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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Monday 13th December 2004

Comedian should be taken seriously for once


Whenever a celebrity throws his or her weight behind a particular cause I usually reach for the sick bag. But Rowan Atkinson's opposition to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill is an honourable exception. This Bill, which is currently working its way through Parliament, will create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred that, in certain circumstances, could lead to the prosecution of comedians like Atkinson for making jokes about fundamentalist zealots. If found guilty they could spend up to seven years in prison.

The Home Office has attempted to justify this new legislation on the grounds that faith groups are often targeted by racists. But there are already enough laws to deal with these unsavoury characters. The truth is that the new Bill is a naked attempt by David Blunkett to win over Muslim extremists in the run up to the next General Election. They've been lobbying for a change in the law to make it illegal to attack the Islamic religion ever since Salman Rushdie published the The Satanic Verses--and now Blunkett has given in to them.

What's next, I wonder? Will a branch of the Office for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue open up in Bradford? Will the Government pass a bill making homosexuality a crime punishable by having a wall pushed on top of you? Will Blunkett make it legal to stone adulterous women to death? (Actually, that may not strike him as such a bad idea. It would be one way to get rid of his troublesome ex-mistress.)

When it comes to dealing with Muslim Fundamentalists, the French, for once, have the right idea. Far from bending over backwards to accommodate these zealots, the current French government has insisted that they embrace the secular nature of French society and, to that end, has banned the wearing of headscarves in state schools.

Similarly, our government should make it clear that all religious groups, including Islamists, are under an obligation to tolerate those who poke fun at them from time to time. Being able to laugh at your self is a tradition that all of our citizens should embrace, no matter how deeply held their religious beliefs. If Christians have to put up with The Life of Brian, why shouldn't Muslims have to contend with jokes being made at their expense?

"It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended," Atkinson says. "But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended."

Let's hope he doesn't meet the same fate as the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh who was murdered in Amsterdam last month by a Muslim extremist for having the temerity to criticise the Islamic attitude to women.

CELEBRITY IN LONDON MOVE SHOCKER

Forgive me if I don't get too excited about the prospect of Christian Slater "moving" to London. According to press reports, the star of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has enjoyed his stint on the West End stage so much he's now planning to take up permanent residence on this side of the Atlantic.

Scarcely a week goes past without a story appearing in the tabloids about some movie star relocating to London. Indeed, when I spent three months in Los Angeles earlier this year I was astonished to discover that Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna still owned homes on the West Coast. Weren't all three of them supposed to have "moved" to London several years ago? Shurely shome mishtake?

The truth is that celebrities of their calibre have extensive property portfolios and, while they might invest in real estate in Kensington and Chelsea, they no more "live" in London, than they "live" in Los Angeles. Like other multi-millionaire Jet Setters, they flit between their different homes, according to where their work--or their social commitments--take them. Only those celebrities whose careers are in the toilet, and who've been forced to sell their various houses to make ends meet, take up permanent residence in one particular city.

As far as I know, there's only one Hollywood actor who actually lives in London all year round: David Soul.

LIFELINE FOR WEST END THEATRES

I was delighted to read that the Department of Culture is planning to use £125 million of public money to bail out London's ailing West End theatres.

This shouldn't be written off as just another instance of the government giving subsidies to the chattering classes. When it comes to the theatre, London is still a world leader, easily surpassing every other European capital. As a result, the West End is one of the UK's biggest tourist attractions, pulling in millions of visitors every year.

The £125 million won't just benefit the theatre industry. It will ensure that the West End remains a thriving urban centre--just like New York's Time's Square, which has been completely revitalised by a massive injection of cash. If Nelson's Column was falling down, the government wouldn't hesitate to rebuild it. Why shouldn't the same apply to the Duchess, the Apollo, the Gielgud and the Garrick?

I can personally attest to the appalling state of London theatreland. I'm currently appearing in a one-man show at the Arts, the West End's smallest theatre, and I have to fight my way through falling masonry every night just to get to my dressing room. The roof is so leaky that when it rains only an elaborate arrangement of buckets prevents water from pouring on to the stage.

The Arts Theatre is a vital part of London's cultural heritage--it's where Waiting For Godot was first performed--and it will almost certainly fall down in the space of the next five years unless it's completely refurbished. I can think of much worse ways for the Department of Culture to spend its lottery millions.

TURNER BLIND EYE TO THIS WINNER

Shock horror! Hold the front page! The Turner Prize has been won by a left-wing conceptual artist who has produced a "controversial" piece of work attacking George W Bush.

You'd think Sir Nicholas Serota, the Chairman of the Turner Prize judging panel, would be bored by this sophomoric agitprop by now. It's as if the entire artistic establishment is stuck in the Sixties. The Berlin Wall may have been torn down in 1989, the Labour Party may have abandoned Clause Four, but in the rarefied atmosphere of the Courtauld Institute the flame of socialism still burns brightly.

Couldn't the Turner Prize go to a right-wing artist for once? How about a video installation celebrating the liberation of Iraq? Now that really would be controversial. As Charles Saatchi says, the Turner Prize has become "pseudo-intellectual rehashed claptrap".

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