Imagine Rebekah Brooks roller-skating through the Sun newsroom…

Imagine Rebekah Brooks roller-skating through the Sun newsroom…

Imagine Rebekah Brooks roller-skating through the Sun’s newsroom as editorial staff, having been told to avoid making eye contact, duck below their desks.

And conjure up this image: a wheelchair-bound Rupert Murdoch locked in a room by Wendi Deng as she spends time with guitar-strumming Tony Blair.

Closer to the home of this blog, envision the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger leading a news conference sing-song of the newspaper’s anthem with a refrain about swinging to the left.

These are just three of the memorable scenes from a wonderful TV satire, Red Top, to be screened later this month.

It’s a glorious, irreverent post-hacking lampoon, a fantasy set in the 1970s with flairs, moustaches and disco music, that tells the story of Rebekah, an ingenue from the north of England who, having accidentally become chief executive of News International, gets embroiled (innocently of course) in a scandal.

At two previews, I witnessed audiences laughing aloud, and often, at the unfolding of the surreal plot and the hysterical portrayals of the main characters.

Conceived and written by Peter Richardson – with co-writers Pete Richens and Brigit Grant – it is his latest Comic Strip presentation.

Maxine Peake stars as the beguiling Brooks, the eponymous red-top, and there are a clutch of brilliant cameo performances. They include Harry Enfield as Ross Kemp, Brooks’s ex-husband; Stephen Mangan as Blair; Russell Tovey as Andy Coulson; Nigel Planer as Murdoch; and Eleanor Matsuura as Wendi.

Look out also for Johnny Vegas, Alexei Sayle, Dominic Tighe (as a subservient David Cameron) and a double role by John Sessions.

Richardson describes Red Top as a “Boogie Nights-style parallel universe with a disco soundtrack.” And I agree with Gold’s commissioning editor, Simon Lupton, who said: “The script is wonderfully hilarious and playful.”

Red Top is due to be shown on UKTV’s channel, Gold, at 10pm on 20 January. It is not to be missed.


The Comic Strip’s ‘Redtop’ gives a satirical kicking to Brooks, Blair and Murdoch

The Comic Strip’s ‘Redtop’ gives a satirical kicking to Brooks, Blair and Murdoch

Nigel Planer is showing me a video selfie he made in his Plymouth hotel bedroom – facial close-ups of Planer practising playing Rupert Murdoch for a new Comic Strip spoof, Redtop, about the phone-hacking scandal. It’s hard to tell from these exercises how effective will be the former Young Ones star’s imitation of the media tycoon – but if it’s as half as clever as his Peter Mandelson in the 2011 pastiche The Hunt for Tony Blair, then we are in for a treat.
“Because I’m not an impressionist, I try to latch on to an internal feeling”, says Planer of the way in which he nailed Mandelson’s slippery inscrutability, admitting that he was assisted by a grudging sympathy for his subjects. “Everyone thinks they know Murdoch, but if you watch as many hours of him in interviews as I have, you come to quite like him. He’s not a Spitting Image puppet – that kind of satire is very shallow, cheap and easy.”

Where The Hunt for Tony Blair imagined the New Labour Prime Minister as a fugitive in a 1950s film noir (guilty of the murders of, among others, John Smith and Robin Cook…), Redtop transposes recent events to the disco-era 1970s. Stephen Mangan reprises the role of a perma-grinning Blair, with Maxine Peake as Rebekah Brooks and Russell Tovey as Andy Coulson. The starting point for the Seventies backdrop, says writer and Comic Strip major-domo Peter Richardson, was Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein comparing the phone-hacking scandal to Watergate.

“We even have our own ‘deep throat’-style whistleblower – a Sun reporter played by Johnny Vegas”, says Richardson, who based the character on Sean Hoare, the late News of the World showbiz reporter who originally broke the scandal when he spoke to The New York Times. “Also in the Seventies Tony Blair was in his rock band Ugly Rumours. In our film he’s started a new band with a funkier message, called Positive Thinking…”

“There’s something incredibly enjoyable about Stephen Mangan as Tony Blair in a massive moustache and sideboards in a ludicrous Afghan jacket and green shirt and platform boots”, says Planer. “And to have Rebekah Brooks on roller skates throughout the film… a good analogy for her water-off-a-duck’s back life, that she just skates through everything.”

“I’ve got this fabulous long red wig,” adds Peake when I catch up with her later. “It starts off with her leaving school in the north and hitchhiking her way to London and entering into Rupert Murdoch’s offices. I spoke to people who met her and everybody said, ‘Very charming… she always got what she wanted from people.’ ”

Peake, who was born in Bolton, says the only part of her research into the Warrington-raised Brooks that truly surprised her was a shared taste in music. “She was really into the band the Cramps, which I liked, and I didn’t think me and Rebekah would have anything in common,” she says. “She’s lost her accent in this, like she has in real life. It’s Cheshire anyway, and they’re a bit posh there.

“It’s very tongue in cheek; everyone gets it in the neck in a lighthearted way,” adds Peake of this, the 42nd entry in a Comic Strip Presents… canon that began on the very first night of Channel 4 in 1982 with the Enid Blyton satire Five Go Mad in Dorset. But can you be lighthearted about a scandal that included the phone-hacking of the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler? “That’s where we tread very carefully,” says Peake.“Nobody who was a victim of that is referenced in this piece.”

Instead, there is much fun made of Brooks’ various relationships – with Andy Coulson and her former husband Ross Kemp (played by Harry Enfield). A different problem for such a topical satire might be that none of it is, well, all that topical. Planer himself is sorry that Murdoch’s alleged romance with Jerry Hall hadn’t made the gossip columns when the film was being written.

“We need a sequel,” he says, before going on to explain the time lag. “We’re very quick turning them round; it’s the broadcasters who aren’t. They can sit on it for years sometimes. The initial ideas for this one are over three years old. It’s immensely frustrating.”

Richardson doesn’t agree – believing that the time lag allows space for a fuller picture to emerge, as well giving the lawyers a chance to pore over the script. “I think everyone’s still scared of News International [now known as News UK] or the people involved, which I think is quite chilling”, he says, adding that without the distance between idea and execution they wouldn’t have known about Blair’s alleged affair with Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng (played here by Eleanor Matsuura).

“We made good use of a Vanity Fair article which was about 30 pages of comings and goings, including with Murdoch ending up in casualty with her beating him up.”

Meanwhile the real Rebekah Brooks was acquitted in 2014 of involvement in phone hacking at News International, the Old Bailey jury accepting that as the newspaper’s head she was more or less incompetent. It’s the line that Richardson takes with his fictionalised Rebekah. “She’s a poor, innocent northern girl who comes down and accidentally becomes chief executive of News International,” he says, “with people around her doing horrible things she doesn’t know about.”

Richardson originally co-created the Comic Strip to showcase his double act with Planer, which began in the late 1970s. “Peter’s a pretty single-minded individual,” says Planer when I ask him to dissect their partnership. “He doesn’t – unlike the rest of us – take jobs somewhere else. And I’m the opposite: I can duck and dive… I’ve worked in all sorts of styles.”

Indeed, Planer’s career has been extraordinarily diverse, taking in West End musicals, a Spinal Tap-style spoof rock band (Bad News, the subject of a Comic Strip spin-off) as well as films and TV dramas and comedies (most recently as Matt Le Blanc’s lawyer in Episodes). He has also written books, plays and a slim volume of poetry. But he remains famous for two roles – Neil the lugubrious hippy in the seminal 1980s sitcom The Young Ones, and a precious actor, Nicholas Craig, in a series of spoof masterclasses. “Neil and Nicholas Craig come from my own self,” he says. “They’re not like acting jobs. For years I used to be like Neil; then after Neil I wasn’t.”

Planer and Richardson both cite The Strike, the 1988 spoof on the miners’ strike, imaging Al Pacino in the role of Arthur Scargill, as one of their favourite Comic Strip films; while Planer says he’d like to make a sequel to a couple of more recent offerings, Four Men in a Car (1998) and Four Men in a Plane (2000), road movie comedies which starred Richardson, Planer and Planer’s former Young Ones co-stars Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall. It would, he says, be a tribute to Mayall, who died suddenly in 2014.

“It would be an Ortonesque piece where the coffin goes missing,” says Planer. “We could call it Three Men and a Funeral, which I think would be funny – and I think Rik would have liked it. But you can always say that when someone’s died…”

‘Redtop’ is on Gold on 20 January


The Comic Strip takes on Rebekah Brooks in first look at new special Red Top

Can Maxine Peake, Russell Tovey and Stephen Mangan hack it?

The Comic Strip’s upcoming satire Red Top has released a new image of its all-star cast.

The special, which will focus on Rebekah Brooks (Maxine Peake) and the phone hacking scandal, will air on Gold on January 20.

L to R – Bob Harris (Peter Richardson), Wendi (Eleanor Matsuura), Coulson (Russell Tovey), Rebekah (Maxine Peake), Blair (Stephen Mangan), Johnny (Johnny Vegas), Ross (Harry Enfield)

Alongside Peake, the show will star Nigel Planer as Rupert Murdoch, Russell Tovey as Andy Coulson and Harry Enfield as Ross Kemp.

Red Top will also star Stephen Mangan, Johnny Vegas and Peter Richardson.

It is described as the story of Rebekah, “an innocent and beguiling Northern girl​” who becomes Chief Executive of News International​ through a series of accidental circumstances and gets tied-up in a “’70s Watergate-style scandal​”.

The Comic Strip previously parodied Tony Blair in The Hunt For Tony Blair.


Actors Shaun Evans and Maxine Peake perform Liverpool’s Penny Readings to sold-out audience

The traditional event was held at St. George’s Hall on Sunday

City of Readers members with Maxine Peake and Shaun Evans and Whitefield Primary staff

Actors Shaun Evans and Maxine Peake performed the annual Penny Readings to a sold-out audience today.

The traditional event, which dates back to the Victorian times when Charles Dickens once performed the readings, was held in St George’s Hall .

Special readings, music and entertainment were put on at the event, all for the price of a penny.

City of Readers members with Maxine Peake and Whitefield Primary staff

City of Readers members with Maxine Peake and Whitefield Primary staff

Liverpool-born actor Shaun Evans , from ITV drama Endeavour, performed the penny readings with actress Maxine Peake, known for her roles in The Theory of Everything, Shameless and Dinnerladies.

The penny readings take place every year and have become a much loved feature of Liverpool’s festival calendar.

Previous readers include ECHO editor Alastair Machray, TV presenter Loyd Grossman and Roger Phillips, BBC Radio Merseyside broadcaster.


VOTE: Best Play finalists in the CityLife Awards 2015

This year, you get to choose who takes this coveted title in our annual awards, which recognise the people and places who made the most of the last 12 months

We reckon 2015 has been a monumental year for theatre in Manchester.

Not only have our theatres created several critically acclaimed productions, but we’ve seen entirely new production houses opening – specifically HOME – and others push themselves in bold new ways under new artistic directors. Not to mention the return of the biennial Manchester International Festival.

The Best Play category was one we had quite a lot of nominations for and that caused some serious debate in CityLife Towers, too.

But in the end, we’ve picked a selection that we think show the full breadth of what Manchester theatres experienced in the past 12 months: Manchester writers, original work, bold roles taken on by local big name actors, plus the absolute best of the visiting productions.

After much debate, then, this is our final shortlist of five:
Pomona, Royal Exchange
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time, The Lowry
A View From The Bridge, Bolton Octagon
The Skriker, Manchester International Festival/Royal Exchange
Golem, HOME

All that’s left to do is choose, and you can do that by picking your favourite on the form below.

Vote here: source

Giving Tuesday – Royal Exchange launches scheme to get more people attending theatre

Today is Giving Tuesday and the Royal Exchange Theatre has the perfect gift for theatre lovers.

To coincide with the global day of giving, the city centre theatre has launched a scheme called Arts Pot.

The initiative is a bursary which helps towards the cost of tickets, travel expenses, workshop and project fees for people who may not otherwise be able to attend plays and shows.

Last year, the scheme raised more than £10,000 thanks to the generosity of the venue’s audiences during interval and end-of-show ‘bucket shaking’.

Above is a short film narrated by theatre ambassador Maxine Peake, who has starred in many production and the famous theatre in the round, including Hamlet and The Skriker as part of MIF 2015, showing exactly where that cash went.

Maxine Peake as a demon faerie in The Skriker.

ARTS POT 2014 paid for:

296 People to take part in over 1000 workshops, community projects and productions

1183 people to receive free and subsidised tickets to more than 20 shows at the Royal Exchange Theatre

125 people to travel to and from the theatre throughout the year

The Royal Exchange is working with other local charities, organisations and Giving Tuesday in a steering group for ‘Manchester Gives More’ – a city initiative to make Manchester the most philanthropic city in the country.

Donations to Arts Pot can be made online or by texting EXCH16 £5 to 70070.


Maxine Peake and Shaun Evans to take the stage as star readers for the Penny Readings 2015

Maxine Peake and Shaun Evans to take the stage as star readers for the Penny Readings 2015

The Penny Readings 2015
Sunday 13th December, 6.30pm
St George’s Hall (Concert Room), Liverpool L1 1JJ

The Reader’s annual festive extravaganza the Penny Readings returns to St George’s Hall this December. Now in its twelfth year, the ever-popular event promises reading alongside music and entertainment in abundance with a programme that will start your Christmas season in style.

Actress Maxine Peake (Silk, The Village, The Theory of Everything, Shameless, Dinnerladies) will take to the stage as star reader for the Penny Readings 2015, alongside Liverpool-born actor Shaun Evans (Endeavour, Whitechapel, The Scandalous Lady W).

Due to high demand, general sale tickets are now SOLD OUT.

Shared reading group members and The Reader volunteers will receive confirmation of their priority reserved tickets during the week commencing Monday 23rd November.

Please be aware, there are no afternoon Ha’penny Readings taking place this year. Children and young people can attend the Penny Readings with an ordered ticket.

With thanks to Publiship for supporting the Penny Readings 2015.
– See more at:


‘Our melting, shifting, liquid world’: celebrities read poems on climate change

Actors including James Franco, Ruth Wilson, Gabriel Byrne, Maxine Peake, Jeremy Irons, Kelly Macdonald and Michael Sheen read a series of 21 poems on the theme of climate change, curated by UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Includes two bonus poems from Byrne and Franco

Maxine Peake
reads A Mancunian Taxi-driver Foresees His Death by Michael Symmons Roberts

On a radio show some self-help guru says

the earth will burn out in a hundred years

so treat each day as an eternity.

I am in a taxi when I hear this news,

airport-bound on the flyover

with my home town spread like a map below.

So my driver slams his foot to the floor,

and tells me that when the oil runs out

he will ship this cab to Arizona,

find the last fill-up on the planet,

drain the pump and power out into the wilderness

until the car coughs, then abandon it.

He will take from the dash this shot of his daughters,

his shark’s tooth on its chain,

then leave the radio with an audience

of skulls and vultures. I wind the window down

to catch my breath and ask what kind

of funeral is that? Then him: It’s just a made-up one.

He drops me by the long-haul sign

and I give him a tip well over the odds.

As I stand with my bags it begins to rain.

A man smiles down from a floodlit billboard

– well insured, invested, sound –

which leaves me feeling heartsore, undefended.

Maxine Peake
reads Doggerland by Jo Bell

The land bridge connecting Great Britain to mainland Europe during the last Ice Age was gradually flooded by rising sea levels around 6,500 BC. It was discovered in 1931 when a Norfolk trawler dredged up an unexpected artefact.

Out from Cromer in an easy sea, Pilgrim Lockwood

cast his nets and fetched up a harpoon.

Twelve thousand years had blunted not one barb.

An antler sharpened to a spike, a bony bread knife

from a time of glassy uplands and no bread:

Greetings from Doggerland, it said.

It’s cold. We answer ice with elk and mammoth, larks

and people like you. We are few. We hunt and eat and walk

and then move on, or fall. There are midges

but you can’t have everything. We fish or fowl;

we stalk carp-fat lagoons with ivory spears.

Our softened swamps are thick with eels. We sing.

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor

treading uplands sixty fathoms back; saw nettled deer tracks

pooling, inch by sodden inch, into a whaler’s channel;

inlands islanded and highlands turned to shipping hazards,

fellsides lessened to a knuckled string; the sly brine

loosing peat from longbones, locking snails into the bedrock.

He turned for harbour, kissed the quoins of every house

and took to hillwalking. Time, he said, was water:

water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone

shift and shiver; saw the caverns fill, the railways rivered

and the Pennine mackerel flashing through lead mines,

the last dove lifting from the summit of Lose Hill.


Maxine Peake reveals reasons she wrote play about cyclist Beryl Burton which comes to Birmingham Rep

The actress has written her first play about sporting heroine

She’s the unsung sporting heroine who is finally getting her time in the spotlight, thanks to Maxine Peake.

The actress and star of Silk, The Village and Shameless has written her first play about Beryl Burton, a champion cyclist in the 1950s.

Beryl, now coming to Birmingham Rep, is a thrilling play about the trials, tribulations and loves of the Yorkshirewoman who was five times world pursuit champion, twice road-racing world champion and won an astonishing 96 national titles.

Asked in the 1980s why she continued to ride long distances every week and race against men and women half her age, Beryl replied “because I like cycling”.

In 1967 when she overtook Mike McNamara in a trial on her way to setting a record, she nonchalantly offered him a Liquorice Allsort.

The play Beryl was originally written for Radio 4 in 2012, then staged last year at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

It’s directed by Rebecca Gatward and stars Samantha Power (last seen in Coronation Street as Dev’s friend Talisa) in the title role and Rebecca Ryan (Debbie Gallagher in Shameless) as her daughter Denise, also a cyclist.

Maxine Peake says: “I do a bit of cycling myself and had just gone on to a racing bike.

“But I’d never heard of this inspiring woman before my boyfriend gave me a copy of Beryl’s autobiography, with the inscription ‘Get yourself a tight perm and there’s a film in this for you’!

“I’d never done any writing, but I was fascinated by this story. I started wondering if it would work better on radio, with the whirr of bikes, the click of chains and the sound of tyres on the open road, so I was a bit cheeky and asked the commissioner of BBC radio drama if he would commission me to do it.

“I expected him to say ‘no’, so I could say at least I’d tried, but then he told me to go ahead, so I had to keep at it.

“I wanted to introduce people to Beryl and for them to go away thinking ‘wow, she was some woman’.

“I want more and more people to know about Beryl because I just think she’s so inspiring. So it’s fantastic that the play is going further afield out on tour because her story does have this universal appeal.

“If I ever get another writing commission, I know there are more stories out there of forgotten women, whether it’s in politics or sport or wherever, and if I had a daughter, they would be the sort of role models I’d like her to have.

“Writing for the radio and the stage are things I might not have had a go at when I was younger and scared that I might not be any good at them. But as you get older you get more fearless.”

Beryl plays Birmingham Rep from November 24-28 2015. Get your tickets here


12 movies you mustn’t miss at York’s festival of short films: Strange Weather starring Maxine Peake

12 movies you mustn’t miss at York’s festival of short films: Strange Weather starring Maxine Peake

t’s time to crank up the industrial-sized popcorn-maker if you want to munch along with the 300 or so mini movies on offer at the fifth annual Aesthetica Short Film Festival.

There’s a packed programme of screenings, masterclasses and panel discussions at 15 York venues over four days.

Among the many highlights are Eleanor, starring Golden Globe-winning actress Ruth Wilson (The Affair), thriller Strange Weather, starring Maxine Peake (Shameless) and blood-splattered black comedy Dark_Net, starring Johnny Vegas (of getting drunk and being funny fame).

TV star Maxine Peake flexes her not inconsiderable acting muscles in Strange Weather , a Loose Change Films production by Tom Shrapnel, that explores what happens when two people witness a mysterious natural phenomenon that reawakens their senses and draws their fractured lives together.