28 dezembro 2008

Rowan Atkinson goes serious

A week in the life of Rowan Atkinson. On Christmas Day, he and his wife Sunetra slipped quietly into a school in Kennington, south London, to bring some cheer to 2,000 troubled children brought together by the charity Kids Company. The comedian's eyes welled up with tears, said one witness.

That night, Atkinson was interviewed for a BBC1 documentary celebrating 25 years of the comedy classic Blackadder. Looking ill at ease in the role of Rowan Atkinson, he made the surprising disclosure that there was at least one episode of Blackadder Goes Forth he had never seen until he happened to find it on his in-flight entertainment. "I'm not a great laugher, sadly," he admitted, "but I might have sniggered at it, which was my way of saying that was very funny."

And yesterday he was due on stage for two preview performances of the musical Oliver!, produced by Cameron Mackintosh at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It is testimony to his status as king of British comedy that, with little pedigree of stage acting and less singing, he is set to become the biggest attraction in London's West End as the Jewish miser, Fagin. Unlike Alec Guinness in the controversial 1948 screen adaptation of Oliver Twist, Atkinson does not wear a prosthetic nose.

"I think the thing people will be most surprised about is the complexity of the character," Rupert Goold, the production's director, told the Observer. "I'm sure they expect him to be funny, but he's delivered something that is really complex. Like Shylock, it's one of those parts that you'd have a problematic relationship with because it's been used as a rod to beat Jewish identity with. You can't shy away from that. In the last preview I saw, Rowan had lost a little bit of his Jewish accent and I wanted that to come back because I don't think it is an unsympathetic portrayal."

Seldom has a performer been as inscrutably determined as Atkinson to let his work do the talking. An appearance on ITV1's This Morning sofa became tortuous whenever the actor was asked a remotely personal question. He once refused to tell a journalist how many children he has. On another occasion, the Observer approached him at a party with an innocuous question about Blackadder; after an excruciatingly long pause, he replied: "No comment." Even on Blue Peter, he appeared as Mr Bean rather than himself. His private persona, says Goold, is sometimes "like a ghost".

Another Blackadder documentary, on the G.O.L.D. channel earlier this year, featured interviews with its writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and cast members including Robinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tim McInnerny and Miranda Richardson. All the old gang, in fact, except Atkinson.

Why the reticence? The evidence suggests that there is no great enigma, no great cliche about inner turmoil and the tears of a clown. Atkinson, who turns 54 next week, simply seems to lack the showbiz gene. He has a private hinterland of fast cars and family and the key to his brilliance may be that he sees it as nothing more and nothing less than a job. Goold added: "He's got something that's really important in comedy, which is taste, partly because he's a very self-contained private man, so you don't feel he's somebody who's desperate for a laugh.

'Some comedians are so eager to have you love them that they'll push that to the nth degree, whatever that takes, whereas with Rowan you feel he enjoys it like he enjoys the purr of the engine of one of his beloved cars. It's a personal experience for him and that means he's indifferent to vulgarity and cheap laughs."

Tony Robinson, whose Baldrick tormented Blackadder with every "cunning plan", echoes the sentiment. "He's one of the few mega performers who genuinely has a full and fulfilling life away from showbusiness," he said last week. "In my experience, I can't tell you how rare that is. He has a beautiful wife and family and good on him. Yet he remains for me the consummate comedy performer of his generation."

Robinson added: "He's a very shy man, so it's not like the first time that you meet someone such as Rik Mayall or Mel Smith where you've overwhelmed by the force of their personality. When he's not working, you are unlikely to realise that he's in the room, but as soon as he starts, all attention focuses on him, partly because of this extraordinary supreme talent that he's got."

Performing was not in his blood. Atkinson was the third son growing up on a 400-acre farm and attended Durham's Chorister School aged 11, where he was teased by fellow pupils who thought he looked like an alien. Two years above him was Tony Blair, described by the school's headmaster as "outgoing" compared with Atkinson, who was "shy with a slight stutter". He went to Newcastle University and studied engineering, before arriving at Queen's College, Oxford, for an MSc in engineering science.

When he turned up at the Oxford sketch writing group, he reminded fellow student Richard Curtis of a cushion: sitting on a chair and saying nothing. Curtis recalled: "I thought he was a stuffed toy because he didn't say anything for the first three meetings - just a curiously shaped object in the corner. Then just when we were trying to decide what the material should be, and we'd all been handing in sketches for months, Rowan actually stood up and did two absolutely astonishing sketches."

Atkinson dazzled at the Edinburgh Festival and toured with Angus Deayton as his straight man. At Amnesty International's benefit, The Secret Policeman's Ball, in 1979 he performed a hilarious sketch as a headmaster addressing a room of schoolboys. He then joined Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson in the vanguard of alternative comedy, the sketch series Not the Nine O'Clock News. Two years later, he became the youngest performer to have a one-man show in the West End.

Then came four series as Edmund Blackadder in the sprawling comical chronicle of English history now regarded as a gold-plated classic, ranking with or even surpassing Dad's Army and Fawlty Towers. By the final series, set in the First World War trenches, Atkinson found in the character a cynical antihero worthy of Catch-22's Yossarian. The climax touched greatness with Blackadder pretending to be mad in a failed bid to get out of the maddest situation in history.

"I just remember feeling the impending doom over my character," Atkinson said. "I remember feeling this strange knot in the pit of my stomach. It was the first time as an actor that I had felt the predicament of my character. I was going to die at the end of the week."

It has since been observed that the world is divided into two irreconcilable schools: fans of Blackadder and fans of Atkinson's next manifestation, Mr Bean. The former, which started on BBC2, was Oxbridge satire with clever wordplay in the tradition of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Monty Python. The latter, on ITV, was physical humour with minimal dialogue in the tradition of Benny Hill. It has shown a similar ability to cross cultural boundaries, gaining audiences in a hundred countries. The 1997 film version, Bean, took £152m to become the most lucrative British film of all time and was followed by Mr Bean's Holiday last year.

Atkinson, whose Eurosceptic brother Rodney is a former UK Independence Party candidate, made a rare foray into politics when he campaigned successfully against the government's proposals to outlaw "incitement to religious hatred", arguing that they would in effect criminalise the telling of Catholic, Jewish or Muslim jokes. He has had a mild flop, with the BBC TV series The Thin Blue Line and made several Hollywood appearances, although he once opined that the only film he was really proud of being in was Four Weddings and a Funeral

His 15 per cent stake in the film and TV company Tiger Aspect has helped generated a personal fortune estimated at anywhere from £65m to £100m. On a typical day, he is likely to be relaxing at his Chelsea townhouse or driving go-karts round the tennis court of his country pile, a former rectory in the Oxfordshire village of Waterperry.

The actor's great extravagance is collecting vintage cars and driving them at events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed. John Lloyd, his long-time producer, once summed Atkinson up thus: "He is certainly not a workaholic. He once said to me that he wasn't bothered about going into showbusiness, but it was the only way he could find of affording the cars he wanted. I think that's why, in interviews, he doesn't think his private life is anybody's business. There's no article to be written airing his dirty laundry. He's just a blameless family guy."

So don't expect Atkinson to treat the first-night reviews of Oliver!, including his ability to sing "You've got to pick-a-pocket or two, boys" eight times a week, as a matter of life and death. But equally, expect something special from a man who, like the best of wits, has nothing to declare but his genius.

The Atkinson Lowdown

Born: Rowan Sebastian Atkinson in Gosforth, near Newcastle, on 6 January 1955, the youngest of three sons of farmers Eric and Ella Atkinson. He married Sunestra Sastry, a make-up artist on Blackadder, at the Russian Tea Room in New York in 1990; they have two children, Lily and Benjamin.

Best of times: Critically, Blackadder, in which Atkinson coined immortal comic lines such as: "He's madder than Mad Jack McMad, the winner of last year's Mr Madman Competition." Commercially, Mr Bean, in which his rubber face and elastic body earned comparisons with Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel.

Worst of times: A 1986 attempt to crack Broadway ended three weeks after New York Times critic Frank Rich condemned his "toilet humour". In 2001, the pilot of a Cessna plane in which Atkinson and his family were flying from Mombasa to Nairobi passed out, but Atkinson took the controls and saved the day.

What he says: "Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing in showbusiness. It's as though I wandered in accidentally and there's no way out. People who meet me think, 'What a miserable git.'"

What they say: "Rowan has not one ounce of showbiz in his life. It is as if God had an extra jar of comic talent and for a joke gave it to a nerdy, anoraked northern chemist." Stephen Fry, Blackadder co-star and best man at Atkinson's wedding.

The Observer

23 dezembro 2008


Still from Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson

Alex Gibney is one of the most important documentarists at work today. Two of his recent films - Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, about high-level corporate corruption in America, and Taxi to the Dark Side, an account of US military interrogation and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq - are essential viewing for anyone seeking an understanding of our times. His films are sober, carefully crafted and thoroughly researched, politically committed but not propagandistic, and deeply felt without focusing the camera on his own bleeding heart.

He is thus considerably different from the subject of his latest film, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S. Thompson, one of the creators and most extreme exponent of the "New Journalism" of the 1960s, and the man who gave us that overworked phrase "fear and loathing". Thompson, who had an obsession with guns, owning 22 of them (all kept fully loaded), committed suicide with a gunshot to his head in 2005 at the age of 67.

The film is an impressionistic portrait of Thompson as eccentric libertarian, admired outsider, rebel, scabrous social critic. A romantic utopian, he was searching for the American Dream and lamenting its death. As an ambitious writer, he was chasing after that chimera "the Great American novel", but inevitably finding it eluded him.

Early on, Gibney takes us to the study in the Colorado farmhouse where Thompson lived for the last 40 years of his life, the camera scanning photographs of Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, the heroes he sought to emulate.

Thompson was one of three brothers raised in a lower-middle-class family in Louisville, Kentucky, and was in constant trouble at school and then in the US Air Force. The film, however, passes rapidly over the youth and early career, eager to get to the wild, rebellious 1960s, which he observed, participated in, helped shape the image of, and of which he was ultimately a victim through his reckless addiction to every possible kind of drug.

There is an extended section on his first book, Hell's Angels (1966), an excellent piece of reportage on California's motorcycle gangs, written after spending a year with them, and ending when he was given a terrible beating after they'd demanded a share of any money he made out of them. Gibney shows Thompson going to the self-destructive edge in writing this book and then plunging over that edge into Gonzo journalism.

Hell's Angels was participatory journalism that put the writer into the story and drew on the techniques of fiction. Gonzo happily stirred actual fiction into the brew (some of it extremely mischievous, as when he wrote of politician Ed Muskie as a drug addict) and added touches of the surreal. Thompson was introduced to the term 'Gonzo' by his friend, the Boston journalist Bill Cardoso; it's apparently an Irish-American term for the last man standing after an all-night drinking session. From 1970, British cartoonist Ralph Steadman illustrated many of Thompson's books and articles, and his bold graphic style, an expressionistic combination of George Grosz and Thomas Rowlandson, became an essential element in the Gonzo package. Steadman speaks with a warm, wry candour about their collaboration.

Having started out as a sport journalist, Thompson became immersed in politics. He ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, on an independent hippy ticket. More importantly, he covered all the presidential elections from 1968 onwards. "The Kennedys - they were his guys," one witness observes, but he became a friend of George McGovern, Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter, all of whom speak well of him, as does a less likely friend, the right-wing ideologue Pat Buchanan, who must have loathed everything Thompson stood for, yet arranged for him to ride in the back of Nixon's limousine during the 1972 election.

During this period, we see Thompson developing a public persona through his signature dark glasses, cigarette holder, floppy hat and outrageous behaviour and being taken over by it. By 1976, when travelling with Jimmy Carter, it was Thompson's autograph people sought, not the presidential candidate's. The peak of Thompson's madness was reached in 1974 when he accepted a Rolling Stone assignment to cover the Foreman-Ali 'Rumble in the Jungle' in Kinshasa. Instead of attending the fight (as more responsible New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer did), he took a load of drugs and floated in his hotel pool wearing a Nixon mask and clutching a bottle of whisky.

Gibney's elaborately textured film draws on much home movie footage, new interviews, old TV appearances and clips from the feature films inspired by Thompson's antics (he's played by Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It's often hilarious and captures the spirit of the time, both in its early hopes and its inevitable disillusionment. Yet it's a sad movie and somehow inadequate in its lack of true pity or understanding. Thompson's first wife, Sondi, mother of his son Juan, put up with him for 20 years, until his excesses and egotism forced her to leave, and it is she alone who says: "I think his story was tragic."

And it is she who demurs from a general agreement that his suicide, like that of Hemingway, was somehow a courageous act. In this documentary, we watch a man go insane and destroy himself, his final act of madness being the funeral he organised in which his ashes were sent into the skies with red, white and blue fireworks from a self-aggrandising tower he'd designed with the help of Steadman.

The Guardian

Do you know an animal that needs a good talking to?

The anti-Cute Overload: Fuck You, Penguin
an example:

Thanks for "gracing" us with your presence

I get it, Whale, you're busy. I've only been on this FUCKING BOAT for three and a half hours waiting for you, and the only thing I've seen so far is my lunch from earlier. It's not like you spend your entire goddamn life in the ocean, so I see why you would only come up for basically a split second. Personally, if someone was going to all this trouble specifically to see me, I would take time out of my BUSY ASS SCHEDULE to at least stop by the boat and make some small talk, maybe have some salmon. But I understand, Whale, places to go, 500 pounds of food to eat. I'll be fine. The real question here, Whale, is will you be fine? Can you really live with yourself? Maybe you need to make a change.

20 dezembro 2008

Death with Interruptions / As Intermitências da Morte

BookForum reviews Saramago's newly translated book:


Portuguese novelist José Saramago specializes in bold moves. In The Stone Raft (1986), the grand fabulist wrenched the Iberian Peninsula from its moorings; in Blindness (1995), he rendered an entire population sightless. A spry demiurge, indeed. Now well past eighty, with his Death with Interruptions—rendered in a pitch-perfect translation by Margaret Jull Costa—he challenges mortality itself while playfully subverting the timeworn theme of eternal life.

On the first day of the New Year, in an unnamed land, death takes a holiday. Initially, this calls for celebration. Before long, however, the implications of life everlasting become evident, and the blessing begins to resemble a curse. People continue to age and deteriorate, their ends simply prolonged. Church authorities fret that the final resurrection is made meaningless, and therefore their doctrine is, too; undertakers are thrown out of work; hospitals and convalescent homes will soon be paralyzed; and the life-insurance industry must compensate for its loss of purpose. Families saddled with dying-but-never-expiring relations make nocturnal journeys to the border, since death remains operative abroad. In the face of the threat of popular revolt against the constitutional monarchy, the prime minister warns the king: “If we don’t start dying again, we have no future.”

Saramago offers a panoramic view of events, the various institutions of church, state, and commerce each acting to protect their interests; as a countervailing force, an underground economy thrives, enabling smugglers to spirit the terminally ill across the border, thus restoring some measure of the old order. Characters serve their function and then exit—for instance, during the initial round of celebration, one woman hangs the national flag from her balcony, and her gesture becomes an obligatory display of patriotic fervor. We never hear from her again. The calamity builds in its dire complications, even as the narrator takes time to assess the philosophical debate about death’s nature—“Have you ever wondered if death is the same for all living beings, be they animals, human beings included, or plants?”—only to conclude that “there are many deaths, as many as all the living beings that have existed . . . and will exist.” And just when his plot begins to run out of steam, not halfway through the book Saramago makes a sharp turn: A mysterious letter arrives from death herself announcing that her little experiment, with its deplorable results, will end at midnight.

The person of death becomes the book’s first in-depth character. But this is death with a small d; instead of an aristocrat or an awesome figure, she’s a lonely bumbler, publicly acknowledging her mistake. A weary skeleton wrapped in a sheet, she inhabits a chilly room with a chair and desk, her rusty scythe, and a few dozen file cabinets. To make up for the cruel stealth with which she formerly took lives, she begins sending warning letters, one week in advance. Yet here again she makes a mess of it, inciting panic with her innovation, as people squander their remaining days or seek solace in debauchery. When one letter keeps getting returned to sender, she realizes that a certain cellist has somehow eluded her.

The situation, remarks the narrator, is “an unprecedented scandal: someone who should have been dead two days ago was still alive. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The wretched cellist, who, ever since his birth, had been marked out to die a young man of only forty-nine summers, had just brazenly entered his fiftieth year, thus bringing into disrepute destiny, fate, fortune, the horoscope, luck and all the other powers that devote themselves . . . to thwarting our very human desire to live.”

The man lives alone with his dog and his music, oblivious to death’s attentions. Constrained by the regulations of her office, she does not know how to kill him. She even visits him while he sleeps, but watching the domestic bond of man and beast makes plain her personal failure. She feels left out of such comforts, as well as the implicit raptures of Bach’s sixth cello suite, whose score lies open on a chair. Determined to achieve her goal, she takes human shape in order to get close enough to claim him.

They begin a curious kind of courtship, flirtation mixing with foreboding. Saramago’s narrators tend to assume the role of puppeteer, often pulling back the curtain for readers to ponder the elements at play. In this novel, that distancing makes it difficult to guess where the cellist’s growing desire will lead him: attraction, obsession, or destruction. Death has the power to dispatch him, and yet she wavers. Of course, the couple fall in love, but the culmination of their romance yields far more than a happy ending.

Through her mistakes and her new vulnerability, death finds escape from her eternal drudgery, while the cellist, amid the pleasant routine of home and orchestra, finds reserves of feeling; both manage to vanquish their isolation. Recalling other characters in Saramago’s fiction, the two protagonists are like clerks in a bureaucracy who seek to break out of an anonymous existence. In Death with Interruptions, Saramago again suggests that love can provide the way out, and the will to act. He refreshes the old trope of immortality by treating it as fertile ground for playing out his incisive variations, exploring not only our fear of death but our fear of life as well.

I Vant To Upend Your Expectations

Why movie vampires always break all the vampire rules

The modern reworkings of the genre are traceable to a few different factors. For one thing, rewriting the rules is just good storytelling. Upending conventions lets you surprise the audience. You thought garlic was going to ward off the boss vampire? Sorry. You planned to kill him with that little piece of sharpened wood? Good luck. These days, you'll see vampires slapping crosses out of the way more often than shrinking in fear. Variations on the vampire rules also make for some clever plot twists. For example (spoiler alert!), in 30 Days of Night, Josh Hartnett notices that once bitten, victims become vampires right away—but they don't become evil vampires for a few hours. He therefore injects vampire blood into his veins so he can fight them off and save his wife. True Blood also has a smart twist on the myth-busting trope: The vampires started the myths themselves. "If the humans thought they couldn't see us in a mirror," explains vampire Bill, "it was another way for us to prove we weren't vampires." Plus, tweaking the rules is part of the appeal of genre fiction—authors have a template to play with, so every minor variation they make becomes loaded with meaning.

These expository scenes are also common because vampires are so darn chatty. All monster myths vary, after all. Sometimes zombies are fast, sometimes they're slow, and it always seems to take a different tactic to kill them. But zombies can't talk, so they can't haughtily explain to you why they're not like all the other zombies. They just chomp your face. Vampires, on the other hand, are the biggest self-promoters around: They can't stop talking about themselves.

Another factor is changing censorship rules. Believe it or not, vampires were not always sexy (although sexuality was part of the mix as early as Carmilla). The original Dracula film came out in 1931, a year after the Hays Code was put in place. So they shot two versions—one chaste English version for American audiences and one Spanish-language version for distribution in Mexico. The women in the foreign version wear lower-cut dresses. Hot vampires really broke out in the 1950s in the British Hammer horror films and finally made it to the United States once the Hays Code was dropped in the late 1960s, clearing the way for Andy Warhol's take on vampire sex.

Technology also plays a role in vampire transformations. Vampire films got gorier once color film made it clear they were drinking blood, not oil. Shoddy makeup on high-quality film stock sometimes made fangs unconvincing. One director, Mario Bava, decided to scrap them entirely—the vampires in the 1960 flick Black Sunday are, like the Hays Code at that time, toothless. Technology within the films plays a role, too. In recent vampire stories, science is the new magic. In I Am Legend, it's the "vampiris germ" that causes vampirism. ("You see, the bacillus is a facultative saprophyte," we're told, which is supposed to explain why a stake causes a vampire to dissolve into dust.) In Underworld, it's a genetic mutation. And as technology evolves, so do vampire-slaying methods. Blade's garlic-filled bullets are nothing compared with the bullets from Underworld that are filled with—kid you not—daylight.

Other variations are introduced because, well, they're totally sweet. The vampires in 30 Days of Night are more feral than human, with their own creepy language and two rows of shark teeth. Needless to say, they don't leave two dainty dimples in the neck. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, meanwhile, features an elaborate universe of humans, vampires, demons, werewolves, slayers, and "watchers." (Sometimes, they sing.) Underworld creates a deep mythology about a war between werewolves and vampires. In Guillermo Del Toro's Cronos, the vampire isn't human at all—it's a tiny mechanical beetle.

But the biggest reason for all the myth-busting has to do with creating a believable world. It may seem odd to explode the myth about crosses in one scene while positing that vampire blood is a sex drug in the next—neither myth is believable, taken alone. But stomping on old myths heightens the realism. It's a way of acknowledging the silliness of most vampire stories while distancing yours from the rest. We know vampire tales are childish, it says. This one is not. That's why you'll always have a character saying he doesn't believe in vampires—the filmmakers know that's what you're thinking, too. The myth-busting scene is therefore a necessary ritual. By rewriting the rules every time, you ask viewers to invest themselves in this story, not in the last vampire movie they saw.

All genres evolve, and in this respect vampire films are nothing special. But vampires seem to relish deviating from their conventions more than most. At the very least, it keeps the genre fresh for Lesbian Kung-Fu Robot Vampire Killers From Space.


hail True Blood

17 dezembro 2008

WoWOWow Women On the Web

wowOwow is a free daily Internet website created, run and written by Lesley Stahl, Peggy Noonan, Liz Smith, Joni Evans, Mary Wells, Sheila Nevins, Joan Juliet Buck, Whoopi Goldberg, Julia Reed, Joan Ganz Cooney, Judith Martin, Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, and Marlo Thomas.

Many of us have known each other and been friends for a long time. Liz, for instance, met Candy in the 1960s when Candy was new to New York and an unknown actress. Candy and Lily worked together on “Murphy Brown” and found themselves in a mutal admiration society. Mary Wells and Joni Evans became instant old friends when Mary was writing her first book. Lesley and Peggy met at CBS News in 1982 the day Dan Rather called in sick. Peggy wrote a daily broadcast for him; Lesley found herself subbing for him; they pitched in and a long friendship began.

So: we go back. And for years we have been talking to each other about everything under the sun – our families, our work, our worlds. No matter what was happening in our lives, we made the time. We’ve shared what we think, observe and experience each day.

And now we want to share it with you.

A while ago we decided to go on the Internet with our conversations and make them available to everyone who might be interested. Why? One reason is that like a lot of people we have more to say than we have places to say it. Another is that the Internet allows us to talk about things we think about but don’t normally talk about in public, and touch on areas we’re rarely asked about. We also are all of us at a time in our lives when we feel we have much to share in terms of experience and encouragement. And we mean to encourage. We also mean to be frank.

It means a lot to us that the largest number of people coming on to the Internet now are women like us – women who, to use a cliché, weren’t born yesterday, who are in their prime, who are involved in the world and have a bent for changing it as much as living in it. Women who want a place to look at issues in a new way, or gossip a little, or learn more about eachother, or ponder how to make the world better. Women who live varied lives, as we do.

Lesley is a broadcast journalist, Whoopi, Candice, Lily and Marlo work in show business, Liz—our grande dame of dish—writes about it, Peggy is a political columnist, Julia Reed and Joan Buck are writers and social commentators, Sheila Nevins invented the modern television documentary for HBO, and Joan Ganz Cooney invented Sesame Street. Mary Wells invented modern advertising and lives on a boat in the Med. Joni Evans published over 100 bestsellers and Judith Martin is the muse behind “Miss Manners.”

The thing about modern women is that they all have varied lives. But here, we hope, we can offer some commonality. And some fun, too.

The heart of our site consists of The Conversation – a new, brief, conversation made available each day, a conversation that a number of us will take part in on any given day. We’ll post the transcript. In time, we’ll post the audiotape. Heck, if we manage to wrap our heads around technology we’ll be offering a videotape. But that’s for later. For now, The Conversation, by transcript, and various posts from our contributors. Liz on who she saw last night and what they said; Peggy on the political event she attended, or the Broadway show. Julia Reed on what she saw, Joan Buck on what she thought, and Marlo Thomas on what got her engine going this morning. We’ll be posting daily.

We hope you come by. We hope you stay awhile. We’d like you to become part of The Conversation.

We close with a thought from Lesley Stahl, who pondered for us why exactly we talk to each other. She said, “There’s some deep, atavistic need women have to get together with each other and talk. It’s as essential to us as food, shelter and love. Maybe it’s something ancient leftover in us from when the cavemen went off to hunt, and we sat in a circle with each other back at the cave, waiting. When we go a long time without this kind of female conversation we feel deprived. And when we do sit and talk, we feel better.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

The Pill, a short history

(this in Britain)

It was the first lifestyle drug, launched against fierce opposition from the moral right, which revolutionised social and sexual attitudes and helped define the 1960s. Now, almost 50 years on, it is to be made available over the counter without a prescription.

Another milestone in the history of the contraceptive pill was signalled last week with the disclosure that, from the New Year, pilot schemes in two south-London primary care trusts, Southwark and Lambeth, will, for the first time, allow pharmacists and nurses to provide it to women over the age of 16.

The aim is to test whether making the Pill more easily accessible reduces unwanted pregnancies. Pharmacies are open for longer hours than GP surgeries and do not require an appointment or have long waits. The Family Planning Association said that it received scores of calls from women who had run out of the Pill and didn't know where to go to replenish their supply in the evenings or at weekends. Britain's teenage-pregnancy rate remains the highest in Western Europe (though it is falling in many areas) and difficulties with access to contraception are believed to be a key factor.

The Pill is now considered so safe and its use so routine, that the involvement of a doctor is no longer required. Half a century ago, a very different attitude prevailed...

The beginning – early skirmishes

The Pill was licensed in Britain in 1961. Women who desperately wanted it fought a tense battle with the religious, state and medical authority figures who tried to stop them getting it. One group of provincial doctors accused a colleague of "undermining the reputation of the medical practice in the neighbourhood as well as the morals of the public at large". A Catholic scientist condemned contraceptive users as "ignorant of the fact that sustained happiness comes only from dutiful sacrifice". By contrast, the poet Philip Larkin celebrated the changes it wrought with the immortal line, "Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three". Credit for the discovery is usually attributed to Carl Djerassi, the Austrian chemist (also a novelist and playwright) but several others were involved in its development.

The Pill gave women unprecedented control over their fertility, and it did not interfere with spontaneity or sensation. For the first time, sex became an act that women could enjoy on an equal footing with men. But feminists who grew up in the 1960s have more recently claimed that it was a "misogynist tyrant in disguise", urging women to be ever more available for male pleasure, and pumping their bodies full of chemicals.

The medical revolution – Has it increased happiness?

It was the first prescription drug to bring large numbers of healthy young women into doctors' surgeries, launching the era of preventive medicine and screening, as Lara Marks observed in Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill, published in 2001. It allowed women to control their bodies and plan when to have children with a reliability of which previous generations could only dream. But the consequences that have flowed from that – delayed childbearing, the huge increase in women going out to work, an obsession with perfect sex, and the rise in infertility have led some to question whether it has increased or diminished human happiness.

Today, more than 3.5 million people in the UK use the Pill, and 300 million are estimated to have used it worldwide over the past four decades. Not all societies were impressed, however. In Japan, fears that it would lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases (due to reduced condom use) prevented it from being approved for almost 40 years. It was finally licensed there in 1999, and only 1 per cent of Japanese women of childbearing age use it, compared with 25 per cent in the UK.

Is it safe? – risks and benefits

From the start, fears about the long-term effects of the Pill dominated medical debate. Few drugs are taken daily for years by healthy individuals not suffering from any medical condition. In those circumstances, a guarantee of safety was paramount. The Royal College of General Practitioners established a research project in 1968 with one of the largest databases in the world. Its latest report, published in 2007, 39 years later, found that far from causing cancer, as long suspected, the Pill provides protection against it.

The results, published in the British Medical Journal, showed that it caused a small increase in cervical cancer but this was outweighed by reductions in ovarian, womb and bowel cancer, for women who had taken it for up to eight years. Women who used it for longer had a slightly increased overall risk. There was no effect on breast cancer. Professor Valerie Beral, head of the Cancer Research UK Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, estimated, in The Lancet earlier this year, that the Pill had saved 100,000 lives from ovarian cancer worldwide, because of the huge number of women taking it. An earlier study by Professor Beral showed that taking the Pill was linked with a slight increase in breast cancer, but this returned to normal 10 years after stopping it. The Pill does carry a small risk of triggering blood clots (thromboses) and of causing heart disease and stroke in women who smoke or have high blood pressure and are over 35. These women are advised to avoid the standard combined pill containing oestrogen and progestogen, and opt instead for a progestogen-only pill.

The impact on women's sexuality

Young single women have always had sex – statistics show that in 1875, 40 per cent of brides were pregnant on their wedding day. What changed with the advent of the Pill was that they were able to enjoy sex for the first time.

The effect has been long-lasting. Those who were in their thirties during the sexual revolution of the 1960s still retain a liberal attitude to sex now that they are in their seventies, four decades later. A Swedish study published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year found that septuagenarians were having better sex, and more of it, than ever before. It was the women who were particularly satisfied with their sex lives, more so than the men.

But for some women, the Pill triggers mood swings, health problems and sexual difficulties. Scientists say that these women have lower levels of testosterone – the male hormone, also present in women, which affects the libido. A study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggested that the Pill suppressed the hormone both directly and through suppression of ovulation in a "double hit", and warned that GPs should consider this physiological effect of the drug before assuming that a woman's sexual problems were psychological.

Several studies over the last 30 years have claimed to show a link between the Pill and loss of sexual desire in certain women. But the Family planning Association said that there were many other confounding factors, such as the nature of a woman's relationships, and it was impossible to tell if the association was cause and effect.

The end of menstruation

The Pill works by turning the ovaries off so that they stop producing eggs. This means that the regular bleed that women on the Pill have each month is not a genuine menstrual period, but a fake. When the Pill was first introduced in the 1960s, it could have been designed to eliminate the monthly bleed. But there were no simple pregnancy tests available and scientists believed that women would want the reassurance of a regular period as proof that they were not pregnant. And with church leaders railing against it, drug manufacturers felt that to mimic the natural monthly cycle as closely as possible would make it more acceptable.

As a result, women on the combined pill take it for three weeks followed by a seven-day break when they have a "withdrawal" bleed – not a genuine menstrual period. (Women on the progestogen-only pill take it continuously but have a similar regular monthly bleed).

Doctors say that there is no reason why women on the Pill should continue to suffer the pain, discomfort and misery of menstruation. The bleed that they have is not natural and the idea that menstruation is normal is wrong (throughout history, women have been pregnant or breastfeeding or post-menopausal, so didn't have periods). Some gynaecologists admit to personally taking the combined pill continuously to put an end to menstruation.

In the US, a contraceptive pill, Lybrel, launched last year, is the first that is recommended for taking 365 days a year, to eliminate periods altogether. Its makers, Wyeth, have applied to launch it in Europe under the brand name Anya.

A male pill soon?

In your dreams. Surveys suggest that women would be enthusiastic about handing over responsibility for contraception to men – especially if it were guaranteed by a hormonal implant under the skin. But progress is frustratingly slow. A key difference between the male and female reproductive systems is that while in women it works like clockwork, producing an egg each month, in men it is continuously producing sperm. Interrupting the male reproductive system without affecting the libido presents a greater, and so far unsolved, challenge.

Freedom years: The Pill's breakthroughs


Dr Gregory Pincus and Dr John Rock begin trials on 50 women of the drug that would later be called Enovid, the first oral contraceptive pill.


It is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1957, but officially is only licensed to treat medical problems, not for use as a contraceptive.


The FDA allows Enovid to be sold as a contraceptive pill.


The pill is first licensed in the UK.


12.5 million women worldwide use the Pill.


On 25 July, Pope Paul VI condemns the use of artificial contraception in an encyclical, Humanae Vitae.


Emergency hormonal contraception (known as the "morning-after pill"), which can prevent pregnancy up to 72 hours after intercourse has taken place, is licensed for use in the UK.


Women can buy emergency contraception without a prescription.


A report from the Royal College of General Practitioners finds that, overall, the Pill protects against cancer.


On 1 October, Sarah Palin states she "would not choose to participate in that kind of contraception".

On 12 December, the Vatican condemns the use of the morning-after pill.

BUT (still in Britain)

Doctors and health professionals are "duping" thousands of women by only offering them a limited range of contraception that does not include alternatives better tailored to their health and lifestyle needs.

Health experts say clinicians are sticking to "old favourites" of brands of contraceptive Pills, which are cheaper to prescribe than "designer" Pills.

The Family Planning Association (FPA) says that, as a result, many women are forced to put up with painful periods, water retention and problem skin because their contraception is not being tailored to alleviate these symptoms, which in some cases could be helped by new style Pills.

The majority of women still bear the responsibility for contraception, but clinicians are not making their patients properly aware of long-term protection such as implants and hormone-releasing devices (IUS) because these require specialist expertise to fit.

The FPA warns that women are at risk of unwanted pregnancy because they are prescribed contraception that does not suit their lifestyles. They end up ditching it altogether rather than facing the embarrassment of demanding something more suitable.

This month, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence(Nice), the body responsible for providing advice to the NHS, is expected to tell GPs and clinics that they need to offer women more choice, especially with products that offer long-term protection, and that clinicians need more training in how to fit these devices.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which sets standards to improve women's health, is to publish evidence in November highlighting the lack of contraceptive choice for women.

From hormone implants to the rhythm method, there are currently as many as 14 different types of contraception on offer to women in this country. With the Pill alone, there are now 23 different brands available, each suited to women's individual lifestyles and medical histories. For example, Yasmin, a "fourth-generation" Pill reputedly aids weight loss.

Another product, Mirena, an intrauterine device that pumps hormones directly into the bloodstream, has been shown to reduce heavy bleeding and therefore the need for women to undergo hysterectomies.

Yet official figures indicate that clinicians are failing to tailor contraception to their patients' needs and are sticking to old favourites that are also cheaper. Despite the wide range of products available, the condom and the Pill account for nearly half of all contraception used by women aged between 16 and 49, a figure that has remained relatively constant for the past seven years. The most commonly prescribed type of Pill is Microgynon, which was developed in the 1970s and accounts for nearly half of total sales. "New generation" brands are used by less than a quarter of women on the Pill.

The popularity of some "designer" Pills has declined partly because of health scares about the risk of blood clots, but experts say the real reason they are not being widely used is because they are more expensive than older brands.

An investigation by The Independent on Sunday found that some clinics were failing to tell women about the choices available. One clinic in north London visited by an IoS reporter did not have the facilities to offer a proper check-up and did not offer any explanation about the different types of contraceptives available.

The nurse there was vague about contraception that offers long-term protection against pregnancy and suggested that the Pill was the best option. At one point, she became angry when our reporter suggested that she was planning to get a second opinion about the most suitable type of Pills on offer.

Another clinic, based at a London hospital, was better equipped to advise patients. The senior nurse there pointed out that GPs often did not have proper sexual health training to fit devices such as IUDs, which have to be placed within the uterus. She did suggest that the contraceptive patch may be suitable but admitted that the clinic had limited resources and did not normally tell patients about the patch.

The FPA said increasing numbers of callers to its helpline were complaining that they were not being offered enough advice from their doctors or from clinics.

"There are a few favourites [Pills] - the cheaper ones - that get picked over and over again," said Toni Belfield, from the FPA.

"Women should have the choice to be able to tailor contraception throughout their lives but they are not doing so. It is well recognised that women are not told about longer-lasting contraception methods."

Bea Hodgkin, who works in publishing, wanted a natural method of contraception but spent three years on the Pill because her doctors were reluctant to prescribe the coil.

The 25-year-old, who lives in west London, said she has friends who have had similar experiences where they have not been told about or offered more choice over the type of contraception they use.

"With the Pill, I didn't like the thought of having hormones that meant I was not in control of my emotions," explains Ms Hodgkin, who eventually persuaded her clinic to fit the coil.

"But I would say they actively discouraged me from getting it [the coil]. They're really reluctant to give it to people who are not married or don't have kids, and they thought I was too young."

Only around eight per cent of women use a long-acting method of contraception, an issue that health experts say needs to be investigated.

Dr Anna Glasier, from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said that women can expect to require contraception for at least 30 years of their lives, and that their changing needs during this time needed to be properly addressed.

"There is a feeling that the low uptake of long-acting methods of contraception is because they are not easily available," said the director of family planning at Lothian Primary Care NHS trust.

"It's women who bear the brunt of contraception but often the benefits are not stated clearly enough. "

Additional reporting by Sara Newman and Hannah Swerling

The five pills GPs like most

Microgynon: Most commonly prescribed. Like all "combined Pills" contains oestrogen and progestogen. NHS cost £2.82

Cilest: Very popular. £8.57

Ovranette: Can help women with heavy periods. £2.46

Marvelon: Combined Pill whose use fell briefly after scare. £6.70

Yasmin: Advert claiming it helped weight loss was withdrawn. Ensuing media attention ensured popularity. £14.70

Pills they don't push

Ovysmen: May reduce acne, period pains and premenstrual symptoms. NHS cost £1.70

Binovum: 21-day course Pill. £2.24

Brevinor: Has far lower doses of oestrogen than early Pills. £1.99

Loestrin: A low-dose Pill for older pre-menopausal women. £3.93

Logynon: Pack includes "dummy" pills for the forgetful. £3.92

Norimin: Unsuitable for women with high blood pressure. £2.28

Noriny: Recommended for women with epilepsy. £9.98

Synphase: Low on oestrogen. NHS cost £3.60

Trinordiol: Comes in three different strengths, with the highest one the week before the period. NHS cost £4.34

Trinovum: Low dosage increases throughout the monthly cycle. NHS cost £3.11

Mercilon: Contains hormones desogestrel or gestodene. £8.57

Femodene: Subject of recent failed lawsuit claiming that users developed blood clots. £6.84

Minulet: New low-dose combination Pill. NHS cost £6.84

Tri-Minulet: Suitable for heavy or painful periods. £9.54

Dianette: Often prescribed to teenagers. £3.70

Microval: Contains only progestogen, so ideal for women with history of blood clots. £1.89

Femulen: OK for nursing mothers. £3.31


Almost 60 years after the development of the Pill, scientists have announced they are working on the first alternative oral contraceptive, and they hope it will be free of side-effects.

Instead of controlling the woman's monthly cycle, the new drug would work in an entirely different way by targeting a gene that controls female fertility and it would be completely reversible.

Unlike the existing Pill, it would not contain hormones and scientists hope it would have far fewer adverse effects. It could be delivered through a patch on the skin which would need to be worn for only a few days each month, when the woman was ovulating. Women who take the Pill complain of mood swings and nausea and are at higher risk of blood clots and high blood pressure. The Pill contains small doses of the hormones oestrogen and progestogen which block ovulation but cause side-effects.

The new contraceptive, which is in the early stages of development, would avoid these side-effects because it does not depend on manipulating hormones.

Instead it would allow ovulation to occur as normal but would prevent the sperm penetrating the egg by targeting a gene called ZP3. Blocking the gene prevents production of a protein that forms part of the coating of the egg which enables sperm to bind to the outer layer. The technique is based on RNA interference, which targets specific genes.

Dr Zev Williams, of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, presented the findings at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine conference in Washington. He said trials on humans were a decade away and the drug had only been tested in mouse and human kidney cells. But the results had demonstrated "proof of principle" showing that it worked. "Mice that have ZP3 knocked out are infertile. They just don't get pregnant. If you could block this in women, you could prevent pregnancy from occurring. Our work is a proof of concept, in cell culture."

Dr Williams said there were only three kinds of contraceptive – hormones, IUDs and barriers – and there was an obvious need for a wider choice. "Since the 1950s we have had the entire biomolecular revolution in medicine, and yet these three options are still all there is. We simply don't have a contraceptive drug that is non-hormonal and reversible. What we are trying to do is to think about contraception in a new way. Obviously there are going to be big hurdles and it is going to take a lot of time, but the need is there and we think it can be achieved."

Some women derive benefit from the hormonal effects of the Pill because it regulates their monthly cycle or reduces menstrual pain. "But for women who use the Pill just as a contraceptive, a non-hormonal approach would be wonderful," Dr Williams said. "You could get all the benefits without the nausea, the headaches, the mood alterations, and the raised risk of thrombosis, stroke and heart attacks."

Andrew Sharkey, senior research associate in the Department of Pathology at Cambridge University, said: "The advantage of ZP3 is that it doesn't occur anywhere else in the body, so the effect is highly targeted. You can get weight gain with oestrogen and some pills have an effect on libido and mood and every woman has a different response. The oral Pill is nearly 60 years old and there has been no real advance since then."

How the process was discovered

RNA interference – which means, in scientific terms, silencing, or quelling – came about originally through experimentation among plant researchers during the 1990s. Although the aim was to produce darker flowers, what emerged were almost entirely white flowers, less pigmented and – crucially – indicating that 'chalone synthase' had been significantly decreased. It was used on other organisms such as worms and fruit flies, and in 1998 a paper in the journal Nature by the scientists Craig C Mello and Andrew Fire, introduced the concept of gene silencing and they won the Nobel Prize in 2006

(my bold formatting)

The Independent

Pill thought to disrupt instinctive mechanism that brings together people with complementary genes and immune systems

Taking the contraceptive pill can lead a woman to choose the "wrong" partner, the findings of a study published today suggest.

The pill is thought to disrupt an instinctive mechanism that brings people with complementary genes and immune systems together.

By passing on a wide-ranging set of immune system genes, they increase their chances of having a healthy child that is not vulnerable to infection.

Couples with different genes are also less likely to experience fertility problems or miscarriages.

Experts believe women are naturally attracted to men with immune system genes that differ their own because of their smell.

The major histocompatability complex (MHC) cluster of genes, which helps build proteins involved in the body's immune response, also influences smell signals called pheromones.

Although pheromones may be almost unnoticeable at a conscious level, they can exert a potent effect.

A man's pheromonal odour is partly determined by his MHC. From a woman's point of view, a man with an alluring smell is also likely to have suitable immune system genes.

The new research provides evidence that the contraceptive pill can upset this process.

Researchers asked 100 women to sniff six male body odour samples from 97 volunteers and say which they preferred, with tests carried out both before and after the women had started taking the pill.

"The results showed that the preferences of women who began using the contraceptive pill shifted towards men with genetically similar odours," the University of Liverpool's Dr Craig Roberts, who led the study, said.

"Not only could MHC similarity in couples lead to fertility problems, it could also ultimately lead to the breakdown of relationships when women stop using the contraceptive pill, as odour perception plays a significant role in maintaining attraction to partners."

Being on the pill simulates a state of pregnancy, which may reverse a woman's reaction to male odours.

Finding particular men sexually attractive is not so important once a woman is expecting a child.

The Guardian