Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category
Just hanging in at the moment. Been working on the Joan Littlewood/Theatre chapter tonight but really fallen out of any kind of regular routine and slowed way down. The day job is pretty demanding and I get home knackered most days. Chuck in some child stuff and that just about does you in. Occupational hazard of the part-time writer of course.
That said I feel another burst of activity coming on. Maybe I needed a bit of a break. My plan is just to work steadily through Stuff I Have to Do til I get back into my flow. Carry on with the Theatre chapter until I get some real momentum going. And, as a motivational treat, I’ll watch the interview with Joan Littlewood on the BFI DVD of Bronco Bullfrog, a 1969 black & white film featuring some of the teenagers who hung around the Theatre Royal in Stratford East with Joan. I need to immerse myself back into this world.
I took Enfant Terrible No. 2 to see Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal early last month – he liked in almost as much as the pizza marguerita before the show, and was particularly struck by the scene where the countries tumbling into conflict are personified in representative men and women and their fatal manoeuvrings played out like pieces on a chessboard. I’m going to see A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre (which Joan was pretty down on for its lack of accessibility and authenticity and its narrowness) in a month’s time. And I’ll probably go to see Gary Kemp in Fings Ain’t What They Used t’Be at TRSE in May.
A Taste of Honey was written by a teenage factory worker from oop Narth (Shelagh Delaney) who, after seeing her first theatre, reckoned she could do better and banged out a play in a couple of weeks. That Joan took it on and helped build on its youthful energy and naive confidence is testimony to her openness – to new talent, to non-metropolitan perspectives, to alternative voices (a link to Channel 4 I should try to bring out). Fings is similar in that it was written by an ex-con, Frank Norman, who Jeffrey Barnard described in an obituary as “a ‘natural’ writer of considerable wit, powers of sardonic observation and with a razor sharp ear for dialogue particularly as spoken in the underworld.” Joan loved the energy and particularity of that outsider, street voice. She took his play and fused it with music and songs from echt East Ender Lionel Bart to create an unlikely but bang on mix.
In the forthcoming 20,000 Days on Earth – the best music film since Stop Making Sense – a Film4 production (directed by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard) centred on Nick Cave which I saw at C4 HQ a couple of weeks ago, Nick Cave gives ‘the secret of great songwriting’ – “counterpoint” and the kind of unlikely combination typified by Joan’s bringing together of Norman’s words and Bart’s songs. As Cave says not 5 minutes into the film:
Songwriting is about counterpoint. Counterpoint is the key. Putting two disparate images beside each other and seeing which way the sparks fly.
The title of this book of mine, When Sparks Fly, does not derive from Nick Cave (it actually comes from Andre Breton, which may well be where Cave’s words have their roots) but it was a lovely C4-F4/book coincidence which illustrates well this kind of thinking (from American scribbler Jonathan Ames) which really speaks to me:
I live for coincidences. They briefly give to me the illusion or the hope that there’s a pattern to my life, and if there’s a pattern, then maybe I’m moving toward some kind of destiny where it’s all explained.
I’m not too bothered about destiny or even explanation but I do like the notion that there’s pattern and purpose.
Still not really in my rhythm but getting some stuff done. The highlights of the last couple of weeks (The Story conference displaced last week’s entry) are primarily interviews. Today I did an interview with Barbara Windsor who was one of the third generation of Joan Littlewood’s acting ensembles doing Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1959, before transferring to the West End, as well as Oh What a Lovely War on Broadway in 1965 (where Barbara was Tony-nominated). It was fascinating to hear how tricky Barbara found Joan’s loose, improvisational approach after a training in the West End where the script was the script and you did exactly what the director told you to do. But what emerged from the experience ultimately was the actress getting more in touch with her real self, after years of playing down her East End background. Joan really admired her work in EastEnders – and thought she was the only one with a decent Cockney accent. Barbara learnt from Joan during Fings at the Garrick when she was drifting into artifice and over-blown performance, too Judy Garland, not enough Bethnal Green, and carried that lesson forward for the rest of her career.
Last week I interviewed Hamish MacColl, son of Joan’s first husband Ewan MacColl (folk singer and playwright), brother of singer Kirsty MacColl. He was kind enough to share some of his memories of Joan from his teenage years. He has his mother living with him, Jean Newlove, the third corner of an artistic triangle at the core of the Theatre Workshop with Joan (director), Ewan (writer/music) and Jean (movement). Hamish arranged for me to interview Jean too. Jean is an associate and champion of Rudolf Laban’s analytical movement work, using people’s physical actions, in the theatre context, as a key to their character and portrayal. She is 91 now and sounded incredibly energetic and youthful, quite inspirational. She told me a bit about the early years of the Theatre Workshop including when they were camped out at Ormesby Hall near Middlesborough in a kind of proto-hippy thespian commune.
I also sent my Proposal document off on the start of its journey to a potential publisher which would be a real coup if it all comes off. I sent it on a particular day to mark the memory of a friend of mine who checked out way too early.
So progress made, even if a little unevenly.
Last writing day of the year, travelling tomorrow. Spent the day on the Joan Littlewood/Theatre chapter, partly transferring notes in from research material but mainly getting a bit of a flow on and springboarding off the emblematic opening scene into the meat of the thing, centred on Joan’s focus on the present, participation and ensemble collaboration. I’m going to see Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East early in the New Year, which I’m really looking forward to.
Took a lunch break with Enfant Terrible No. 2 down the high street at Amici, chatting with Maurizio, the owner, about Cinema Paradiso among other stuff – writing and hanging out with children makes for a fine way to round off what’s been a pretty special year, thanks to this opportunity to have a break from the day job and have a stab at something new.
Once into the New Year, I’ll swoop back to polish Chapter 1 and put together a thorough synopsis. Day 96 will be the final writing day of this sabbatical period.
Glad to see Simple Pleasures part 4 finish the year (Day 80) on its highest daily traffic of 2013.
Day 80 was just a couple of hours really. It was the day after Boxing Day so didn’t count 100% as a working day. I carried on pulling the research material together into the first draft of the Joan Littlewood chapter. Then I had an urge, mid flow, to try to write the emblematic scene which opens each chapter, designed to capture the essence of the protagonist. In this case I opted for a scene from the performance of The Hostage at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958. It’s based on my interview with actor Murray Melvin. It’s actually the bit of the interview where my recorder crapped up on me for the one and only time so far but luckily I wrote down the main points on the Central Line home from Stratford – just as well as I’d already forgotten the finer details which surprised me. Even though it’s only been a couple of months I forgot which play it is associated with and what Behan actually said. The first draft I wrote from memory. Then thought to check my record and now I’m fixing it this morning (Day 81).
The point of the scene is that Brendan Behan regularly attended the production and had a habit of interrupting from the auditorium much to the delight of the audience. This meant the actors were put on edge which is something Littlewood liked as it kept the play fresh and alive during the run and underlined the participative nature of her theatre in that the audience, the actors, the writer and her as director all had significant contributions to make to make the play the best thing it could be.
The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
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…