Wednesday, 7 December 2016
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.