Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Black and white and read all over - again!

Yes folks, there is no escaping the upcoming festivities. I'm knee-deep in unwritten Christmas cards, unopened online shopping orders and steely determination. One area where such determination may have wavered in 2016 is the need to read the huge pile of unread books gathering in the spare room. It's a feast without end. yet again, I will carry forward numerous tomes from one year to the next with the hope that they will sustain me on holidays, commutes into work or idle Sunday afternoons.

When it comes to reading, I don't tend to follow trends as such. Browsing the shelves of book shops, flicking through literary supplements and recommendations are what tend to steer me in every varying directions.

I always like it kick the year off with something fairly easy. Trudging through a James Joyce in January is never a good idea so I turned to Nick Hornby's Funny Girl. This was the seemingly simple tale of an unknown northern beauty queen who suddenly makes it big in a 1960s BBC sitcom. It's full of joy and optimism and delivers a 'fifty years later' chapter to round the story off well.

Three John Niven novels were devoured this year. Kill Your Friends is set against a backdrop of late nineties Britpop and the drug-fuelled excesses of the period. The humour is dark, morbid in places and yet still I laughed. Second up was The Sunshine Cruise Company, a sort of Carry On-style romp featuring OAP bank robbers. An odd premise yet strangely believable. There were more laughs courtesy of Straight White Male which served up the tears and giggles in equal measure.

It's always good to pick up a book that you've been meaning to read for years but never got around to. Step forward The Crow Road by Iain Banks. First published in 1993 and read by me twenty three years later, I initially found the dual narratives a little disconcerting. The Scottish names proved a little confusing to but I stuck with it and enjoyed Banks' examination of the deeper meaning of life. Quite funny in places too.

Not striking such a cheery note was Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Set in an alternative world where Nazi Germany and Japan had won WW2, this proved to be an unsettling read. Presumably this was the intention but it was too troubling to be enjoyable.

Veteran writer Eric Ambler provided some of the most enjoyable reads of the year. The Light of Day was all thrills and spills set against a backdrop of Istanbul. As often with Ambler, the lead character was anything but heroic. Epitaph for a Spy also featured a flawed hero plus an ensemble of characters residing at a hotel in summer. Addictive stuff!

Linda Grant served up a more feisty lead character in When I Lived in Modern Times, the story of a young woman leaving the austerity of post-war London for a new life in the fledgling state of Israel. It turned out to be not quite the anticipated land of milk and honey.

Other books enjoyed during 2016 include:


Soho by Keith Waterhouse - great characters and lots of fun
Walk the Lines by Mark Mason - the London Underground on foot!
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh - a young girl gone sour
Joy by Jonathan Lee - why did a successful woman hurl herself from a balcony?
The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate - fear and loathing at a country manor
Memoirs of a Dipper by Nell Leyshon - the brutal life of a petty criminal
For the Love of Radio 4 by Caroline Hodgson - a jolly romp through the schedules

There we are then. Just some of my literary companions this year. Some were challenging, some were  just good fun but all were very welcome.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

A prisoner of good fortune

Guilty pleasures. We all have them. Maybe a cheeky drink at the end of a long day, frugging around the living room to the sound of some 1980s disco or settling down to a TV treat that never fails to entertain. For me, the late 1980s through to 1997 were enlivened, television-wise, by the bottomless pit of pleasure known as Prisoner: Cell Block H. Shunted away in an 11 pm slot on ITV, PCBH became a must-see in my viewing week. Yes, I've heard all the nonsense about wobbly sets and outlandish plots but let's face it, EastEnders and Coronation Street are no strangers to the latter.

Of course, PCBH has recently had a revival and was relaunched on to an unsuspecting world in 2013 as gritty, edgy Wentworth. I love it but my fondness for the original PCBH has never waned. The show provided opportunities for many actresses who may have been consigned to 'mum', 'gran' or 'office worker' roles for years to come. Instead they were handed glorious roles - tough women with back stories and a tale to tell. Sheila Florance excelled as the wily poisoner Lizzie Birdsworth. Val Lehman ruled the roost for four hundred episodes as Top Dog and queen of the laundry press, Bea Smith and Janet Andrewartha crackled with menace as calculating Reb Keane.

A few British actresses also made the journey to the Wentworth Detention Centre including Annette Andre (of Randall & Hopkirk Deceased fame) as journalist Camilla Wells and the glorious Olivia Hamnett as psychotic doctor Kate Petersen. One actress who kicked the series off with a bang was Londoner Amanda Muggleton. She played tart-with-no-heart whatsoever, Chrissie Latham. The scorned Chrissie murdered one of the main characters early doors and wasn't seen again for several hundred episodes - but back she came. Chrissie managed to be hard-faced yet vulnerable and often lashed out when things weren't going her way. Initially an enemy of Bea Smith, Chrissie eventually learns the error of her ways, partly down to a sever bashing from corrupt officer Joan "The Freak" Ferguson.

Actress Amanda Muggleton left the series in episode 338 and Chrissie never returned. For Amanda, further success lay ahead on stage and screen. She took lead roles in Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, winning countless awards along the way. Almost forty years after that first appearance in Prisoner, Amanda found herself at the wonderful Kings Head Theatre in Islington, as star of the one-woman play The Book Club. Written by Roger Hall, the play tells the tale of Deb Martin, a woman whose husband is knee-deep in a midlife crisis. With her kids off her hands and time to kill, Deb joins a book club peopled by a bunch of eclectic women. Whether it's haughty Meredith or homely Millie, all have an opinion. Muggleton gives voice to all of them impressively and despite her being the only woman on stage, you soon find yourself engaged with a plethora of characters. She also manages to fill the entire stage, stalking each corner and addressing members of the audience like long-lost friends. It's all rather impressive. There is much joy to be had in the play, laughs a-plenty, tempered by Deb's realisation that ultimately, no good can come from the decision she's made. Acting on a lifelong ambition is sometimes not such a good idea.

Initially I wondered about the decision to stage the play in such a tiny venue as the King's Head. Some years ago I ventured to the Jermyn Street Theatre and almost projectile vomited having been placed on the front row in the firing range of scary tribute act Simply Barbra. Any lingering worries I had last night disappeared within seconds. Amanda Muggleton made this a very inclusive experience. We were part of her book club as it darted between hosts. Deb couldn't have made us feel more welcome - but I think Chrissie would have knocked her teeth out.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

Moments of silence: Eurovision goes to Stockholm


It's not often that a Eurovision Song Contest related story finds its way on to the main page of the BBC News website. Last week though, they updated us with Romania's expulsion from this year's event. An exasperated European Broadcasting Union, owed millions of euros by Romanian national broadcaster TVR, decided that enough was enough. Therefore the curtain came down on the hopes and dreams of one Ovidiu Anton, the singer who was busy packing his overnight case in preparation of representing his country in Stockholm. Europe will sadly not get the chance to vote on his particular slice of musical joy called Moments of silence. Plenty of quiet time for him and Romania from hereon in.

Overall, there seems to be a very competent feel to the 2016 entries. Nothing breathtaking, no real wow moments and only one very obvious clunker. Yes, step forward San Marino with possibly the worst song in the history of Eurovision. The individual elements are heinous enough - elderly Turkish man (yes, they must have run out of local performers in the micro state), talking rather than singing his way through a song with a hopeless 1970s disco backing track. At best, it's a comedy sketch but sadly, no one is laughing.


The only 'face' - and even that's stretching it a bit - taking part is Westlife's Nicky Byrne who will be flying the flag for Ireland. Sadly he does so with Sunlight, a flimsy and inconsequential slice of froth that leaves no trace.

Eurovision is often a reflection of music from the days of yore. Georgia has wheeled out Nika Kocharov and the Young Georgian Lolitaz (there are no women in the group) who have discovered some old Oasis tracks from 1995. The song may be doomed but at least it stands out. Also flying the flag for yesteryear is Poland Michal Szpak. Color of Your Love  - and yes, Michal favours (or should that be favors) the American variant - is some big, old-fashioned late 1980s Euro ballad which goes nicely with his big, old-fashioned late 1980s hair. Austria's Zoe seems to be harkening back to mid-80s Luxembourg entries and indeed, her song is performed in French.

There is a strong band of middling entries from shouty women this year. Azerbaijan's Samra trills her way through one of those contemporary 'oh oh oh' choruses and Australia's Dami Im serves up the musical equivalent to a bread pudding - stodgy, safe and generally unrewarding. On it plods. Switzerland's Rykka sings of being The Last of Our Kind and one can only hope so as she makes three minutes feel like six.

So who can we see as a potential winner this year? The bookies are favouring Russia's Sergei Lazarov. Apparently you pronounce his name as 'Sir Gay' which is just as well as You are the One seems to be flying the flag for gentlemen who dance at the other end of the ballroom. With recent Russian entries having been booed into submission by the middle-aged Holister t-shirted crowd, Putin has obviously succumbed in 2016. Dated it may be but the Russian song could easily take the title. Also keep an eye peeled for Sweden's Frans. It's sufficiently different to their winning song of 2015 to garner another victory. The Swedes are desperate to usurp Ireland at the top of the 'most winners' table and they seem to be well on their way. Another which may do well is Serbia's oddly named Sanja Vucic ZAA. Now Sanja has obviously been plugged into an Amy Winehouse back catalogue over winter and so this comes across as more 'homage' than original. A cracking if weirdly twitchy performance from Sanja.

Their's a nod to cod-rock this year too. Montenegro's band Highway attempts to be a tad grungy and shouty but it just sounds messy. Minus One from Cyprus are a sanitised, safe rock band. Nice song but a couple of earrings and a tattoo does not a Lez Zeppelin make.

I'm pinning my few quid on the Netherlands this year. The wonderfully named Douwe Bob could be on to a winner with the soft-country, Radio 2 friendly Slow Down. Europe tends to love this genre and to be fair, it's forty one years since the Dutch last won with the lyrically lovely Ding-a-dong. I've also a fancy for the Czech Republic's entry, I Stand. OK I'm a sucker for a shouty woman with a big ballad and Gabriela Gunčíková belts this one out with gusto. As does Finland's Sandhja complete with her jolly 'we're up for a laugh' backing singers. Sing it away will open the first semi-final on May 10th and it's fun.

The UK will be hoping, probably against open, for a place on the left-hand side of the scoreboard this year. Recent entries have been a bit of a disaster. We had tremulous old Engelbert Humperdinck followed by croaking Bonnie Tyler, 'rabbit in the headlights' Molly and then last year, Electro Velvet who performed well but failed on presentation. For 2016 it's Joe and Jake. No, they're not a couple of CBBC presenters but two personable young blokes who seem to have no problem in performing You're not alone live.  This one deserves some measure of success but this is Eurovision and seemingly the UK is just there to make up the numbers these days. Still we'll raise several glasses to them - and an extra one in memory of Terry Wogan during song number nine which was when El Tel used to break open the booze. Glasses charged folks - it would be wrong not to!




Sunday, 10 April 2016

Kitchen knives and caretakers

Well, it's been quite a week for high drama. No, I'm not talking about the Dear Leader's tax issues or the gasp-inducing news surrounding the Archbishop of Canterbury's parentage. Mere filler surrounding the the main course (tuna bake anyone?) on the news agenda. For this was the week that Helen Titchenor got stabby in The Archers.

Don't worry, I'm not about to enter into a detailed scene-by-scene synopsis of the whole grim affair. In a nutshell, dear old Helen, knee-deep in tuna bake and shop-bought custard, took a carving knife to her abusive husband, rotten Rob. The cast of The Archers deserve all the plaudits hurled at them, not only this week but every week. Yes, I'm a fan of long-standing and Sunday mornings would not be the same without the omnibus edition. A time for ironing, copious amounts of tea and the chance to hurl insults at a parade of fictional characters.

In Helen's hour of need, the powers-that-be decided to surround her with some of the show's less than sympathetic characters. Take Susan Carter for example. No, please take her as far away as you can. This shrieking spit-bag was soon to hand, knitting at the foot of the guillotine and enjoying the spectacle of Helen being whisked off to Cell Block H. Also pouring meths on troubled waters was the delightfully awful Peggy, Helen's gran, a woman who reinvents the word 'crone' every time she opens her mouth. For Peggy, the best way to support her granddaughter was to fuss about sending flowers to the abusive husband, languishing in Holby City hospital or wherever was nearest. The third in this triumvirate of hags-most-horrid was the mother-in-law, Ursula, who during one scene seemed to be channelling the voice of Su from the Sooty & Sweep Show. Ursula is a Disney-style wicked step-mother type but Home Counties style. When she cackles you can almost picture her tie-necked blouse quivering. Add to this Helen's hand-wringing mother Pat, uttering the line 'were we blind to what was happening?' ('Yes, you ridiculous old bat!' I screamed at the radio) and you realise that the accused has no chance. Weep for her.

Drama of a very different kind on Saturday night though. I was at the Old Vic for Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. This seemed to be a marathon undertaking as we were promised two intervals and a running time in excess of three hours. What a three hours though. For those not familiar with the story, there are only three characters involved. Timothy Spall took on the role of Davies, a vagrant helped by the damaged Aston, played  by Daniel Mays. Spall played Davies as initially confused, wary and subsequently wily as he attempted to manipulate Aston and play him off against his aggressive brother Mick, played by George MacKay. All three characters have set pieces. Mays was particularly engrossing as Aston attempts to explain the horror of the treatment he received in an institution. MacKay's plays Mick as a sharp, hard and violent man who has a rather worrying detailed knowledge of floor coverings and soft furnishings. Susceptible to flattery, he laps up the faux adoration of Davies. Despite Davies being, ultimately, a despicable old man, Spall breathes humour into the role and is rewarded with his fair share of laughs. Mays shoulders the heavy dramatic scenes with ease but the actor was visibly distraught at the close of the production.


Full marks too to designer Rob Howell for creating the dingy eaves flat in which the action, as well as the distinctive Pinter pauses, take place. All's well that ends well? Not in the case of The Caretaker but I headed back to the Underground in the knowledge that three hours had been well spent.

Monday, 28 March 2016

A house in the country

The last few hours of the Easter break are now upon us and so ends our longest public holiday of the year until you-know-when. For me, it kicked off on Wednesday following a 5 am start, a session in the gym and then a full day at work. How better to end proceedings than with a 150 mile jaunt up the M1 to Derbyshire. As ever, traffic ground to a halt somewhere near Leicester and engines were simultaneously turned off. I fumed and had a little rant. What on earth could be preventing in me from starting my Easter break? Then follows the slow crawl of shame as I passed the burnt out car on the hard shoulder and the fervent hope that the owner made it out, safe and well.

To Derbyshire then and to a house only five minutes walk from my parents. For ten years this has provided a bolt-hole from all things London. Now though, it's time to say goodbye and the house is on the market in preparation for something new. Sad will be the day when the keys are handed in to the estate agent but needs must.

To take my mind off things, I visited another country pile, slightly more imposing than our semi. Chatsworth. Oddly, this would be my first visit to the house itself. There had been the obligatory school trip to the farm, way back in 1976. That had been a joyous day of mud, clipboards and beef spread sandwiches. Some kid showered the coach in vomit on the way home, Exorcist-style,  causing the appearance of an angry teacher with a bucket of sand. We followed her progress back down the bus as she rhythmically broke wind with each footstep.

There had also been a not-to-be-forgotten family picnic to the Estate, also in the 1970s. After enduring a bank holiday tailback on an overheated East Midlands coach, we settled down en mass under a tree and beside a large cowpat. En mass we then gathered up the picnic and escaped the flies that were happily attacking the cheese and tomato baps. At greater speed we then ran as fast as we could from the herd of cows menacingly trotting towards us. Not the best of days.

Since then, there have been a few visits including a horribly depressing Christmas when there was nothing much to do other than shuffle along the river bank in drizzle and a more recent visit to the pre-Christmas market which featured drenched choristers belting out Ding dong merrily on high, water gushing from their nostrils, in a torrential rainstorm. How we laughed. From inside the restaurant.

This time though, I was actually setting foot in the house, the seat of the Devonshires. Imposing entrance gave way to odd rock collections and odder art. A madwoman next to me insisted on capturing everything on her phone, presumably because the folks back in Hokumpokum Nebraska will be agog at endless pictures of an amateur geologist's findings. Upstairs there was great excitement  as we milled around the doorway leading to the bedroom where JFK once slept. "I don't think Jackie stayed in that room although she might have done" muttered a woman clutching a guide book.

Before long we arrive at the Cecil Beaton exhibition feature the late Dowager Duchess, known by the family as 'Debo' (the Devonshires that is, not my family. I did meet 'Debo' back in the 1980s and have a hazy memory of having bowed and curtsied to her at the same time). Deborah was the youngest of the Mitford girls and seemingly the most sensible. She helped establish Chatsworth as the 'must see' destination  it is today. Beaton's photos gave an insight into the life of Debo and her never-ending 'country set' guest list. Apparently she insisted that all house guests be 'interesting' and one can only wonder at the musings of Noel Coward and Vita Sackville-West at the dinner table.

Anyway, that was that. Box ticked, house visited. I celebrated with a jacket spud in the House's tasteful restaurant as I was entertained by a middle-class dad imploring little Molly and Isla to 'please sit down. Please, for Daddy'. I found them mildly 'interesting' but I fear that dear old Debo wouldn't have given them house room.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Black and white and read all over

It's been another year of groaning bookshelves. I recall wittering on last year about the number of unread tomes piled high in my spare room. 2015 saw me add to them. Not that I'm complaining. I love the idea of having so many to browse.

I'm a few pages away from finishing my festive read, Somerset Maugham's Christmas Holiday. Admittedly, I knew nothing about the book and it soon transpired that the story had little to do with Christmas. There's a bit of murder, a bit of finger-wagging at fascism and a gentle snigger at art snobs. Maugham wrote this in 1939 and it seems apt that I end the year with a book from that decade, given that I began it with Geoffrey Houeshold's Rogue Male. This was a tale of escape told at quite a gallop and despite the title, this bunch of rogues were often gentlemen.

The joy of any year is coming across something that has been in print for years but which you've never got around to reading. Or not as the case may be. I eagerly got stuck into Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye only to be left somewhat deflated. I didn't connect with the story at all, or with the oddly-named characters. Each chapter read like some theatrical performance and felt dated. Another which failed to hit the mark was Mike Pannett's musing on life in Yorkshire, Now Then Lad. Admittedly I grabbed this as an emergency read on Pickering railway station. Like the train I caught, the narrative ambled along without any sense of purpose. It was all bucolic mishaps and eccentric Yorkshire farmers. The only thing that resonated was the fact that I was travelling through many of the places Pannett wrote about.

The award for Bleakest Read of the Year, by a narrow margin, goes to Hubert Mingerelli's A Meal in Winter. This is a very simple tale about a group of German soldiers preparing a rudimentary meal in the depths of a Polish winter. Mingarelli manages to shock the reader in a quiet and efficient manner. The other Bleak Book was Nic Pizzolato's Galveston. Like Mingarelli, Pizzicato conjure up some wonderfully vivid landscapes. It's a collage of washed-out backdrops, cheap hotel rooms and heat-hazed beaches. This is one disturbing read.

Bobbing around in the Caribbean, I needed something much more light-hearted and so got stuck into Christopher Stephens' Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams. I didn't imagine that there would  be anything new under this particular sun. How wrong I was. Using correspondence between Williams and his friends plus reactions from those mentioned in the infamous diaries, Stephens managed to add flash to the bones of the familiar Kenneth Williams saga.

I also decided to tackle Hilary Mantel this year. Not physically, obviously. Hurling her to the ground during a literary awards dinner might have seemed a little drastic. No, a chunk of the year was spent getting to know Thomas Cromwell (or should that be Cremuel?) in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both books managed to be absorbing and in places, truly shocking. The execution of Anne Boleyn was horrific. Mantel managed to make Tudor England an accessible place for the twenty first century reader.

There were a couple of excellent reads provided by Anne Tyler. She excels at the ordinary, family narrative and in particular, this was to the fore in A Spool of Blue Thread. Tyler pivots between wry humour and abject sadness but always manages not to be mawkish. As ever, I didn't want the story to end. Tyler always leaves you wanting to know what happened next.

In no particular order, other novels I trawled through in 2015 included:

Jiri Weil - Life With a Star - the grind of everyday life in Nazi-controlled Prague.
Ben Aaronovitch - Rivers of London - the occult meets the London Met!
Linda Grant - Upstairs at the Party - 1970s students and their subsequent life stories
Joseph O' Connor - The Thrill of It All - rites of passage again, this time for 80s teenagers
Patrick Gale - A Place Called Winter - Edwardian mental illness and stark Canadian landscapes
E.F. Benson - Mapp & Lucia - sweet naughtiness amongst market town snobs

Plus many, many more. As ever, I begin another year with George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier glaring at me, unread, from the bookcase. The war of attrition continues.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Teddy's Boys

So then to the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden and the Christopher Shinn play, Teddy Ferrara. As is the case with Donmar productions, less is more. No real set other than some doors, a few chairs and the odd pizza.

I knew the bare bones of this play - political activism amongst various gay students at an American college. There was the earnest one (Drew), the slightly shallow one (Gabe), the misfit one (Teddy), the unlucky-in-love wheelchair user (Jay) and the closet (Tim). In amongst these was the college's President with an eye on a senate seat, the angry salad-munching lecturer Ellen and the slightly dull Provost.

Unrequited love played its part and the underlying fickleness of all the main protagonists is what really let this play down. The entire production had the downbeat feel of one of those interminable 1990s films where the 'gay one' always dies, whether by suicide or AIDS. See Ordinary People or Longtime Companion for such misery. That's not to take away from the performances of those involved. Oliver Johnstone as Drew excelled as the serious young man maintaining his 'non-scene' stance. Ryan McParland's canker-laden Teddy made for painful viewing at times. Also a great turn from former Coronation Street actor Pamela Novete as the bitter Ellen.

The play ended with an odd scene which felt as though it had been grafted on at the last minute. It bore little relation to the rest of the story and provided no reason as to why one particular character acted the way he did. Rousing applause for the cast though, even if the audience seemed a little perplexed as it exited stage left into the wet London night.