Clear and present danger

Sally Feldman lauds the daredevils who inspire students to defy and test limits

December 4, 2008

I write in praise of derring-do. Of daredevils. Of mavericks and risk-takers and chancers and wild cards. Because to be dangerous and fearless goes hand in hand with genius and without it we're stuck: battered by bureaucracy, hemmed in by health and safety, frightened of feather-ruffling, too timid to transgress.

It is not that I was thrilled when I stumbled upon a hole in a corridor so deep that the gas pipes were exposed, dug by an ambitious art student exploring the concept of The Great Escape. Nor did I warm to the rotting motor car in the pottery bay, crawling with bluebottles and rust, intended as a study of decay.

I do come over as a bit of a fuddy-duddy when I have to stop the musicians from experimenting with laughing gas or castigate the film-makers for staging fictional terrorist street attacks with toy guns, but without permission. I hate fire hazards and loathe libel. But still, unless we incite our students to push the boundaries, scale unclimbable walls, seek the invisible stars, question and challenge, defy and test limits, we won't be truly serving them.

Of course, they need to learn what is legal, what is safe, what is offensive; most of all they have to understand the impact of their work and how it might affect others. But our job is to make sure these principles are instilled without putting a stopper on that peculiar kind of fiery madness that is at the heart of creativity.

And that is why it is so timely and fitting that the university awarded the title of honorary doctor to Victor Lewis-Smith at our graduation ceremony last month. An honour richly deserved. As a television producer, film-maker, reviewer and newspaper columnist, Lewis-Smith is something of a renaissance practitioner, moving between broadcasting, newspapers, film, music and magazines, just as our students will have to do. And he has also won a string of awards for a variety of radio and television programmes.

At the same time, though, Lewis-Smith is a walking hazard. He even looks like one - a miscegenation of John Belushi, Jimi Hendrix and the devil: those hallmark dreadlocks so untamed that they seem to spring, Medusa-style, like so many electrical coils from his pale, deadpan face. He courts controversy, flirts with peril. The first time he was arrested was as a student for climbing York Minster in the dead of night, reciting at full volume the Islamic call to prayer. His 1990s Radio 1 series, widely hailed as the most offensive show ever aired on the BBC, included items such as "Let's go sumo wrestling with Barbara Cartland" and "Learn the Kama Sutra in Morse code".

Another show, featuring the irascible cockney actor Arthur Mullard, was described by his head of department as "unbroadcastable, not just on the BBC but anywhere in the world ... a paean to bad taste". Lewis-Smith's reaction was to complain about his own programme on a live phone-in show hosted by the then controller of Radio 4 - only to be recognised and outed. "I resigned as a matter of principle," he reflected. "Only minutes after I'd been sacked."

Lewis-Smith's career as a journalist has been equally hazardous. For 15 years he provided nightly TV reviews for the Evening Standard, one of which landed him in court. He was successfully sued by the TV hypnotist Paul McKenna for suggesting that his qualifications were invented and his PhD was bought over the internet.

He is possibly best known, though, for broadcasting hoaxes. On his Radio 1 show, for example, he rang the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to ask why there was only one of them. An appearance on Thames Television made the news when it was revealed that the name of his spoof band of Omanian folk musicians, El Mourheki, translated as "the flaccid penises".

And then there was the time he called the office of That's Life pretending to be a trombonist in a wheelchair, who then collapses while trying to play the Sailor's Hornpipe at extreme speed down the phone.

So you can see why he is exactly the kind of reckless anarchist likely to make BBC executives nervous. You wouldn't find Lewis-Smith referring up, or checking his freakish outpourings with compliance officers. You wouldn't imagine him for a second worrying about offending the public or going too far.

And yet neither would you catch him leaving insulting schoolboy messages on private answerphones, or making vulgar references to women he had slept with, or using foul language or baiting the vulnerable. Oddly, that bastion of decency Jonathan Ross once remarked, live on his Channel 4 show, that Lewis-Smith's phone calls were "not in very good taste".

What Ross failed to recognise, for reasons that are now obvious, is that Lewis-Smith's jokes and japes work not because they're cruel, although sometimes they have been, but because they have a point. He chooses his victims carefully, pricking the pompous and the powerful in the very best traditions of satire. His favourite target is the media, his pranks intended to expose their smugness, their laziness and their gullibility.

And it's this, more than anything, that makes him such an important standard-bearer for proper media values: his championing of mischief with a purpose, mayhem with a definite, if obscure, morality. The most dangerous effect of the whole Ross-Brand episode is the blight of self-censorship that hovers like a noxious fog over BBC offices, corridors and studios. Everyone is anxious, everyone is holding back: stopping the flow, tamping down wildness and daring.

If there's one quality I hope our students will hang on to, it is courage in the face of wimpishness and cravenness. Foolhardiness is underrated, but Lewis-Smith excels in it, which is why he deserves that title of honorary doctor - safe in the knowledge that he didn't even have to pay for it.

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