Saturday, 26 April 2008

A Salute to 'Humph'

I felt the need to record the death of Humphrey Lyttelton yesterday. It probably seems a bit strange but our whole family feels slightly bereft...

My Dad used to go to his Jazz club in London in the 1950s, and continued to follow his career with a remote but affectionate interest.

When I needed a project for my cultural history dissertation, I chose the Beaulieu Jazz Festivals in the late 1950s, and early 1960s (fascinating time with so many cultural influences, but I’ll save that till another time). Humph was at the festivals and the ‘Beaulieu riots’ where a trumpet was stolen, but later returned, and people threw paper plates at the stage*. I read lots of his writings and reminiscences of the time, and grew very fond of this intensely private, wry and astute man, a lovely counterbalance to the ebullience of George Melly, another great character and chronicler of the period.

My 15 year old kids are also a bit sad. They knew him as the quizmaster on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, and are wondering if anyone could possibly step into his shoes. I suspect not really … so another inevitable case of the world moving on to the next thing.

So, here is a three minute celebration of Humphrey Lyttelton before the world moves on.

* this was a British festival after all...

Friday, 18 April 2008

The Rise of the Machines

You may have wondered why the Blue Ball Machine is one of my favoured links over there on the side of this blog.

The reason is that I love machines. Not swishy ipod-y, hi-techy machines which hide all their secrets behind black or silver blank faces, but the machines which really show you that they’re working.

For this reason, I love steam engines, old cars, typewriters, telephones and computers.

I was at Bletchley Park last year, when the Colossus was in full action, and it was a wonderous thing to behold. The kids and I stood for ages, blocking the aisle for less enamoured visitors, asking all sorts of questions, and were finally rewarded with a souvenir piece of tape. Actually the souvenir was irrelevant – all those dials, switches and wheels whizzing about was mesmerising. We also went to see the Bombe which was fully reconstructed at the time but not operating. Again, we interrogated the poor curator until to get rid of us he gave us a broken valve from the machine, and we skipped away happily with our spoils.

I went to the Royal Observatory yesterday, and there it was the wonderful clocks that held me in thrall, industriously clicking their lives away (and mine – sadly!). I have similar trouble when I head to Amberley Working Museum, which is full of obsolete machinery such as telexes and old telephone exchanges, many of which are still working, and if you ask politely you can get to play! And, one of the highlights of our holiday in Northern France last year was visiting the huge glass factory.....

The Blue Ball Machine is about as close as I can get to watching a machine in action when I am sitting at my computer. And as such, it makes me very happy. Does this mean that I am a geek?

Thursday, 17 April 2008

God, the Carnage, but is it Art?

I wasn’t going to write another theatre related post for a while, but I can’t resist telling you about God of Carnage. I had a pretty rotten seat, up in the gods (hah!), but the play was fantastic. The plot is slight in the extreme, but that wasn't really the point. Instead we had a character assassination of recognisable middle class characters, which worked because of the fantastic cast who all acted their socks off, and the great dialogue, cleverly translated (or possibly recrafted?).

Tamsin Greig was wonderful as the repressed wife, but really, singling anyone out would be an injustice to the rest. I have read in some reviews that the playwright (Yasmina Reza) gets upset at the laughter from British audiences, but I don’t know why, the laughter and gasps were because of the savagery.

There aren’t many discounts sadly, so quite an expensive one to do, but if you are, have been , or intend to be, married, middle-class or have children, this is definitely worth a look.

Not one to go to with school gate mums though - might be a bit uncomfortable on the way home....

Friday, 11 April 2008

Never So Good?

I saw Never So Good at the National this week. With Jeremy Irons and Robert Glenister in leading roles, and written by Howard Brenton, I was expecting something a little fiery. What we got was a perfectly decent biography and history play, taking us through the main formative events of Harold Macmillan’s life. Apart from some flaky American accents the acting was great. I was particularly impressed by the way that there weren’t any corny impressions, instead just sketches of the characters, and that worked very well.

I was less impressed by the clunky ending, where Macmillan directly addresses the audience, reminding them of his autobiography, and (I paraphrase) ‘still available on AbeBooks or search on Google’. Brenton did exactly the same thing with In Extremis (a retelling of Heloise and Abelard) at the Globe in 2006, with another squirmy ending to a very competent play, where Heloise shows a copy of the book, ‘which is still being read today’. This ‘it’s only a play’ stuff is the theatrical equivalent of ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’, and it made me quite cross*.

What really bothered me though, was wondering what had happened to the Howard Brenton of The Romans in Britain which got Mary Whitehouse all hot and bothered in the 80s. As a younger writer he had apparently been happy to court controversy, but nowadays, although referencing current hot topics (Iraq in Never So Good, Religious fanaticism in In Extremis) it all seemed very middle of the road stuff.

I was also a bit bemused by the young Macmillan who dogs his older version throughout the play, carping and criticising his prevarications and compromises, egging him on to be braver.. But why was the character there? To fill in Macmillan’s motivations? Move the narrative along? Well it did both, but I still didn’t really get the point. But yesterday it all suddenly fell into place as a result of reading this post. As well as suggesting that Macmillan was haunted by his younger ideals, it made me wonder if the young Macmillan was also a hint to how Brenton feels today after his early notoriety, producing successful but certainly less edgy work, constantly dogged by his youth. And with his younger self still looking over his shoulder, making snidey comments.

If so, I know how he feels. I love my life now, but I still have that stroppy teenager whispering in my ear.

* I'm probably being unfair as Shakespeare did it all the time!

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Sing if you're glad you were there

30 years ago this month was the much celebrated Rock against Racism/Anti-Nazi League march through London, ending in the gig at Victoria Park in Hackney. There has been a bit of reminiscing about this and what amazes me the most is how much people remember. My own memories are hazy in the extreme.

I was a very politically conscious 15 year old at the time, into punk and left wing protest, although my involvement mainly consisted of intense, self-righteous debates with National Front sympathisers at school and in the kitchen at parties; raging at my fairly conservative, bemused, but also broadly sympathetic and tolerant parents; wearing badges and reading the right weekly papers.

I had seen Tom Robinson at the Gants Hill Odeon, but I hadn’t been able to go to any gigs in London until then. So, when the opportunity to do a bit of protesting and get to see some bands arose... well, I would have been mad to say no wouldn’t I? Some of the teachers from school were going, so I persuaded a couple of friends to come with me for the rally and gig in the park. I really can’t remember what I said to my parents, but I don’t remember any arguing about going. Maybe I just said I was going into London for the day with friends and some teachers - who knows? Whatever stratagems I used, I managed to arrange it and eventually we pitched up in plenty of time to meet up as a group beforehand. We had a lovely wander through London, bumping into other friends and various right-on teachers, did a bit of chanting and fist waving, particularly when we went past the ‘tools of oppression’ in Fleet Street, got a bit scared when we had to go past a rival NF march corralled back by the police, but generally had a great day out.

Victoria Park was huge and packed, so we settled ourselves down on the grass at the back, and lazed about. I should point out that I was too vain to wear my glasses when I was 15 and I could hardly even see where the stage was, so distinguishing anyone on it (even when it was Jimmy Pursey and The Clash) was far beyond me. In addition, the sound system was clearly inadequate to the task, so we made an effort to listen when we could (when the wind was blowing in the right direction), but none of this seemed to matter. We were young and in the right. And that was the point really.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Much Ado About.... some brilliant stuff actually.

Last week I went to see one of the last performances of Much Ado about Nothing at the National, with Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale, directed by Nicholas Hyntner. What a beautiful production. I hadn’t ever seen Zoe Wanamaker live before, but she was subtle, light and her performance was note perfect. Simon Russell Beale was just as always, with his slightly idiosyncratic delivery which always makes his performances stand out.

The last Beatrice I saw was Tamsin Greig in the Marianne Elliot production for the RSC in 2006. That had set an incredibly high bar to reach, wiping the floor with the Thomson/Branagh film. Tamsin won an Olivier Award for her performance, leading to one of the best acceptance speeches I have ever seen…

Anyway, to try to compare the two productions is a bit difficult, largely because they were sooooo different.

The RSC production was lush, joyous, vibrant and musical with an absolute riot of optimism, despite the ominous undertones that came from setting it in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Beatrice and Benedick were clearly disappointed in love, but still had hope and energy enough for flirting. The eavesdropping scenes were just magical, using all the comic potential of the bushes to the full. Joseph Millsom was a fresh faced Benedick, pretending to be a curmudgeon.

The production at the National was spare by comparison – It felt to me like a perfect recreation of Tuscan light, with a simple quartered wooden set which moved around for scene changes, and just for the fun of it sometimes. The difference was really in Beatrice and Benedick though. This time they were older and weren’t just disappointed in love. They were also sad, verging on bitter, and had largely given up hope. There was a sweetness and poignancy which undercut the playfulness of the lines. Both leads played their parts to perfection, and I loved the swimming pool eavesdropping. Simon RB splashed in at just the right moment, peeping over the edge and dripping to full comic effect, whilst Zoe Wanamaker worked wonders with her broom and hat props before delivering an exactly timed comic dive into the pool.

I came out dancing from the RSC production and sighing from the NT version. I think I am going to refuse to choose between them.