Show management – Brave New World

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‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’ Prospero in the Tempest – Shakespeare

There was a brilliant full page advertisement in The Times recently which consisted of 2000 words of text.  The type was quite small (about 8pt) and the text was so laid-back that most people would quickly have tired and turned the page.  However, I was fascinated and I continued to read paragraph on paragraph until I discovered that not turning the page meant that you were the sort of person the advertisement was designed for.  There were no logos and there was no heading – you actually had to read every word to find out what it was about.  I found it fascinating and it was not until a few lines before the end that there was an e-mail address to contact.  If you had got that far and would be interested in the job that they had to offer you are asked to contact an email address direct – and not tell anyone else.  It was a recruitment advertisement for MI6!  This weeks Speakers’ Corner is a bit like that.  You need to read all of it to get the point

A couple of months ago Channel 4 broadcast three unusual plays under the heading Black Mirror.  The programmes were created by Charlie Brooker who, apart from being a writer, columnist and broadcaster, is a comedian whose style is described as ‘satirical pessimism’.  He has been responsible for cartoons and cartoon strips, one of which had to be pulled from the shelves of newsagents because it suggested that one way of making society safer was to allow children and young people to take out their aggressive instincts on animals rather than humans.  Many found the images not just uncomfortable but shocking.  Eight years ago he wrote a column on George W Bush and the then forthcoming US Presidential election which concluded with the words ‘John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr – where are you now that we need you?’.

This may give you some idea of the compelling power and drive of these three plays which are set sometime in the future, although not so far as not to provide a recognisable environment.  One of my theatrical heroes is Kenneth Tynan, a critic and writer of extraordinary brilliance whose criticism during the late 40s, 50s and early 60s provided some of the finest analysis of plays and players that have ever been penned.  Lawrence Olivier recruited him to work for what was then the new National Theatre and although their quarrels are legendary, it was a time of immense creativity in British theatre.  I am fortunate to be old enough to have been there and I still remember Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic in 1960 with a young Judi Dench as Juliet and an amazing Lear with Paul Scofield, which was directed by Peter Brook at the Aldwych when the Royal Shakespeare Company was in residence.  This last was so good that for many years, directors did not have the courage to revisit the play as it would inevitably be judged against this particularly spectacular production.  I think that Ken Tynan would have been knocked out by Black Mirror.

So what was it all about and why has it any relevance to those whose passion is pedigree dogs?  The plays are focused on an extrapolation of current trends in society and the media.  The first concentrated on the increasingly bizarre demands of artists to gain attention for their ideas and thoughts, the second on the incredible impact of TV talent shows such as Britain’s Got Talent and the X Factor while the third took the concept of recording everything that happens in your life (as so many currently do through their mobile phones and the Internet), to the point where everything that happens in your life could be recorded and played back to yourself and to others via a chip that you could have embedded behind your ear.

These thoughts were triggered by a conversation I had with the secretary of a general canine society – please be patient.  I am getting there.  She told me that she is having an extraordinarily difficult time finding judges for her shows and that other secretaries she knows (and she seems to know an awful lot) are in the same position.  She has calculated that it takes between two and three hours to find one judge that is prepared to officiate and the reason appears to be twofold.  Firstly, breed specialists are reluctant to travel far when the entry is likely to be very low.   She makes the point that there is a tendency for breed specialists to have lower entries anyway, simply because they are nearly always identified by exhibitors as having preferences for dogs of a particular type (good) or belonging to a particular person (bad).  Whatever the reason, finding suitable specialist judges is becoming increasingly difficult.

I suggested that perhaps it would be sensible to use more all breed judges.  She says that they generally draw a slightly larger entry but this is only the case if they are taking on breeds where they have a genuine knowledge and contact.  They do not do so well in other breeds but most of those she describes as ‘up and coming’ are more interested in clocking up breeds, classes and numbers so they want to do as many as possible to make coming worth their while.

The environment within which general shows are currently working (with some exceptions) is such that there may be an inevitable and fundamental shift in the future, very much like those described in Black Mirror although perhaps not so funny, tragic or dramatic.  We have already seen overseas that judges from some countries are often promoted over their competence.  This is not to say they are not interested in dogs or that they have no knowledge.  But the idea that after breeding a couple of litters and making up a couple of champions (within an environment where that is relatively easy) enables a specialist to judge all breeds (however genuinely they believe that they can) is mind-boggling.

You can see the problem that our Kennel Club has with judges from overseas in allowing them to have the same status as those who, in this country, have 20, 30 and sometimes 40 years experience and have judged many thousands of dogs.  There are many from overseas who have immense experience and acknowledged expertise and commitment and we are always very happy for them to judge in the UK but, and it is a big ‘but’, once an FCI country (and the same applies to the States) has decreed that a judge is competent for a group or for all breeds, they are given exactly the same status as those who have been recognised internationally as genuine experts for many years.

Given what is happening in the UK, what is the likely outcome as far as our specialists and non-specialists are concerned?  Might we find that in 10 years time there is a serious shortage of specialist judges as the world of pedigree dogs comes under more and more pressure from lobby groups who have money and the media ‘ear’ behind them.  It is quite likely that fewer dogs will be bred and therefore fewer shown so the current situation deteriorates and a vicious spiral ensues.  The number of specialist will inevitably contract and those that remain in will have fewer and fewer opportunities to gain experience.

The pressure on societies to appoint non-specialists will increase and it may not be very long before those coming into the show world will think that being judged by a non-specialist is the norm – a non-specialist, who has little experience other than attending seminars and Judges Development Programmes.  We are already in position whereby the number of judges available for JDP is almost exhausted (despite the qualifications bar having been lowered (although for some reason Terriers are an exception) and this is also evidenced by the change in the regulations (which once required judges of varieties and not separately classified classes at championship shows to have been passed for a Group) enabling anyone passed for three sets of tickets (of unrelated breeds) so to do.

Increasing travel costs and financial pressures may make it more and more difficult even to recruit non-specialists, for many of those that we have relied on for many years have been reasonably well-heeled but I understand some have drastically reduced their commitments recently because they feel the time has come to retire, do not want to travel too far, are ill or are not as well-heeled as they used to be.

How will new judges be appointed?  If a fraction of the ideas being put forward in Black Mirror are correct, it might be that judges will eventually be appointed in ways that at the moment we would consider extraordinary.  As I mentioned a few weeks back, the United Kennel Club in the States is allowing anyone to register as a non-specialist judge if they have a few years experience, have bred three champions and are prepared to fork out $20!

In the future, might exhibitors enter a show not knowing who the judge is:  one from their number being selected by lot.  Sounds bizarre?  It already happens if the judge doesn’t turn up!

And how about taking another idea from the X factor.  The judge goes over each dog and watches it move before announcing whether or not it is ‘sound’.  If it is, it stays in the competition: if it is not it leaves the ring.  When all the dogs have been seen, the spectators vote for the dog they want to win using their mobile phones to a series of assigned numbers The computerised programme automatically places them in order.

Might our criteria for judges have to be drastically revised?  It has become a truism that the easiest job at a championship show is selecting the best of the seven Group winners while every weekend dozens of inexperienced judges award prizes in variety classes and NSC without any problem.

Does it matter?  We see actors and actresses for major West End roles being chosen by votes from the general public, millionaires created by the National Lottery, parliamentarians (surely, people we should be able to trust) in jail for behaving fraudulently, top bankers and businessmen taking home huge salaries and bonuses not just when many of their employees who are providing the service (which creates their income) are earning close to the minimum wage but also when their shareholders make a loss and artists who can command hundreds of thousands of pounds by exhibiting their dirty underwear.

I think anything is possible!

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