The Wall, with Alexis Conran

(a conversation to music)

by Tom George Hammond

In this feature, we invite people to speak about an album of their choosing – it can be recent work, a new discovery, or a long-standing favourite – and see where the conversation takes us. 

Alexis Conran is an actor, writer, broadcaster, and public speaker. We met to talk about technology, social media, gambling addiction, and the difficulties of being a broadcaster in the Brexit age. His album of choice was Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’.

What made you chose the album?

It’s an album that moves me tremendously – I was listening to it this morning – and as a piece of art and craft, there is so much work that has gone into it.  To make a concept album that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you don’t just dip into it and listen to track 3 on repeat… there’s just something about being sucked into the story.  Not being British is also a part of why I like this album, as, to me, it epitomises a lot about Britain.  I also have some personal connections to it.  Pink Floyd were formed where I went to boarding school, at Frensham Heights.  Nick Mason and Rick Wright were there and started playing there.  And when I was at Frensham, one of my first ever relationships was with the daughter of Steve O’Rourke, who was [Pink Floyd’s] manager.  And, in one of the most bizarre moments on my life, when I was 18, I spent a week in Rhodes, in Dave Gilmour’s house, and I got to jam with him.  When I say “jam” I think I just nervously picked up a guitar and played a chord, and he said; “oh, great”.  It’s an album that moves me, takes me back in time to my coming to England, going to boarding school, getting to grips with what it means to be British, and it reminds me what great artists can do when they sit together and they don’t seem to have the pressures of “hitting the charts”.  You can tell that they didn’t make an album to have a Number 1 hit – although they did with “Another Brick in the Wall Part. 2” – they just went and made something that felt very raw and very emotional to them. 

Do you remember the first time you listened to the album the whole way through?

It was in the ‘80s, so the album was at least 7 years old.  I think the first time I registered it properly, I remember being about 16 or 17.  I remember putting it on and listening to it with a bunch of friends, and we just sat there for two hours and all just listened to it.  And I got it on tape, and I would walk around in the woods – because as a boarder there was nothing to do on the weekends – and just getting lost listening to it.  And I’m not a big lyrics man, but there are a few albums when the lyrics can come up and punch you in the face, and The Wall is one of them.  And then in hindsight… I listened to it about 4 or 5 years ago, on a plane journey, and I got moved to tears.  It was the lachrymosity syndrome – apparently on a plane you cry easier – but I also really took in how beautifully meticulous it all was, from the sound design, the recurring things, how it flows from one thing to another.  The Wall has got such a striking story about that ‘War Baby’ generation, who lost their parents, who went off the rails and had to come back.  And in 2020, we’re more aware of mental health issues, but they made a mental health album in 1979.

And so much of it was about Syd Barrett.

Yeah, and they struggled so much with the Syd Barrett story and what happened to him. 

It’s tremendously moving how much of their output post Syd Barrett was about Syd Barrett. 

Wish You Were Hear, as well, very much devoted to Syd Barrett.  I thought about Wish You Were Hear for this as well, but I think The Wall is a bigger album for me.

I think my favourite moment of the album is that moment in “Comfortably Numb” when Dave Gilmour’s voice filters in, like a moment of clarity. 

I was into the album at a time when I picked up and learnt the guitar, and I was self-taught.  “Comfortably Numb” was one of the first songs you learnt the chords to, and then you tried to play the solo and broke your fingers, and you realise you need a big stack of Marshall Amps behind you to get the sound.  Dave Gilmour’s sound is just unbelievable, because you can recognise it.  There are only very few guitarists where you can recognise their sound. 

Let’s talk about the ‘80s.

I love the ‘80s!  The ‘80s are just the greatest! We had just the right amount of technology.  When it comes to mod-coms, we had answer machines, we had pagers, the early onset of the internet, without the craziness of the technology that happened after.  One of my favourite films – it’s such an ‘80s film – is War Games.  Matthew Broderick accidentally awakens a supercomputer that runs the Pentagon.  There was an innocence about the ‘80s. 

When did your own fondness for tech first manifest itself?

I think for my generation, you were at that ripe spot when technology started taking off at incredible speed.  The speed with which we went from pager, to mobile phone, to the tiniest mobile, to smartphone is ridiculous.   It’s how quickly it happened.  I was in that ripe age, as a kid, when toys started having batteries and buttons on them, with lights and sound… things happening automatically.  I remember at the time, I had a friend in Athens who had a ZX Spectrum, which was one of the first home computers, and I remember playing a Pacman game on that and thinking it was just incredible.  I couldn’t help but be fascinated by it.  That was my love of gadgetry. 

What do you think of the Light Phone 2, a device designed to “go back to basics”?

Tech companies have been very smart in making it impossible for you to “go back to basics”.  Try parking a car somewhere in Central London, or anywhere – I ride a motorbike – but you need the app now.  We’ve gone past the point of no return with the amount of technology that we need.  And as with everything, wishing it will go away is never going to happen.  So we need to educate ourselves in how things work, what we need, and how things make us feel.  Derren Brown – who’s a friend – wrote a great book called Happy, and he talks about the minute pleasure that we get when we’ve just bought a phone.  But actually, it’s not the phone that’s made us happy, it’s the fact that we’ve bought it and that we’re like everyone else.  Why do you need to buy a phone on the day of its release? It has nothing to do with the phone.  Our attention is being diverted into needing new things and gadgetry.  Don’t blame the gadgets, there’s something much deeper going on. 

Does Twitter make you happy?

No.  No.  Personally, what I like about Twitter is it’s a great source of personalized news gathering.  There are some really, really clever people out there who are not employed by newspapers or broadcasters to give their views, but you can find them on Twitter.  I am in the business of news, because of the radio show that I do.  My edict when I do my job is that I have to be more prepared than the person I’m interviewing, even when they’re an expert.  Especially when you’re interviewing politicians, because they will try and fob you off with all sorts of bullshit that you have to nip in the bud.  In order for you to nip it in the bud, you have to have your facts in front of you and be confident of them.  You have to spend time learning about all these things.  Twitter is a great place to do that.  Personally, again, I have made some very good friends off of Twitter.  I’ve met people that I’ve admired, I’ve met people that have helped me with my career, with my weird hobbies.  Twitter has been a part of that. 

However, there’s the negative stuff.  I’ve never had that much abuse, if I’m honest.  I mute so many people.  If I wanted to leave, though, I couldn’t.  When people say, about Caroline Flack; “why didn’t she just leave social media?” … She couldn’t.  I didn’t know Caroline Flack at all, but nowadays, if you are in broadcasting, if you are a public figure, you cannot afford to switch of social media.  Your employers will not take kindly to it, because when they hire you, they also hire your social media machine.  Every job I do, I get asked; “can you tweet about this?” … It’s an unpopular thing to say, but it is true; if producers have to give a job to a presenter without a social media profile, versus a presenter with 2 million followers, I can tell you now it will go to the presenter with two million followers, no matter whether they are right for the job or not.  That is the way it works. 

It’s a real dichotomy, when one understands with Facebook and Twitter are both awful in several ways, yet also you need it.  Everyone’s very understanding as to why these things are bad, but no one wants to wean themselves off of it. 

But it’s the same with alcohol.  We know certain things aren’t great for us.  It would be very easy to say that alcohol is just poison.  If someone had invented alcohol today, it would be banned.  I made this point on the radio the other day.  Alcohol poisons your blood system, it damages your liver, if you have too much of it, you create amnesia and loss of control.  There’s no question that it would be a controlled substance.  We have to get away from simplistic; “it’s bad for you, so why don’t you stop it?” … Gambling is a great example.  That’s been the biggest fallacy about gambling and problem gamblers. 

I re-watched your BBC documentary about gambling addiction, and what fascinated me was the idea that people aren’t going back for win but going back because they nearly won. 

Gambling addicts are more addicted to losing than they’re addicted to winning.  They’re addicted to emotional movement, something that stirs you emotionally, either creating tension or fear or adrenaline.  And the adrenaline, for gambling addicts, comes in their system when they lose.  It does not happen to them when they win.  When a gambling addict wins, they just have more money to gamble with.  David Spanier, a journalist for the Independent, wrote a lovely book about poker, and he said; “money to a gambler is like fuel for a racing driver.”  It is a means to carry on gambling.  It has no intrinsic value, like you or I would see it. 

I believe we are with gambling now where we were with smoking 30 years ago, where we know it’s a problem but we haven’t quite understood how big a problem it is, or what we have to do it about.  Although there’s been some fantastic work from Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East – and someone who I’m proud to be able to call a friend – who almost single-handedly led the charge against the gambling industry.  She took them on head on, bypassing the Gambling Commission, which is a useless institution.  We need people like her, because people still don’t understand you can’t turn to a gambling addict and say; “just stop if you can’t afford it”.  You would never dream about saying that to an alcoholic, so why are you saying that to a gambling addict?

The reason gambling addiction is so dangerous is firstly because we’ve got young kids gambling.  The stats for 11-16-year olds is that they’re doing more gambling than they’re doing drugs, alcohol and cigarettes combined.  That’s worrying.  You’ve got dangerous precedents like loot boxing, where kids are getting the idea of paying for something but not winning something.  And lastly, gambling addiction has been called the “hidden addiction”.  If your brother, your sister, your best friend, your neighbour had developed a serious gambling problem, you’d have no idea.  It is a horrific addiction.  And to go back to tech, it is a massive problem, as now we can sit here and gamble tens of thousands away on our phones.

Gambling and Me: The Real Hustler, BBC, 2012

Going back to what you were saying about toys in your childhood, it strikes me how much a fruit machine is designed to look like a toy.

Yeah, it looks innocuous.  The Sunday Times had a great investigation where they exposed the gambling industry for the charlatans that they are.  They had online fruit machines where it was Disney characters.  And you got a hundred free spins if you signed up.  And reps from the gambling industry, they claimed it was targeted at their female users, which is crazy.  It’s been made to look harmless for kids.  And let me be very clear and on the record; I gamble. I will place a bet on the football, I bet on the World Cup, I play poker – not for a lot of money – but I love to gamble.  I’m not saying gambling is the route of all evil.  But when it’s uncontrolled, and when it’s shoved down people’s throats as a method of making money… If you think about a gambling advert, it’s like; “We’re all winning!”.  And there’s a ton of people who are losing.  Stop advertising it as a way of making money.  Advertise it as a pastime.

Do you think that pushes from advertising to make gambling look like a way of making profit makes it something of an invisible class issue?

The evidence shows us that there is a larger concentration of betting shops in poorer areas than in richer areas.  If you go down Kensington High Street, there are a couple of bookies; if you went to Mare Street in Hackney, when we shot some of the documentary, there were eight or nine of them, along with pawn shops nearby where people can pawn stuff to get money in order to gamble.  And it was all about the fruit machines.  But with the work of Carolyn Harris – and she did have cross party support – those have been taken out of action.  But it’s all moved onto apps.  I get into such a rant, because the gambling industry is so crooked.  Every single advert they’ve put out in the past few years is about; “downloading the app”, but they give us these crocodile tears about the; “death of the High Street”.  I am not sad to see bookmakers go on the High Street.  They do more harm than good. 

You’ve had a quite a long relationship with the BBC, what are your thoughts on the current Conservative administration’s designs on the service?

I love the BBC – I don’t work for it anymore – but I wouldn’t have had the career that I’ve had without it and I feel like it is my spiritual home.  I often dream about returning to the BBC.  I also think that the BBC is often its own worst enemy when it comes to the way it deals with the public.  For many good reasons.  The BBC has to cater for such a broad spectrum that it is difficult, and you’re going to find a lot of mediocrity and ‘middle-ground’.  There aren’t any organisations in the world that can do what the BBC does, because of its structure, because of the licence fee, because of its lack of commercial necessity.  We are very lucky to have the BBC.  Now the BBC has got some things horrifically wrong.  I think it has completely misunderstood balance versus objectivity; this whole idea that if you’re talking about climate change you have to bring a climate change denialist on.  Do you really have to get all the views out?

With broadcasting at the moment, because everyone is in such a hiatus due to Brexit, if people can’t explain something, they will make something up.  We’re not very good with saying; “I don’t know”.  And that’s where conspiracy theories come from.  Nigel Farage being invited on every BBC show, for example, is not a conspiracy; you can get his phone number very easily.  It is because a junior assistant producer has to get a guest, and Nigel always picks up his phone.   And all of a sudden, this becomes a conspiracy.  The whole idea that the BBC are trying to change the news agenda through broadcasting is just naïve.  When it comes to print media, that’s different, because someone’s in charge of the headline.  When it’s directed to which guests are being booked, trust me, it’s because the guests are the easiest to get hold of.  There was an incident a couple of weeks ago, which I thought was a massive mistake… the BBC released that footage, I don’t know if you saw it?

Of the woman on Question Time?

Yeah, I thought that was irresponsible, because they didn’t release it with any counterbalance of fact.  There’s no doubt that the woman had got all her facts wrong – not her fault, she’d been lied to, and she believed it – but to release that piece and amplify that racism without a proper counterbalance, a statement that EU migrants have been net contributors, etc. Anyway, this brings me to my biggest dilemma, as someone who works in news; I don’t know whether it is a good idea to have people with uninformed opinions air their views on the radio.  One train of thought is; you can tackle these people out in the open and beat them with facts.  And the other train of thought is; you don’t let them air those arguments, because you can’t beat them, and just by them saying it, the idea spreads.  And no one listens to your ‘witty’, ‘wonderful’ put downs, because people will just take the bits they want to listen to.  I still have not come to a decision as to which one is true.  I’d like it to be true that you can stand on a platform with a racist, or a homophobe, or a misogynist, or a bigot, and expose them and their followers for being wrong.  That’s what I’d like to be true, but I don’t think that’s the reality.

It’s an interesting gripe, particularly with Talk Radio and LBC and the function of the call-ins, because it’s all about how it’s framed in the upload. 

I love LBC and I love Talk Radio.  Coming back to practicality, say when you’re taking calls and ‘Steve’ calls in from Manchester.  And Steve calls in with some bizarre, conspiracy theory rubbish, but you have to shut him down and go to break.  Because you have to, as a presenter, you don’t have a choice.  And you can’t go back after the break and dismantle the phone call, so it can look like you and the station agree with ‘racist Steve’.  And if you do dismantle ‘racist bigot Steve’, will it make a difference? I don’t quite know what the solution is.  There’s a really great episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History about satire, and it’s absolutely fascinating on how satire just doesn’t work.  What happens, for example, when you satirise Trump is; the Trump haters love it, because it makes him look like a clown, and the Trump fans love the comedy, and think the person satirising Trump is the clown.  And Gladwell interviewed Harry Enfield, about “Loadsamoney”, and Enfield said the fascinating thing was how the character mocking the yuppy city worker became a hero to the yuppy city worker.  And I’m not convinced that satirising and dismantling someone publicly has the effect you would like it to have.

I want to touch on Brexit, before we wrap up.

My favourite subject. 

Fintan O’Toole has a theory that Brexit is a manifestation of a certain… I suppose ‘Englishness’, rather than ‘Britishness’, of wanting to be both mighty and oppressed. 

Well, don’t forget that the people who are promoting Brexit – and they’re people I know fairly well, and I’ve interviewed quite a lot of them – again. it would be easy to say that there’s a conspiracy theory, and that they’re all doing it just to make money.  And I don’t think they are.  I think it is genuinely just simplistic thinking about “controlling our destiny”.  As much as I have been an opponent of Brexit, I do not think the country is about to go down the pan.  But I think the whole idea that in 2020, you can be an independent country and just; “rule the waves”, or whatever, is for the birds.  To this very day, I have yet to find a Leave supporter who can explain to me how a country of our size and our economy can sit across a negotiating table from China, or the U.S., or the EU, and get a better deal.  Even a child will say the person who is biggest will get a better deal. 

I’ve just got to ask… about Dave Gilmour.  What was he like?

The nicest, kindest, sweetest man you could ever hope to meet.  You know Kate Bush wrote the song “The Man with the Child in his Eyes”? That was about him.  He does have the most striking blue eyes, and he was just a lovely, lovely man, to an 18-year-old who was clearly awe-struck by his presence.  In Rhodes.  How bizarre.