By Neil Goodwin
Alan Dearling has been a long-time associate and supporter of activist and documentary film-maker/writer, Neil Goodwin. Alan invited Neil to share with us his adventures in Protest-Land as Charlie X.
Much appreciation from Alan and ‘international times’ for use of the photographs.
Currently, Neil, as Charlie X has been out supporting the NHS during the Covid crisis. He’s also busy with this summer’s Virtual Stonehenge Free Festival which should be lots of fun!
Neil tells us: They say that thirteen is lucky for some. That’s now the number of years that I have been dressing up as a Charlie Chaplin mime and pulling funny faces outside all the wrong places. So, I guess it’s been a lucky number for me too.
It’s been thirteen years since I opened a film club in Kennington called ‘The Little Tramp’, just around the corner from where Chaplin was born. How appropriate, I thought, to greet the audience, dressed like the Little Tramp. So, I had trawled the charity shops in the Walworth Road looking for the right penguin suit and experimented with permanent marker and white face paint to do it all in Black and White. I would act as if I’d just escaped the wide screen to wander around London in the 21st Century – waiting for a bus on Waterloo Bridge, struggling to understand an Oyster card, or hobbling into the Charlie Chaplin pub in the Elephant for a quick shot.
At the same time, I enrolled in a short course at Birkbeck College called Body Politic and spent six weeks studying Art Activism, and this just so happened to coincide with Tony Blair setting up his one-mile protest exclusion zone around Brian Haw’s peace camp in Parliament Square. The perfect space for a character like Charlie Chaplin to blunder into and fall foul of the law. So, in January 2006 I found myself wandering black and white through the Exclusion Zone dressed as Charlie Chaplin, holding a placard that said, ‘No Comment’. I was promptly arrested under Section 132 of the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA), and taken to Charing Cross police station, where all the officers refer to each other by the call sign ‘Charlie X-ray’. So, I decided to call my character Charlie X, and so set about launching a mini-mime wave in Westminster, adding a bit of tickle to the State’s increasingly paranoid slap. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCoJWKghT0M&t=9s
Thirteen years on and I have now made over 100 appearances in both South Africa and the UK.
South Africa was (and still is) going through a very dangerous time. Mandela’s ANC sold out the people big time. First through Mbeki’s presidency, buying ridiculously expensive war planes from Tony Blair, instead of investing in housing, hospitals and schools, plus turning his back on the Aids pandemic that was decimating the country. Then Jacob Zuma, who set out to bleed the country dry through corruption and cronyism, draconian laws such as the dreaded Secrecy Bill, vast and unnecessary nuclear tenders, and the state capture of public utilities. Recent calculations show that a third of SA’s R4.9-trillion GDP were wiped out during his presidency, while millions still lived in shacks.
Into this mix strolled Charlie X. Despite an early incident where a guy screamed and jumped into a bush, it is testament to the universal nature of the character that I was soon widely recognised, accepted and understood. I firstly campaigned for cultural diversity and unity against a backdrop of deadly Xenophobic attacks with the ‘Unite as One – One Africa’ Campaign, working alongside an amazing Refugee Centre in Cape Town called Scalabrini: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imyWZ-uqHE0
Then, I appeared regularly with the Right 2 Know campaign in support of free speech and government transparency : https://www.iol.co.za/news/right2know-campaign-voted-newsmaker-1436715
I campaigned against a R3 trillion dodgy nuclear deal that the government were trying to swing with Russian influence, and the backing of a highly dubious family cartel known as the Guptas. One day, we managed to put the entire country on Red Alert at Koeburg, Africa’s only nuclear power station, while they held us at the local police station and flew in two special agents to check us out. They kept asking us, “Are you Greenpeace?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tWzw7bMaV8
Also, I’m proud to say, Charlie X helped to set up and promote South Africa’s first ever Anarchist Book Fair: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyblQoF0c88
So many huge and key issues. A real learning curve for any activist. From the Marikana massacre to fracking to Monsanto to LGBTI rights, I approached them all, managing to help elevate key issues to the front pages where they belonged. My South African journey through mime sealed by the discovery that Chaplin’s much-loved half-brother Sydney was apparently born in Cape Town.
I fully explored the possibilities of art activism through the medium of large cardboard cut-outs. Cheap and available materials. High resolution images that look almost 3D. I built a huge rainbow Africa and encouraged 1000 people to ‘face-up’ to the statement ‘LGBTI rights are Human Rights’. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu provided the 1000th face.
I designed a Monopoly-style board game called ‘Corruption’ where players navigate through a landscape of massive corruption scandals, playing for debt and picking up ‘Community Cheat’ cards. This day in the life video really captures both those props in action – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILmRI-kRrZQ&t=23s
I consider myself to be quite severely disabled. I have a fused back and neck, I walk with a stick and my metal hip often sets off alarms. Being a Charlie Chaplin mime camouflages my condition, making every day awkward stiff motions somehow more natural within the make-up of the character. Out of costume, people wonder why I still walk like the Little Tramp. In costume, people have tried to pick me up, push me over, jump on my lap and slap me around like a play thing. But the fragility makes me stronger, and I tend to lose sight of my aches and pains when I’m doing a ‘show’.
Throughout my time in South Africa, I pretty much had to behave myself and stick within the law. So, when I did finally return to the UK in 2016, I couldn’t wait to do what the little tramp does best – and get busted.
Like extras in a piece of slap stick, any cop presence seems to validate the character and fulfil expectations. The character is expected to get into trouble. It makes the tourists smile and sends the press photographers into over-drive. The police always check me out, sometimes just search me, and have arrested me several times since my return from Cape Town. And one of the nice things about getting arrested is that the cops then provide you with video evidence and CCTV footage of the action for free.
All activists have what I like to call ‘Protest DNA’ in their blood, inspired and influenced by the actions of past campaigns and movements. Women’s Suffrage and the US civil rights movement being two often cited examples. The Twyford Down road protest in the early 90s, was inspired by the anti Narita airport protests in Japan in the late 60s. The anti-globalisation movement and the Battle in Seattle in 1999, was influenced by the UK’s Reclaim the Streets (RTS) in the mid to late 90s, and they in turn were inspired by the Stop the City protests of the 1980s.
My Charlie Chaplin dress-up protests drew inspiration from the Fathers’ 4 Justice Campaign, whose dads dressed as super heroes made nightly headlines occupying Westminster and the roofs of prominent ministers. A decade before them, the No M11 Link Road Campaign employed similar tactics, only without the dress-up.
So, just like conventional DNA, the strands of our protest DNA instruct the very nature of our activities. The more you delve into the way past activists did things, the more you realise that few, if any of today’s actions, are completely brand new. I’ve seen ‘Die-ins’, where campaigners litter the ground with ‘corpses’ (fake blood optional), against Hawk sales to Indonesia in 2006, the DSEi arms fair in London in 2017, and most recently, as a warning of today’s current climate emergency with Extinction Rebellion (XR) in shopping centres and high streets across the UK.
Obviously, with each new take on a tried and tested action, there’s room for modification. Take ‘swarming’, XR’s temporary occupation of key traffic junctions in London – the practical embodiment of ‘business as usual is not an option’. These ‘flash mobs’ only last for 7 minutes at a time. Apparently, it’s a way to avoid getting mass arrested for obstruction. It could be described as bite-sized ‘Stop the City’.
One important (R)evolutionary shift that I do see around XR that I find new and refreshing, and potentially very dangerous to the status quo, is its decentralised structure. XR is more of an idea, a shared value, around which autonomous actions can and do manifest. It doesn’t have a core campaign office with key players, and therefore cannot easily be infiltrated by spy cops. Without sounding too cult-like – we are all XR or can be XR if we wish.
Me and Charlie X have been XR on a few occasions now. The last time, I took a cardboard cut out of an African Jackass penguin called Pengi, a clear marine mammal candidate for extinction under the climate crisis that is upon us. We both laid down in the road in front of Parliament as Theresa May’s convoy was due to leave and got nicked for obstruction.
Here’s the moment on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Terrenc61119127/status/1063081306526019584
At the station, one of the cops proudly told me that he’d learnt all the words from the Great Dictator’s Speech, one of the greatest speeches ever written, and proceeded to recite them to me as I took a leak in one of the cells, the cell door ajar. One of many surreal moments from the past 13 years. Like the time a cop challenged me dressed as the Great Dictator, saying, “I may be aware of the films of Charlie Chaplin from the 1940s, but these people [the tourists] probably aren’t. If you salute like that again, I will arrest you for breach of the peace.”
Back in 2006, I’d encouraged the peace activist Brian Haw to read the speech out in Parliament Square just after the Queen’s opening of parliament: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kC7EOt_5RII&t=279s.
Throughout that video, I kept thinking, dressed as Adenoid Hynkel, and covered with ‘Double Cross’ insignia, “I really need to learn these words”. It eventually took me 12 years and several weeks of reciting the speech over and over as I went to the shop or waited for a bus to finally nail it. The line, “In the 17th Chapter of Luke it is written – the Kingdom of God is in men”, often making me sound like a babbling Christian fundamentalist. I have now performed the speech at a number of festivals and protests, and even at an anti-fascist demo in Whitehall, its message of peace and unity, even more significant today.
But I leave you with my arrest outside Downing Street in early 2017 (my first action upon returning from South Africa), locking on to the main gates with crutches and a fake broken leg and a placard that said, ‘Save the NHS’. In the scuffle to try and attach my bike lock, one of the cops grazed his hand against a little music box that was fixed to the back of the placard. When you turn the handle it plays, ‘Hey Jude’. And after I’d managed to lock on, one of the cops pointed to his colleague who had blood running down his hand. Would you believe it? I was arrested for assaulting a police officer whilst campaigning to Save the NHS. How weird is that?! In the video you can see me miming, “I didn’t mean to”, to one of the cops.” I was totally thrown and didn’t know how I was going to explain this to a magistrate. But after four hours staring up at the ceiling of a cell, they simply released me without charge. Maybe because my offensive weapon was a little music box that plays, ‘Hey Jude’. Or maybe because they agreed with me. I don’t know. I like to think they did. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6m9npNh1G0
Photo credits (with thanks): First picture, ‘Not Aloud’: Thank You NHS; Dee Hart; Neil Goodwin; ‘Save the NHS’ picture: Philip Robinson. ‘Trump fart’: Brigid Mary Oates; ‘Police arrest at DSEi Arms Fair’ and ‘With Pengi at the Extinction Rebellion’ launch: Peter Marshall. All other photos: Nicky Newman.
Neil also asks us to check out his book: ‘Mime Wave’. He tells us that, “…it covers my Charlie X adventures in 2006…and says a lot about the Bush and Blair times.”
The product link page is on the Lulu.com site at http://www.lulu.com/shop/neil-goodwin/mime-wave/paperback/product-24006723.html