Sunday, 12 December 2010

Probably shouldn't. Will though.

Here's the tweet:

'Piers Morgan: Breaking News- I'm now a twit! Official!'

Here's the joke we did about it, as broadcast:

'Just a 'twit', Piers? I think you're being a little gentle on yourself there'

Here's something I saw when I was daft enough to google the show:

'Cynical, useless, stupid, lazy dog-shit. Piers Morgan said he was "a twit", and you seriously think it's acceptable to make a joke out of how closely that word resembles "twat"? Write some material! '

Thing is, I don't think we did do the 'it sounds like twat' joke. Do you? I can see a joke about the mildness of the word 'twit'. I can see an implication that Morgan might use a more insulting word to describe himself. It's not a woofer- there have been better jokes in history- but I quite like the way it leaves the audience to join the dots. It's undoubtedly a 'fill in your own punchline' joke, an ellipsis.

What I can't see is a joke about how closely 'twit' resembles 'twat'. That's pure projection.

Of course, it could be said that I'm overreacting to one misinterpretation of one joke in one episode of one show. But it's actually a spot-on example of one of the ways this wonderful, horrific internet works. People who don't like the things you say, for whatever reason, will happily ascribe to you all kinds of motives and motivations which they may utterly believe, but will nonetheless be light years from the truth- so that, for example, a gag which scrupulously avoids a particular word ends up being accused of the precise opposite.

I didn't write the gag in question, in case you think I'm being personal and precious, but the horrid thing about doing stuff on the telly is that sometimes people will think your work is 'useless', and 'stupid', and 'dog-shit', and they'll be entitled to their opinion. As an adult you have to deal with that, even though it makes you want to wail like a kid.

I love the show I'm working on at the moment, I think it's really rather good- but I have to be grown-up enough to accept that some people will love it and some will hate it. Indeed, I *know* that some people love it and some hate it. And that's fine.

But it's not fine to be called lazy and cynical, because I'm not, and nor are any of the people I'm working with. So, you know, say it's not funny if you like. Say it's useless dogshit. But I think you have to stop there. You can't call us corrupt. And if you do, make sure that the gag you find so unacceptable is the gag that was actually being made.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Slight Return

Well, not slight I hope, but as a son of Britpop I couldn't resist a bit of a Bluetones quote. Hello! Anyone still here?

I didn't mean for the post about Jerome to be the last for nearly three months- it's just that it was very tricky to think what to say next. I wasn't maintaining a respectful silence or anything pi like that, but at the same time I didn't want to follow my tribute to my pal by posting, oh I don't know, something about getting annoyed by a Haribo ad the following week. That's not to say that Haribo ads aren't intensely annoying; they are.

Anyway, I've also been hella busy. People in North West London are now no doubt beginning to get used to the sight of the red faced panting man in the too-small vest pounding the streets of Cricklewood and West Hampstead. When Jer was ill, my pal Julia and I decided that- whatever happened to him- we'd raise some money for cancer research by running the London Marathon. It was one of those grand gestures that's easy to make but which sends your stomach doing flipflops when it comes to fruition. I think part of me didn't believe we'd get a place- that honour would be satisfied by having made the offer.

But. A place was forthcoming, and now I have to run a fucking marathon. I don't know if anyone's told you, but it's TWENTY SIX AND A BIT MILES. All the way from Greenwich to Buck House, and not even the direct way. Just so IMPRACTICAL. Apparently short cuts are frowned upon though, so I've had to start training.

My initial, still-a-bit-in-denial plan was to start training in the New Year and live high on the hog until Christmas. However, the quizzical reactions of some friends (where 'quizzical reactions' means 'saying don't be so bloody stupid' and 'some friends' means 'literally everyone') convinced me that I'd better start taking it all a bit more seriously. Yes, Jade Goody managed 21 miles on no training and having had a curry the night before; however, this is not useful knowledge and can people please stop telling me it.

So, the Virgin Marathon Official Beginner's Plan it was. My first reaction on reading it was 'Oh, the first run is only ten minutes, that should be fine'. My second was OH MY GOD THEY EXPECT ME TO RUN SIX DAYS A WEEK FOR TWENTY FOUR WEEKS ARE THEY MAD?

I'm five weeks in now and although I haven't managed all thirty training runs (I make it *counts on fingers* twenty-five)it's getting marginally easier. What made it much, much easier was running in proper running shoes. For the first four weeks of training I was banging around in an old pair of Evisu plimsolls- pretty, but not really up to the job where things like one's ankles and shins are concerned. When I finally shelled out proper money for some proper shoes (after the exquisitely embarrassing torture that is 'gait analysis') the difference was extraordinary- like lying on a featherbed after having previously slept on something made of sandpaper and vinegar. Distressing thigh/underpant interface, leading to inner thighs the colour of pepto-bismol and a proper John Wayne swagger, was dealt with by the purchase of some lycra running tights. These have the added bonus of making me feel a bit like a pervert every time I put them on.

And I'm getting to know the 'hood I've lived in for ten years. I had literally no idea that just past the gym and off the main road was a magic little pathway through a gorgeous cemetery (I like cemeteries) which suddenly, magically opens out onto Fortune Green. Sadly, I have to do a lot of my running after work, which means after dark. The pretty pathway becomes a little more sinister at night, when I become acutely aware that I'm running through an unlit cemetery wearing a brand new ipod. For any muggers, murderers or rapists who may be reading, I'd just like to point out that I'm over six foot and gradually getting fitter, so there's only a 90 per cent chance that you'd get away scot free with your mugging or whatever.

All courting of danger aside, I couldn't yet say I'm enjoying the training. But I'm doing it. I even did it when I was away working in Spain sans running kit- there I was, running on the spot in my jamas in a Spanish hotel room. It was actually one of my more enjoyable 'runs'- I was able to read a modern novel and listen to Das Lied Von Der Erde. I'd like you all to picture that, if you will. And, of course, it's nice that there's, ever so slowly. less of me than usual. Apparently it's the 'core weight' that is last to go, so I'm slimming down nicely (I have HIPS! and RIBS!) everywhere on my body bar my stomach, which is now hanging off my newly lithe frame like an obscene water balloon. I'm told even that will eventually diminish (and that the fat will turn to muscle quicker if I eat protein within 20 mins of running; I'm getting through a lot of boiled eggs) so there are plenty of consolations.

At the moment, though, it's pure solipsism. I'm doing it because of my dad, and because of Jer; but when I'm slogging through a cemetery in freezing rain, hoping I'm not about to be mugged, with my every muscle screaming 'Why are you doing this to me? I am for wine and sofas!' it's not, embarrassing to say, the thought of my lost loved ones that keeps me going. It's the thought of that day in April, specifically mid-afternoon onwards, when I will be taking as many tube journeys as I can so that everyone sees me wrapped in tinfoil sporting a medal. And it's the thought that for ever after I will be able to drop, ever so casually, into conversation the thrilling phrase 'when I ran the marathon...'

If, that is, I succeed in running the marathon. Watch this space.

Oh, and point any extra pennies in the direction of www.justgiving.com/sodcancer

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

You'll Follow Me Back With The Sun In Your Eyes.

I've watched the World Cup in some strange places. In Scottish pubs, full of people proudly wearing the team colours of anyone-but-England; backstage in theatres, desperately hoping that the penalty shootout will be completed before I actually have to go on stage; even in Kingston-Upon-Thames. This year I watched the scrappy, ill-tempered affair between Holland and Spain on a tiny bedside screen in the Royal Marsden Hospital, and it's this year's final which I will remember more vividly than any that has gone before or that is to come.

As I left the Marsden that night, an unwanted thought crept into my brain. Would my dear friend, the man who I'd been visiting, be around for the next World Cup final? I dismissed it as a craven, weedy, disloyal thought. It didn't for a second cross my mind that I had just seen him for the last time, but I had. The magnificent Jerome O'Donohoe died on Friday morning, at the obscene, devastating, laughable age of 37.

I first met Jerome a few days after my 30th birthday, which is to say a couple of months after his own. It wasn't a good time for me. My father was already ill with the disease which was to take his life; the same bastard that has snatched Jer's as well. I remember in particular a night at a little Sam Smith's pub in St Giles', which has a small conservatory running alongside it. My phone rang, which in those days only meant bad news. My mother told me of dad's latest symptoms, treatments, ailments. We were both becoming aware of the fact that this was a battle dad was not going to win, and I strode up and down the conservatory becoming more and more agitated and scared. I had no idea how to return to the pub table and behave normally once the call was over; fortunately I didn't need to. The moment I hung up the phone, Jerome came to where I was standing, gave me a wordless but infinitely comforting hug, and gently led me back to where the others were sitting. He didn't try and say anything, didn't feign concern; he just helped, supported and understood. What will give you the measure of the man is that this was just the second time we had met. Essentially, he didn't know me from Adam. But he recognised exactly what was needed and quietly, unflashily, generously and selflessly provided it.

The problem with writing about the death of someone wonderful (apart from the practical problem of typing through the mist) is that all the things one wants to say have become obituary clich├ęs. Everything that made Jerome so special sounds like something from a Hallmark sympathy card. But it's all true. He DID have the biggest, warmest heart. When I conjure his image, he IS always smiling or laughing. He DID possess, to an extraordinary degree, that elusive quality, the gift of friendship. He really HAS left behind him a gap so vast that nobody who knew and loved him will ever adequately be able to find ways of filling it.

And, so you know I'm not just mouthing platitudes, I can give you chapter and verse for everything. His big heart and extraordinary generosity, for example. I eventually learned not to express enthusiasm for anything he owned, because he'd be as likely as not to give it to you. My house is full of bits of kit, books, even a five disc Eddie Izzard box set, which Jerome just handed over and said 'it's yours. I didn't need it anyway'. As for the smile and the laughter, one of the incidental pleasure/pain aspects of his passing is that whenever the sound of his voice pops unbidden into my head, it's never morose or grumpy sounding. Try it, if you knew him- listen out in your head for his voice. See? A cheerful inflection, a sense of mischief. Only ever seconds away from a joke. And as for the gift of friendship, well. Jerome knew everyone, and to meet him was pretty much to become his friend. So many of my friends became his; so many of his became mine. Because he was interested in people, because he loved people, because he was truly a social animal, he was also the most cohesive kind of social glue. He is utterly irreplaceable; I can only imagine how that irreplaceability must feel to his adored and adoring wife Geri, and to his close and loving family.

In the last dazed few days since he left us, one image comes again and again into my brain. It is Jerome and me dancing around a chintzy living room with two other friends and my housemate of the time. I'd been doing a rep season at the theatre in Pitlochry, miles and miles from home. Jerome came to visit, sharing the long drive with our friend Julia. He saw the show I was in (bellowing out a standing ovation amid a crowd of politely clapping highland pensioners) and then joined me and some of the cast in the after-hours bar near the theatre. There was a song out at the time, an anthemic little number by one of those bands that shifts units by the bucketload but which nobody ever actually confesses to liking. One by one, my housemate, my colleague Fran (who was subsequently to become a close friend of the O'Donohoes- that gift again) Jerome, Julia and I all confessed to having a soft spot for the song. Come chucking-out time we were yelling it antisocially in the quiet streets. When we got back to my digs, Jerome did some business with a mac and some wires and the telly and there was the song, playing through the TV speakers. It took him seconds, and in 2004 the idea that we could talk about a song one minute and have it playing through the TV the next seemed like the most thrilling magic. But that was Jerome, and that is how I will always remember him. On holiday, at parties, at the pub, at weddings, in conversation- he'd come in to the room and suddenly, from somewhere, there'd be music.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Ten Things About The Edinburgh Fringe 2010.

1: A capella groups get quite old quite quickly. The all-female groups are drippy. The all-male groups are smug. Get a piano.

2: There is no competition between a twenty-minute walk and a five quid cab ride.

3: The EUSA shop needs to order more Double Cheese and Onion Ginster sandwiches.

4: My flatmate is not after all the most obsessive kitchen-tidier alive.

5: Acrylic wigs smell if you sweat in them.

6: You're pretty much guaranteed a good show at the Trav, but innit pricey?

7: Not everyone who you think is a lesbian is a lesbian.

8: One of this year's Footlights is a way more committed flyerer than any of the others.

9: A wooden platform will bear a combined weight of around 25 stone for just over a month. After that it's touch and go.

10: Even at the advanced age of 37, it's still the best fun it's possible to have in August.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Bad internet. Naughty internet.

During a break in rehearsals (www.jumpthemusical, you know you want to) yesterday, I embarked on my customary five minute tour of internet inspection. It goes something like this: email,to find out who's been spamming me and to receive countless facebook notifications; facebook, to re-read the notifications my email has just shown me; and then, just for the hell of it, twitter.

Yesterday two names seemed to appear more often than is usual. One, you will probably be unsurprised to hear, was Clare Balding. The other, less predictably, was Gethin Jones. Let's take the latter first.

Initially I wondered why several tweets on my feed seemed to be making reference to the easy-on-the-eye, otherwise uncontroversial Blue Petering health-shop pusher. You might be, too- it was, as it turned out, a minor twitstorm- but it illustrated rather perfectly how the flawless wonder that is the internet can sometimes be so depressingly abused by the flawed wonder that is people.

Here's how the mini-kerfuffle happened. Someone tweeted that Jones was 'no Alastair Stewart', a reference to the former presenter of a programme he now fronts. Jones was somehow made aware of this- perhaps he searched his own name, perhaps someone told him about the tweet- and decided to reply. His reply was 'No shit, sherlock. YOU get the degree for stating the obvious, well done "numbnuts"'

As a reply it isn't Wildean, and I'm bothered by the inverted commas, but it seems like a fairly commonplace exchange. Someone unfavourably compared Jones to his predecessor, Jones responded with mild irritation.

But in doing so he broke one of the internet's most unpleasant unwritten rules. The potshots, you see, only work one way. His flash of anodyne annoyance became a 'hissy fit'. People started tweeting him to say how 'pathetic','Z list' or 'self important' he was, or to affect to mistake him for Steve Jones of T4. In other words, an unremarkable exchange between two people who annoyed each other became, for some, an excuse to hurl abuse at a man who had dared to commit the double offence of (a) being on television and (b) responding in kind to someone who had slagged him off.

People who aren't in the public eye- 'real' people, if we're being tabloidy about it- get to stand behind a wall and say BUM to whoever they like. But if anyone even a smidge famous says 'Don't you say BUM to me! Bum YOU, more like!' that is a pathetic 'hissy fit'. I'm fairly sure, by which I mean certain, that there's a stinking double standard going on there.

I think it would have been wiser of Jones not to reply, and nobody ever claimed the moral high ground with the word 'numbnuts'. But I also think it was understandable- human- that he did reply. And the pearl-clutching over the fact that he may have found the tweet through 'self-searching' is particularly, hypocritically, daft. Have you never put your name into google? I know I have, and so has pretty much everyone I know. Twitter, of course, has a link to search for '@' replies so people can see what tweeters they don't follow have said to or about them. It's human nature occasionally to get curious about what might be being said about oneself, and it doesn't make Jones a preening idiot for wanting to know.

The way twitter reacts to behaviour its users consider unacceptable is now an established social media phenomenon. Stories such as AA Gill's vile playground sneering at Clare Balding (see, you thought I'd forgotten), the man who was prosecuted for making a terrorism joke on the site, the horrid article in the Express about the survivors of Dunblane or (ahem) Jan Moir on Stephen Gately, develop a momentum of their own and quickly reach a tipping point (or twipping point, as someone will doubtless one day christen it). As a way of gently reminding more established forms of media that we won't necessarily accept what we might be fed, it's invaluable. It would be a shame if that precious right-to-reply were allowed to degenerate into throwing random snowballs at people, and running to teacher when they throw one back.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Hello, blog.

And hello anyone who's reading. I'm busy doing acting at the moment which is why I've been so scandalously lax in updating this. I presume you're all watching That Mitchell And Webb Look, are you? Good good. If you're not, there are still four more episodes to go. Phew.

I'll be back with something more interesting when I'm less tired and, indeed, more interesting.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

I couldn't help but wonder...

I've never been a 'Sex And The City' fan. I don't know if you're surprised by this, although I do know that if you're a film critic you're likely to be. The fact that 'Sex And The City 2' is apparently not a great film (and, let's face it, it sounds AWFUL) has given scribblers everywhere the opportunity for a good old bit of gaybashing-by-proxy.

It's something that started back in the days of the TV series. Someone noticed that the man who brought Candace Bushnell's book to the screen, Darren Starr, was gay, as was the exec producer, Michael Patrick King. At that point, someone made the not-unreasonable observation that the female characters in 'Sex And The City' sometimes talked and behaved in a way more usually seen in gay men. So far so tame.

But that tame little theory grew and grew. People- and not just people, columnists too- started to say things like 'Of course, the series is actually about gay men' which developed into 'Those characters aren't really women' and soon it became pretty much accepted that SJP and co were nothing but powerless pawns in a twisted gay game of 'hate the woman'. That opinion reached a very queasy nadir in the reviews of the film this week.

Several friends have posted a review from a Seattle newspaper on facebook; it's one of those things that has gone viral. And yes, it makes the case against the film quite brilliantly. But sitting right in the middle, there it is- the irrelevant mention of the sexual orientation of some of the producers. The film, says Lindy West, is 'a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls'. It's not an offensive remark, per se- but it is an unnecessary swipe, isn't it? I wonder how far I'd get if I described, say, the film 2012 as 'Jews playing with Action Men'?

Leave it to the good old Evening Standard, however, to go from the allusive to the flat-out offensive. Andrew O'Hagan starts by referring to 'Carrie Bradshaw and her gaggle of gay impersonators', thus reaffirming the idea that these characters, created by Candace Bushnell and exec produced by Sarah Jessica Parker, are nothing but projection on the part of some benders. Am I being oversensitive? Well, how about the description of Kim Cattrall's character, Samantha? As a preface to discussing her venality, vulgarity, and narcissism, O'Hagan chooses to sum her up as 'Stonewall on Ice'. Never mind that this is a meaningless piece of phrasemaking ('on ice', Andrew? Talk me through that) its implications are stinking; she's a deeply unpleasant character, as can be summed up by the word 'Stonewall'. You tell me if that is in any way acceptable. You explain to me how that isn't the rankest prejudice.

I'm sure that 'Sex in the City 2' is an egregious piece of film making (the scene where burqa'd women reveal they're wearing designer clobber underneath sounds particularly jawdropping) and of course many gay men have been involved in its creation. Millions more will go to see it. But I still don't think that justifies the journey our tame little theory has taken from 'it's by gays' to 'they're all gays' to 'oh, she's just vile. You know, pure Stonewall'.

Anyway, you'll have to excuse me. I'm off to dress dolls up in Louboutins for reasons hidden in my woman-hating pysche.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Daughters, Reclaimed.

I don’t write much about TV round here, and certainly never anything approaching a review, for obvious reasons; a bit too close to home, and not very collegial. But having lamented the decline in quality of TV drama in a letter to the paper the other week, it would seem churlish not to hang out the bunting when something excellent and important is made.

‘Five Daughters’ set itself the extremely delicate task of dramatizing the events leading up to, and including, the murder of five women in Ipswich in December 2006. You remember, the prostitute murders- because of course, that’s how the story was told to us at the time. Indeed, when some reports dropped the p word, in favour of calling the women ‘sex workers’, columnists such as Richard Littlejohn fulminated against namby-pamby liberals and political correctness gone mad. These women were prosititutes, he insisted, and should be referred to as such. Have a look on YouTube for Stewart Lee’s magnificent response to that article; I won’t spoil it for you, but if ever I write a line even half as good as ‘One wonders what lengths Richard Littlejohn will go to in his quest for the accurate naming of dead women’ I’ll be a happy man.

Anyway, you probably, like me, remember vague details. There was the blonde on the train, caught on CCTV. There was the dark haired one, the youngest, who lived at home. One of them was pregnant. One had an unusual first name. And they were all drug addicts, of course.

The huge achievement of ‘Five Daughters’ is to take these half-remembered half-truths and gently to question and correct them, while at the same time showing us where the women came from, what made them tick, how they ended up standing on dark streets in the freezing cold in the knowledge that a killer was on the loose. To separate them from each other, and the one tragic fact they have in common. A note about the dramatization of the kerb-crawling scenes- they are unflinchingly unglamorous. Never mind Billie Piper swanning around in beautiful dockside penthouses, we’re all used to a certain shabby chic being applied even to images of street prostitution. The halo of sensual streetlighting, the sexily dressed girl in the impossibly high heels leaning into the car, a seductive smile playing on her lips… ‘Five Daughters’ shows us shivering, frightened women in parkas and fleeces, on quiet, empty, soulless streets, steeling themselves as the headlights creep towards them then muttering the word ‘business’ through the open window. It brings home the fact that, even when there isn’t a serial killer behind the wheel, the best possible outcome- the best- is that the sex will be quick and the man, kind.

But, in talking about that aspect of the series, I’ve fallen into the same trap as the media did at the time of the murders. This isn’t a drama about prositution, it’s a drama about desperation. The desperation that leads the women to the streets; the desperation of their families, both to communicate and to protect; the desperation of their friends when calls go unanswered for first hours and then days; the desperation of the police and outreach workers to fight the killers, both human and chemical. I watched the first two episodes constantly on the verge of tears (I’m being very previous publishing this today- the third episode is on this evening and may be terrible rubbish for all I know. I somehow doubt it though.).

The film-making and the screenwriting are excellent, then; but the quality of the acting is mindblowing. A glance at the cast list raised hopes- Sarah Lancashire, Juliet Aubrey, Anton Lesser, Martin Compston, Ian Hart, Jaime Winstone, Natalie Press, Eva Birthistle, Sean Harris. But scene after scene crowds into my memory, insisting on a mention. Lancashire helplessly demanding that she be allowed to collect her absent daughter’s methadone prescription, then begging, then accepting exhausted defeat. Press, as Paula Clennell, heartbreaking in her brave, guilty disappointment when her mother cancels a planned visit on a flimsy pretext. Aubrey, unbearably stoic, almost matter of fact, as she prepares to view the body of her murdered daughter, and then breaking down, her face collapsing in on itself. Aubrey also played her part in one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve seen on TV for years. We had seen Anneli Alderton (Aubrey was playing her mother, Maire) on the verge of making a new life for herself. Released from prison after serving a sentence for drug offences, she had a plan to become a mobile hairdresser. Maire and son Tom noted with relief that there was no sign of ‘blonde Anneli’. Then Anneli’s best friend Gemma disappeared, sending her into a spiral of fear, guilt, and self loathing. In the scene I refer to above, she turned up at Maire’s house out of the blue and gave her the kind of needy hug a child gives to a parent she knows she is about to hurt. Disappearing into the bathroom, she returned to her mother’s kitchen with hair dyed an aggressive, steely blonde, scraped back in challenge. Her eye make up was a declaration of war and, chillingly, she had reverted from her normal lower-middle class accent into a heightened, combative rude-girl backchat. Aubrey and Winstone were just phenomenal in this scene, the mother trying to assert her authority over a child she knows she has somehow lost, and the daughter using bravado and aggression as a mask for terror. Winstone gave a masterclass in playing the subtext, and Aubrey’s resigned but devastated expression as she emerged from behind a cupboard door to see the front door open and her daughter gone will stay with me for a long time. The wonderful, encouraging thing about all these outstanding performances is that they were achieved with restraint, with a kind of direct truthfulness borne of underplaying. After twenty-five years of exposure to the high-decibel histrionics of EastEnders and the like, it was a welcome illustration of the power of acting rather than the self-indulgence of ACTING.

The first two episodes will be available on iplayer, to viewers in the UK, and the third airs on BBC1 at 9pm tonight. Unsurprisingly, I urge you to watch, not just for its excellence but for what it has achieved. Steven Wright and the tabloids between them turned these five human beings into dead prostitutes. This dignified, honest, honourable, annihilating drama turns them back again.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

It might be worth having a little look at the lyrics.

CHANGE. HOPE. FAMILIES. DECENT HARD-WORKING TAXPAYERS. CHANGE.

In the light of that 'message', being fridgemagneted and madlibbed by all three of the major parties in the run-up to the election, the choice of Keane's 'Everybody's Changing' for the launch of the Tory manifesto must have seemed like a brilliant idea. Firstly, it's totally cutting edge (it was released as recently as 2004!) plus, also, CHANGE. Everybody's changing, see? Like, changing their vote to David and his team of DECENT, HARDWORKING, FAMILY TAXPAYERS for CHANGE?

It's a shame, of course, that nobody asked Keane- whose drummer has already expressed his horror via twitter. But, if the Tories have paid their PRS money, they can play whatever they like. What's a real shame is that they didn't bother to work out that songs have lyrics as well as titles.

'You say you wander your own land
But when I think about it
I don't see how you can'


Not bad so far, I suppose. Bit BNP-ish, I suppose- 'CAN WE EVEN CALL BRITAIN OUR ROYAL LAND ANY MORE?' and all that, but otherwise neutral enough. Oh- maybe they're talking about right to roam, though? Let's see what's next.

'You're aching, you're breaking
And I can see the pain in your eyes
Since everybody's changing
And I don't know why. '


Great start to this verse, for Honest Dave and co. The country is Broken Britain- it's aching, breaking, and in pain. For a bonus, there's almost an echo of the great Billy Ray Cyrus, too. And look- Everybody's Changing! There we have it. CHANGE! HOPE!

Oh, I've just seen the last line of the verse. Surely the Tories ought to know WHY Everybody's Changing? I do hope they're not confused. Well, only one way to find out:

'So little time
Try to understand that I'm
Trying to make a move just to stay in the game
I try to stay awake and remember my name
But everybody's changing
And I don't feel the same. '


New, tough choices for a Brighter Britain. Or a description of someone having a nervous breakdown?

I can't think of a better example of the poverty of our national debate than the party which is likeliest to form the next government co-opting a song on the basis of two words, and not even thinking to check what else it said. Soundbites, kids. That's all we're going to get.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Possible reason for the departure of the sheep

Everyone with a blog, from time to time, does the 'weird search terms that brought people here' post. This is mine.

I wonder what the person searching for 'lil bow peep big cock' made of what he or she (let's face it: he) found?

And, more worryingly, I wonder why google pointed here?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

As everyone's mother said, if you can't say... ahh, you know the rest.

Ten years ago, almost to the day, I performed in the press night of a production that wasn’t very good. This wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem, except that the production was at the Old Vic so people took quite a lot of notice of how not very good it was. The ladies and gentlemen of the press, in particular, used some of the English language’s most potent words for ‘not very good’ in their reviews.

That’s the first time I’ve said in any public space that it wasn’t very good, that production. And in fact, in the intervening ten years the only person involved that I’ve seen publicly acknowledge its failings was its director, once in an article and once in a book (he blamed us). People wouldn’t have been very interested in my opinion, it must be admitted. ‘ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER WITH TWELVE LINES SLAMS BADLY-PACED PRODUCTION OF PROBLEMATIC SHAKESPEARE PLAY’ isn’t a headline which would have sold many papers, even in 2000. I suppose I could have stood on the Cut handing out flyers, but it was a particularly cold spring and I’ve noticed that a lot of drivers aren’t very careful how they take that corner.

I wouldn’t have done, of course. In fact, at the time, I didn’t want to be reminded that it wasn’t very good. The very small audiences in the very big theatre (after the interval the audiences tended to get smaller, which tended to make the theatre seem bigger) were doing that nicely enough. I liked the director, I liked nearly all of my colleagues, I was acting- well, saying twelve lines, anyway- at the Old Vic. Those friends of mine who came to see the show and subsequently wanted to expound at length on how it hadn’t been the best 225 minutes of their lives received pretty short shrift from me; that was the one thing that had been rammed home to me forcibly enough by that point. That, and that going to bed at 5am doesn’t always make for great matinees.

That’s why I was surprised and a little disappointed to hear about the Samuel Ramey kerfuffle. For those of you who don’t know, Ramey is one of the greatest operatic basses around, is by all accounts a thorough good egg gentleman type, and is coming to the end of a deservedly glittering career. He’s also playing a small part in ATTILA, the Met’s first ever production of a rarely-heard Verdi opera.

He thinks it’s a ‘fiasco’, and that the director paid insufficient attention to the concerns of the cast. We know this because he said so- this is where the story takes a bit of a twist- in the comments section of a review of the production on the website of a Dallas newspaper. Disclaimer- we can’t be entirely sure that this comment was left by Mr Ramey, although better-informed people than I am have insisted that it was, so let us for the sake of argument assume that it was.

There is of course nothing at all wrong with a performer expressing disappointment in a production, or in a director. A dear friend of mine was in a film a few years ago which was a great deal less good than he had hoped, a fact which he, ahem, occasionally mentions. And the substance of Ramey’s objection- a lack of attention from the director- is not too controversial either. If the phrase ‘I just haven’t been given any direction’ were banned from the language, coffee and lunch breaks in rehearsal rooms across the world would fall uneasily silent. No, what makes this particular situation noteworthy is that ATTILA didn’t close ten years ago, and is not a film which is done, dusted and distributed; it’s live and it’s still running.

I’m not about to tell someone as distinguished as Samuel Ramey (or indeed anyone) what he can and can’t say, so let’s leave aside the rights and wrongs of that for a moment. What has been noticeable, and dispiriting, in following the story online is his adoption as a kind of Mr-Valiant-For-Truth by people who hated the production, as if this kind of behaviour were an admirable blow struck for artistic integrity. By all accounts, the production stinks. But for that to be said in public by someone who is still appearing in it may strike you as unprofessional, vain and petulant (it may strike you that way; I couldn’t possibly say). You may think it would have been worth waiting three or so weeks until the production had closed, out of respect for an audience who has paid a lot of money and wants to believe that everyone in the cast is straining every sinew in the cause of an artistic event to which they are totally committed (I’m not going to say whether I think that or not). You may even think that somewhere in that cast, among the chorus, perhaps, or the extras, is someone in the same position as I was ten years ago; someone who is aware of the failings of the production but nonetheless has had enough of hearing about them, someone who might feel let down that his or her highest-profile colleague has added to the noise. Getting ready to go on stage in a production you know to be bad is a disconcerting and weird experience, as I know only too well. You may think- it’s a free country- that every other member of the ATTILA company has had that experience made more disconcerting and yet weirder by the senior pro.

It’s one of the more annoying facts of life as a performer that expressing any opinion in public beyond the bland and anodyne is usually met with derision by our dear friends from the fourth estate. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read some journalist sneering at an actor or singer for daring to have an opinion about politics or current affairs. There’s the Private Eye column ‘Luvvies’, for the moments when actors have trouble describing the difficult-to-describe process by which a performance comes into being (or even when they don’t; a recent edition featured Robert Downey Jr expressing the hope that Arthur Conan Doyle would have smiled upon the film of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Downey was appearing in- what a wanker, eh, readers?). And the Guardian’s dolt-in-residence recently followed a slagging of Melvyn Bragg’s v/o of a historical documentary by saying that ‘at least it was voiced by someone who knows what he’s talking about rather than an actor’, a comment which caused some consternation among the actors I know who, unlike Lord Bragg, have history degrees. It’s a shame that when, for once, a performer is being near-universally praised for speaking up, it’s for doing something which so threatens to break the unspoken contract he has with the audiences who have yet to see his performance, and the colleagues with whom he will be giving it.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The First Thing We Do Is Kill All The Tenors

So, I know all the reasons not to like Michael Moore, but I think there are a lot of things to admire about him too. In amongst the vanity, the sometimes-misleading agitprop, and the harrassing of receptionists and security guards, I do think there is someone who largely thinks the right things and says them loudly and insistently.

But there was one image right at the beginning of his fascinating and entertaining new film 'Capitalism: A Love Story' that really pissed me off. The film opens with an old newsreel about the fall of the Roman Empire, intercutting the images of togas and corruption with images of fatcattery, war and poverty in our own age. And there, among the latter, in the film's first minute, is an image of the Metropolitan Opera House. Enron, Katrina, subprime, the Goldman bailout, and the Met. Just as I was deciding that it was maybe not a deliberate attempt to connect an art form with the excesses and injustices of the free market, Moore removed all possible doubt with some footage of a spiffed-up audience in an opera house under a discussion about the gap between the world's richest and its poorest.

Now, I know that opera is expensive and it's undeniable and regrettable that the audiences of most major opera houses are made up largely of the rich and the very rich. But it is disingenuous in the extreme to try and put even any of the blame for the world's injustices on the arts. It's the same as the tired, spurious old right wing argument that money for the arts means less money for schools and hospitals; it is surely the role of a government in a civilised country to make sure there is room for both. But Moore prefers the cheap populism of saying 'look, an opera house. That's why you're poor.'

Yes, of course I'm partial as an opera lover. But I can't stand ballet, and believe equally passionately in its importance to public cultural life. Besides, if Moore really wanted to use a cultural icon to illustrate sharp practice, greed and an obscenely-paid powerful elite, he could surely have used the Hollywood sign as a much more relevant example. I wonder why he didn't?

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Lemon juice out of stock: replacement, jif lemon cleaner

In the manner of an online supermarket failing to fill an order, I find that I am sadly fresh out of things to say about Der Rosenkavelier, despite having previously promised/threatened to post about it. However, I did come home from Turandot the following night and write screeds and screeds about it, so have that instead.

The Opera Gods are very clear on the matter. If you have a chance to go see live opera, whatever your misgivings, you should go. I nearly disobeyed this immutable law this evening- I was comfy in my hotel room, there were a few movies I fancied seeing, I wasn't keen on the idea of standing room and I wasn't panting to see, or especially to hear, Guleghina. But even a bad night at the opera is illuminating; and this wasn't one.

I should start with a few disclaimers. Firstly, every time I go to the Met this particular Brit's heart starts thumping before I even leave the subway at Columbus Circle. I have very fond memories of learning about opera at Covent Garden, but the Met is something else. The building, the atmosphere, the historical significance- I don't know what it is, but I'm pretty sure it's my favourite place on earth. This may lead to a rose-tinted view of things. Also, given that I earn some of my modest crust as an actor, I'm naturally predisposed to be on Team Performer. God knows I have heard some singers perform roles they had no business attempting, but if someone is wholeheartedly giving their all in the service of their art, even if the results are underwhelming there's a kind of honesty there I respond to. Finally, I don't get to see live opera as much as I'd like, for reasons of simple economics. A seat in the Covent Garden equivalent of Family Circle costs about as much as a Dress Circle seat at the Met and alas, I don't have that kind of monetary clout. So going to the opera is rare enough to make me determined to enjoy myself. All this means that I may be a little more lenient on some of the drawbacks of tonight's performance than others might. Was it a golden age performance? Well, no. But Nilsson and Bjorling and Corelli and Tebaldi are dead, alas- and we still want to be able to see Turandot, don't we?

See is the operative word. Most of you will know that the Met's Turandot is a triumph for Zeffirelli the designer. It looks wonderful, and the reveal in the second act is a genuine coup de theatre. Zeffirelli the director fares less well. I had to surpress a giggle during 'Gira la Cote' because the production's intentions were so clear. 'Look! Tumblers! A dragon! I know it's only the chorus but DON'T BE BORED'! Even allowing for the fact that this production is on its umpteenth revival, there were some real clunkers in the staging of the first act. 'Lasciatemi passare' sang Calaf, to three people who were in no way blocking his path, and with his back to them. The poor old Prince of Persia took a pointlessly long back-and-forth route to his death (admittedly, this kind of illogicality had been present in Act 3 of the previous night's Rosenkavelier- is Sophie in the damn room or isn't she? And if she is, why does everyone insist on going the long way round and using the door?). What was frustrating is that all this extraneous stuff was so unnecessary, as the dramatic structure of that first act is so tight. The storytelling is brisk- the curtain rises, the chorus sets the scene, Timur falls, reunion, Prince of Persia, Signore Ascolta, gong. Jenufa is just about the only opera I can think of which gets through its exposition with so little fuss.

Musically this was probably the most successful act. There may be a better opera house chorus in the world than the Met's; if so I should like to hear it. As far as the principals go, Maija Kovalevska did a grand job on 'Signore, Ascolta' but it was pretty rather than moving. Interestingly, she was much, much more successful in Act 3. This was a Liu who was much more comfortable in defiance and action than in passive pleading. The voice is better suited to the heavier stuff late on, as well. Where the first aria was professional, technically strong, and all those other underwhelming words, the voice became more interesting the more was asked of it. 'Tu che di gel' had precisely the right mix of steel and melt, and reminded me of Gallardo-Domas back when she was, you know, still good. She brought the best out of Hao Jiang Tian's Timur, as well. In the first act he had been acceptable, workmanlike; after Liu's death he was genuinely moving.

I've been unlucky with tenors at the Met. The first time I went, in 2006, I saw Walter Fraccaro as an instantly forgettable Cavaradossi. Then, back in April, Mario Berti oscillated so wildly between the brilliant and the filthy that it seemed he was cramming the ups and downs of an entire career into one Trovatore. What I got tonight from Salvatore Licitra was my first Met taste of tenorial vocal glamour- something in the tone which excites and relaxes simultaneously. He doesn't use the voice with as much artistry as is ideal- nothing much happens below mezzo forte, and his phrasing can be a little rustic. Actually, the one time he dipped the volume below 7 something rather interesting happened. His challenge to Turandot on 'Il mio nome non sai' felt intimate, something for her ears only, a seduction. I've not seen that before, and it works. 'Nessun Dorma' was delivered with a swagger- this is the aria you're here for, he was saying, and listen to how well I pull it off. Relatively well, is the answer- came off that C pretty darn quick, didn't we, Sal? Still, on tonight's evidence, if he's not a great singer, he's nonetheless a good one. If I could offer him one word of advice, however, it would be to be less wimpish about his gong-work. The music isn't really asking for a careful underarm tap.

He wasn't the only tenor on display, of course (although Bernard Fitch as Altoum wasn't on display to me- his throne isn't visible from Fam Circ standing, and neither, annoyingly, is Turandot's first appearance), since we also have two thirds of the Ping Pongs. Zef the designer has a lot of fun with these three, and their bold colour scheme in among the pastels is another of the design elements that really works. Vocally, the highest praise I can give Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes is that they bore comparison to the dream team on that odd Karajan recording- Araiza, Hornik and Zednik (yeah, the Niks rule). For once I could see the point of their scene at the top of act two, a section which reminds us that this opera was written a quarter of the way through the twentieth century. It almost feels more like a musical theatre number than an operatic trio- Sondheimish, even, and I mean that as a compliment to both composers.

That's the whole cast, isn't it? Oh no, I missed one. The uncharitable would say that Maria Guleghina has no business singing Turandot at this point; the overly generous would point to the fact that she got through it with no glaring mishaps. On the positive side the voice, although nobody could claim it to be in anything near its prime, has retained its impressive size. But then, 'never mind the rest, it's so BIG' is a credo that has got better men than I am in trouble, in, ah, all sorts of contexts, so we can't just leave it at that. There are some parts where, if not ideal, a little vocal insecurity can at least be dramatic. Tosca, say, or Norma are in extremis, so we can excuse a wobble or a shriek as a character point. But Turandot when we first meet her is powerful, triumphant, impermeable, and the singing of 'In questa reggia' and the riddles should reflect that. Guleghina sounded like what she was, which was a soprano carefully navigating her way through a role which isn't in her voice any more. There's little point in the climax of 'In questa reggia' if the top C arrives late, squalls, and then is abandoned as soon as is respectable. In Act Two she was cranking out the decibels, but the tone was centreless; and when she tried something more caressing, it was touch and go as to whether it would work. At the top of the register, the vibrato has widened and spread into what is undeniably a wobble, and a big one at that- one of those 'which note, precisely, are you singing?' wobbles which always spells trouble. On the plus side, she fared a great deal better in the less demanding music that makes up most of Act 3, especially an almost gorgeous 'Del Primo Pianto', and she made some interesting dramatic choices, at least from the far distance of standing room. In the 'figlia del cielo' section - where that mp3 clip of the other night's performance had revealed her to be drowning- she evinced a real, believable vulnerability. By the way, Andris Nelsons had seemingly learned his lesson there, and he hurried it along at a significantly faster tempo than before; in fact, he didn't put much of a foot wrong all night. But to return to Guleghina, between the generous and the uncharitable lies a middle ground, summed up in a couple of questions. Can she sing Turandot? Yes, just about. Should she? Probably not.

See? There's always plenty to say about a night, any night, at the opera. I'm glad I listened to the Opera Gods- I'd have missed, ooh, about two-thirds of a treat, otherwise.

Friday, 15 January 2010

I've never been to Brooklyn and I'd like to see what's good*

It strikes me that what I usually do when in This New York is write long, rambling blog posts about it. Well, I'm a creature of tradition, so here goes.

I have said before that there is no real point in describing flights, since you've been on one (unless you're *you* or *you*) and you know what it's like. But there were a couple of distinguishing features to this one. The first is that I was sitting in front of a real life sitcom character. Not an actor, one of those stock comic types who only appears in 25 minute segments with an ad break. She had an accent which made your average Miss Adelaide sound subtly underplayed, and she moaned about literally everything. We were a little late taking off and- having kvetched about everything from the location of her seat to the size of those little red blankets to the fact she had to stow her hand luggage in the overhead locker- she announced to the plane at large 'an extra hour I could have stayed in bed this morning. It's a scandal. A SCANDAL'. At this point her husband uttered the only word I heard him speak the entire time which was- I swear- 'Oy'. Just before we took off, the stewardess announced that there were a few seats available in Premium Economy on a first come, first served basis. The moment the seatbelt light was switched off Sitcomella got up and ran, actually ran, down the aisle in order to have first pick. This was impressive, given the hip troubles she has been undergoing and which we had already heard about in forensic detail.

The other aspect of the flight which bears repetition is the film 'Bandslam'. I chose it because I couldn't handle anything heavier, and it's adorable- smart, sweet and funny. It struck me as the kind of film Juno was intending to be, if less ambitious. The gags were easy and witty, without that Juno tendency to broadcast 'you didn't expect me to use THAT word, did you? I am clever and witty and ironic you see'. It also has LIsa Kudrow in it, and there is a rule round these parts that anything with Lisa Kudrow in it is good. It made me cry, but you won't because you're not as much of a wuss as I am.

So I got to JFK, and I got to my hotel which is cheap but unremarkable, in a cheap, unremarkable neighbourhood between Chelsea and Midtown. Johnnie, a university friend who lives a few blocks away, had very kindly agreed to meet up for a welcome drink, which became a welcome (in both senses) Cuban food blowout. She and I gassed for a couple of hours, ate a metric fuckton of food, and then I rolled home.

Yesterday was, as is now traditional, big walk time- this time along the High Line, through to Union Square, and then meandering around the Village before heading to Lower Broadway and the idology office for lunch and remedial computer help. A quick breather at the hotel and then into the sleazy gay underworld. Well, not really. Actually a rather nice russian-themed bar on 51st where Greg drank vodka and I drank beer. The website claimed that, since the bar was in the theater district (which it isn't quite) one might see Alan Cumming or Cyndi Lauper popping in for a drink, or Liza or Chaka dropping by to play the piano. Astonishingly, none of these things came to pass. After a couple of drinks and stuff the 'Jon eats far too much food' aspect of all my holidays took a Mexican turn with some Mole enchilladas (chocolatey sauce rather than adorably blind vermin). We topped off the evening by meandering down to Lincoln Center, where we watched a little of the night's performance of 'Stiffelio' on the foyer screens and since we didn't know the story (despite Greg having seen it just three nights before- early Verdi is like that) decided to make it up, a heady concoction involving priests in fancy dress, a burning cathedral, a Halloween party, and Sibelius.

Today was Brooklyn. Brooklyn without a map. Brooklyn without a map is lostmaking. I got off at a subway stop, walked down some nice treelined streets (I have since worked out that I was most likely in Prospect Heights) to a large arch, which subsequent research tells me is the Soldiers and Sailors arch. So, you know, well done soldiers and sailors.

Prospect Park is gorgeous, all undulating and Capability Brownish. And smaller than Central Park, which for someone who is both lazy and mapless is something of a blessing. I eventually navigated myself to a Subway stop and headed to the Bridge for some pizza (Grimaldi's, which I can announce makes the second best pizzas in New York) and then a nice high up walk back into Manhattan, during which I composed much of this post in my head, like some kind of latter-day blogging Wordsworth.

And tonight it's off to the Met, for the best Rosenkavalier cast that the year 2000 had to offer (I shouldn't be snarky- I'm expecting them to be pretty damn good ten years on). Needless to say, I shall be reporting on this in full. Whether you like it or not.

Favourite overheard comments so far:

(Man on phone, outside St Paul's Church, Fulton Street) 'All I'm saying is you gotta bring some of that fuckin' Macadamia Nut Brandy, man'

(Man in overalls outside my hotel, talking to other man in overalls) 'So he like humped my dog, and since then my dog is all, like, y'know?'


*If you read my previous NY blog posts back in April you'll know the drill by now. If you didn't, well, that isn't my fault, is it?