Aired: 15 October 2012, BBC Radio 4
Curator: Jimmy Carr
Steering Committee: Dr Pamela Stephenson-Connolly, Professor Andre Geim and Humphrey Ker
Many celebrities have ‘objects of desire’. For instance, Tom Hanks collects 1940s typewriters and has over 200. Rod Stewart collects model trains. Peter Waterman collects real trains – he has a significant collection of both historic and commercial railway locomotives and rolling stock. Angelina Jolie collects daggers and both Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin collect Bakelite jewellery. At the time of his death in 1936 King George V’s stamp collection had grown to hundreds of albums, which were kept in a dedicated room at the palace. The Royal Philatelic Collection is estimated to be worth £400 million and is the Queen’s largest single private asset.
Psychologist & Comic
Pamela Stephenson is a comedian, psychologist, prize-winning author (she won the ‘Book Of The Year’ prize at the British Book Awards for Billy, a book about her husband), sex therapist and journalist. Born in New Zealand and growing up in Australia, she came to England in the 1970s to follow a career as an actor. After notable appearances in films like Superman III and Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part 1 she was set to star in Romance of the Pink Panther with Peter Sellers, but he died the day after she won the role. However, she achieved great fame and popularity as one quarter of the team that gave us Not The Nine O’Clock News, arguably one of the funniest and most warmly remembered comedy series of the 1980s. It was while working on the show that she met Billy Connolly. They married in 1989.
The couple moved to Los Angeles as Billy pursued a career in film and Pamela began studying, gaining a doctorate in clinical psychology. She set up a successful practice in Beverly Hills and was the Founder and President of the Los Angeles Sexuality Center. Her specialist interests are fame and sexuality. She is also a trained hypnotherapist. ‘This is much closer to who I am,’ she says, when asked whether she misses performing. ‘This feels more natural.’
Back in the UK she hosted a psychology-based interview show called Shrink Rap in which she interviewed celebrities including Sarah Ferguson, Stephen Fry, Salman Rushdie, Tony Curtis and others. She also hosted The Fame Report, examining the reality of being famous.
One of the things that I see as a psychologist is people who are enormously uncomfortable with the extent of their fame, particularly those who find there is a gap between how they feel they are inside and this projected image of them. The famous self and the true self are so far apart that it’s really uncomfortable.
Andre Geim is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and engineer. Born in Russia, he was classified as German because his father came from the so-called Volga Germans, descendants of colonists from Germany who settled on the Volga River banks in the eighteenth century. He is a now a British/Dutch citizen.
Geim studied at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology where, he says, ‘The pressure to work and to study was so intense that it was not a rare thing for people to break and leave, and some of them ended up with everything from schizophrenia to depression to suicide.’ He made it through with an MSc in 1982 and then got a PhD in metal physics before leaving Russia to work in the Netherlands, Denmark and then the UK. He is currently Langworthy Professor and director of the Manchester Centre for Mesoscience and Nanotechnology at the University of Manchester. His wife, Irina Grigorieva, is a lecturer.
In 2000, Geim shared the Ig Nobel Prize in physics with Michael Berry for ‘levitating’ a frog using powerful electromagnets. Then, in 2010, he won the Nobel Prize for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene. He shared the prize jointly with Konstantin Novoselov, who was one of his students in Holland. Therefore Andre was the first person to win, as an individual, both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel Prize.
Frogs, like everything else, are made of atoms, each of which consists of electrons whizzing around a central nucleus. When atoms are placed in a magnetic field, these orbits shift slightly, giving each atom its own mini magnetic field – so a frog placed in a very strong magnetic field is essentially made up of lots of tiny magnets. The effect is called diamagnetism. Andre’s frog was ‘levitated’ at the Nijmegen High Field Magnet Laboratory in the Netherlands. Frogs were the first living creatures to be levitated in this way and none have experienced any adverse effects, which bodes well for any future human guinea pigs. A hamster called Tisha has also been levitated, and NASA levitated a mouse.
For his donation, Andre suggested the ghost of curiosity. ‘I would have donated the spirit of curiosity but I think it might be dead,’ he explains. ‘We now have a kind of zombie curiosity that has people using the Internet – the greatest repository of knowledge ever assembled and made available to us – to search for really unimportant things like what their favourite celebrities are doing. All that knowledge and people aren’t using it. It’s upset a lot of intellectuals. And yet ministers and governments seem to think that we no longer need curiosity because we can google everything. All new science and innovation is driven by curiosity. If we lose our spirit of curiosity, we will stagnate and nothing new will be created.’
Many people choose a subject for their PhD and then continue the same subject until they retire. I despise this approach. I changed my subject five times before I got my first tenured position and that helped me to learn different subjects.
For his donation to the museum, Humphrey suggested the twelfth-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, whom he chose to represent the concept of chivalry. De Troyes wrote a series of poems about King Arthur’s knights, thus kick-starting the Arthurian legends. As Humphrey explains:
'The stories demonstrate the rules of chivalry and courtly love. There’s a lot to be said for having any form of code of conduct that teaches you to treat others with respect.’ The Rules Of Chivalry are what gave knights their authority and influential role in Middle Ages Europe. In Norman England and much of Europe, boys of noble birth were raised by their mothers till the age of seven and then sent off to some nobleman or churchman to receive knightly breeding, rendering what was called ‘personal service’, lowly jobs. A prince might work as a waiter for the emperor; the emperor himself might have held the bridle of the Pope’s horse. It taught humility, honour and chivalrous behaviour. Then, at the age of 21, and after combat training, you finally qualified as a knight. The candidate was required to prepare himself by confession, fasting, and passing the night in prayer. Having taken an oath in which he promised, among other things, to be a brave and loyal knight, to protect ladies and orphans, never to lie, nor utter slander, and to be a champion of the church and clergy, he was dubbed with a sword and knighted.’
The chivalrous idea of ‘Women and Children First’ is actually a recipe for disaster. Evidence shows that the first lifeboats launched in a disaster aren’t necessarily the safest. Launched in haste, they often tipped their occupants into the sea. Also, ideally, you want the strongest rowers, and the trained sailors, distributed evenly among the lifeboats; a lifeboat populated entirely by mothers and toddlers is probably the least likely to survive.
Humphrey Ker (pronounced ‘car’) is a stand-up comedian, writer and self-professed ‘voracious history dork’. He spent five years as part of a sketch group called The Penny Dreadfuls – taking their name form the cheap pulp magazines that were a Victorian precursor to comic books – with whom he wrote and performed at many festivals. They also made two series of The Brothers Faversham and two plays for Radio 4.
In 2011 Humphrey won the Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Newcomer with his solo show Humphrey Ker is . . . Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher! The show was loosely based on the real-life story of his late grandfather, Vice-Admiral (Sir) Robert Dymock Watson KCB CBE, a Royal Navy ‘Special Operations’ officer who went on to become Fourth Sea Lord, Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic and South America Station. In Humphrey’s story, Dymock is assigned to a homicidal Geordie trainer and parachuted behind enemy lines in Romania in 1943 to sabotage a Nazi atom-bomb factory – with only a magician’s costume disguise, a dog called Uncle Trevor as accomplice, and an insanely gung-ho mission leader.
Despite the characters he plays, Humphrey confesses that, if he had been born 200 years ago, he wouldn’t be one of those guys who went out to carve out a slice of the British Empire: ‘I get stuck deciding whether I can face walking out to Nando’s.’
My objective with the Dymock Watson show was to make people laugh. But over the course of it I realised that people cared about what happens to the characters and, by happy coincidence, it turned out to have a relatively satisfying story. I thought it was just going to be knob jokes for an hour.Carbon