Doing whatever a spider can: the Stockport Spider-Men who spun a web around their community
When Andrew Baldock decided to don a Spider-Man suit for his daily jog in March, to cheer up locked-down children on his estate, he never expected such a huge response. “The original idea was just to put some smiles on faces and then it snowballed,” says Baldock, 45, who lives in Stockport, Greater Manchester. “Everyone loved it.”
His friend Jason Baird decided to get his own Spider-Man suit, and the rest is history. The “Stockport Spider-Men” had soon achieved global levels of fame, making headlines from India to Canada.
The concept was simple: the pair would do their daily exercise – or patrols, as they called them – in costume and in character, putting on an American accent when people called out to them. “We were promoting staying home, staying safe and keeping a distance. We were helping get the message out there,” Baldock says. “I’m a parent myself, so I know how difficult it is to keep kids smiling in a situation like this. A lot of parents were saying, ‘You’ve made my kids’ day – they have not stopped talking about it.’”
They say the costumes are part of their identities now.
“We’ll walk down the street and even if we’re not in Spider-Man gear, people will recognise us, shout out and beep their horn,” says Baldock, who is a martial arts coach at Baird’s Black Belt Academy in the area. “We’ve been all over the world with it – Jason did an interview with ABC News in Chicago. It’s so bizarre to think pictures of us are being seen by people in these far-flung countries.”
They soon inspired a whole army of superheroes and children’s characters, with about 50 people across Stockport roaming the streets, dressed as everyone from Iron Man to Mary Poppins.
Children started drawing pictures of their favourite characters to stick in their windows and dressing up themselves.
“I do believe it’s brought Stockport closer together,” says 35-year-old Baird. “It’s given us a bit of limelight, which I don’t think we’ve had for a very, very long time.”
A Facebook group was set up, attracting thousands of members, and the duo decided to use it to raise funds for the NHS. “The original fundraising target was only £1,000, and we beat that in a week. In the end we raised about £62,000,” Baldock says.
With Baird’s Black Belt Academy closed during lockdown, the project was also a lifeline for the pair, who are used to spending much of their time working with children. “More than anything, it kept me and Andrew busy and positive. I believe if we hadn’t been doing that, our mindsets would have been in a very bad place,” Baird says. “There’s no better joy than bringing joy to other people. It made me feel like Spider-Man – literally, we were out saving the day.”
But their proudest achievement is the community their costumes have created, which they hope will be used to promote local businesses and deserving causes in the town for years to come. The duo are now running 170 miles to raise money to send a local 11-year-old cancer survivor on her dream holiday to Florida.
“You can’t even contemplate the horrible stuff that has happened this year, and the losses that everyone’s suffered,” Baldock says. “We need these positive stories to keep us all going.”
The captive cats that seduced a captive audience – and the film-maker who brought us Tiger King
During the first lockdown, it was no surprise that people enjoyed escapist TV such as BBC’s Race Across The World. What nobody could have imagined was that we would go crazy for a documentary series on the plight of big cats in captivity. Nobody, that is, except its creator, American conservationist and film-maker Eric Goode, who knew he was on to something when he entered the weird world of people who keep exotic animals. “It’s such a colourful cast of characters – cultural niches like this are a fertile landscape,” he says.
But even Goode couldn’t have dreamed of the hype that built around the Tiger King when it dropped on Netflix on 20 March – four days after the first UK lockdown began. A month after its launch, it had been viewed in 64 million households worldwide. A drama starring Nicolas Cage as the series’ protagonist Joe Exotic is already in the works. Tiger King merchandise abounds, from jigsaws and mugs to T-shirts, and you can even pay £250 to receive a personalised video message from Exotic’s nemesis, conservationist Carole Baskin. “No one could have predicted that the pandemic would happen the moment it was released,” explains Goode. “We had a captive audience watching captive cats.”
Tiger King was created to draw attention to conservation issues. But it was Goode’s discovery of the battle between eccentric zookeeper Exotic and the equally flamboyant Baskin that drew in the millions of viewers. Baskin, dressed in animal print, railed against the cruelty of Exotic’s zoo, all the while keeping a menagerie of rescued big cats herself. She hasn’t shunned the limelight since the documentary aired; in fact she’s gone on to be its biggest success story, appearing on Dancing With The Stars (the US version of Strictly).
Ultimately, Goode hopes it is the big cats that will benefit. “I hope people recognise that tigers should, and hopefully will continue to, exist in the wild,” he says. They are a “sort of a status symbol – like having a big gun or a Corvette. Mike Tyson had a tiger, Pablo Escobar had a tiger, there was a tiger in Scarface. [Keeping them] reflects a sort of machismo.” Was Goode scared of ending up like Saff, one of the zookeepers featured, who lost an arm to a tiger? “There were times when I felt a claw, or the tooth of a small cat. But the most dangerous animal on the planet is us. I’m more worried about humans than tigers.”
Goode isn’t basking in his success; while many spent lockdown gorging on TV, he’s been travelling around the US working on his next, secret project, though he says the focus will remain in the same milieu. “I’ve always been fascinated by our relationship with animals – good, bad and ugly,” he says. “And I’ve always been interested in exotic animals – particularly reptiles. I will continue to work on projects that focus on that relationship.”
Thirty minutes of mayhem, slinky pop and sequins: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Friday night Kitchen Disco
In March, Sophie Ellis-Bextor felt the way a lot of us did: “Completely thrown and discombobulated,” she recalls. Along with the pressure to keep her five young boys fed, home-schooled and up to date with Joe Wicks, she also watched from the sidelines as her musician friends came up with increasingly creative ways to stay productive. “They’d be putting together and posting these beautiful recordings, and I thought, God, I can’t play piano or guitar, I can’t even accompany myself.” The 41-year-old singer started to feel gloomy, and so her husband Richard came up with an idea: “Why don’t we put on a gig from home?”
Here first reaction was that this was “ total insanity”, but then she thought about it some more: “A concert in my kitchen, filmed on a phone, with my kids dressed as superheroes running in between my legs? And I thought, you know what? Sod it!”
And so the Kitchen Disco was born – half an hour of slinky pop hits mixed with domestic mania, livestreamed on Instagram every Friday night through lockdown, a party that reflected the way most families were juggling their upturned lives through 2020. “It was the most amazing tonic,” Ellis-Bextor says. “Richard and I felt better about everything almost instantly.”
But staging a weekly gig wasn’t entirely stress-free: the first concert’s grand finale played out in silence after Richard joined in on bass guitar having secured his phone somewhere that covered the microphone.
For the most part it was a surreal, transcendent experience: her elder kids showing off new dance moves in fancy dress; her youngest (Mickey, 14 months old when they began) coasting around the sofa in the background while his mum sang, falling on his bum occasionally and prompting involuntary parental reactions: “Oooh! Are you all right?”
The original disco ran for several months, but Ellis-Bextor brought it back in October to celebrate Halloween. Her son Kit turned up in a black dress and bear mask: “I was singing Wuthering Heights to him, and he looked like a little reverent bear and I thought, ‘He’s my Heathcliff and I’m Cathy… this is mental!’” But then that was the point, to offer something daft and carefree to help people escape the anxiety-inducing hum of the news in 2020.
Ellis-Bextor says she has been touched by the responses she’s received, from people who found the discos “a little bit of an anchor for them… a touchstone of where they were in the week”. One guy sent the family a special bench he’d designed, inspired by the weekly party: Ellis-Bextor’s face is printed on the backrest, while the armrests are designed in the shape of Richard’s Millennium Falcon bass guitar. “It’s in our garden now.”
For all her early despair, Ellis-Bextor has ended up having a rather productive pandemic year. She started her own podcast, Spinning Plates, which sees her probe other celeb mums (from Fearne Cotton to Gina Miller) on “the juggle”. And the discos themselves have led to a new greatest hits album, Songs From The Kitchen Disco, and even a Kitchen Disco tour scheduled for May. As for whether or not there will be more kitchen discos in future, she’s letting her instinct guide her.
Whatever happens, her afterparty routine will stay the same: “Once it’s over we bring all the toys back in, throw the carpet back down, and finish off the cocktail!”
Genome editing, long-distance science and the first female partnership to win the Nobel prize: Jennifer Doudna, the US chemist behind one half of Crispr
If Prof Jennifer Doudna’s life before she won the Nobel prize was busy – well, now it’s up there with world leaders. Since Doudna won for chemistry, alongside French microbiologist Prof Emmanuelle Charpentier, in October 2020, life has scarcely slowed down long enough for the 56-year-old American biochemist to draw breath.
Doudna and Charpentier were the first women to win the Nobel prize together for their discovery of the gene-editing tool Crispr, which allows scientists to modify the DNA of any living organism, making it possible to eradicate genetic diseases. There is a mutual respect. “Working with Emmanuelle was one of the highlights of my scientific career,” Doudna tells me.
As Charpentier lives in Germany and Doudna in the US, further collaboration would be impractical; when the scientists worked together, they corresponded via email, given the time difference. “We were both so invested in the project,” Doudna remembers, “that it felt like we were always in contact.” Their research interests have subsequently diverged: Charpentier is more interested in pathways in bacteria that are responsible for diseases in humans, while Doudna prefers to focus on the molecules and mechanisms of Crispr.
Is it lonely, the life of a Nobel winner? “Absolutely not,” she says, “as I share this award with my colleagues, and my students, and every girl wondering if there’s a place in science for them. This was the first time the award has been given to two women, and I’m certain it will not be the last.”
After she won the Nobel, Doudna received emails and letters from girls around the world, telling her that they’d been inspired to pursue a career in science. “I’m proud to represent women in science,” she says, “especially as I first envisioned a career in research after attending a lecture in high school from a woman scientist.” It must be intimidating, I suggest, for others to meet a Nobel winner. “No,” she replies. “It’s 2020, the year of meeting people over Zoom! There’s something more informal about video chatting that makes it feel like you can talk to anyone.”
Crispr is a tool with potentially limitless applications, which has the capability to overwrite the human genome, and even fundamentally alter what it means to be human: in 2015, Doudna told one reporter she’d had an anxiety dream in which Adolf Hitler expressed excitement about the possible uses of “this amazing technology”. Does she still fear Crispr may one day be used to further nefarious ends? “Although I do still have concerns about using Crispr technology for human germline editing [making changes to DNA in human eggs, sperm or embryos that can be passed on to future generations],” she says, “we’ve come a long way in terms of educating the public on the promise and peril, and engaging in a deeper conversation on bioethics within the scientific community. Our international efforts to appropriately regulate the technology are progressing.”
Doudna runs a lab at the University of California, Berkeley; she is also a senior investigator at non-profit Gladstone Institutes, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and founder of Scribe Therapeutics, which received $20m in investment to research the therapeutic potentials of gene editing, in the hope of ultimately treating neurological diseases.
Does she ever miss the purity of working in the lab on her own research, rather than managing a large team of researchers? “There’s a part of me that will always want to be at the bench, running the next experiment,” she says. “But no. I believe in the power of collaborative science. It’s easy to get stuck in a blind alley as a researcher. But when you work with other people who see the world differently to you, it can open up new avenues you never noticed before.” Doudna uses her own Nobel-winning research as an example. “When Dr Jillian Banfield [a colleague at Berkeley, specialising in Earth science] approached me about a bacterial system called ‘CRISPR’ in 2006, I had no idea where it would lead at the time.”
After the whirlwind of the last five years, Doudna plans to spend 2021 on sabbatical with her husband, Dr Jamie Cate, a fellow biochemist at UC Berkeley, and teenage son, Andrew, whom she has described in previous interviews as her “biggest experiment”. “I’m excited to enjoy some major family milestones,” she says, “including helping my son as he heads off to college.” The enforced still of the coronavirus pandemic has made Doudna reflect upon her professional life with fresh eyes. “Staying home more has been a good change of pace for me,” she says. “I used to travel so much, often without really questioning why.”
But don’t expect Doudna to be out of her white coat for long. “I’m excited to dive into some other projects, too,” she says, “including discussions with experts from different fields to further consider the ethical and societal implication of genome editing, and a project working on new strategies for genome editing in human and plant cells.” Watch this space: a Nobel prize winner is never content to rest on her laurels.
The retired bus driver who jumped rope, raised cash and became an MBE: Rajinder Singh, AKA ‘the Skipping Sikh’
“Health is wealth,” 74-year-old Rajinder Singh tells me over the phone – his go-to catchphrase in the captions for his skipping videos on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Despite not having used social media before April this year, his first YouTube video gained 13,000 views. It’s via these channels that Singh has reached members of his local community with “skipping challenges”, which encourage viewers to pick up their own ropes and get involved. With the support of his journalist daughter Minreet Kaur, his story spread around the world – making headlines from the BBC to CNN to the Times of India.
It was the isolation of lockdown that drove Singh, a retired bus driver, to create and share his skipping videos, filmed on his leafy allotment near his home in Harlington, Middlesex. Singh observed how the closure of his own gurdwara (a Sikh place of assembly and worship) had left people feeling isolated in his community. “We [still] don’t know when this is going to be over,” he says. Singh lives with his wife Pritpal, who has made a cameo in several videos, and tells me that some people have it harder than they do: “I do feel sorry for the older people who are living on their own.”
Kaur says older people have told her that her father’s videos and challenges were a source of motivation during difficult times. “They show that age is nothing but a number. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or if you are at home – everyone can stay active in some shape or form.” For Singh, that goes beyond skipping. In the comments underneath one of Kaur’s uploads, one man says: “I see your father when I do the Osterley Parkrun. He beats me (not that it’s a race!) in the first quarter lap.” In another video uploaded in April, Singh slowly lifts his own weight using a pull-up bar, deftly loops his legs over his head and hangs upside down.
In a time when our own worlds were just as topsy-turvy, Singh’s ingenuity was inspiring. Yes, gyms were closed, but he had never visited one in his life anyway: “He was using different things such as watering cans and tyres… all unique exercises you can do from your garden at home,” says Kaur. “I think that’s what people loved about it.”
A baptised Sikh, Singh skips with his kirpan (a sword or dagger carried by Sikhs) at his side at all times, aiming for a state of Chardi Kala, or optimism and contentment. He says that both health and faith (“whether that’s religion, or a positive mindset”) are central to his daily routine, which typically involves prayer, exercise, more prayer, housework, tending to his allotment and then going on a bike ride.
Singh also puts an emphasis on altruism – and raised more than £14,000 for NHS charities during the pandemic; for this he was awarded an MBE in October, which he accepted with his trademark humility. “I want to do good things, and then just forget. If I help someone, it never crosses my mind to ask: ‘Oh, are you going to help me in the future?’ I just love helping other people.”
Although Singh says he was initially cautious about all the attention, it was ultimately the spirit of giving that convinced him to put himself out there online. And after doing “Skipping Santa”, a Christmas initiative where he delivered gifts to those in need, Singh seems to have accepted his newfound fame as a small price to pay for supporting others. “I don’t want publicity. But if you don’t do it, how do people know that you’ve got a quality that can help others? That’s why I’m doing it. And I will carry on until my last breath.”
‘I’m not sad to see the statue go’: mayor Marvin Rees on Bristol’s Black Lives Matter protest
Bristol has always been a popular city, brimful of culture, history and a thriving arts scene that nurtured the likes of Banksy and Massive Attack. But this year it received dizzying levels of exposure after a Black Lives Matter protest on 7 June led to the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, the notorious slave merchant. The protest electrified the debate over the legacy of the UK slave trade, and prompted a commission to review the diversity of London’s statues. It acted as a catalyst to revive protests over some, such as the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University, and inspired new calls for others to be removed, from Winston Churchill to Oliver Cromwell. It even led to other statues being toppled, such as that of 18th-century slave owner Robert Milligan in London.
Marvin Rees has mixed feelings about that day: “As the mayor, I cannot condone criminal damage,” he says. “[But] as a person, I’m not sad to see the statue go.” The protest had brought simmering frustrations to boiling point in the city. For all its claims to multiculturalism, a Runnymede Trust report in 2017 had found Bristol to be the most segregated city in the country. Petitions to have the Colston statue taken down had been circulating for years.
When a black resin statue of local artist and protester Jen Reid, made by the sculptor Marc Quinn, appeared on the empty plinth the following month, Rees felt blindsided. The day after Colston’s toppling, Quinn had rung Rees to pitch the idea of creating an alternative statue, he says. “I said, ‘I love the idea but I don’t think now’s the right time for it.’ It’s great to stoke a conversation, but you won’t have to deal with the consequences if someone then goes to set fire to someone’s door.” But Quinn and Reid decided to go ahead without council permission. “He leveraged his money and privilege to rough-road me,” says Rees.
The response was mixed. Some delighted in the poignant sight of a black woman standing proudly with her fist in the air. Others criticised what they felt was a glib PR stunt, questioning Quinn’s right to contribute as a non-resident – he lives in London – and a white man. The statue was taken down after just one day.
Rees says that throughout this period he felt a strong responsibility to the “isolated Black or Asian family” who might get caught in the crosshairs of this culture war. Though no citizens were attacked, there were repercussions of a different kind. After the Colston statue was pulled down, two artefacts of black history were defaced in retaliation: the statue of Caribbean playwright Alfred Fagon in the neighbourhood of St Paul’s, and the gravestone of the enslaved African, Scipio Africanus. Underneath the vandalised grave, a chilling message was scrawled in chalk: “Put Colston’s statue back or things will really heat up.”
In 2007, Rees was an aspiring journalist working for local radio. During that time, he made a documentary to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the UK’s Slave Trade Act, prohibiting the practice. In it, he said that, “Bristol is not fully equipped to have an in-depth, nuanced conversation about its slaving history.” In 2020, he still feels there is a way to go. When historian and fellow Bristolian David Olusoga delivered the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television eFstival this year, speaking about his experiences as a black person in television, he used Rees’s time at the BBC as a searing case study of how minorities are often treated in such spaces. “I had two master’s degrees, [but] I couldn’t make any progress in local radio,” Rees says. “In five years, I didn’t get one promotion. My mental health suffered.” He laments that “organisations that on the outside say they’re progressive and open… fail to recognise talent”.
Now, with Rees the first black mayor of a major European city, that potential has more than flourished. He describes walking into an AGM of mayors in Europe: “I look around, I see if there’s anyone who looks like me, and there isn’t. It’s just me and Sadiq [Khan, the London mayor].” When things get back to normal, he is looking forward to a family trip to Switzerland, skiing and snowboarding with his children – something he could never have done as a child growing up in a poor single-parent household in Easton, Bristol. At 18, he made a trip to the Arctic, something he describes as “a real life-changing moment”, and which partly inspired his current role as president of the British Exploring Society. “Part of my time there is about making sure more young people from a wider range of backgrounds get to experience awe.”