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John Walsh

Tales of the City: Mr Bean on religion - no thank you

Rowan Atkinson's heart is in the right place in campaigning against the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill - which will penalise people who "incite religious hatred" - but his reasoning is flawed.

Rowan Atkinson's heart is in the right place in campaigning against the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill - which will penalise people who "incite religious hatred" - but his reasoning is flawed. He's worried that that the Bill will restrain people from taking the mick out of people's religious sensibilities, and believes "there should be no subjects about which one cannot makes jokes, religion included". Few would disagree with that. But then he stumbles into an ideological minefield. "The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas, even if they are sincerely held beliefs", he says, "is one of the fundamental freedoms of society..."

It's the word "fundamental", Rowan, that's the problem. It was the problem back in 1989, when Salman Rushdie was on the run from the rage of Islam. Because fundamentalist Muslims didn't believe then, and don't believe now, that all beliefs are susceptible to debate, criticism, satire or post-Enlightenment levity of any kind, for one reason - a fundamentalist God is a God along the lines of your innermost private soul. "If a man insults your wife," an Islamic scholar once said to me, "do you not retaliate? If he insults your mother, father, children, do you not retaliate? And if he insults your God, who is closer to you than all these, do you not retaliate most of all?" That's a fundamental attitude. I'm on Mr Atkinson's side about not having the law change; but I think he might be more alert to the power of "ideas" in a multicultural society that are a lot bigger than ideas.

The dangers of Evoking Rage

Enduring Love, the movie, has had a ferocious drubbing at the hands of the critics, but it does offer the spectacle of Daniel Craig going ballistic. This is becoming a popular spectacle: Mr Craig is every movie producer's Platonic ideal of the Sensitive Guy who is driven by circumstances to explode without warning and destroy something. In the new film, he's a philosophy lecturer who cracks with fury and breaks up his girlfriend's sculpture equipment. In last year's The Mother, he was a sensitive north London artisan who cracks with fury and destroys the conservatory he's been building for months. In the previous year's Ted and Sylvia, he was the hypersensitive Ted Hughes who comes home from an evening's ex-curricular shagging, cracks with fury and - since he can't very well bash Sylvia Plath's poetry - does a lot of shouting in Gwyneth Paltrow's face. Connoisseurs of Craig's oeuvre will recall the 1998 movie Love is the Devil in which he played Francis Bacon's lover George Dyer, and spent a lot of time winding a leather belt around his fist. A sensitive actor with a quiver of passionate-but-puzzled expressions, he's our favourite image of the British soul in torment. I have just two words of warning for Mr Craig about the fate that awaits him if he goes on like this: "Oliver" and "Reed".

Killing me softly

The constantly engaging Word magazine has a recurring feature: the Best of/ Worst of hierarchies. In the forthcoming January issue, the five staff with the aid of plenty of pints and prawn crisps, have nominated the worst song lyrics of all time. Their all-time stinker comes from "I Just Shot John Lennon" by the Cranberries. It begins: "It was the fearful night of December 8th/ He was returning from the studio late/ He had perceptively known that it wouldn't be nice/ Because in 1980, he paid the price/ John Lennon died, John Lennon died etc etc". Yes, yes utter tosh, I agree ("perceptively" eh?) but is it any worse than Des'ree's famous lines from "Life": "I don't wanna see a ghost/ It's the sight that I fear most/I'd rather have a piece of toast/ And watch the evening news"? Wordsworth, thou shouldst be living at this hour, and all that...

A little more to the right...

Has there ever been a more unconsciously self-revealing Christmas card than that sent out to the Tory faithful by Michael Howard? It displays a charming, if chilly scene, of a couple of hundred penguins somewhere in Antarctica, apparently being harangued by an alpha male penguin about some urgent matter of penguin policy. It's impossible not to examine the innocent, woolly birds in this frozen wilderness, where no sentient being would ever wish to set foot, and not see the Conservative party ranged, in a shuffling, arms-flapping throng, before their frightfully grand and upright leader. Some of the younger ones look a little bewildered, possibly alarmed about their future, and are milling about in several directions; others are being kept in order by taller, black-coated adults - clearly the Opposition whips. At the back, meanwhile, one senior penguin is rudely, but deliberately, turning his back on his boss's speech. (Is that a floppy fringe you can see? Why yes, it's Boris Johnson.) All proceeds from sales of the card go to Addaction, the top drug and alcohol treatment charity. How odd of them to put a picture of frozen penguins on the front of a Christmas card. Shouldn't it be a cold turkey?