin Clarke’s HushPuppy heart pump with an understanding that eludes Arthur Dowden, who will not make the case for culture’s cultural value, only for its financial one.
If Dowden is not prepared to make this argument, to leave the citadel of the marketplace and set himself upon this inherently worthwhile grail quest, then Dowden, like the unworthy Uther Pendragon in Monmouth’s foundation myth, must surrender his unearned position to a new champion, a seeker who is prepared to protect the holy chalice of our arts and culture and heal our pestilential kingdom or submit himself to be schooled. Until theatres reopen at pre-Covid capacity, I remain eminently available.
A 12-inch of the January No 1 hit single Comin’ Over Here by Asian Dub Foundation (feat Stewart Lee) is now available. Stewart Lee appears on the B-side of the Nightingales’ new seven-inch, Ten Bob Each Way. The acclaimed anti-rockumentary King Rocker screens at the Sheffield documentary festival on 12 June. Stewart appears in an online fundraiser for Gigbuddies on 20 June. Rescheduled 2022 dates of Stewart’s 2020 tour are now on sale, stewartlee.co.uk/live-dates