Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Leiber and Stoller documentary

The 2001 Leiber and Stoller documentary which I mentioned in the post about Stand By Me is available on youtube, at least at the time of writing. There Goes My Baby, Spanish Harlem and Stand By Me are discussed and Ben E King is among the interviewees.


Friday, 20 February 2015

Get Carteret or No Place Like Home - again

I may as well give in and admit to myself that these entries on the 80s sitcom No Place Like Home, currently being repeated in the UK on the Drama Channel, are starting to become a diary. If you want to look over my shoulder at the entries, feel free, although other diversions are but a click away.

Unfortunately my PVR did not record No Place Like Home on Thursday but I did manage to watch Episode 3 of Series 4 today.

Again, most odd compared to the approach of earlier series. The episode was sparsely populated, with the new Nigel established as being the only one now living at home, and the story centred around trying to get a new lady friend for Trevor. Beryl and Arthur thought the object of his fancy was the matronly florist but oh, SPOILER ALERT, it turned out to be the much younger part timer - oh dear - but then she took umbrage at Trevor's not being married, so problem solved. But then Trevor got a new girlfriend, a rather butch policewoman, so Bravo, I say. Which is the sort of weak half-pun Jon Watkins has often included in the show in the past. I do hope they will return. (Maybe there'll be a spin-off series about Trevor's pursuit of his new love called Get Carteret?)

But as with the first episode the emptiness of that formerly heaving home really hit me. It can't have been much fun for the younger actors in the earlier series, often with little to say, but as I've said earlier the crowd effect helped create a frantic, confused speedy jumble, and the actors and script seem more exposed now. The new Nigel was given far more lines than Martin Clunes had ever been given, though I couldn't help wondering how Mr Clunes would have delivered them.

Raymond was absent, which was a hole, but I know he will be back later, as will Liz Crowther's character. Her character is wonderfully dopey, and clearly besotted with Raymond.

I shall watch the next episode with interest but I would dearly love to know the rationale behind this slimmed-down group of Crabtrees. Was it a cost-cutting exercise or had the new director ideas about revivifying the show by concentrating on key characters?

Which reminds me of the end of an episode from the densely populated era. Arthur, Trevor and Raymond are going off fishing. As they drive away, Raymond frantically squealing with delight like a five year old ("Me and Dad are going fishing!"), the family, who have all come out to see the trio off, walk back to the house in the evening sunshine, Vera peeling off to spend a lonely Trevorless night in her place. Then Beryl signals to her, and Vera opens her arms with joy to be escorted into the Crabtrees' home by the two sons. 

It's not particularly funny, indeed it's not funny, but it's a moment which helps explain why this often silly and unambitious and outdated comedy still has an impact - on me, at least. There's a heart which makes you forgive it a lot. So I shall stick with it, and continue to bring back bulletins from the frontline - or, if you will, my crumb-infested sofa. You deserve nothing less.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Further further thoughts on No Place Like Home

For those who may care about such things, the Drama Channel has just started repeating the fourth series of No Place Like Home - and by the show's previous standards the tone is distinctly odd.

The Series 3 finale, shown the previous day, was crammed with characters as usual, only more so, as the Crabtrees celebrated their silver wedding and non-speaking uncles thronged the living room. The plot, revolving around rival attempts to celebrate the occasion while those involved affected to know nothing about it, was properly farcical, even if the plotting was rather less intricate  than Fawlty Towers, and Raymond, the annoying but sort of endearing son in law, did an Eamon Andrews as the kids covertly arranged their surprise for their parents: a This Is Your Life type reunion of relatives.

Arthur and Beryl, despite having (separately) made other plans for a meal and a night away, had no choice but to succumb, but it was good humoured: even Vera, the meddlesome neighbour had a kiss bestowed on her from Arthur when she presented the couple with a commemorative salver - and, in a rare moment of self knowledge, she alluded to the "tolerance" her neighbours had shown her. And watching William Gaunt, cigar and drink in hand, there was a kind of end of term atmosphere to the proceedings which seemed to be about the actors as well as their characters. I have written in the past about episodes tailing off or deliberately ending on a downbeat, but on this occasion Arthur paid a sweet compliment to his wife and the whole thing ended on a note of warmth, with much cheering from the audience.

Well, the new term is rather different. Martin Clunes has left the show and his replacement, while not quite a lookalike, certainly borrows the mannerisms and the hairstyle, though the ears look distressingly normal. I have read that the actor playing the other brother sadly died before this series, but his replacement did not appear in this first episode.

There was - it seems absurd to say "darkness" about the proceedings, but without a swarm of family members, and with much talk of couples separating, the show seemed to be edging towards something more sombre. I don't know whether Marcia Warren reappears later, but the real bombshell of the episode was that Vera was staying with her sister, had got rid of most of her animals, and Trevor seemed to imagine the separation might be permanent.

Now, when Morecambe and Wise slimmed down their comedy famously got better, but when you remove or thin out the crowd of siblings and others who help with the farcical tempo then No Place Like Home becomes ... well, something else. (And I'm not using jive jargon in this instance, Daddio.)

There was a new director - hitherto it has always been Robin Nash, also the producer, or Susan Belbin - so I don't know whether that contributed to the change of atmosphere, but the overall effect was a little melancholy. At one point Arthur absents himself from involvement in his married daughter's breakup, goes and gets drunk with Trevor in the greenhouse, actually having beer, and although we are told he was dragged up to bed the episode ends with his being back in the greenhouse in the middle of the night, he and the newly single Trevor, riotously drunk, even though we only see and hear them from a distance. It's quite a serious note to end on, given the normal parameters of that little world. Beryl seemed quite distressed earlier about having to drag the drunken Arthur to bed.

So what will happen? Who knows? I can't find much online, and part of me doesn't want to know. But a show without Vera may be a bit like Hancock's Half Hour without the appearance of Kenneth Williams. Like Hancock, will No Place Like Home mutate into something else? Hard to imagine, but I know it ran for a fifth series, so we shall see. It was pleasing to see that Liz Crowther, the pesky Raymond's work colleague, had been brought back, and that Raymond himself, despite splitting up with Lorraine, was determine to stay in the family (her family) home. With the absence of Martin Clunes and possibly Marcia Warren, we will certainly need the regular injection of his energy.

So watch this space for further updates. It's not impossible that the show will reshape itself, but I don't feel optimistic. Arthur may be the centre of the show but he needs his batty satellites.

In a separate note, Marcia Warren was playing a child murderer on Casualty last Saturday. The actress is now thirty years older than she was on the sitcom but it was disturbing to note that the character's aggressive bonhomie seemed not a million miles from that of Vera, especially as the charm was turned on and off like a tap, replaced with an abruptness of manner.

Is this the way that No Place Like Home is going to go? Alright, probably not, but if I could send one message to the past it would be this plea: "Bring back Helen Durward." She has bags of experience playing Avis on Crossroads, and she is capable of the right sort of performance. She could easily be a different sort of annoying next door neighbour, and Trevor could come to love her, in time. (She's initially a lodger, let's say, having been ousted from her house, then things take a turn for the better. With her love for parrots, she couldn't be a better fit.)

So that's my message, my instruction, to Robin Nash. Thirty years too late: he and his directors have long ago already done whatever it is that they have done and like a chorus I must watch it. Be it good or bad I'll be there till the bitter end (assuming the Drama Channel is broadcasting all five series), never forgetting I have a self-imposed duty to inform and occasionally entertain the readers of this blog.

Postscript: *** SPOILER ALERT ***

I have just read that Marcia Warren did indeed leave after Series 3, so presume a large part of Series 4 will involve Trevor's efforts to find solace elsewhere (though after Vera, any termigant has to be a substantial improvement). Astonishly, however, I read that Vera is replaced by another actress in Series 5. That is quite a shock: Martin Clunes' part was relatively small but Vera's are pretty big shoes to fill. Nevertheless it means that Series 4, sans that big, big performance might indeed go in another direction, as the first episode suggests. We shall see.

Initial post about No Place Like Home here.
Further thoughts here.

Monday, 16 February 2015


A recently broadcast documentary about the Dave Clark Five - it's currently available on BBC iplayer here, if you are resident in the UK - makes me think some readers might be interested in my review of the group's film Catch Us If You Can.
Two Films in Conflict

Though he wasn't much of a musician (someone in Melody Maker once opined a list of the shortest books in the world would include Lessons in Drumming Technique by Dave Clark) Clark had aspirations to be an actor and this film (scripted by Peter Nichols, better known for his stage work, and the directing debut of John Boormanm) is a sort of road movie-cum-anti-advertising satire bolstered by a cast of interesting character actors. It's got great period charm and, as other reviewers have said, it stands up very well - it's certainly streets ahead of many other low budget pop movies.

That said, you can see that there are two films in conflict with each other here: a wacky one with the group zooming around in a fun jeep (the film was called Wild Weekend in the US) following Clark and his girlfriend, versus a more reflective account of the emptiness of various values - beatniks, aristos, the advertising world etc. The remaining four group members are pretty redundant here except when the hero, seeing the model for what she is, is once more united with them at the end. So there aren't really personae fashioned for the group, as Owen famously did with the Beatles in Hard Day's Night: for better or worse, this is definitely a starring vehicle for one Dave Clark.

On the subject of Clark's acting I'm undecided: whether he is playing "saturnine" as the more complimentary reviews have it or whether (as Alun Owen was supposed to have done for the Beatles) Peter Nichols fashioned his script around the perceived limitations of the performer, I don't know.

And as I know nothing about the acting talents of the others maybe their lack of involvement is just as well, but one real deficiency of the screenplay, rather than the acting, is that some parts are slightly underwritten: the Clark character's disillusionment with his old teacher is achieved in doublequick time, for example. But finally it's good to have a film which is trying to say something about the times rather than simply cashing in on a pop group or settling for a sub-Cliff Richard type movie with its roots in a Hollywood of decades before.

Incidentally, for those of a sociological/Media Studies bent this is Media Studies maven Andy Medhurst's take on the film from from the bfi publication The Celluloid Jukebox, an examination of the development of the pop movie:

"The fact that the Dave Clark Five were less well known and individuated than the Beatles curiously enhances the film's impact; they're more malleable, more usable as iconographic shorthand for the liberating jolt of now-ness that permeates the film. The stock narratives and Rooney-Garland conventions that dogged the likes of (a film such as) Be My Guest are thrown away, the sociology of What a Crazy World vanishes in favour of pure semiotics. Even A Hard Day's Night had half a foot in kitchen-sink naturalism, but Catch Us If You Can, especially in its first startling 30 minutes, goes all out for the shiny plastic immediacy of the moment. It is, in short, where the pop film becomes the Pop film."
I don't propose to add a detailed review of the documentary although I did have a few thoughts as I watched. Despite all the praise heaped on them by some big name celebs, the documentary, controlled by Clark's company, came over, to this (UK) viewer at least, as a remarkable piece of marketing more than anything else. There were, occasionally coy, references to the Beatles but the spectre of that group's Anthology documentary series loomed large over proceedings - at least for me. Quite a number of the DC5's American hits seemed to be covers, however well done, and there wasn't the sense of development and evolution which characterised the Beatles' output. I noticed that a particularly silly record, The Red Balloon, which I remember as being a sizeable hit in the UK, was omitted from consideration entirely. So let's have it here:

It was also notable that it took some time before Mike Smith was eventually given his due in the film, and you couldn't but be aware that just about every scrap of film, no matter how fleeting, had to ensure that Clark's beaming presence was in the shot. Then each recording from his Dominion Theatre musical Time bore Clark's production credit.

Then again, at a time when ripoffs were rife, Clark's story was and remains a triumphant one, a success story in business terms. He leased his masters to record companies and has not had to suffer the court battles of so many. He has known how to market and manage himself and his group. And the interest in acting led to his studying at London's Central School, though I'm not sure how much acting he did afterwards.

But when certain individuals were praising his achievement in producing the musical Time, originally starring Cliff Richard and a "hologram" (actually a projection, I believe, as there used to be of a fortune teller in the penny arcade at Brighton) you got the sense that the tactful emphasis was on the fact of its being staged, and what an achievement that represented in itself. It certainly had a mixed critical reception. And Tom Hanks' speech inducting the (then) three surviving members of the group was fed to us in segments throughout the programme, possibly because no one else had gone into such raptures before or since.

Put it this way: if I were a member of a sixties pop group I'd be delighted if Clark made a film about me. I'd know that I was being given the best possible shot, portrayed in the best possible light. But as a viewer with a keen interest in sixties pop who wasn't a particular fan of the Dave Clark Five I couldn't help thinking that two hours was a bit too long to sit through a litany of praises for Mr Clark. And much as I like Catch Us If You Can, as detailed above, the documentary gave me the same feeling as the feature film: a lot of the music seemed nondescript.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Rich picking (Joe Brown and Chris Smither)

In the last week or so I've been listening a lot to a recording made of a Joe Brown concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic. I think this was the same show I saw, and briefly wrote up here, at the Millfield Theatre in Edmonton, although a few of the song choices are different. But there is still that same sense of the performers' enjoyment, that this is rather more than a greatest hits package, so I thought I'd share a couple of those video clips here.

The first is a rendition of Mystery Train, sung by drummer Phil Capaldi with an effect on the mike which really does suggest an Elvis Sun-era voice, along with a nice guitar solo by Brown. But the key thing is that the overall effect is of everyone, as they say, gettin' it on, and it's sheer pleasure to watch and listen. It's not a carbon copy of the famous recording but it seems to capture its spirit.

The other piece is a song which Joe says was passed onto him by his friend Alvin Lee: Chris Smithers' Leave the Light On, hitherto unknown to me. It's delivered at a steady pace, rather slower (as I subsequently found) than the versions to be found on youtube by its composer. 

Both approaches work, I think, but the less tentative online performances by Smithers certainly correspond to what he says about his work in an interview to be found on youtube. The song is about a dawning sense of the imminence of death, but the briskness of Smithers' guitar (and the foot tapping in one video) suggests a no-nonsense attitude on the part of the narrator. 

In the (presumably intended for radio) interview Smithers talks about how, for him, the guitar part comes first when trying to write, then a bit of scat singing ultimately followed by a line or two which then suggests the rest of the lyrics.


I recently heard John Kander say in an interview that the best ideas often come remarkably quickly, and those which didn't often sounded as though a lot of work had gone into them. For all its complexity - and I make no pretence that I have figured out the lyrics line by line yet - Leave the Light On sounds like one of the former: that title, assuming it was indeed the first line which came to Smithers, seems to anchor the song, determining its content. 

I have now found another online interview, viewable here, which puts the apparent ease of songwriting in context. Smither says that he shares with all the other songwriters he's talked to a sense of the mystery of the process: he can't ultimately work out why or how it's coming out, although he seems to have learnt to trust that most times it will.

Anyway, I look forward to exploring Chris Smither's work more fully, and if you wish to hear more of that Joe Brown concert, here is a link to the youtube playlist to hear the songs in order. The concert is also available on DVD.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Further thoughts on No Place Like Home

I am still watching No Place Like Home (on the Drama Channel, if you are UK-based and have Freeview), and still trying to puzzle out precisely what it is I feel about it. And an episode broadcast yesterday has helped me along the way, hence this second post.

First of all, when I was talking about tempo in the previous post - well, it's obvious now. It's not a farce as such, but it is played at a farcical pace: that's why you're drawn in (if you are anything like me), and even as you register the improbabilities it is a place you want to be.

Because the performances are, uniformly, superb. From the morose Arthur (William Gaunt) holding it all together, to the manic son-in-law (Daniel Hill), a  sort of oversized child or puppy, repellent and endearing in equal measure, everyone seems to get the most out of the dialogue. My sense that neighbour Vera (Marcia Warren) was out of place no longer seems relevant: naturalistic it ain't. I can't remember now whether initial episodes were perhaps less certain, but the sense now (meaning in the middle of the third series being repeated as I write this) is that everyone gets it. It's not the same, but one of the joys of Third Rock From the Sun was that everyone had locked into a way of playing.

The writing, however, I am less sure about. I suspect that portions would make for dreary reading on the page. But then again it was written to be played, not read.

By and large there aren't many outside characters in individual episodes, but yesterday's plotline, about Vera's crazy menagerie getting out of control, involved a protest by a group of neighbours whom Arthur sees queueing up to complain outside Vera and Trevor's house.

And here's where I get confused - but in a good way. At first I scanned the faces,  predictable suburban types, but then I got drawn to one in particular, who had quite a substantial chunk of half-surreal dialogue about a disappearing parrot who had made his escape posing as one of the plastic birds in the cage (it could have been written for Freddie Davies).

And as I listened and marvelled I thought several things. Where the h*ck had I seen her before? The answer is that she was Helen Durward, who played Avis Tennyson ("no relation") in Crossroads, a particularly feckless waitress who succumbed to a cutprice Bilko called Bill, and even took him back when he returned to the series after some duplicity had been exposed.

But I was also wondering: "What's this going to lead to for the episode as a whole?" And the answer was: nothing. The neighbours did not show up at the subsequent court hearing, for all their protesting, and we saw Ms Durward's character no more. I do hope we might see her again, but who knows?

So all there was was a perfect little cameo which allowed the actress to play a kind of exaggerated version of Avis, or a near relative. Now, in terms of plot structure, that was sort of bad. But in the minute or two that her musings lasted we were given all we really needed to know about the character. So the decision was sort of right. And both the performance and the sheer quality of the writing justified this detour up a cul de sac. And soon the spotlight was firmly put on Vera, giving an impassioned defence of her animal kingdom.

There are many moments in No Place Like Home where individual lines and aspects of plot development feel like they need tweaking. But it matters and it doesn't. The characters come on and they entertain and beguile us, and that's enough. I also recall what my friend late of North Berwick once said about an episode of Simon Nye's Hardware. Structurally it was slipshod and lazy, but it made him laugh (as it did me). No Place Like Home is, I suppose, the lightest of fare, but played beautifully, and I look forward to returning to the Crabtrees' home tonight.

Earlier post here.
Further further thoughts here.

Friday, 23 January 2015

No Place Like Home (80s BBC sitcom currently being repeated)

The world will little note nor long remember my thoughts on the 80s sitcom No Place Like Home yet I feel compelled to record them. If you'd like to look over my shoulder - if, indeed, you too have been watching the current reruns on the Drama channel - then feel free.

I don't think I ever saw this when it was originally broadcast but now, thanks to the magic of Freeview, I have been able to watch most of the first two series over the space of a couple of weeks. 

And I still haven't come to a decision about it. I do recall seeing William Gaunt in a more recent sitcom with Penelope Keith (Next of Kin) in which his role was essentially that of feed to Ms Keith, but with occasional opportunities for pathos which made me wonder how he would be as the centre of a sitcom.

Well, unknown to me, he'd already been in such a role - and No Place Like Home ran for four series. What's more, it had an early role for Martin Clunes. Here are all the family members (sans appurtenances):

It's an odd sitcom to judge, or so it seems to me now. It's undoubtedly mainstream, and at least some of the time in a kind of sitcom neverland, but it also pushes, or at least gently nudges, at the boundaries a bit in an effort to reflect the changing social attitudes in the 80s. The four overgrown kids who return to the parental home (that's the premise) have sex, live with their partners, and the father ruefully accepts the situation. He's not having a mid-life crisis like Ria in Butterflies - or, for that matter, Reggie Perrin. It's more like a kind of slow deflation as new and confusing events dance around him. It's no longer a world he recognises but he continues to bankroll, and therefore tacitly condone, his offspring's behaviour, aided by a bit of nudging from his wife.

The setup could allow for something much darker, but however irritated Gaunt gets there is no fundamental change in his passivity. He was the breadwinner through his kids' childhoods and that is what he continues to be.

There are cartoonlike aspects. The meddling neighbour, Vera, played by Marcia Warren, is useful for pushing the plot forward at times, but the performance seems at odds with that of the actor playing her husband. Early on in the first series there were some variety-style high jinks with the husband trying to restrain an offscreen brute of a dog, in exactly the same manner as a Morecambe and Wise routine, and there is much talk of the menagerie of animals the neighbours supposedly have. Yet the husband also has naturalistic conversations with William Gaunt as they try to hide from their respective families.

Gaunt's wife is also an interesting figure. Her children try to encourage her to be more independent, and in the last episode I saw there was a plot revolving round what she might do with her husband's redundancy money (set up a pet shop with Vera was the unlikely answer), but she seems as much the slave of her children's demands as her husband's.

Watching it now, none of this ought to work terribly well, and indeed there are times when I'm not entirely sure why I'm watching it. But as one who religiously sat through every episode of Ben Elton's The Wright Stuff I obviously have a high tolerance threshold, and the question of why a sitcom doesn't quite come off is every bit as interesting to me as why one does. And having a daily sitcom waiting on your hard disk drive for you to come home - well, you may as well watch it before you delete it forever.

And last night, with two episodes on my hard drive needing to be watched, I found myself warming to it more. One plot revolved around Gaunt's character Arthur meeting his first girlfriend again. The opportunity for wilful misunderstanding by neighbour Vera was duly taken, although (spoiler alert!) the reunion never had any chance of progressing beyond friendship,and the entire family later sit down to have a meal together with this notional threat - who, it transpires, only wanted to put a bit of business (no, not that sort) in her old boyfriend's way.

In the subsequent episode Arthur is facing the threat of redundancy unless he relocates to Manchester. Once his family point out to him that they couldn't survive without his patronage (and free accommodation) he has a change of heart and storms in to see his boss (John Barron, giving a performance of an eccentricity surpassing that of Marcia Warren's Vera) only to discover that everything's okay: another employee is now willing to make the trek North.

It's a sitcom about a man who is, at worst, mildly exasperated with his family, and there is really very little at stake ... and yet, on the basis of the last two episodes I know I am going to watch it to the end, even if the Drama Channel shows all four series.

Why? Well, it's partly down to the quality of the performances, despite the lurches between something like naturalism and something rather bigger. And Gaunt's hangdog face, and manner, makes him right for the role: difficult to imagine Richard Briers keeping a lid on his propensity to fizz. The scenes where he commiserates with his neighbour are very pleasing, which reminds me of the equivalent characters in the sitcom All About Me, which featured Jasper Carrot and Meera Syal (though she wisely jumped ship after Series One). Whether it was about bad writing or bad performing I couldn't say at this distance, but Carrot's character had a confidante at work who was so patently a cipher that it was painful to watch. And my feeling about those two most recent episodes of No Place Like Home was that everything possible had been wrung out of the storylines by the performers. The writer, Jon Watkins, may not be delving into the hot heart of human suffering but those episodes, in particular, felt fully realised. And the series was originally broadcast on the Beeb, so more time to delve into character. Granted, the four children don't always seem fully distinguished from each other, but the focus is on how Arthur reacts to them.

I'm not quite sure what else I want to say other than the series seems ... well, warmhearted, I suppose. By which I don't mean the bolted-on moment of sentimentality which afflicted the endings of episodes of the Carrot sitcom All About Me (it really wasn't very good). It's not afraid to have slightly downbeat endings. Is it unambitious? I suppose it is. Nothing ever really goes too wrong. The wife will never (I'm guessing) break free, nor the chicks leave the nest. And we know, for all his complaining, Arthur doesn't really want it any other way. But I find myself enjoying the playing out of these small tensions. No Place Like Home isn't groundbreaking. But it is very well made, with small incidents mined to the full. I don't know Jon Watkins' other work, and perhaps I'll explore it after this. 


Watched another episode tonight, centering around the idea of a curfew and found myself laughing out loud at the moment where, for reasons which need not detain us here, the various offspring set off in cars in the middle of the night and bumped into each other. 

That oughtn't to be terribly funny, but I think I was responding to a rhythm, a pace - a music, one may as well say. Judged coldly on the page individual lines might, I imagine, fall a little flat, but onscreen it's all so engaging. It's a sitcom which doesn't set its sights too high and yet ... it's polished entertainment, for one thing. It doesn't feel "Beneltoned" - a term coined by Richard Herring meaning underwritten. Candyfloss light the situations may be but there is ... I dunno, something which makes me want to surrender, and I can only put it down to the musical thing: an act of hypnotism akin to the experience of seeing (and hearing) the Master Musicians of Joujouka at the Royal Festival Hall.

Anyways, I shall stick with it and report back if my feelings change. 

Further thoughts here.
Further further thoughts here.

Thursday, 25 December 2014


Hello, and welcome to my fifth annual Christmas Quiz.

This year, there is a difference. No, the questions have not been dumbed down but after a considerable number of complaints from contestants there are less of the convoluted Round Britain Quiz type questions. This does not mean the questions are any easier. DARE you try it?

Remember it's only a bit of fun. Answers will be posted in three days' time. 

[update: there is now a link to answers at the end]

1. Which troubadour proclaimed: "Love is hot, truth is Motown"?

2. What do these hits have in common; "Well I Ask You", "Breakfast on Pluto" and "I Am a Cathedral" ?

3. She was a well-known female folk singer in the late 1960s and recorded an album track/B-side entitled Fields of Sand. Who was she ?

4. Who are the illiterates:

"He never ever learnt to read or write so well / But he could play a guitar"

"Talking on the phone is not my speed, / Don't send me no letters cause I can't read"

"All the words of hurt unfold / For within my heart is the power of gold"

5. Who are the wrappers:

"I will bring you happiness, / Wrapped up in a box and tied with a yellow bow"

"Save the girls upstairs for later ... Wrap them up in Christmas paper"

"In mute and glorious cellophane / His body struts on the azure possibly 'astral'] plain"

6. Complete the title by Katz Singing Orchestral Circus: Quick Joey ...

7. What connects the leaders of the Midnighters and the Dreamers?

8. What links Liza Minnelli to the doo wop hit Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight?

9. Who wrote the theme to the film version of Porridge?

10. Who wrote the theme to the film of Till Death Us Do Part?

11. Carlene Fisher recorded an answer record entitled Alright, I Won't Take My Love to Town, Don't Go On About It. Name the original song.

12. Who wrote the musical "Oliver" as well as Cliff Richard's hit "Living Doll"?

13. Although he never had a number 1 hit, Billy Fury reached the top 3 on four occasions; name ONE of those four songs.

14. In Cliff's early tours his roadie was one Andy More. Why was he nicknamed "Love"?

15. Who did Lulu pinch Shout! from?

16. He's Very Good With His Hands. Name the composer of this obscurity.

17. Identify these canine ditties:

"Solving crime's his asset, / Which ain't too bad for a long-eared bassett"

"Old MacDonald he made us work / But he paid us for what it was worth"

"I turned around to solve this mystery / And who d'ya think was sittin' next to me?"

18. They say you shouldn't mix your drinks or drink and drive, but why do Bonaparte Shandy, Cherry Cola and unmarked cars belong together?

19. What links Happiness Is a Warm Gun, A Day in the Life and Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner?

20. What links Charlie Drake, Elia Kazan and "Auntie" Jean Morton?

Update 28th December: Answers here. Good luck and Merry Christmas!

Monday, 22 December 2014

Days of 49

It's called "49ing" or "bridging" (the former alludes to The 49th Street Bridge Song aka Feelin' Groovy) and it is, at least according to an article I read, the latest craze for music fans of a certain age - usually male. It's very simple, but has really taken hold now that just about everyone has a microphone of sorts connected to their PC for skyping etc.

The idea is that you improvise a deliberately portentous speech over the instrumental section of a favourite track, rather as the Ink Spots and some of their successors in the doo wop age did. But the trick is to produce something that the listener can - sort of - believe just might have been on the original recording, so some kind of digest of the sentiments of the song lyrics (allied to an ability to ape the spoken tones of the original vocalist) seems to work best.

Most of the efforts I've heard seem to work in one of two ways, though there is some overlap. On rare occasions the spoken bit really does seem to encapsulate the song, a bit like the old-fashioned introductory verses in those pre rock'n'roll songs. 

More usually, however, the effect is to point up the limitations of the original lyricists, so it can feel a bit smug and superior. At best, however, it's done with affection, and I have read comments on forums which suggest that the act of searching for appropriate songs has given some "49ers" fresh interest in their collections.

Not all songs lend themselves to this cheerful defacing. David Bowie's After All (from The Man Who Sold the World) seems to have become a bit of a favourite already, for some reason - maybe because the hint of Kurt Weill in the arrangement means that a spoken section feels a logical step. Anyway, here it is (sans speech if you don't count Bowie's vocal) if you want to have a try yourself.

Already I have seen suggestions on forums that it's all a bit Mojo Magazine-ish, a bit clever-clever by middle-aged males who have forgotten what it means to be moved by music. Maybe so, but anything that sends people back to their old records, searching for something in them they haven't heard before, seems like a good thing to me. 

And maybe it's good not to be too precious about one's music. The recordings are hardy enough to withstand a bit of sonic doodling - and if they're not, well, maybe it's good to recognise that too. 

The musical interlude on After All starts about 1' 56'' in: 


Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sam Cooke documentaries on BBC Radio 2


I don't know whether they are connected but there are two Sam Cooke documentaries on BBC Radio 2 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The first, (Don't Fight It) Feel It: the Sam Cooke Story, was broadcast on Tuesday and is now available on BBC iplayer here - I'm presuming in America too. It will be accessible for four weeks.

The second programme, The Shooting of Sam Cooke, will be broadcast next Tuesday and available on iplayer here shortly afterwards - the page is worth visiting beforehand as it suggests original research:
With the help of a private detective, Dotun Adebayo examines the never-before-aired coroner's report, searching for signs of foul play, and scrutinises testimonials. He interviews key witnesses, like Grammy-winning record producer Al Schmitt, who was the last person to see Sam alive, and speaks to Sam's living relatives. Dotun takes a magnifying glass to the events of that fateful night, with the intent to unravel what really happened.
Is there really more to be uncovered beyond speculation? We shall see.  Meanwhile, here is a guide to posts on this blog about Sam Cooke:

The Elusive Man and His Accessible Music
Discusses Peter Guralnick's biography Dream Boogie, the CD box set of Specialty Recordings and A City Called Glory, the BBC radio play by Neil McKay.

Waxing/waning crescent moon (Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers) 
Discussion of the Specialty gospel sides with audio clips.

Ben E King at Jazz Cafe and repost of Stand By Me
A comprehensive account of the origins of Ben E King's Stand By Me, including a discussion of Cooke's Stand By Me Father and Tindley's gospel original.

Don't Stand So Close By Me
A Junior Parker song closely modelled on Cooke's Stand By Me Father plus other examples of musical "borrowing."

Whatever happened to ... the Sam Cooke biopic?
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais talk about their rejected film treatment.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Review of Hancock's Ashes, BBC Radio 4

I have just listened to Hancock's Ashes, an Afternoon Drama written by Caroline and David Stafford which is currently Radio 4's Play of the Week. It's very well done: there's a narrowness of focus which means the story is perfectly suited to the forty five minute slot. I wonder, in fact, if it has its origins on the stage, as it all takes place in one location, and despite a few offstage murmurs is essentially a duologue between Willie Rushton (Ewan Bailey) and an Australian customs official (Richard Dillane), adamant that the eponymous remains which Rushton wants to take back to England must travel in the hold of the plane. On the other hand, I suppose you could say it's a perfect chamber piece for radio.

Without going into too much detail, as that would ruin the surprise of the piece's twists and turns along the way, the play quickly establishes itself as a battle of wits, the official claiming he doesn't have a TV and isn't interested in the news, so despite the headlines about his recent suicide "Mr Hancock" is an unknown quantity to him. Surely unlikely, but you need that for the play to work: always put more pressure on the protagonist, as they say, and it means the Rushton character really has to struggle to state his case and woo this Antipodean jobsworth entirely lacking in residual fondness for the great comedian.

Outlined as it is above, this could have turned out as a kind of playwriting by numbers, so all credit to the writers, Caroline and David Stafford, for creating someone who seems a worthy foeman for Rushton - again, I can't say more without spoiling it. And the play wittily exposes the problem of trying to explain Hancock's appeal to someone who hasn't seen him. After all, there are no real gags you can quote, and how do you describe one of those facial expressions? I seem to remember that at some point even Roger Wilmut (in his book Tony Hancock: "Artiste") had to fall back on saying: "He was funny because he was funny." And I remember an acquaintance at art school, of a vintage to have the programmes when they originally came out, saying that he and his friends would turn the sound down, just to watch that wonderfully mobile face.

But if you're not a Hanock nut, don't worry. The play isn't concerned with making a detailed case for Hancock in order to convert non-believers. In fact it doesn't really depend on any knowledge of the comedian at all - nor, indeed, of Willie Rushton - to be enjoyed. Those who are familiar with both men may remember a particular connection between them, which is employed to very good effect in the play, but the piece can be enjoyed simply as a culture clash: Rushton's role as satirist and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war are also woven into the narrative.

Hancock's Ashes is such a great idea that I can't help wondering why no one has thought of it before - but (as with a radio play about Stan Laurel, similarly narrow in focus, reviewed here) it's also very well executed. I should also make clear that it isn't simply a talk piece: there is enough in the way of narrative suspense to hold an audience. And if it's possible to make a reasonable guess at the story's eventual outcome - it's Radio 4 in the afternoon, not Radio 3 on a Sunday night or the late lamented Friday evening slot on 4 - there are pleasing surprises en route.

And if it is, as I suppose, an intentional nod towards the typical Hancock situation - the Lad coming up against a petty-minded authority figure - then, for reasons I can't go into without spoiling your enjoyment, it's very satisfying that Willie Rushton should be his representative on this occasion.

Hancock's Ashes, by Caroline and David Stafford, can be heard on the BBC page here for the next four weeks. (The page also has a link to the Drama of the Week podcast where I presume it can be downloaded over the next week, at least.) 

Self-promotional bit: I am the cowriter of Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by veteran comedian Freddie "Parrotface" Davies - details here. Freddie appeared with Tony Hancock on The Blackpool Show in 1966. The above is a screengrab but you can see a clip, introduced by Hancock, here.

Hancock biographer John Fisher has written about Funny Bones here.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Praise from John Fisher

There is now a dedicated blog for Funny Bones, the autobiography of comedy legend Freddie Davies what I cowrote, but I can't resist posting some wonderful words of praise from John Fisher in this blog as well.

John, if you don't know, is the author of Funny Way to Be a Hero and producer of the related TV series Heroes of Comedy. He has also written biographies of Tommy Cooper and Tony Hancock. This is what he was kind enough to say:
I can’t get over how good Funny Bones is. Freddie Davies’ autobiography, co-written with Anthony Teague, is unquestionably one of the most honest and illuminating books I have read about the practice of comedy, never losing sight of the pressures and insecurities of a job that is prone to more ups and downs than a roller coaster. Along the way it provides fresh insights into other comedy greats, not least Sid Field, Sir Norman Wisdom, Frankie Howerd, Jerry Lewis, George Carl, Charlie Drake and Davies’ ostensible grandfather, the underrated revue comic Jack Herbert, who was a major influence on Field. It also vividly evokes the hollow shabbiness of so much of the late twentieth century British show business scene in that period betwixt the Beatles and Blur. In every way, a cornerstone of its genre. 

                                               John Fisher, writer and producer

Buy Funny Bones here.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Jake Thackray and Songs DVD now out

For those who don't yet know and would benefit from knowing, I bear the happy news that a DVD of extracts from the series Jake Thackray and Songs has just been issued. I have ordered it but have not yet seen it. This is from the product description on am*zon:

At last Jake Thackray's legendary television series, 'Jake Thackray and Songs', is released on DVD, by arrangement with BBC Music. ....  'Jake Thackray and Songs', broadcast in 1981, captures him at the height of his powers; it paints an intimate portrait of Jake as a live artist, playing to audiences in the small venues where he felt most comfortable. This DVD features all of his performances from the series: thirty of his greatest songs, along with his inimitable between-songs chat and storytelling. Also included are previously unreleased performances by three outstanding guest artists: Ralph McTell, Alex Glasgow and Pete Scott. 
If you haven't read my posts relating to Jake Thackray, the main one is here followed by two related post which also discuss Ralph McTell here and here.

Looking at the Jake Thackray website, I see that a great deal of his TV output appears to have survived. No indication, alas, of the appearances on the show Tickertape which have stayed in my mind (in particular a song which may have been called Sophie and William), but I was glad to see this note:
This is a half hour film with visuals by Philip Bonham-Carter (lots of countryside scenes to match up with the music) and music by Jake Thackray (very different versions of familiar songs featuring piano and brass band accompaniment). It was first broadcast on 28/12/73.

The songs are as follows: The Rain on the Mountainside The Brigadier The Poor Sod The Cenotaph Old Molly Metcalfe Country Bus Little Tommy Haverley 
I recall seeing it and really enjoying it. If you saw the documentary about Jake, you may have seen the performance of Kirkstall Road Girl with a light, jazzy arrangement very different from, and far superior to, the record. That, and many other recordings from the Bernard Braden era, have survived. Victor Lewis-Smith's original radio documentary, which led to the TV one, included a bit of audio from an edition of Braden's Week I recall watching at the time in which Jake, as it were, strung out his part, prompting Bernard Braden to congratulate him for getting eight minutes out of a three minute song. (The Thackray website page with details of surviving TV appearances is here.)

There is also a page of radio material. Sadly, it's long gone, but I used to have a reasonable off-air recording of the Pete Drummond show featuring The Jolly Captain, Sister Josephine and some others. I still remember some of Mr Drummond's patter after The Jolly Captain. This isn't precisely word for word, but fairly close. If you are familiar with song you will know (SPOILER ALERT) that the captain's wife is a "whey-faced old nagbag" and when she dies he promptly marries "an apple-cheeked girl". Warned that he has remarried too soon and that his first wife will come back to torment him:
She'll scratch and she'll claw her way up from the grave,
Hacking her way back again with furious fingernails ...
the captain replies: "I buried her face downward, she's a long way to go."

Mr Drummond then said something along the lines of: "Which reminds me, I was scrambling around Box Hill with my girlfriend the other day - well, not scrambling, I was genteelly walking - when I saw a grave which said so-and-so was buried here face downwards. He was an eccentric." Could this become the equivalent of the Eleanor Rigby gravestone in Woolton Parish Church? Will Box Hill similarly become part of a Jake Thackray landmarks tour? There's a page about that resident of Box Hill here.

TW, TW, and thrice TW

At last a chance to see Frankie Howerd's appearance on TW3 in full. If you have seen any of the documentaries about Howerd then, like me, you may have been tantalised by a few brief glimpses of the 1963 appearance on TW3 which famously gave him back his career after his first major dip. I thought the Arena programme on Howerd was a dreary affair which only really came alive with a clip of him seizing his moment on Ned Sherrin's show.

Other documentaries have chosen slightly different extracts from that 1963 show, and for a while I contemplated trying to edit the material I had together in order to get at least a sense of the whole, which I was too young to see at the time.

It seemed the only way I'd get to see it, even though I knew it survived in complete form. A few years ago I was chatting to David Benson after a performance of his show about Frankie Howerd, and he said he'd seen a tape of the routine, which went on for about thirteen minutes - slightly too long, he said, with Howerd reluctant to quit even though he'd peaked.

Well, now you can judge for yourself, as someone has uploaded the complete That Was the Week That Was episode which features Frankie at the end. His spot starts about 27.30 in. Don't know how long it will be up, so hurry, hurry, and thrice etc.

I think David Benson might be right: it certainly feels like the material at the very end is not of the best. Odd, too, as I thought the TW3 stuff included the gag about shouting through the letterbox at Checkers, but presumably I'm misremembering that from the audio recording of his act at the Establishment Club. That is commercially available, and indeed I reviewed it on a well-known shopping website six years ago - which rather confirms my long-felt want - as another comic would have put it.

Establishment gold, BBC silver

Don't buy this assuming that the BBC material includes Howerd's history TW3 appearance which catapulted him back to stardom. It doesn't - and the BBC material is of variable comedic quality and sounds like it's from three separate shows, despite being presented as one track. The Establishment recording is, however, pure gold, showing Howerd at his best, well able to deal with the braying of Kenneth Williams and others in the very appreciative audience.

Whether or not it was an issue with licensing it's possible to understand why the TV comeback was not included - substantial portions, based on the extracts in documentaries I have heard, are the same as his Establishment act - but given its importance it would be worth listening to in its entirety, just as we are accustomed to alternative takes by jazz musicians etc. According to David Benson, who has heard the whole TW3 act, it tails off at the end - Howerd slightly outstays his welcome and loses the audience- but it would still be fascinating to hear.

Part, at least, of the BBC material is by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, and if you are familiar with Took's Laughter in the Air book on radio comedy you will recognise the opening BBC segment which is reproduced in the book. But the CD is well worth getting for the twenty odd minutes of the Establishment act which show a Howerd well able to tailor his comedy to the satirical needs of the day without being anything other than, well, Frankie Howerd.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Donald Sinden and Fiddler's Green

I was sorry to hear about the death of Donald Sinden. I have two memories of him, one shared by the playwright Simon Gray. In An Unnatural Pursuit, Gray's journal about the first production of his play The Common Pursuit, he describes going to see School for Scandal at the Duke of York's in order to check out one of the actors for a possible part in his play. Sinden is playing Sir Peter Teazle and Gray describes him in action:
Donald Sinden boomed richly away, postured ripely away, and was delighted in by the audience, whose delight he delighted in.
That was certainly my experience at the matinee I attended. I was studying Restoration comedy at the time (yes, yes, I know Sheridan's eighteenth century) but my exposure to high comedy of any sort (happy now?) had been limited to several stylised productions at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, so it was good to see a staging which may have been a bit of a museum piece but in a style which I'd never had a chance to ... well, to delight in before, as Gray says. And it wasn't difficult to believe that we were watching an unbroken line from its first staging. I can't remember how many asides were written into the play but I well recall that Sinden's Sir Peter indulged in quite a few.

That production was, I think, in the early eighties. A few years later I got the chance to see the great man at work up close when I attended rehearsals for a Thames sitcom pilot called Fiddler's Green.

I can't quite remember the justification for my being there, but the London college where I was being trained for a dominie's drudgery had a tutor whose neighbour happened to be the TV director and producer Tony Parker (Shelley etc) and somehow it was arranged that I should sit in on rehearsals for the show, which starred Donald Sinden and was written by Ian Davidson and John Chapman.

Actually, I suppose there was a media studies type of justification for my presence. But essentially it was my good luck that the timetabling of a two week project at my training college coincided with the rehearsals.

The sitcom didn't lead to a series though it was a good, gentle comedy, as pleasing as others of its sort, even if it didn't happen to be wildly original. Tony Parker took care, he told me, in casting the smaller parts, avoiding caricature.

I wrote up a report afterwards and sometime later proudly presented it to a tutor on a Media Education course I was attending in the evenings. She informed me that it needed to be boiled down to a couple of A4 sides if it was to work as an educational tool. This was a bit of a blow at the time, but then I'd already fulfilled what I considered to be the primary object of the exercise, namely to understand, for myself, more about how sitcom worked.

Rehearsals took place over a week in a Scout hut in Teddington, with me scribbling away in a notebook as Sinden boomed. It was undoubtedly his show. He was playing a retired admiral, or something of that type, whose elderly nanny was still living with him and keeping him in check.

She was played by Eleanor Summerfield, who may be familiar to some for her many roles in British films; Elspet Gray, the wife of Brian Rix, was the doting and attentive neighbour who secretly yearned for him while he was busy making a fool of himself, at least in this pilot episode, over the arrival of a younger woman in the village.

It was reassuring to see the care that was taken in all aspects of the production: one small piece of business was rehearsed over several hours, for example, and all the questions about motivation that would apply to more serious work were certainly asked during rehearsals. I remember feeling reassured that they were taking it seriously.

Which is not to say that it was without enjoyment. Tony Parker pointed  out with glee the barbs from Eleanor Summerfield's character which gave the show an extra sting: her role was essentially Sancho Panza to Sinden's Don Quixote, a pairing common to many sitcoms (Steptoe and Son, Frasier etc).

I seem to remember that on the Friday when the camera crew came into the rehearsal hall Sinden raised his game a bit, although everyone was giving a huge amount all the way through, and I was told it was an unusually happy company, thanks to the generosity of its star.

I can't pretend that I remotely got to know him. We only exchanged a few words, and rather stupidly I thought it was my role to stay at a distance, forever scribbling. Now I regret not taking more part in the general conversations between bouts of work: I ought to have trusted that I would remember the essentials and written them up on the way home.

But the director, Tony Parker, who had given permission for me to be there, was very kind to me, driving me to the station after rehearsals, and discussing comedy en route.

One of the discussions which I was party to, I think with Eleanor Summerfield, Donald Sinden and others in the cast, was the business of responding to the studio audience; Ms Summerfield remembered seeing Frankie Howerd unable to resist playing to them. And Tony had an anecdote about directing a sitcom - it may have been an episode of Shelley - which had to be recorded at the last minute without an audience because of a strike.

That same evening, after it had all been done and dusted, word came down that an audience would be permitted in the studio after all, and so a second version of the show was recorded. And even though the cast were all thorough professionals, and the presence of an audience is problemmatic (you can't play directly to them), their being in the studio nevertheless lifted all the performances.

When Fiddler's Green finally got into the studio on the Sunday, following a week of rehearsals in a nearby Scout hut, I have to admit it was slightly disappointing for me, for reasons which were nothing to do with the actors. I'd had the privilege of watching them perform only a few feet away from me; now, for the first time, I was introduced to the frustrations of being in a studio audience for a sitcom: the stopping and starting for technical reasons, the need to watch at least some of the action on the TV monitors when the cameras were in the way on stage. There was a warmup man, who would come to the fore again when there were hitches, although Donald Sinden himself often stepped in to jolly the audience along, mugging away for the camera if he or someone else fluffed a line.

But throughout the process, and not simply in that final, more public section of it, I have to say that Donald Sinden never gave any sense whatsoever of slumming it when he could have been doing King Lear or whatever. I suppose rehearsals were not that onerous, in the sense that they started in the morning and usually stopped by early afternoon, but there was a sense of steady industry throughout.

Which is not to say there wasn't enjoyment, including Sinden's mischievous variations in his delivery of a line like: "I shall tell her about my experiences in the Senior Service." At the end of the show Eleanor Summerfield's nanny asks Sinden's character what book he is reading, to which he answers with relish: "Oh, Balzac!" at which she storms out; there were times in rehearsal when he essayed alternatives such as "Suckling," which I assume he had coined. I hadn't seen Tony Parker direct before, but it was clear that he was greatly enjoying the process too. At one point I recall he remarked happily on having the urine extracted from him at regular intervals.

So there we are. Not exactly a Ken Tynan-style profile of a great comic actor, I admit, nor even an overview of his career (you can find that in one of the many obituaries online, such as Michael Billington's, here).  Simply a few memories of what, thanks to its generous star and director, was a very happy experience for me and it seems, the whole company.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Return of radio show about the Flamingos (Matt the Cat's Juke in the Back)

This is another post which involves recycling, prompted by seeing that Matt the Cat's radio show on the Flamingos is currently available once more on the Rock-it Radio website and can be downloaded for free while it's there. 

It's the first of three programmes, and Matt promises all the Decca recordings in a later episode. Go to the Rock-it Radio Archives Page here, and scroll down to show #5021 to download or stream. Shows are only online for a few weeks before they are displaced, so it may have gone or a later episode may be up, depending on when you read this. But there are always good things to listen to on the Rock-it website anyway, and you can support them by buying vintage radio broadcasts here.

If you have explored further than the most recent posts in this blog, you will know that it was originally set up to archive posts from a doo wop messageboard, and that a favourite subject of those messages was the Flamingos' recording of Golden Teardrops. This was recorded in 1953 for the small Chicago label Chance, before the group went to Parrot Records then found success at Chess Records.

There were no hits until they went to Chess, but the sides for Chance are among my faves, with jazzy, bluesy backing to enhance your listening pleasure. While nothing matches Golden Teardrops, there are plentiful delights among the other sides. You get a peerless harmony group plus a band made up of musos who can swing plenty good, sounding both loose and tight, with lots of subtle details which repay repeated listening. There are sites which concentrate on the band rather than the vocal groups they backed.

The first Matt the Cat programme features all the Flamingos' Chance work, A and B sides plus their version of September Song, unreleased at the time. If you haven't heard the group beyond  I Only Have Eyes For You, before, this programme may be a revelation. Matt provides a summary of their early career in between records.

And as Matt says, for more about the Flamingos Unca Marvy's site, here, is highly recommended.  And why not check out Marv's book about the Ink Spots, here? (Once again I must say to Marv that I've bought a copy and can only apologise for not having read it.)

The Ink Spots also feature, believe it or not, in the eary life of Freddie "Parrotface" Davies. You can buy his autobiography, which (ahem) I happen to have cowritten, by visiting my other blog dedicated to bigging it up, here. But the story is essentially as follows. Freddie was brought up in Salford but in 1947 at the age of ten he spent a month in London in the company of his inspirational grandfather, the comedian Jack Herbert. The Ink Spots were meant to be at the Casino (now the Prince Edward Theatre), but when Freddie and his grandmother attended a matinee they saw instead ... Jewel and Warriss. Not exactly an obvious substitute. Freddie had to wait over sixty years before an explanation (kindly supplied by Marv) was forthcoming.

To find out what that was - well, to echo Marv's words to me, buy the d*mn book.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Hermitage Revealed (new documentary by Margy Kinmonth)

 I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend the documentary Hermitage Revealed, which had its UK premiere at the Curzon Soho last night and is showing today (Tuesday 9th September) at Curzon Ripon and Curzon Victoria at 6.30.

It was, director Margy Kinmonth said in a brief Q&A afterwards, made primarily for cinema, and although it will eventually be shown on the Beeb I urge you to catch it on the big screen if you can. We seem to float at will through the Hermitage's many spaces and are even taken backstage to see the Museum director's desk, piled high with papers and books. There is the motif of a little boy walking around the gallery who is at once the current director, Mikhail Piotrovsky - son of a previous director and brought up in the building - and us, the popeyed audience, as we look around at the riches on offer.

The visual quality of the film, the lustre of the paintings captured on screen, really is staggering: apparently Margy Kinmonth reshot and reshot the exhibits, at times working against the dying of the light (not a metaphor but a seasonal reference).

There's no doubt that her efforts have paid off: you are continually gobsmacked by the beauty of painting after painting, aided by the simple device of seeing the whole composition first then cutting to one or two key details, lingering just long enough to feel that you've taken in the essence: a neat balancing trick, given how many artefacts there are to get through. On one notable occasion the formula was reversed and we first saw two shots of paint joyously swirling round before it was revealed we'd had our noses pressed up against a Van Gogh.

That came a little later in the film: at first we were examining all the items bought by Catherine II. They would have been more than enough to constitute a film in themselves, but the documentary gradually revealed itself to be interested in the larger story of the museum's survival over the centuries right up to the present day, taking in such events as the storming of the Winter Palace, the second world war, and more recent attempts to make the Hermitage into a space which reaches out to the whole world. A 2011 project with Anthony Gormley had marble statues taken off their plinths and put on floor level in one room with Gormley's own metal people next door.

And there was one detail related by Pliny the Elder (or Tom Conti, as he's known today) about the admirer of one sculpture who apparently took that admiration a little too far, leaving a permanent indication of his interest on the work. Which is certainly one way of achieving immortality.

More sombrely, we also learnt that many of the museum staff, relatives of the Romanovs, or others who had once held high positions in the Tsar's army, had been sentenced to the Gulags, seen as enemies of the State.

Another detail (the film is packed with them) called to mind the recent fire at Glasgow School of Art, and the efforts of the firefighters at Renfrew Street which helped save most of the building. We were told there was a fire (I can't remember when) at the Hermitage, and the staff immediately poured water down all the walls to preserve the works. And, asked at the end if there was anything she regretted having to leave out, Margy Kinmonth referred to a gallery attendant in the room where Rembrandt's Danae was subjected to an acid attack in 1985. He immediately threw himself in front of the painting, saving what he could of it, injuring himself in the process. Ms Kinmonth wasn't able to track him down, but as she said the man is a hero.

And through it all the museum has survived, though as the above should make clear this is not an empty tribute to a building but a testament to the continuing importance of art and imagination, and the spirit of those entrusted with preserving and publishing the Hermitage's contents ... even when those precious objects weren't actually in situ. One detail which leapt out at me was that soldiers would apparently listen, enthralled, as museum staff, standing by empty frames, talked about the paintings which had been removed for safekeeping in the second world war.

In writing this post I have to declare an interest, acquainted as I am with one of the makers of the film. That said, I know nothing about the making of the documentary beyond what Ms Kinmonth revealed in her Q&A. But as there are so many talking heads wheeled on to deliver a short piece about a specific area of expertise or personal experience, I can only marvel at the hours of footage which must have been whittled down to create such a coherent and satisfying narrative, making such good use of modern technology: I have never seen paintings looking so sumptuous and inviting onscreen. And apparently it's the first time a film maker outside of Russia has been granted such access to every nook and cranny ... including a sort of "Cat World" installation in the cellars.

So - cat lovers and others - do see Hermitage Revealed in a cinema if you can.

More details, including a trailer, can be found on the film's website here.

There's also an interesting piece about the background to the film's being made on the wftv website here.

Update January 4th 2015: If you are in the UK, a one hour version of Hermitage Revaled is about to be broadcast on BBC 4 at 9pm tonight, and you can now buy the DVD of the complete version from Foxtrot Films here.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Pentel Man or Blu-Tack Thinking

There is no pleasure sweeter than the awareness that one is in possession of a perfectly valid reason to recycle old blog posts. Especially when what I wrote didn't really fit in with the rest of the post and I can now make a whole new post out of it without too much extra effort. Sort of a victimless crime. A while ago, I wrote:
The promise of new stationery rarely delivers, in my experience, but continuing to buy it is an act of hope. Which reminds me of a Clive James interview with Jonathan Miller and Robbie Coltrane, viewable here, in which the good doctor goes off on a two minute riff about things and Robbie Coltrane eagerly joins in. What isn't mentioned, and may be relevant, is Coltrane's background as an art student: there is a shop in the basement of Glasgow Art School, and another - at least there was - a few blocks away. I still remember the joy, aged about fourteen, of my first Rapidograph: such perfect things I'd be drawing from then on ...
The recent publication of a book by James Ward entitled Adventures in Stationery sparked off further thoughts - this time about writing, rather than drawing, implements, in particular those orange Pentel pens with a fine tip which I used to use for essay writing when I was at university.

Afterwards they seemed to disappear, only to surface on those I Heart the 80s type programmes. At least, I think they did. (Beat.) Yes, yes, I'm pretty sure I can remember Johnny Vegas saying in a hoarse voice: "If you didn't have a Pentel Pen you were NOBODY." Unless that was spacehoppers and Phil Kay, or rather Peter. Anyway, in the places I normally search for stationery I certainly have no memory of seeing such pens in recent years.

But today I had a quick look online, and guess what? Yep: you can still buy them in large, cheap packs just about everywhere, it seems. You lied to me, Vegas. Or possibly one of those pesky Kay twins. So I'm going to. Buy them in large, cheap packs online, that is. And if traces of an ancient creative flame don't immediately set my veins atingle thereafter it can only mean the manufacturers have switched to a different ink or something.

You can read James Ward's own description of his book here and an amusing Independent article about him by Rhodri Marsen here. Faced with the attraction Ward and others feel for stationery, Marsden tries to make sense of it all:
Perhaps these everyday objects are reassuring, introducing as they do a kind of order in a chaotic world. Perhaps they're aspirational. After all, they facilitate creativity and progress; the purchase of a Moleskine notebook represents a small first step towards writing a novel, or planning a round-the-world trip. And they're certainly tools of procrastination. "When you want to get organised," says Ward, "the first thing you do is come into a shop like this and buy all the stuff that helps you get organised. It's a way of assuaging your guilt over your own inactivity. It makes you feel like you've done something, when all you've actually done is buy a pack of Post-it notes."
Sadly, I can buy all too easily into that.

It's worth reading the whole article, in which Marsden often finds himself laughing at some remark of Ward's meant entirely seriously. Spoiler alert: he sort of gets it by the end, or at least acknowledges that whatever else Ward may be he is undoubtedly a "beguiling storyteller" - as befits a man obsessed with stationery to such an extent that his work colleagues "probably wouldn't try to engage me in conversation about it", unlike his chums online:
At Stationery Club, a transatlantic Skype interview with the man who invented the Post-it note might be interspersed with pints of lager and a comparison of fibre-tipped pens.
Thus emboldened, I can't end this post without a wistful reference to my Sheaffer pen of former years. This was a "gift" hastily handed when I got someone else a present which clearly hadn't been reciprocated. Yet I loved that pen even so: the burnished silver, the smooth feel of it in the hand.

I no longer have it but I do remember that I wrote a monograph about A.A. Milne with it while at art school. Did I consciously discard it? Possibly. It may have been a pleasing thing to hold but the refills didn't last all that long: the tip would go soft and bend and the writing would get fuzzy before too long. Pentel pens may have been cheap and nasty by comparison but they lasted a reasonable time.

Such Shaeffer pens as I have seen available online seem to be either fountain pens or ballpoints - I can't seem to find any felt tips. I did, however, find this heartbreaking plea which has gone unanswered for six years:

And it's not just pens which go off but all the writing-related paraphernalia - yea, even unto the Tipp-Ex and the sticky stuff. Blu-Tack is discussed by Ward at length in the Independent article:
When you buy a new pack of Blu-Tack and open it, there's that perfect blue slab, and it's a rare moment because one pack of Blu-Tack generally lasts ages. But once the first lump has been pulled off, one stretched corner that you have to fold back in on itself, it's not the same.
Which I suppose sums up those stationery-related feelings. That nib  will blunt, that notebook will get all creased, and whatever fills it cannot live up to the promise of those pristine pages.

Incidentally, Blu-Tack figures early on in my writing life - as a cautionary tale. I was part of a writing group and we were each working towards the presentation of a short play. One piece had a workplace setting and st some point included the claim by one character that Blu-Tack was made from dolphins' b*llocks.

The play went along okay, but gradually the realisation dawned on those present that no, all the lads' banter wasn't actually going to lead to anything after all, and wasn't quite enough on its own. I recall the writer later talking to the literary manager of the theatre, surprised and excited by the apparent ease with which you could get a play on. All you had to do was find the money and it would happen.

I didn't keep in touch with the writer. I don't know what, if anything, happened to his play or whether, or how much, his determination was dented after the "perfect blue slab" stage of seeing his piece performed in front of an audience. I hope he worked out at some point that there has to be something going on underneath the surface banter.

Perhaps he saw, or will see, Richard Bean's Toast, set in a bread factory (Bean wasn't allowed to call it Wonderloaf), which is currently being revived at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. I remember reading that Mr Bean keeps office hours and indeed hires an office when he's working on a play. Which rather suggests he's the kind of writer who enjoys the thrill of fresh stationery for like half a second and then just gets on with it. I just can't understand that sort of mentality.

What? No, no, that's Tony Visconti - a holiday snap which happened to be pinned up in the studio when Bowie was composing Heroes. It gave rise to a line in the song, of course but could it be that Bowie had also heard the rumour or urban myth about the origins of a certain brand of versatile adhesive material? Was he in fact expressing a yearning in Heroes similar to that of James Ward for that initial dizzying moment of creativity before things are stretched out of true?

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Living Legends - the Clark Brothers (event at the V&A, 22nd August)

Went to the V&A on Friday evening to see Steve Clark of dancing duo the Clark Brothers talk about his career in a presentation entitled Living Legends - the Clark Brothers.

I had only become aware of him a few weeks earlier when I was invited by Freddie Davies (autobiography available here, if you're new to this blog) to partake in the "bait" which is customary after a Water Rats meeting. Various Rats, including Chas McDevitt, entertained us after the meal but once that was formally over a slim and elderly man went over to the piano stool lately vacated by Rick Wakeman and proceeded to play a few tunes which had a big impact on me, partly because his playing reminded me of Fats Waller's approach. I talked to him afterwards and was astonished to learn that he'd actually worked with Waller and just about every other jazz great. This was the publicity material for the V&A evening:
Join us for a stellar night with Steve Clark, whose tap dancing career with brother Jimmy spanned eight decades.
They shared the stage with Josephine Baker, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles. Steve Clark will give an insight into performing during an era when gangsters controlled the clubs and segregation was commonplace, and fill in some missing chapters within British variety entertainment history.
I thought that meant the evening would be a couple of hours of reminiscence from the man himself, perhaps interspersed with a few film clips, but Mr Clark is in his nineties, and although late on in the proceedings he did play a few songs at a keyboard and took a few questions, it was more about his endorsing emcee Leon Robinson's company Positive Steps, which aims to unlock the potential in younger performers through the inspiration of artists like the Clark Brothers. We saw a short film about the preparation of a musical called Don't Knock - Tap! which had been put on at the Hackney Empire the previous week. (There is a shortened version of the video here.)

We then saw a few choice examples of younger talent in action live, the most impressive of whom was a tap dancer who was working with a keyboard player and had his area - a wooden board - miked up. The tune sounded like Bill Withers' Use Me, or a very close relative, and it was fascinating to watch (and hear) a genuine dialogue as musician and dancer responded delightedly to each other's cues. This, for me, was when the evening really caught alight.

When Steve Clark came on in the second half his appearance was brief but given his age I suppose it was unfair to expect more than that. He did an encore at the very end of the evening but took a while to come in, explaining to us he'd been asleep, or at least resting. But for the few minutes he was onstage then, and earlier, there's no doubt he beguiled the audience. I wish now that I'd asked him if he learnt anything about stagecraft from Fats Waller, such was his ability to capture the whole crowd with a look or a smile.

By the way, the encore piece was Tea for Two - which had been done by Waller - and sounded to my ears as having certain Wallerish, if that's the word, flourishes. There was a great moment during this when a break in the playing seemed to demand a quick burst of dancing; he stood up, did a quick pensioner's shuffle, giving a very good impression of a man who believed he was performing the most intricate of steps, then sat down again and continued playing. This got the requisite laugh and was repeated several times at the appropriate moments in the song. But he'd already been given his applause properly, as it were, when people responded to a film clip of the Clark Brothers in action as though it were happening live - which, in a sense, it was, in a crowded lecture theatre however many decades on.

You can find out more about Leon Robinson's work on the History Spot website here - the page includes a downloadable podcast of a talk he gave in which he describes how he fell into becoming an archivist and the difficulties he experienced in tracking down material about the history of black artists in Britain.

More about Don't Knock - Tap! on the Hackney Empire's website here.

A 2002 Telegraph article here fills in more details about the Clark Brothers' story.

I have ordered a copy of Steve Clark's book Living With Legends, which you can buy via the Water Rats shop here - will report on it when I have read it.

You can hear Fats Waller's version of Tea for Two here.