Story through Inventory (update)

Here’s another creative for whom objects are an important artistic inspiration…

The first video message from Rockaway, Patti Smith’s out-of-town retreat

Poet/singer/writer Patti Smith keeps a selection of inspirational objects in her beach house in Queens, New York.

Pretty sparse and Zen

Besides the Frida Kahlo book and the well-worn copy of the novel ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’ by Gene Stratton-Porter (1909), the embroidery with Christian iconography and a hint of the Pilgrim Fathers(?), and the stones probably off Rockaway Beach, the other selections are hard to interpret and highly personal. The way they are displayed clearly has something of the altar about it, concentrating them in a focused space.

I’m more of an all-over-the-place merchant, punctuating my space with resonant or interesting objects. Here are the latest from my ‘Random Object from the Archives’ series…

Walkman WM1 – a milestone
The CD iteration
The MP3 iteration (iPod U2 special edition – I love red, black & grey)
London 2012 Olympics Gamesmaker pass – the best summer of my adult life

Without a doubt, that black & red iPod contains many Patti Smith songs. What music is actually on there is now a mystery.

Story through Inventory

Bought my Other Half Jarvis Cocker’s new book ‘Good Pop Bad Pop’ for our 13th monthiversary, she’s a big fan of Jarvis and Pulp. I’ve admired him from a certain distance without ever getting in deep. I’m more the Punk generation and it turns out he’s 8 days younger than me, so the next musical generation as a performer. The one time I saw him on stage was at ‘The Story’ conference in Red Lion Square, Holborn – talking rather than singing, speaking about the Extraordinary. He spoke about how he started out trying to write extraordinary things, then realised he had to make the ordinary extraordinary to capture what was significant about his life.

Needless to say I found myself dipping into the book once it had been presented as a gift. It is subtitled ‘an inventory’. It is written very well, clear and conscious of the reader’s perspective, shot through with a dry sense of humour. And beautifully designed and printed. Reading the opening immediately reminded me of my own attic-load of accrued stuff. The book springboards from objects fished out of a London attic as Jarvis finally moves out of his Victorian pile. I had the same experience in 2020 – first emptying out my office archives in Kentish Town (by coincidence, as I look up from writing this on my phone on the train from Brighton, I see a pale blue mural on a Victorian building saying “Welcome to Kentish Town”) and then the loft of my London house of 22 years. In the process I came across numerous resonant objects from my past which collectively tell some kind of story.

You just have to tune in to that wonder that is all around you. It’s everywhere, honest. That’s the way life works. Extraordinary moments, the extraordinary comes from the extra ordinary.

Jarvis Cocker at The Story conference 2018

The creative who comes to mind with a significant relationship to objects is designer Paul Smith. I visited his studios in Covent Garden near Richard Seifert’s Space House when I was at Channel 4. It was filled with random little objects he had collected from which to take inspiration. Some mailed in by admirers. I too take creative inspiration from objects – colourful ones, well designed ones, pop ones, quirky ones, toys, souvenirs, orange ones, 70s ones, ceramics, Bakelite, art-related ones, shiny ones, old things, gifts, a French folding knife from Marco with a Napoleonic bee motif, a small plastic skinhead from Emma-Rosa.

I so enjoyed reading about Jarvis’s old exercise book, chewing gum packet, Northern Soul patch, that I decided to dust off a few of my random objects on Insta. Here are the first 3…

[1] a cassette single (1980)
[2] what used to be called a Transistor Radio
[3] Keith Haring painted on stage behind the bands
worn by father in Paris in 1983
worn by son in London in 2020

Even just this opening salvo, what does it add up to? What story does it tell?

A man who loves his music. Of a generation around 1980 (1978 to 1991 were probably the defining years). Strongly connected to Malcolm McLaren and what radiated from him – from Public Image Limited to Buffalo Gals, Bow Wow Wow to Joy Division. (I’m currently working on a music documentary which includes Public Enemy and Talking Heads.)

A person who, despite being very visual, loves radio. Radio has been an important part of my life since school days. I discovered Egon Schiele (when he was still little known) through Bowie on the radio. I used to listen to Phillip Hodson‘s late night phone-in in bed on this tranny (!) with people ringing in for counselling on the most debilitating of mental health and sexual challenges – I went on to make a film with him twenty years later entitled ‘Conflict!’, semi-improvised drama Mike Leigh style. (On the audio front, I’m now working on three podcast series.)

A bloke who loves jazz – and Caravaggio. And Keith Haring and street art. Who had a formative year in 1983 which included a trip to Montreux for the jazz festival, to Grenoble for Bowie’s ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour, to Evian to see his friend Mirjam (artist & air hostess), all in the context of a year-long sojourn in Chambéry, Savoie. (At the moment I’m also working on an art feature documentary which should be finished by Jarvis’s birthday – 19th September.)

This first trio of objects actually captures quite a coherent story of what makes this particular creative tick and foreshadows much of what I went on to do in the wake of them coming into my world.

The cassette single in a way gave rise to ‘Amy Winehouse & Me‘ (MTV)

The pocket radio gave rise to ‘The Radio Play’s The Thing‘ (Channel 4)

The T-shirt gave rise to ‘Big Art Project‘ (Channel 4) and ‘Big Art Mob‘, Instagram five years before Insta launched.

Coincidences No.s 367 & 368

Sydney Levinson – Creative Accountant

No. 367 

4.V.22

I get a message via Facebook from an old colleague/friend, an artist/photographer, I met through Channel 4:

“Morning Adam, how are you? May I call – some sad news I’m afraid – Though you may know already – through Sarah T”

I don’t know already, no idea what it might be. We speak later. It turns out my old friend Sydney Levinson is dead. I haven’t seen him since before Lockdown. I last saw him when he invited me to tea in Mayfair at a place he really liked, lots of red velvet as I recall. 

This is the last time we were in contact:

a typical Sydney message

3.V.22

I am out with my older son, having a chat. He tells me that we need to be more verb than noun. He is quoting Stephen Fry. (Fry was paraphrasing Oscar Wilde whom he memorably portrayed in the 1997 film ‘Wilde’.)

“Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it – that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is a truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”

My son uses as an example a person he has met only twice – a person who DJed at my 50th birthday party and who the two of us bumped into at ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, a person with whom he has exchanged but a few words – Sydney Levinson. “Like your friend,” he says, “the one who is an accountant and a DJ.” This of all people is the person he choses to illustrate transcending being a noun, being defined by a role. 

This, it turns out, is the day Sydney went to the big DJ booth in the sky. My gut feeling is it is spoken the moment Sydney took off.

Sydney Levinson was an extraordinary individual. He worked as an accountant but specialised in applying his know-how to arts businesses and artists who needed help with money. He was on the board of many prominent arts organisations, sharing vitally needed financial know-how. He also loved to DJ on weekends in West London and any time any place the opportunity arose. We first met as business mentors on an ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) scheme providing mentors for creative businesses, during Ekow Eshun’s regime at Herbert Read’s quirky institution. 

Here’s where I first wrote about Sydney in this blog in 2007. And here’s an account of Sydney’s typically open and generous connecting of people. And here’s the last coincidence Sydney featured in.

Sydney, I know you are hanging out with Joey, Johnny, DeeDee, Tommy and all the other forever young punks.

 

Sydney’s teatime companions

No. 368 

5.VI.22

I am reading Ali Smith’s latest novel ‘Companion Piece’. It seems to revolve around two words that come to one of the two protagonists in an auditory hallucination: “curfew” and “curlew”. I read a passage where a curlew, that strangest of birds, appears in a hallucinatory or imaginative or psychotic or magical scene, on her bed beside her dog, brought in apparently by a housebreaking waif.

27.V.22

I go to see a long-delayed (by Covid) gig (Ali Smith’s novel is about the Covid period in Britain). The gig is David Gray, performing his brilliant ‘White Ladder’ LP on its 40th anniversary. The gig is two years late. Before the show begins, at the Millennium Dome in North Greenwich (aka the O2) – I have been following him since the early days of his career with gigs at small places like Dingwalls in Camden Town and The Forum 2 in the Holloway Road, this time he is playing to the best part of 20,000 – a video plays on the big screens above the stage. It is David Gray talking about saving the curlew on behalf of a charity called Curlew Action – he talks about the bird’s “most haunting and unforgettable song” and concludes: “It would mean the world to me if you could help one singer try to help another.”

Coincidence No. 366 – Time & Timing

Sandy Denny with John Bonham, Robert Plant & Jimmy Page, September 1970

30.iv.22

I go to see the brilliant play ‘Jerusalem’ by Jez Butterworth at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue with a friend (it’s my second time seeing Mark Rylance do this career-defining performance – I first saw it at the same theatre in 2011). Towards the end of the play we hear a hippyish English folk song – at first I think it is Vashti Bunyan, then realise it is actually Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where the Times Goes?’, which she wrote at the age of just 19. However I can’t recall her name (or that of Fairport Convention) on leaving the theatre (even though I used to lead historical walking tours of Muswell Hill and environs which included a stop at the house called Fairport where they originally rehearsed). 

The next day I am (unusually) reading the Sunday paper when her name crops up. I text it to my friend (along with the word ‘chaperone’ which I also couldn’t recall on the day). 

2.v.22

The day after that my young friend texts back the name of the song. (We also discuss Coincidence No. 367 which is that we happened to walk together past the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho on the way back from the play – he hadn’t heard of it, I explained the bombing outrage – it turned out to be the exact date of the carnage in 1999.) I text him back to confirm that that’s the song and send him a brilliant podcast about it – ‘Soul Music’ from BBC Radio 4. At just that moment the very song plays on BBC Radio 6.

 

Mark Rylance at the curtain call for ‘Jerusalem’ last week

Formats Unpacked: Long Lost Family

A classic TV format analysed by Adam Gee for Formats Unpacked – the published article is here

What is it?

Long Lost Family (TV series) 

What’s the format?

A factual TV series, eleven seasons in, broadcast on ITV. It helps people find members of their family lost through adoption. I pick it for two reasons: every time I watch it dust gets in my eyes (ok then, yes, those are tears emerging from under my glasses) and every episode is basically the exact same story, just with a different skin.

Each episode interweaves two different tales of hunting down missing mothers, sons, fathers, daughters, siblings. Both story strands culminate in a long-anticipated reunion. Television shows and films should always be an emotional experience and this format never disappoints.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Although the contributors and locations vary between episodes, the basic story is fundamentally identical every time – and it doesn’t matter at all. That’s because it’s the most basic story in humanity, often revolving around the most basic question: “Did my mother/father love me?” Week after week we see people whose whole life has been overshadowed by this question. Finding out the answer is all they need to obtain a peace that has eluded them their whole life. 

The most frequently occurring scenarios include teenage mums pressured to give up their babies, siblings separated in infancy, dads who took off.

The emotional wheels of the programme are oiled by Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, both consummate pro presenters and very sympathetic.

The programme follows the best practice procedures of social workers in terms of how they bring people back together once a connection has been uncovered. Initially, letters and photographs are exchanged. The presenters always escort the contributors just to the threshold of the IRL reunion, as if preserving the agency and privacy of those involved. Of course, it’s a piece of theatre, making the privileged insight afforded by the TV cameras at the moment of reuniting even more piquant. Often the Long Lost Family team discovers missing people after all conventional methods have failed, sometimes after a lifetime of searching, so the pay-off for the participants is worth a bit of voyeuristic intrusion. 

After some 150 tales of separation, why does the gift keep giving? It is as relatable a format as you could conceive – pretty much every one of us has a mother and father, present or absent. It follows a most fundamental human narrative, the quest story – set in motion when child and parent are separated, it reaches resolution when they are brought back together, the most emotionally satisfying of culminations. Of course the team never fail to find the missing family member and the found family member never says “Fuck off, I’m not interested.” So research and casting ensure the power of the story is optimised. 

There are occasional variations such as “Sorry, turns out your mum died five years ago” but they are always offset by some element of reuniting like “…but the good news is you have a whole new family of siblings”. These add spice but the format would work perfectly well without them.

The format is based on a Dutch one from 1990 – Spoorloss. The success of the British iteration has given rise to a US version on TLC, one of a handful of international versions. 

A reviewer of the original series in a UK broadsheet had this sharp insight: “I can’t imagine this continuing for more than a couple of series – it’s all a little one-trick: once you’ve got the hang of the tracking-down-strangers part, there’s only so much to be astonished about”. Eleven series in it is clear she missed the point – people don’t get bored of separation and belonging, love and loss, longing and forgiveness, guilt and secrets, searching and connecting. We all feel it.

Favourite Episode

I can’t pick out a favourite episode as they are all pretty much the same. And all equally moving. 

I do however have a fond Long Lost Family memory from June 2015 when I was attending Sheffield Documentary Festival. There was a lively session featuring McCall & Campbell and two elderly lady contributors. It turned out that the two old women were siblings separated in infancy who had spent their whole lives, unbeknownst to one another, just 16 miles apart in Yorkshire but had only been reunited in their seventies thanks to this brilliantly human format. 

Similar Formats

DNA Family Secrets with Stacey Dooley on BBC2 is a chip off the old block but with more technical biological context.

Adam is a Commissioning Editor and Executive Producer at CAA. He was a long-time Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 and the first Com Ed of Originals at Little Dot Studios. Recently he has been working at Red Bull Media House and Ridley Scott Creative Group.

Nicky & Davina

Coincidences No.s 605-607

Coincidence No. 605 6/3/22

I read The Week over breakfast. The first Good News For… item is about the village of Cartmel in Cumbria where the L’Ecume restaurant has just got its 3rd Michelin star – the first restaurant in the North of England to do so and only the 8th in the UK.

We drive past a sign in Ditchling to Plumpton. It makes my Other Half think of the races and then the one & only race meeting she’s always wanted to go to – Cartmel.

I’d never heard of Cartmel before today.

Coincidence No. 606 5-6/3/22

I open my phone this morning and there is an enigmatic video clip sent to me by clothes designer/filmmaker John Pearse. It is a woman saying some lines from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The day before yesterday: I want to look smart for a job (facilitating a senior management team process) and try on my wedding shirt made by John Pearse in 1995. In the end I pick another shirt.

Yesterday: I go into an exhibition at the Fashion & Textiles Museum in Bermondsey. It is entitled Beautiful People: the boutique in 1960s counterculture and the first exhibit is about Granny Takes A Trip, the legendary Kings Road boutique co-founded by John Pearse. One of the next exhibits is a jacket of George Harrison’s from that shop.

Coincidence No. 607 25/2/22

I am going on a run and want to choose a podcast. I decide on Radio 4’s In Our Time. I look through recent episodes and consider for a moment one on Peter Kropotkin, but decide in the end in favour of Walter Benjamin.

Two minutes later a link arrives from my Other Half. It is for the book Peter Kropotkin: Memoirs of a Revolutionist from Freedom Press. It’s not a book I would ever pick out but she reckons it is because we went on a walking tour of the Radical East End together recently at my instigation.

I have never bought a book about Kropotkin or any similar revolutionaries.

 

The Third Decade – book group books

1st edition – 1925

Last month our book group celebrated 20 years together. The first book was Atonement by Ian McEwan.

Here are the latest books we have read (May 2020 – December 2021). This post links to a series of posts which go back through every title we have chosen over the years. The first link back is here.

Milkman by Anna Burns (May-June 2020)

The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (July-Sept 2020)

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (Oct-Nov 2020)

The Haunted Man by Charles Dickens (Nov-Dec 2020)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Dec-Jan 2021)

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Feb-Mar 2021)

Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe (Mar-Apr 2021)

Fidelity by Marco Missiroli (April-May 2021)

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham (Jun-Jul 2021)

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (Jul-Sept 2021)

China Dream by Ma Jian (Sep-Oct 2021)

Bewilderment by Richard Powers (Nov-Dec 2021)

Sympathy for the Devil inspired by Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita

Hastings vs Frith Street: The birthplace of TV

One way or another I spent a lot of time around Soho last week, including at Bar Italia on Frith Street. Above it, not that obvious unless you happen to glance up, is the best Blue Plaque in London, epitomising British understatement. One of the most influential inventions of the 20th century and all it gets is one simple sentence of a dozen words. I took that sentence as gospel and have spent decades in the secure belief that telly came into being in that small room above what has been a classic London coffee bar since 1949, what was Logie Baird’s lab back in 1926. But that’s not really how invention and innovation works…

I went to Hastings a few days ago, to visit Hastings Contemporary art gallery (it turned out to be shut unusually due to staff shortage caused by the Covid pandemic). As you enter the town there is a mosaic road sign that says: “Hastings & St Leonards: the birthplace of television”. My world shook on its axis. I’ve spent my entire career in Television, I have a stake in it, I need to know the basics.

I also have a small stake in Logie Baird having delivered the John Logie Baird lecture at Birmingham University a good few years ago with Dr Christian Jessen of ‘Embarrassing Bodies’.

So what’s the connection between Logie Baird and Hastings? In short, before the Soho demo in 1926, Logie Baird (let’s call him JLB for convenience) experimented with the transmission of TV images in his house in Hastings. That was from 1923, three years before Frith Street.

21 Linton Crescent, Hastings, East Sussex

The house was at 21 Linton Crescent. It has a rival blue plaque from The Institute of Physics, made up of much the same words as the Soho one but in a different order. JLB came to live in the town early in 1923 while convalescing from illness and hoping to benefit from the sea air and more benign South Coast climate. Through to mid 1924 he carried out experiments that led to the transmission of the first television pictures. Similar to Edison’s famous thousand duff light bulbs, the 1926 Soho demo and the 1924 Hastings one both rested on extensive trials, tests and experiments. On failures Edison, responding to a reporter asking: “How did it feel to fail a thousand times?”, said: “I didn’t fail a thousand times. The light bulb was an invention with a thousand steps.” Edison has a part in the history of the invention of TV as he speculated early about the possibility of telephone-like devices that could transmit and receive images as well as sounds.

So it was in Hastings that JLB created the first televisual image, a shadowy outline of a Maltese cross. The contraption he constructed to generate this image was made from a Heath Robinson collection of household objects including lenses from bicycle lights, scissors, a hat box, darning needles, a tea chest and sealing wax .

The first transmission of moving TV images took place in February 1924 above a shop in Queen’s Arcade, Hastings which JLB had rented for his workshop. In July that year JLB received a 1,200-volt electric shock, but got off lightly with just a burnt hand. In the wake of the incident he was asked to leave Queen’s Arcade by his landlord, Mr Tree. That’s when he went to London.

From 25th March 1925 over a period of three weeks JLB gave the first public demonstrations of moving TV images at Selfridges. On 26th January 1926 he gave that Soho demonstration, the world’s first of true television, to fifty scientists in the attic room above Bar Italia.

In 1929 yet another plaque enters the story – it was unveiled at a ceremony which Baird attended at Queen’s Arcade.

Rewinding just a little, in 1927 JLB demonstrated his television system over 438 miles of phone line between London and Glasgow. In the wake of that he formed the Baird Television Development Company (BTDC). The following year BTDC achieved the first transatlantic television transmission, successfully sending pictures between London and New York. Also in 1928 he pulled off the first transmission to a ship in mid-Atlantic. During his astounding career he also did the first demonstrations of both colour TV and stereoscopic television.

JLB eventually returned to East Sussex to live out his twilight years in Bexhill-on-Sea. Then he went dark and disappeared in a little dot.

Wilde wild Worthing

The 1895 production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax & George Alexander as Jack Worthing)

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ comes across as the most metropolitan and refined of plays and yet it was not written in Oscar Wilde’s Cheyne Walk home in Chelsea but in a holiday home in Worthing, West Sussex. That’s how come the protagonist is named Worthing and his family origins include reference to a first-class railway ticket to Worthing.

JACK. The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL. Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK. [Gravely.] In a hand-bag.

LADY BRACKNELL. A hand-bag?

JACK. [Very seriously.] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag – a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it – an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL. In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK. In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

It’s the most famous exchange in the play, largely due to Dame Edith Evans’ defining performance in which she made the very most of the word “hand-bag”. That’s why, in the performance last night at Brighton Open Air Theatre, the inventive players of Slapstick Picnic just mouthed the word. It was a superb distillation into a two-hander, reminiscent of Steven Berkoff’s mannered acting in his brilliant ‘Decadence’ (Berkoff being a big fan of Brighton with a bolt-hole in Kemptown), whose comic invention Wilde would have enjoyed.

2021 (6th August) production at Brighton Open Air Theatre

In the summer of 1894 Wilde went on holiday for two months to Worthing with his wife, Constance, and sons, Cyril (9) and Vyvyan (7). It was the last summer before his life disintegrated. Constance travelled down with their two young sons on 7th August, Wilde followed on the 10th.

Wilde was married to Constance (35) but in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as ‘Bosie’. He had met Bosie in 1891. They were both at Magdalen College, Oxford. Within 8 months of Worthing, Wilde was in jail as a direct result of his infatuation with the handsome young aristocrat. 

Although it was a family holiday, Bosie showed up and stayed three times. He was a demanding, immature character and his egotism caused Wilde no end of problems.  

Meanwhile, Constance, lonely and unhappy, fell in love (in a platonic way) with another man, Arthur Humphreys (30), bookseller, publisher and a family friend, who came down to spend the day in Worthing with the Wildes on 11th August. She wrote him a heart-felt love-letter while he was still at the house, slipping it to him before his departure.

And to complete the bedroom farce Wilde became sexually involved with a local teenage boy, Alphonse Conway. Born in Bognor but raised in Worthing, he was six weeks past his 16th birthday when they first met. Plus there were two other teenage boys on the scene.

Meanwhile he was writing what is broadly acknowledged as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest – a landmark in English-language theatre. He had previously written three comedies but he peaked on this fourth.

Wilde was under pressure at that time financially so he really needed a hit play. He was also under pressure back in London from Bosie’s overbearing father, the Marquess of Queensberry, he of boxing fame, who was doing his utmost to harass his son’s lover. It was this crude man who finally landed a knock-out blow to the refined Wilde. The day before leaving for holiday Wilde wrote to Bosie of Queensbury: “It is intolerable to be dogged by a maniac.”

Wilde and Bosie had a sexual relationship for only a few months two summers before the Worthing trip. Queensberry, judging by Wilde and Bosie’s overtly gay behaviour in public, assumed it was on-going. Some four months after the Worthing holiday Queensberry left a visiting card at Wilde’s club on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde, Posing as a Somdomite [sic]”. Wilde inadvisedly sued Queensberry for libel. He lost the trial, got convicted himself for homosexuality and ended up doing hard labour in Reading Gaol (where he served the last 18 months of his sentence) which broke his health although yielded a brilliant long poem.

Worthing was chosen as a place where Wilde would have peace to write. It was quieter than Brighton (which Wilde knew well) and Constance was able to rent a house from a friend who had gone north for the summer.

Wilde and Bosie, Alphonse and other male teenagers, swam, fished and went out every day on a sailing boat. Constance, whom he no longer loved (sexual relations between them had ceased around 1886), was left back in the house, isolated and saddened. She wrote to a friend: “I have had no-one to talk to, and I have been rather depressed.”

Wilde attended several events in Worthing over the summer:  a lifeboat demonstration, the annual sailing regatta and the Venetian fête, a lamp-lit water carnival, where, as a celeb, he presented the prizes for the best-decorated boats and made a witty speech in praise of Worthing: “It has beautiful surroundings and lovely long walks, which I recommend to other people, but do not take myself.”

Worthing provided several of the names in the play. Beside the protagonist Jack Worthing, Wilde found the name Bunbury in the Worthing Gazette. Miss Prism, “a woman of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education” is probably based on the “horrid, ugly Swiss governess” (as described in a letter to Bosie) looking after Cyril and Vyvyan on the Worthing trip.

Bosie was largely a hindrance and distraction to Wilde but he liked to bask in the aura of ‘Earnest’. He claimed he was in the same room while most of the play was being written and that some of the jokes were drawn from his own “repartee”. He was considered fairly witty and amusing. This Wilde child’s claims were no doubt overblown and another facet of the toxicity he brought to Oscar’s life. 

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas by Gillman & Co. (1893)
The Haven , the rented house in Worthing
Constance Wilde – 30th July 1894, a week before the Worthing trip
The lifeboat demonstration 22nd August 1894 – according to the Worthing Gazette “Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about”

Very little of the concrete aspects of Wilde’s time in Worthing survives. The Haven, the house that Constance rented for the family, was demolished in the 60s. It stood at the northern (Brighton Road) end of the Esplanade terrace, four houses which stood between Brighton Road and the seashore at the eastern end of the town. The terrace eventually became a hotel. There is though a Blue Plaque on the site of the Esplanade terrace, a building called Esplanade Court. It is at the sea-end of the east façade of Esplanade Court (the opposite end from where The Haven actually stood). When the blue plaque was put up it caused a ripple of controversy in the town, a waiting room for heaven (or hell) with its dominant elderly population . Unworthy of Worthing said some of the duffers including a local historian: “This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education – I don’t think that would be regarded as heroic today. I think it would be regarded as smutty and reprehensible”.  All quite a contrast to Worthing’s neighbour Brighton whose alternative vibe is set by its LGBT community and whose current motto (devised by the local tourist board in response to the post-Covid term “the new normal”) is ‘Brighton Never Normal’. Oscar Never Dull.

A Circle of Sound – 150 years of the Royal Albert Hall

An appropriate colour of light for its address on Kensington Gore

The day before yesterday (19 July) marked the first full-capacity concert at the 5,000 seat Albert Hall since March 2020. It was a piece called ‘A Circle of Sound’ composed by David Arnold, known for his soundtracks for Bond films, Hollywood movies (Independence Day) and TV dramas (Sherlock), to mark the 150th anniversary of its opening on 29th March 1871. In 10 parts, it addressed the history of this very special London venue through various lenses – pop music, the Proms, sport, remembrance, activism, etc.

It was set up as the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, a direct result of Prince Albert’s brainchild, the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the success of the Exhibition, he proposed a permanent presence for Science, Art and Learning near the Hyde Park site. He didn’t live to see its fruition, but it ended up bearing his name when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1867 in memory of her beloved husband who died six years before the Hall finally opened. (The foundation stone sits under Block K of the stalls.)

David Arnold and special guests – Mel C (white suit), Jemma Redgrave (white dress), Helen Pankhurst (between them in Suffragette scarf)

It’s an important spot for London architecture because you see juxtaposed at close quarters the two main influences on modern London – the Classical as represented by the coliseum-like circle of the Albert Hall and the Gothic as represented by the pointy, churchy Albert Memorial, just the other side of Kensington Gore. 

Circle of Victorian red brick

Highlights of the celebratory evening included:

  • Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia, great-granddaughter of Emmeline, introducing a speech of her great-grandmother given in the USA (Hartford, Connecticut) known as the Freedom or Death speech, considered one of the great speeches of the 20th century.

we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death

  • Jemma Redgrave, daughter of Corin, son of Michael, in that English acting dynasty, performed the speech with great energy, bringing a tear to the eye – the achievement of the British Suffragette movement is one of the most admirable and proudest moments for this country
  • Mel C of The Spice Girls introducing the section on all the pop music that has been played at the Hall, featuring a young band invited from the Rhythm Studio in W10 including the drumming talent of Finlay Gee (nephew), who provided the only fist pump of the evening he had gotten such a kick from playing this huge venue at the age of just 18
  • Brian Cox helping us all feel like an insignificant speck in the universe as he framed the perspective of the Science section, Science being as much a part of the original conception of the Hall as Arts
  • Charles Dance receiving a warm welcome as a national treasure with an edge as he introduced the Remembrance section – he stole the show thanks to that edge when we made Was It Something I Said? at Channel 4 
  • Michael Sheen performing in Welsh barnstorming style as he introduced the final movement looking forward to the next 150 years

With regard to pop music played in the Hall the landmark shows include:

The Great Pop Prom // 15 September 1963 (the week I was born)
The first time The Beatles and The Stones performed on the same bill. Paul McCartney remembered the night like this: “Up there with the Rolling Stones we were thinking: ‘This is it – London. The Albert Hall.’ We felt like gods.”

Bob Dylan // 26 & 27 May 1966
The tour when he “went electric”. Ironically the concert famously known as the Albert Hall concert actually took place a few days earlier in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester – that’s the one where an outraged audience member accused Dylan of being “Judas!”

Bloke in audience: “Judas!”

Dylan: “I don’t believe you!”(reference to the title of a song he had played earlier in the gig)

Dylan: “You’re a liar!”

Dylan (to band): “Play fucking loud!”

Jimi Hendrix // 18 & 24 February 1969
The Jimi Hendrix Experience first played the Hall in 1967. They returned two years later to play some blues rather than their hits. The fans were appeased with an encore featuring ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Wild Thing’ and Hendrix on the floor playing the guitar with his teeth.

Pink Floyd // 26 June 1969
Pink Floyd excelled themselves by getting a lifetime ban from the Hall on their first gig there. During the song ‘Work’ Rick Wright constructed a wooden table on stage wielding hammer and saw. After that a gorilla burst into the auditorium, that is a man in a gorilla costume. As a finale, two cannons were fired and a pink smoke bomb exploded. The Hall’s management swiftly banned the Floyd from performing there ever again. Then in 1972 they decided to ban all “pop and rock concerts” because of the “hysterical behaviour of a large audience often encouraged by unthinking performers.” But Rock triumphed. The Floyd were back playing there just a year later, and the blanket ban was similarly short-lived, although The Who’s 1972 show fell victim to it. 

David Gilmour & David Bowie // 29 May 2006
When Bowie was invited onto the stage by Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour in 2006, it turned out to be both Bowie’s first & only appearance at the Hall, and his last ever UK public performance. The two  duetted on the songs ‘Arnold Layne’ (a nod to the influence on both of Syd Barrett) and ‘Comfortably Numb’. 

 

One of the many magical moments at the Albert Hall – Gilmour & Bowie

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