Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category
Used the morning to go meet a TV indie to talk about the televisual possibilities of this project on the prompting of a seasoned British commissioner I met by chance on the street in Copenhagen the week before last, who made an unsolicited connection as I explained what I was up to, and because the suggested contact was already a friend of mine from university days I thought might as well, if he’s seen something in it. It was on my plan but for way further down the line but the chat was useful, not least for the insightful questions and perspectives the producer raised.
As I was not far away, I decided to trot over to Parliament Hill and ascend. Did a bit of reading and writing at the top of the hill and in the cafe below, mainly centred on Sylvia Beach and the potential publishing chapter. Then home to return to the world of Factory and tap away in that realm.
Knocked off half an hour early to fulfil a long-held London ambition – to go see The Mousetrap, which has been playing of course since I drew my first breath. It was a charming immersion into the 40s (both on and off stage) and had the added bonus of leaving you with a hang-over of mystery and suspicion as you emerged back into the real life of the city, opposite The Ivy. An Aston Martin with the number plate JUL IIAN. An American family arranged by the father in front of the theatre, or was it in front of the sports car, for a sneaky snap. A man in a top hat shouting at someone. All bathed in red neon glow from the sign above. When a man is tired of London, he must indeed have passed on, be no more, expired, gone to meet his maker, a stiff, bereft of life, pushing up the daisies, off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible…
When I got back home, a Ginsberg person from the USA had gotten in touch out of the Norwegian Blue.
Some web research in the morning (a surprisingly minor part of my activity so far) starting with the transcript of an exchange between Brian Eno, who I was considering as a candidate for the Music chapter, and Grayson Perry which touches on the subject of sharing, so I can use it a little bit in the Jeremy Deller case-study. Then some video including a reading by Hettie Jones in memory of Ginsberg with a spirited performance of a powerful Ginsberg poem/song on death, punctuated with the word “bone” [Broken Bone Blues].
Felt a sudden need for a haircut (as one does) so headed up to Drury Lane to lose the fro. Stopped by Forbidden Planet on the way over to my interview to pick up some comics for Enfant Terrible No. 2 who has recently become really taken by them (so fond memories of child&teenagehood triggered). A quick pitstop at Fopp to pick up some electric blues and jazz as compensation for not finding the Nick Lowe LP I was after. Then over to the Union Club in Greek Street to meet my interviewee for the afternoon.
I found myself in the same warm red room as I had been in four weeks to the day earlier for the cast&crew party for HealthFreaks (of which Episode 4 went out shortly after this interview). The open fire and picture-lined walls gave it a womb-like coziness on a dreary November day.
With the room to ourselves bar the occasional crashing through of a waitress, I interviewed Mike McCarthy about his time working with Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. He also lived with Joan and Gerry Raffles in Blackheath during that time in the mid-70s. He worked mainly with the local kids on the wasteland in front of the theatre, arriving as a fresh-faced Northern drama school graduate and leaving as a producer, moving off into the world with his stage adaptation of Planet of the Apes (damn him all to hell for having such a great idea).
Rounded off the day after hours with a phone interview with Steven Lock in Co. Wicklow, Ireland. He kindly approached me through this blog to offer an interview about Tony Wilson whom he produced at Granada in the 80s. I met Steven and his producer wife in Dublin a few years ago – when doing a speaking gig and when trying to set up a pan-Ireland talent development operation respectively. He gave a really good sense of what working with Wilson was wike (Ws weally wock). Steven’s own recent story is equally fascinating – he has set up an agricultural service (Grassometer) in the wake of filming a load of Irish farmers for a TV series and has hooked up with one of Apple’s original designers (Jerry Manock) to deliver the service via app (it’s to do with measuring grass volumes) – just the kind of chain of connections When Sparks Fly revels in, brought about by spotting an opportunity, seizing subsequent funding opportunities, and reaching out to fellow talent.
Broken bones O Lord
I’ll give my house away
Broken bones O God
It was never mine anyway
Broken bones O Buddha
Take my skull today
Or take back my skull someday
I’m writing this post in the grounds of University College London (of which one of my forebears was a founder – I found out earlier this year whilst researching my family tree online) – opposite Birkbeck College where my dad got his PhD (having arrived in London from Leipzig in 1938). It’s a nice spot to write, with its air of bookishness and naively optimistic youth.
Day 40 was centred at BAFTA where I am No. 26 member of the Interactive branch. I don’t really use it often enough as a pied-a-terre. Maybe because it’s so close to Hatchards (est. 1797) which always costs me money. I went in there for a browse between meetings and came away with a signed copy of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. As I looked around the enticing book displays, the sheer volume of material published, the wonderful variety of subjects, I oscillated between: I can do this – No I can’t – I can do this…
My first meeting was a last minute addition through Alfie Dennen (who I’ll interview for the contemporary/digital strand of the book) with a TV producer from CCTV in China. I gave him a few ideas to help with a series he’s doing on European cities (London, Paris, Berlin).
As he was leaving he got to meet my interviewee who had just returned from a long stint in China as voice coach for Nicholas Cage on his current movie. Gaye Brown acted under Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East as well as touring with Oh What a Lovely War around Britain. She was in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as well as in some classic TV from On The Buses to The Goodies. She also worked in The Establishment, Peter Cook’s club in Soho, alongside Jason Monet, grandson of Claude and the person my youngest brother was named after. She’s the first person other than my mum (who was at art school with him) I’ve ever heard mention that name.
Chatting to Gaye was a delight – story after charming story of acting in the 60s and 70s in particular, and of hanging out in London during that era, all framed by a rich mix of a life.
The rest of the afternoon involved reverting back to the Advertising world and tapping away on Paul Arden as the autumn sun raked along Piccadilly.
Went for my second session at the Joan Littlewood archive over in Hackney. Took actor Adrian Dunbar with as he has just finished playing Brendan Behan in New York in the play ‘Brendan at the Chelsea‘ by Janet Behan (niece), and is about to take the play to Dublin, Belfast and Derry. (“His performance alone makes “Brendan at the Chelsea” a must.” NY Times) He ploughed his way through all the The Hostage and The Quare Fellow material. Meanwhile I picked up from 1963 and the Oh What a Lovely War scrapbooks and worked my way via Mrs Wilson’s Diary (set designed by Damon Albarn’s mum) and Lionel Bart and the like through the 60s and 70s until 1974 when the archive ends and Littlewood’s Theatre Royal hits the buffers.
There’s a nice line about Joan in the play: “Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood” – there’s more about how he wrote under her here [murray-melvin-on-brendan-behan] and more on the play, which Adie directed as well as strarring in, here [human-behan] and here [drinker-with-a-writing-problem]. It would be great to see the play on at Stratford in Joan’s anniversary year next year.
Our generous host again looked after us very well with cake, coffee, chat and fascinating insights and titbits from the world of Joan & Gerry. One of my favourite clippings that I came across during the afternoon was one telling of how she’d been arrested for what would now be called ‘Stealth Marketing’ or something, for painting pawprints from the high street and the station to the theatre as a means of piquing curiosity. So a gorgeous, chilled out afternoon was had by all.
On the way to pick up Adie I went to a brief Channel 4 meeting about a game I was working on prior to sabbatical. It’s a really exciting project because it is a game That Does Good.
On the way back I went to a very interesting discussion held by YouGov and the London Press Club at the Stationers’ Hall (which is on the same street as my home livery hall Cutlers’ Hall). The theme was the future of Investigative Journalism and the participants were:
Chair: Andrew Neil, journalist and broadcaster.
Panel: Alan Rusbridger, Editor-in-Chief, the Guardian; Tom Harper, investigations reporter, The Independent; Tom Bower, author and journalist; Heather Brooke, investigative journalist; and Andrew Gilligan, investigative journalist.
I’d been kindly invited by Carole Stone who I’ll be interviewing shortly for the book on the subject of personal networks.
My Other Half chatted to Gilligan and Rusbridger after the debate. I bumped into journo/writer Christina Patterson who recently left The Indy (to coin an Ardenism: It is. She Is.) after first meeting her at Julia Hobsbawn’s network-driven event in Portland Place the other week, the London launch of Names Not Numbers 2014. I also ran my thought-up-on-the-night notion of a Kickstarter for Investigative Journalism past Simon Albury who recently left the Royal TV Society (It may be. He is.). He had raised an interesting point about the potential charitable status of some IJ activities. I reckon the Storystarter idea has legs, driven by the issues people care passionately about and the institutions they distrust – doesn’t yet exist as far as I know…
I’m writing this one from BBC Media Centre while getting ready for tonight’s broadcast of Health Freaks, a new series I have been working on, the only Channel 4 work I have carried in to my sabbatical.
I have spent most of the afternoon writing happily away outside a cafe on the King’s Road, Chelsea within spitting distance of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX shop. May the spirit of Punk rub off on me. I’m writing away at the Paul Arden chapter and in his contrariness is at least something of punk appeal. In a distinctly non- punk vein, for mid-October a remarkably mild afternoon which I thoroughly enjoyed sitting out in.
Prior to my writing burst, I was round the corner at The Chelsea Arts Club interviewing an advertising photographers’ agent, David Lambert, who worked with Paul Arden from 1974. As I walked into the club I saw a notice on the board announcing the death of Carolyn Cassady, who had been a member – reminding me of my lesson from Carolyn: strike while the iron’s hot when it comes to interviews.
While sitting outside the cafe at the Bluebird I organised a meeting with actress Gaye Brown who, apart from working with Joan Littlewood, was in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (in that magical year, 1971).
David was very generous with his time and stories, and seemed to be enjoying recalling these tales which linked one to another as he hauled them up from the 70s and 80s. He stars in my opening emblematic scene in the Advertising chapter so it was good to get the story direct from him. The version I’ve already written is very accurate it turns out, I just got one extra telling detail from the from-the-horse’s mouth version as well as the chance to compare notes on what it actually means.
The Chelsea Arts Club was a strange affair on a weekday afternoon. Some ladies who lunch, some ageing types with no pressing need to work, the ubiquitous newspaper reader. It felt full of heritage with people on the past chairmen list like Whistler, Philip Wilson Steer and John Lavery but I didn’t recognise any of the last decade’s lot and only Sir Chris Powell was known to me on the current officials photo- board. Not the friendliest place I’ve ever been – CAC? we’ll leave the jury out on that.
As I walked back down Old Church Street Adrian Dunbar rang to confirm arrangements for tomorrow’s trip back to the Littlewood archives. He wanted to bring Janet Behan with, Brendan’s niece (author of Brendan at the Chelsea), but the times wouldn’t work out so that will have to be a separate visit. These little chains of connection are fascinating and the root of the excitement of the project – as well as the very essence of Creativity.
Headed East for the afternoon to meet actor Murray Melvin who was a key player in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE). He was in the original and West End cast of Oh What a Lovely War in 1963 and played the hostage in Behan’s The Hostage. He started working with Joan in the late 50s when he was an office worker and untrained in acting beyond some am dram. He was born in Kentish Town (as was ArkAngel Productions) and he grew up in Hampstead High Street, when it was a very different place from what it is now. Joan spotted something in him and took him on. He now pays that back by maintaining and building her archive at TRSE and has done assiduously for 22 years. After the interview he was going to see the latest production so he can give his notes which the director appreciates, plenty of wisdom to tap into there.
Murray brought me up to his room, a rich red den containing Joan’s library which he has rescued (it’s around a quarter of what it once was) and housed in specially made shelves also in TRSE red, that traditional theatrical red that goes with gilt. He emphasised that she was a voracious reader of broad range. The volume that jumped out at me was Alvin Toffler’s FutureShock which for me screams 70s - my mum had the US paperback edition on recommendation from some hippy-type, it may have been Pete, the lifeguard at the Thatched Barn swimming pool with the cool earring. That’s why she also has Trout Mask Replica among her records.
We spoke for just under an hour in a free-flowing way (though hitting all the points/questions in my notes) about many aspects of Joan’s work from her attitude to community to her process of collaborative creation, from Brendan Behan to Shelagh Delaney, from her take on Ego to her relationship with Gerry Raffles, from the influence of European theatre to the fact you never touched her, she maintained a block of space around her. I hope to publish the interview in the online archive for this book.
On the way home I received an email from Toni Arden, wife of Paul, which opened up another interesting vista…
I’m on the Tube heading for home from Stratford. I’ve just been interviewing actor Murray Melvin at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where he worked with Joan Littlewood.
It was the first outing for my LiveScribe smart-pen as recommended by Jemima Kiss of The Guardian for interview recording. It performed fine but I ballsed up the last bit (5 mins) because of a technical mistake (you need to restart record mode when you change pages in the smart-notebook (it ain’t that smart).
So I want to capture that last bit for posterity while it’s fresh in my mind as it was about Brendan Behan. Murray played the hostage in the original TRSE production of the eponymous play.
Most importantly he poopooed the notion that Joan wrote any of Behan’s stuff.
Behan habitually attended performances of The Hostage in Stratford and would get up mid-show in the auditorium to interject. For example, after a song: “I’ve written an extra verse for you.” The audience loved the disruption. So did Joan as it kept the actors on their toes and the performance fresh and alive. And the new verse would be even better than what was already in the script.
Murray felt Joan loved the “destructive” nature of Behan’s character. In the same way that she was drawn to the destructive energy of the teenage boys hanging out in front of the Theatre with her encouragement.
Murray emphasised that Behan was from a family of storytellers. He would regale the company with stories, prompted by Joan. “Tell us the one about…” He’d go on for three hours then notice the time. The bar’s open, he’s off. Then Joan would ask the assembled actors: “What did he say about your character?” and scribble down furiously the collective memory of what had been said. From that she’d spot the moments of real brilliance and extract from the 3 hours 3 minutes of pure gold.
A theatrical day. Started with a performance in front of 20-year old University of Syracuse students illustrating the principles of multiplatform TV creation. Went smoothly though the fella who was sitting for some reason with his red trackie bottoms round his ankles, mercifully with running shorts on underneath, did distract me momentarily. Otherwise a friendly and respectful class. That warmed me up for a trip to E8 to a quiet back road off Kingsland Road in Dalston to immerse myself in the thespian world of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop.
I went to interview two women who worked closely with Joan at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE) in the 60s and 70s. When I arrived a Stratford native who had been part of the army of kids who gathered around the Theatre with Joan and her partner Gerry Raffles’ encouragement, keeping them engaged and as much as possible away from trouble, was sitting having a quiet cup of tea with the interviewee who was kindly hosting. Her job revolved around the community outreach work which kept the Theatre and company in close touch with day-to-day reality and relevance. The 45 year old connection between him and her was clearly still strong and affectionate. She could recall the name of every child in every photo from back then.
A long table had been carefully arranged for me with documentation from Joan’s activities extending from just after the War til the 70s – photographs, clippings, letters, programmes. A bottle of water and a glass was left thoughtfully by the chair. It took me two hours, fuelled on the coffee and chocolate biscuits that kindly followed, to get as far as 1963 where I parked up tantalisingly at the cliff-hanger of Oh What a Lovely War. The two things that most stood out for me was the material on Brendan Behan, which for all the tragedy of the drink and the pantomime Irish stuff, drew attention to what a wit he was, a worthy compatriot of Wilde; and a photo album of Great War photographs which served as research/source material for Oh What a Lovely War. It ranged from prints of Haig and the high command via aircraft and newly emerged tanks to nurses and troops in wrecked churches – no idea where Joan acquired these from but it was no ordinary collection. Detailed research and a documentary sensibility were critical to the evolution of the landmark show. I’m going back for Round 2 in this extraordinary archive in a few days, accompanied by Adrian Dunbar who has recently been playing Behan on stage in New York.
The double interview – the two women specifically requested to be interviewed together as they enjoy the fact they have slightly different perspectives on TRSE and naturally fall into a bantery double act – was illuminating and free flowing. They both preferred not to be recorded (which surprised me, I’d have expected the opposite in the interests of accuracy) so we had a not over-structured chat from which the complex character of Littlewood emerged strongly if not clearly. She evidently had at least as many contradictions, ambiguities and complexities as the rest of us, probably many more to match what the second interviewee described unequivocally as her genius. Our host made it clear that the total focus Joan had on her theatre work, that her genius, was only possible because her partner/lover Gerry in particular (and her colleagues to some extent) dealt with all the everyday demands and realities – cooking, shopping, paying the bills and rent, transport, the lot. A gender reversal perhaps but a common dynamic – behind many if not every creative genius lies a person who cares and supports in a quotidian, quiet way.
The thing that most struck me during the afternoon was a photograph by the door in. It showed Joan working hard on a patch of waste ground by the Theatre which they were preparing to squat as a venue for kids and community activities. An army of urchins were lending hands. Over Joan’s shoulder is a beautiful dark-haired teenage girl. Radiating energy she is marshalling the younger children. This was my host back in the late 60s. Despite her youth, she’d already made a name for herself racing scooters and setting speed records. She still has 30 scooters out back of her tardis-like house. For all her energy and friendliness, her edge and integrity, I’d never have guessed from her outward appearance when I first met her on stage at the Theatre Royal a couple of weeks ago that such stories lie behind her. I am constantly amazed and shaken out of my assumptions by the stories of ‘everyday’ people.
It had to be done. Sitting on the stage of the legendary Theatre Royal in Stratford East. MacBook Air close at hand. My theatre chapter notes on me. Half an hour to spare. I began writing my chapter on Theatre starring Joan Littlewood and Joe Papp on the very boards where the Theatre Workshop was set up in East London by Joan and her partner Gerry Raffles and where ground-breaking shows like Oh What A Lovely War came into the world.
I was there at the kind invitation of Stella Duffy, writer, novelist and performer, whom I first contacted after reading her Guardian blog about her project to revitalise and realise Joan and Cedric Price’s concept of the Fun Palace. She was running an Open Space to bring together all the potential partners in the 2014 project.
During the day I was privileged to meet a number of people who worked at this very theatre with Joan and collaborators both on and off stage including actor Murray Melvin and director Philip Hedley who kindly helped those gathered to understand where Joan and Cedric were coming from with their vision for Fun Palaces where theatre, arts and science could hang out together in the name of Fun and non-boring Learning.
I was energised simply on arriving in Stratford as this was my first time back since the closing sporting events of the Paralympics and was charged with happy memories of ten days volunteering down at London 2012 in the Media Centre/Press Office of the Olympic Park.
The theatre there is uniquely intimate, 450 seats but when you stand on the steeply raked stage every one of them seems within easy reach of your gaze and words. Acting has never really been my thing, I’ve always been happier behind the camera, but if I had to do it that’s a stage I’d like to give it my all from and the black bricks of the unusually deep stage (a depth created by acquiring the adjoining building at some opportunistic juncture) contain some essence of innovation and experiment which had me leave with fantasies of performing.
On my way out I bumped into a fellow Gee (no relation) whose path I’ve crossed on Facebook, partly through the random coincidence that her daughter and my grandmother share the same less than commonplace name. Lisa Gee is a published writer of books and journalism and during our enjoyable outdoor chat beside the Theatre Royal box office (where I took the opportunity to pick up tickets for the 50th anniversary revival of Oh What a Lovely War early next year) she was kind enough to share some insights into the publishing side of things.
Towards the end of the afternoon I had to head West again to attend a technical rehearsal in the bowels of Channel 4 for my Health Freaks commission which involves a live insert into a pre-recorded show which is technically tricky and needs split second timing. It was my first time back in C4 HQ since I started my sabbatical on 1st September. There were the best part of a dozen of us in the small edit suite ranging from presenter Dr Pixie McKenna through the production manager of the TV show to the colleague making up the on-screen graphics. That ‘cosiness’ drove home how much of a work of collaboration and teamwork this kind of creativity is – a perfect note to end a Joan day (it was her birthday yesterday so the anniversary had been marked on the stage at the start of the day with some red flowers presented by Stella before a projected photo of Joan sitting on bombsite rubble in front of the Theatre Royal) as Joan, for all her leadership, was a tireless advocate of creative collaboration and collective creation.
Watching the Six Nations rugby this weekend (the Ireland victory sporting theatre at its best) I couldn’t help seeing the incidents when players’ heads hit the ground (that happened in both the England and Ireland matches, with stretchers sent into action) in a new light, with a frisson emanating from our fragility. Our fragility as spotlighted by the genuinely sad news of Natasha Richardson’s accident and her rapid decline over just half a week.
I only encountered Natasha once, at a recent party of the old friend of mine who I met my wife through. The party was appropriately theatrical, with the historical venue done out like Mandalay (complete with Mrs Danvers), and Natasha appeared in a glittery outfit fitting the surroundings and her star quality. She looked fabulous.
Her poor husband Liam Neeson I’ve also only met once. It was in sad circumstances too. It was at the memorial for another old friend, actor John Keegan, at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn. I was introduced to Liam by Adie Dunbar. We had a ridiculous conversation about Dundalk and I found myself talking about the Four Lanterns take-away when what I actually wanted to say was “Liam, I think you did a cracking job with Oskar Schindler.” (It was the reverse of an encounter I had with Ralph Fiennes in the bar at the Almeida where I had the opportunity to say “Ralph/Rafe/whatever you call yourself, I think you did a cracking job with Amon Goeth” – and did.)
What can you take from a tragedy like this? To enjoy each and every day. To cherish the simple pleasures. To be conscious of everything you have, every privilege and happiness.
Watching the first episode of the new series of The Secret Millionaire last night, featuring ex-Rover boss Kevin Morley, you couldn’t help but detect that Kevin’s journey into the dark heart of Hackney has brought him back in touch with what really matters – he came to recognise the true value of his home and family, clearly regretting that his children’s growing up had passed him by while he was in the office. The one thing that seemed to escape him was that things like his collection of sports cars, which he showed off at the beginning of the programme with reference to shiny little models in a cabinet, come at a cost – beyond the readies he shelled out. Someone, somewhere pays for it ultimately. It could be a homeless person in Hackney. Or a starving family in southern Africa. Someone, somewhere always pays.
As Liam Neeson wakes his beloved wife and comforts their children none of the Hollywood glitz adds up to much. As my Irish mother-in-law always says (not a million miles from Liam’s home town of Ballymena): your health’s your wealth. Gandhi, much though I admire him, was more long-winded than Mrs Murphy: “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”
This morning I was involved in launching the government’s new White Paper on informal adult learning (doing a case study around Picture This and illustrating how Channel 4 brings motivation, purpose and inspiration to networked media), so with both learning and fragility in mind another Gandhi quote rounds things off: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Bumped into Adie Dunbar at The Pigalle Club watching an intimate performance by Sinead O’Connor. Adie hails from Enniskillen, not a milion miles from Ballymena, and knows fellow thesps Liam and Natasha well. He underlined the great tragedy here by describing the powerful, positive energy the pair of them radiated together. In the words of the great Matt Johnson: “Love is Stronger than Death.”
In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
All the thoughts unuttered and all the feelings unexpressed
Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.
But, awoken by grief, our spirits speak
How could you believe that the life within the seed
That grew arms that reached
And a heart that beat
And lips that smiled
And eyes that cried
Could ever die?