Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Happy Birthday Ian Hislop


In many ways the editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye would not seem to be the ideal candidate for television presenter; an elfin short, prematurely balding, Oxford-educated journalist who frequently seems too smart for his own good and who is cute as a button but far from a pretty boy by all rights ought to be the object of considerable apathy from the British public.

Yet in 1990 Ian Hislop undertook a job as a panelist and team captain on the BBC's current affairs news quiz Have I Got News For You, embarking upon a second career in the public eye; eighteen years and thirty-six series later, Hislop has seen hosts come and go (including Angus Deayton*) and has long since settled into an uproariously adversarial relationship with his fellow team captain Paul Merton.

Hislop is British society's David, taking much-deserved pot-shots at various Goliaths such as the utterly loathsome Robert Maxwell, who once sued Hislop and Private Eye for characterizing him as a villain. Once the true extent of Maxwell's villainy was revealed, though, Hislop's High Court loss - to the tune of £60,000 - became one of his greatest moral victories, and ever since then the so-called 'most sued man in British history' has become increasingly impregnable to Britain's draconian anti-libel laws.

In addition to Have I Got News For You, Hislop has presented an episode of the genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are?, twice guested on Room 101, and hosted a special on the life of Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the hero of the Siege of Mafeking whose book Scouting for Boys inspired the founding of the Boy Scout movement.

*Who it turns out had to go because he came.

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Pop History Moment: The Execution of Ruth Ellis


On this day in 1955, 28 year-old Ruth Ellis gained a certain grisly prominence; it's the day she became the last woman in Britain to be executed*, which punishment she'd earned for the murder of her younger lover David Blakely just three months earlier.

Ellis and Blakely's relationship was a tempestuous one, fraught with jealousy, despite the fact that he was an active homosexual and made sure she knew it; while many similar pairings have resulted in a mutually beneficial rapport, in Blakely and Ellis' case it was not to be. Their initial chemistry soon soured, yet they seemed unwilling or unable to disentangle themselves from each others lives; after two years - during which time his jealousy had become increasingly violent, and culminated in his inducing her to miscarry their child at the end of March - she'd finally had enough.

On Easter Sunday, April 10th, Ruth Ellis fired six bullets into David Blakely outside a pub called The Magdala on South Hill Park, a street in the London borough of Hampstead; in addition to mortally wounding Blakely, Ellis also hurt Gladys Kensington Yule, a passer-by who was injured by a bullet which went through Blakely then ricocheted off the pavement into her hand. Afterwards, as Blakely lay dying in front of her, Ellis did not try to flee the scene, but calmly asked a witness to call the police, and then went with them peacefully; by the time she'd been booked Blakely was dead.

The killing occurred during that year's General Election - a campaign the Conservative Party later won, in part because of its strong pro-death penalty position; her actions sparked a considerable controversy in the public debate, in addition to one of the earliest media frenzies.

During her brief trial two months later - following which the jury deliberated for just 23 minutes - Ellis cooperated fully with authorities, and never once tried to proclaim her innocence. In the witness box at the Old Bailey, when asked by Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution, 'When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?', Ellis' answer was a simple 'It's obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.' It was all the law required to convict her of first degree murder - and its mandatory death penalty - when, had she chosen to, she could have prevaricated and gone down for manslaughter instead.

Thirty years later, Ellis' then-nearly forgotten story re-emerged in the public consciousness when Mike Newell's 1985 film Dance with a Stranger was released; in it, Ellis was played by Miranda Richardson and Blakely was played by Rupert Everett. The film became as noted for its stylish evocation of London in the Fifties as it was for the strong performances of its young stars, and despite being saddo in the extreme is today considered a modern classic.

*By hanging, at London's Holloway Prison.

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