Page last updated at 15:06 GMT, Thursday, 16 September 2010 16:06 UK
Hastings Pier hopes go up in smoke

Stephen Smith is joined by the government's red tape czar on Hastings beach

By Stephen Smith

As I understand the BBC guidelines, they don't give me carte blanche to surprise the prime minister's personal envoy with a violent saturnalia (of course, that is just my reading of them, the whole thing is a grey area).

But that is exactly what happened when we were filming our latest report on the "big society". Allow me to explain, which by coincidence is what I could end up telling the HR people at a kangaroo tribunal.

Have you heard of something called psycho-geography? As far as I can gather, it is the idea that momentous acts of history resonate down the ages in the places where they occurred.

It is hard to make sense of at first, but after a while you sort of get used to it. A bit like a coalition government.

Anyway, many people remark on a chilling atmosphere in the backstreets of Whitechapel, which were once stalked by Jack the Ripper. More cheerily, others describe an inexhaustible fount of eloquence at the Blarney Stone. You get the picture, I hope.

Newsnight has spent the summer in Hastings, as loyal viewers will know, as well as those whose TV remotes are unfortunately jammed like stuck piano keys.

This programme has been responsible for the upkeep of a traffic roundabout on the seafront, as we try to find out whether there is anything in David Cameron's dream of a 'big society' of volunteers.

'Forces of misrule'

Well, Hastings is home to the noted psychogeographer Iain Sinclair (I recommend his books on Hackney and on the M25, London Orbital). The proximity of this seer, combined with the rudimentary schoolboy knowledge I took to the Sussex seaside, made me susceptible to the undercurrents of violence in the place.

Stephen Smith's Big Society

This is no slight on the genial and law-abiding townsfolk whom we encountered. No, what I am talking about are the aftershocks of the past. After all, isn't there a rather well-known landmark just up the road called Battle?

Add to this the fact that the notorious satanist Aleister Crowley died in Hastings in 1947, and you will begin to understand why I felt powerless to resist the forces of misrule as we prepared our story.

This involved an encounter with Lord Robin Hodgson, the PM's "red tape czar". He was giving Newsnight his first interview since taking up the seals of office - and the pinking shears too, presumably.

At the risk of trespassing into the realm of political comment, his lordship came across as an amiable enough cove when we met him. He braved a sea fret, as autumn stole along the Hastings strand.

All in all, he did nothing to deserve the gross and pagan spectacle that abruptly confronted him. It was a lurid tableau from a time out of mind. As we looked on, aghast, a cackling wife-beater set about his spouse with a plank.

Punch and Judy are visited by a health and safety inspector

A passer-by who asked too many questions was rewarded for his trouble by being fed into a mincing machine. Yes, it was Punch, Judy and the whole anarchic crew, who enter in where receptive folk will have them still.

As it happened, Mr Punch and his human factotum, "Professor" Glyn Edwards, had updated the act, adding gags about the many rules and regulations which have put a crimp in the business that is show.

There are so many forms to fill in now, says the Prof, that it is hardly worth putting up the striped marquee, donning the motley and entertaining the public.

In the context of Lord Hodgson's role as a bureaucracy-buster, this was all grist to the mill, just like the hapless health and safety inspector in the playlet, who wound up in the sausage-maker.

Watch the next film in Newsnight's Big Society series on Thursday 16 September 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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