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tv   HAR Dtalk  BBC News  December 31, 2021 12:30am-1:01am GMT

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the headlines — president biden has spoken on the phone with vladimir putin, urging the russian president to de—escalate tensions over ukraine, but making it clear the us would respond decisively if russian troops cross the border. the kremlin said president putin called the imposition of any sanctions against russia a colossal mistake. south africa, where the omicron variant was first identified last month, says it has passed the peak of covid infections. the government has immediately lifted a night—time curfew it imposed to combat the virus. elsewhere, the uk and the us continue to experience very high levels of new infections. the family of ghislaine maxwell is backing a legal appeal against her conviction in new york on charges of grooming underage girls. she faces a lengthy prison sentence after a jury found her guilty on five charges that she procured young teenagers to be abused byjeffrey epstein.
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now on bbc news, hardtalk. welcome to hardtalk. i'm stephen sackur. making people laugh is a precious gift. we treasure the comics, the comedians, the professionally funny men and women who add and inject laughter into cultures all over the world, but who defines what is funny? how does funny change over time? and what impact has the internet had on the business of jokes? well, my guest is british writer and stand—up comedian david baddiel. has comedy become a casualty in the culture wars?
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david baddiel, welcome. hello. how are you? i'm well, and in fact, i'm very well cos i've just seen your latest stand—up show, and it prompts a very simple question. are you in an abusive relationship with your smartphone? probably, yes, i think so. well, i'm certainly in an addicted relationship with my smartphone and my laptop and whatever else i access social media with. i am undeniably addicted to social media. but we might all be — we might, as a culture, be addicted to social media. and if you want to be in the conversation now, it's very hard to actually exclude yourself from that by not being on social media. so, part of it is whatever else addiction is — some kind of weird dopamine hit that you get from it, a narcissistic urge to have
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an audience and all the sort of things that i know are kind of shallow and bad. but at the same time, if you are a comedian, you are to some extent a social commentator, even if you come into it via comedy. you need to be in the conversation, and that's where it happens now. you know, in hamilton, there's this song, the room where it happened, which is about history. that room now is the smartphone. hm. but i said "abusive" because it seems you both sort of loathe many aspects of it, as well as loving that dopamine hit and the buzz and being inside the conversation. i think one of the things the show tries to do, the show is called trolls: not the dolls and is built around the fact that i get a lot of abuse on social media and my process is to try and make that funny rather than getting angry about it or indeed ignoring it, whatever the mantras are. i try and make it funny because i see them, essentially, as hecklers, and thejob of a comedian is to try and make hecklers funny and certainly not to get angry about it. do you ever get angry? yeah, very occasionally, but not very often, actually, and less and less. i think now i very much treat them as fodder for comedy, or i do ignore them, if i don't think there's anything there.
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but this show isn'tjust about the bad parts. social media is very complicated in terms of what it's doing to us, and there's undeniably an incredible thing going on. it's an incredible form of mass technology, of mass communication. and i find that sometimes when i think it's at its worst, i'll do a joke, possibly trying to take down a troll, and then suddenly people will build on thatjoke. i have this process, which you'll know about in the show. i talk about people saying "yes to comedy", about accepting and building a sort of improvisational technique. and if i do that with a joke, then suddenly there's all these people who are not trolls and not abusers who will be going with thejoke and being funny, and it can make me feel... you have this wonderful phrase. i think you call it "becoming the conductor of an orchestra of comedy". yeah, well, that's what it can feel like. slightly grandiose, but it does feel like that, because there's so many people. and they're often the people you don't hear from, because the people you hear from are the angry ones. they're the loudest ones because that's what they're doing. anger is a way of increasing visibility on social media. it's a way of shouting, "here i am, here is my identity," but there's all these people who are not
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doing that, who will come out sometimes for comedy, as it were. they'll be brought out by a joke, and then they'll suddenly be really funny and witty and you think this is a marvellous thing. but i'm intrigued by this idea that you've given to me that you can't afford not to be on twitter, that somehow this is the conversation. of course, there are, frankly, millions of people in the united kingdom and many, many, many millions of people around the world who couldn't give a fig about twitter or social media. and in fact, interestingly, your own wife has told you she has no interest. she's not been on any form of social media. and so, when you say, "oh, this is the real world of today," it's not actually the real world. no, i don't quite say that. what i say is i think it drives what's going on in the real world now. obviously, there are a lot of people who aren't on it, but there is a lot of people who are, i mean, notjust twitter, instagram and facebook and tiktok and whatever... the whole social media phenomenon, yeah. it is billions of people. but i also think there's a specific thing with twitter, which is, it's not that big a platform, but it does seem to drive a certain amount of the social and political agenda because a lot of politicians are on it, a lot
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of journalists or whatever. and the old media does a thing of picking up on what's said on twitter and using it to say, "oh, this is happening," or this outrage or whatever. and so, what you get is, driving the temperature of discourse up happens via social media. but even as you're talking and very passionate and engaged, describing to me how twitter works and why it matters, i'm thinking to myself, you're a really creative guy. you've got lots going on in your life. you write children's books. you write other serious books. we'll talk about this one later. you know, you write jokes for a living. you're a comedian and a tv personality and all sorts of other things. why do you feel it's a good investment of your time to be almost literally 24—7 on social media? cos i follow you. thank you. you're on it, in that case. well, i am on it. why are you on it? but if you look, i'm not on it anywhere near as much as you. well, there's two things about it. to be honest with you, there's also a straightforward, practical reason, which is i have to sell tickets and books and actually you do that very well on social media, so that's one reason.
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but there is another reason for me personally, which is i have the kind of brain, thankfully still going, which thinks of a joke at four o'clock in the morning, thinks of something like, "i really want to say this." i do want an audience for it because i'm a comedian. i can't get an audience at 4am in the morning. during the pandemic, i couldn't get an audience at all. you can put that on social media and, yes, you might get trolled, but you might also get people saying really funny things back to you, liking it or whatever. and that feels like an outlet. and i know there's something shallow in there. of course, there's a narcissistic element to that, but at the same time, it is the same reason why i'm on stage. and so, it sort of filters through to me as, like, that's why i'm doing it, because at heart, i have got things to say to an audience. so, it's part of the evolution of your business of funny. yeah, it definitely is. yeah. i just want to ask you how you perceive this sort of prevailing preoccupation there seems to be in our culture right now with offence and with providing safe spaces where people of all different sectionalities and interests can be safe, given haven from offence.
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are you worried about that whole idea? well, in the show, i suggest something, which i do believe, which is that i think that some of the anger you see on social media is about identity, right? so far as, "i want to confirm my identity. i want to confirm i'm part of this tribe." it's tribal. yeah. and one way of doing that, one way of confirming your tribal identity, certainly on social media, is to get angry. and one easy place to get angry is to look at a joke which might actuallyjust be funny, might actually be innocuous, but to pick out one element of it that is a trigger point and get very angry about it. and take offence very publicly. take offence, but offence... i think anger needs to be kept in the frame when you're talking about offence because it's rarely, actually, especially on social media, people just saying, "i'm upset." it tends to be people saying "i'm furious," and then trying to create a pile—on and trying to create virality, which will shut down the funny, and i do think that is happening, yes. i'm actually not... my position, i think,
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is more complicated than someone who would just say, "oh, the woke mob and the snowflakes," or whatever — i'm not that. i think something more complicated is going on, as i say, about identity, but one thing i am worried about is i think funny can be a casualty of that. so, when some of your contemporaries and brilliant comic minds like ricky gervais say that... i mean, he said recently he didn't believe he could make the office, that it wouldn't be commissioned today because the bbc would be too nervous about offending different groups within that format and that show. you think he's over—egging it or...? well, i think some jokes he couldn't do. i think he probably could do the office now, but i think there is a larger thing going on. i actually tweeted recently about peep show, which is a brilliant show, an absolute masterpiece. and what i said was that peep show is funny in a way that is hilarious about how shallow, venal, cruel, self—satisfied and unaware we are, that i don't think we can admit to ourselves any more. meaning that a lot of comedy now does have a kind of "be kind" culture behind it. that's a thing on social media, #bekind, and it sounds great,
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but comedy cannotjust be kind, because it willjust be nice and it will not tell the truth about humanity. and what you get more and more is comedy trying so hard to be warm and fuzzy that it tells no truth about humanity. you get it elsewhere. you get it in drama, in succession, written by the bloke who wrote peep show as it happens, but i think comedy is going a bit soft. right. so, if comedy really is about getting to the truth of humanity, is there nothing in david baddiel�*s sort of theoretical world of comedy that is off limits? in terms of the off—limits of things, again, it's complicated. the truth is always complex, and the truth of comedy is complex. and in the show, as you know, i tell some jokes that are about the holocaust. my point about doing that is that it's not about the subject matter. the subject matter is not how you tell whether a joke is unacceptable. you have to deconstruct the individualjoke because what happens in any joke is you can tell a very horrible, mean, racistjoke about the holocaust. or you can tell an innocuous joke about it, or you can tell
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one that is profound and says something about how, perhaps, you know, humanity had never reached a greater point of darkness. and you can do that through a joke. so, you have to deconstruct the individualjoke and say, "what's the target? what's going on? what's the semiotics, basically?" could you bear to? i'll tell that joke, if you like. a very shortjoke... 0k. i'll tell this joke. ..which people will then decide whether they find it funny or offensive. go on, do it. i doubt they'll find it offensive. some people might not find it funny. i think thejoke is, in a way, more profound than it is funny. but it was told to me, this joke, by a jewish literary academic called devorah baum. i'd never heard the joke before. it concerns a holocaust survivor who after the war dies and goes to heaven. and when he gets to heaven, god asks the survivor to tell him a holocaustjoke. so, the survivor does, and god says, "that's not funny." and the survivor says, "well, i guess you had to be there." what i love about thatjoke and its profundity is it says something which i personally, you know, i'm an atheist, so i don't believe in god, but if i did believe in god, i might measure some of his occasional absences from the moral universe via the example
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of the holocaust. could you tell thatjoke in the same way, and for it to work in the same context and with the same tone, if you weren't jewish? i personally think i would have no problem in hearing that joke from a non—jew. i think it has more emotional resonance from ajew, and i myself, you may know this about me, my mum is a holocaust, well, not exactly a survivor. she was a refugee from nazism. my grandfather was actually in dachau. so, i think it has more resonance for me, and i tell it with more passion, but thejoke has no meanness of spirit, no evil, no approval of the holocaust in it, so therefore anyone can tell it. who decides in your long experience of comedy, cos you've been doing it for three decades or more, who are the arbiters who decide when a line is crossed? is itjust a sort of collective crowd wisdom? or, you know... how do we then...? i think that changes, doesn't it? and at the moment, there is an issue with the fact that, because we have social media, and social media is very quickly triggered and there is an issue with anger and rage and offence and trying to, you know, hear voices that may
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not have been heard before, that comedy is more monitored and policed than ever before, and that's changing all the time. so, who decides? it probably is the case, and that probably is kind of a good thing that before, there was a kind of top—down thing, where it was producers and tv people and i guess comedians, although they're always at the mercy of those people. and now it is more this notion of a mass, largely democratic response. but my issue with that is that ignores the madness of crowds. cos you did get it wrong, didn't you? cos you've basically said sorry for one particular funny sketch you wrote back in the mid—�*90s when you had a very popular sort of football comedy show in the uk, and you portrayed then a sort of middle—ranking black footballer who actually was having a bad patch, not scoring many goals, and you sort of blacked up. idid. i performed in blackface. i've said sorry for that. i know. i feel it was racist and i shouldn't have done it. and, you know, obviously, i'm not always going to get it right. ijust wonder, when you look
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back on that whole episode, what went wrong? you know, was there no filter, either from yourself orfrom the producers, the commissioners, the people who were responsible for that show? i think at the time it was, you know, a wrong thing that was going on in comedy in general, which was not enough attention being paid to the whole notion of performing in blackface. so, a lot of comedians did it, and that's no excuse. and the problem with you asking me about that is i'm already hearing people on social media saying, "oh, here's david baddiel trying to absolve himself." i'm not trying to absolve myself. but to answer your question, there was a culture of that feeling like it was ok when it wasn't. yeah, it'sjust again in the show that i've just watched, you talk about empathy and humanity in comedy. and jason lee, the footballer who used to play for nottingham forest, who was the subject of that particular sketch, which was repeated, i think, over weeks, he said, "you know what?
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it lacked empathy cos you were talking about my hairstyle, you were talking about ethnicity. a lot of black people, notjust me, a lot of black people wore dreadlocks then and felt deeply offended by this mockery," and even last year said it would be really nice for david baddiel to reach out and say sorry. i'm happy to say sorry. no, but, i mean, i know you are cos you said it in public. i'm happy to say sorry to jason lee, or say sorry in whatever context you want. i mean, the problem is, to some extent, that the performative nature of public apology becomes eventually redundant. so, i'm happy to say sorry to jason lee. i'm happy to say sorry to anyone who was offended by it. i'm happy to make the crucial case that what we thought at the time was an impression, because we were impersonating many footballers on that show, was in fact part of a very bad racist tradition, and we didn't really think about that. and we didn't. .. we weren't schooled enough or educated enough in it. and so we did it. and i'm sorry. and after a while, even on a show like this, where you're trying to sort of,
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i don't know, dig into this whole thing, i can't give you anything more than that. well, one thing i'm going to now try and dig into is evolution and age, and whether, you know, cos we're now almost 30 years forward, whether you feel like a very different person and whether empathy matters much more to you now as a comedian in your sort of middle 50s than it did perhaps when you were a young tyro in your late 20s. i think probably, yeah, i mean, ithink i have evolved as a person and, you know, all sorts of things are involved with that, which are notjust to do with being a comedian, they're also to do with having children, being around people who are more empathetic than me who i've learnt from. and also, i thinkjust... the notion of empathy, which is important and which trolling leaves out, does have to involve imagining the inner life of someone else.
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and there is an issue there, which is sort of notjust to do with what you're bringing up about race, but which is in general. it's quite complicated because it comes back to what i was saying about comedy being allowed to be notjust nice. and i think that's what you see a lot is when people decide, well, this is cruel and mean or punching up or punching down, you have to find a way of feeling that empathy while still allowing to talk about the truth of human existence, which will involve sometimes cruelty and shallowness and not necessarily being empathetic, because everyone has humanity, right? everyone has humanity. so, if i do a joke about donald trump, donald trump is a human being. it might seem like a bizarre idea, but he is, so therefore it's punching up, so that's fine. but still, i sometimes think if you were really to apply the notion of empathy, you might end up saying, "i will never do a joke," because all of those people, everyone has an inner life. in the course of that answer, you alluded to the fact that obviously over years you've married, you've had kids.
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and what i also find fascinating about you, and you say it again quite openly, you don't have much of a filter. your instinct is always to be very direct and very honest about what's in your head and what's going on in your life. and you do actually talk quite a lot about your family, and you've done various shows, one of which was very specifically about the complexities of your own family background, and this one, you tell some very funny and affectionate stories which involve your teenage son. i just wonder whether there's a potential danger in wrapping and weaving your personal life and yourfamily into your public persona. there probably is. and my wife, who is not on any form of social media, morwenna banks, she's a performer. she's probably most famously mummy pig, although she won't... ..won�*t thank me for that, especially. around the world, some people won't know anything about peppa pig or mummy pig! really? surely everyone will know
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about peppa pig much more than anything else you've referred to. but she's a performer, she's a deeply private person. and so i think it was kind of weird for her to be with someone who used almost every aspect of their life, everything that was in their head, in his work. has she ever said to you, "david, that's a boundary you really shouldn't cross?" well, i used to do a show called baddiel and skinner unplanned, and that show was literally about me and frank coming on stage and just talking about whatever came up. and one time, i don't think i can say it on hardtalk, there was a very big runner about me and... yeah, i can't talk about it. it's a sexual thing. and she just turned to me afterwards and said, "you know i have to go to the school gate tomorrow and pick up our children, and everyone will know that you've been totally honest about this thing that you do." let me get away from being the professional funnyman for a bit and get to you, as you've become a serious
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writer about serious things and a serious documentary—maker. you've already told me a little bit about yourjewish family history, you've explored in documentary form holocaust denial. you have written a book — this one, jews don't count, which looks at what you see as the failure of the progressive left, particularly in the uk, to take full account of anti—semitism as one of the discriminatory prejudices that taint society, you think somehow... ..as your title suggests, jews don't count. is it easy to tackle these serious subjects when your reputation is that of a very funny man? i don't know. i mean, for some people, it will be. for me, it isn't. the book has got quite a lot ofjokes in it. i don't really see clear boundaries between funny and, i guess, intelligent or whatever you might call it. that wasn't a very intelligent sentence, so it doesn't bear that out very well. but what i mean is
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the book is complex. it's trying to draw some quite complex intellectual ideas around how anti—semitism has been a neglected thing that the people who are very obsessed with identity politics have left behind. i see no reason why a joke in the middle of that would deflate or subvert an argument. i think that's a weird thing that people assume that the minute you go into comedy, you're somehow upending what you're saying. intellectually, i don't see that at all. iam glad... i mean, it's a privilege, really, that, despite being a comedian and probably being best known for being a comedian, the times literary supplement still come to me and say, "we'd like you to write a book about an essay, a book about anything you like." i say, "i want to write it about this," and they don't say, "well, don't be ridiculous, you're a funnyman." you know, a little theme i've been developing is how you've changed and evolved over time, both in your comedy and your wider life. i mean, you are not a religiousjew. but you're very clearly a proud... i don't know if you say blood or ethnicjew,
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that's who you are. does that matter more to you than ever? i mean, did it matterto you when you were young or why did it come to matter so much? your twitter profile simply says... i know it's funny, but it also is in yourface. itjust says, "david baddiel, jew." well, it's important that it's funny, and it's important that it's also serious. that's a good example of something that's funny and serious. it's funny to describe myself as that. there's something funny about the word — jews use it a lot in comedy. they land on the word. at the same time, there's something deeply serious about choosing that as my identity on a very sometimes anti—semitic platform. it was important to me when i was young in a way that ijust swam in it. i went to a jewish primary school, a very orthodox jewish primary school. becausejews are complicated — not because my parents were religious, that was the nearest school in cricklewood that i wouldn't get beaten up at. it was basically the north west londonjewish day school. so, i went there with a yarmulke and tzitzit and ate kosher and learnt hebrew and all that, and all my friends were jewish. and looked like a religious jew, but didn't believe a word of it? i didn't not believe a word of it, because i was a kid,
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so i don't think i thought about it then. but all my friends were jewish. the culture was veryjewish. my grandparents were holocaust survivors, and they would come and, you know, do all passover and hanukkah and all that kind of stuff. so, it was veryjewish. and in fact, one of the things in the book, cos the book has had an interesting impact, which is like, it's sort of really targeted towards progressives who i feel have missed outjews as one of their identity politics concerns. but... sorry to interrupt, because we don't have that much time. but it came out at a very important time in the uk when the labour party led at the time byjeremy corbyn was being accused of completely failing to address anti—semitic elements within it. and i wonder if it's led you to fall out of love with sort of the labour party and left of centre politics. i don't know if i was ever in love with the labour party. for a long time now... i come from a left of centre position, and, you know, when i was young, i was pretty left—wing. i went to some young communist meetings, but i would now say that i am someone who imposes no ideological map on the world to think about it. i try and think as originally
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as i can about every subject, and that involves not thinking, well, i'm a left—wing person, so i must think this about this. i think it's been very alienating for mostjews, the experience of the labour party, and mostjews, a lot of whom, the people i know, even though there's lots ofjews who presumably vote conservative, but the ones i know tend to be quite progressive, and they have felt alienation. they've felt homeless, is what's happened. and this is going to probably be the final thought. but one interesting review of the book said this, and it actually came from a jewish reviewer, a guy called joshua alston, he said, "baddiel�*s deep sense of melancholy is felt keenly throughout this book," and i guess maybe even the title points to that. you know, so i come back to the very beginning — you as a professional funnyman — and whether there is a deep sense of melancholy in you. probably! you should address that question without laughing. well, what i find funny about that is that there's something very comedy about the melancholy old jew.
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it speaks to me of mel brooks or a mel brooks character in a sketch of the thousand—year—old man who sits there. and maybe there is something of that in me, and that's partly in that book. we'll leave it there with you smiling. i hope so. david baddiel. thank you, stephen. it's been a pleasure. thank you for being on hardtalk. thank you. hello. the unusually mild weather is set to stick with us as we see out the end of 2021. we had temperatures up to 16 degrees on thursday, about eight degrees above average, and for the next few days, it stays exceptionally mild and quite blustery, too.
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the winds coming in from the south or the south—west and drawing in the air right from the subtropics, from the canary isles right up towards the uk and actually across much of central europe as well. so, to start off your friday morning first thing on new year's eve, we've got temperatures already well in double figures, some places not falling below about 13 degrees. now, through the day, then, new year's eve this is, we're looking for a bit of rain around. it's going to clear out of northern ireland into parts of central and southern scotland. also rain clearing away from the east coast. and actually much of england, wales and northern ireland should see a bit more sunshine than we've seen over recent days, so a drier, brighter feel. temperatures up to about 15, 16, possibly i7 celsius. just a little bit cooler across the northern half of scotland, but there should be some sunshine here. now, we could well break some records. the warmest ever new year's eve was back ten years ago in 2011. colwyn bay got to 111.8 celsius, so we are set to see temperatures probably a degree or so higher than that. heading through new year's eve night now, if you've got plans, it's looking mostly dry, still very, very mild. could be some patchy rain
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across some northern and western areas as we see in the new year 2022. but new year's day once again looking very, very mild. we've got this very narrow band of showery rain which is going to cross its way slowly eastwards, followed by sunshine and showers for many areas. showers mainly towards the north west, so quite a bit of dry weather for new year's day on saturday. and again, you've guessed it, exceptionally mild. 13—16 celsius for most of us on new year's day. then that very mild air that's been with us starts to gradually ease away towards the near continent. we've still got mild air with us certainly from a south—westerly direction, but temperatures probably starting to come down just a notch as we head through sunday and into the first week of 2022. so, sunday really is going to be a day of some sunshine, but also plenty of showers. you can see a rash of showers across the uk, and temperatures somewhere between about 10—13 degrees, still above average, but not the exceptionally mild weather of the next couple of days. looking ahead into next week, then, fairly unsettled, not quite as mild as it
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has been lately. bye for now.
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this is bbc news. i'm simon pusey. our top stories: diplomacy or deterrence. president biden�*s phone call to president putin laying out the us position over ukraine. a key witness speaks publicly after ghislaine maxwell was found guilty of grooming underage girls to be abused byjeffrey epstein. wildfires have forced the evacuation of thousands of people from their colorado homes in what's being called a life threatening situation. and after the launch it's the make or break moment for the james webb space telescope, as it starts to unfold its super—sized sun shield.

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