Archive for the ‘new york’ Category
I met Patti Smith one time – it was in St Luke’s Church near Old Street roundabout after an intimate gig of hers. We talked briefly about Rimbaud and the time he spent in Camden Town with Verlaine. Rimbaud of course features in a scene of the ten-years-in-the-making poetic hotchpotch of a film that is Steve Sebring’s documentary ‘Patti Smith: Dream of Life’ which I saw on the big screen this afternoon at the Arthouse Cinema in Crouch End thanks to Doc n’ Roll.
I went with my old friend, film-maker and teacher Roddy Gibson. We went to see Patti in 2007 at The Roundhouse where she did a wonderful gig centred on her album ‘Twelve’. I’ve probably seen her play live around ten times, always in London, from the Union Chapel to St Giles-in-the-fields by Denmark Street – and even in one or two places that weren’t churches.
The best moment of the film for me was when she, without warning, pours out from an exotic urn Robert Mapplethorpe’s ashes into her hand, explaining the texture, that it’s not like normal ashes or dust. Their connection is a fascinating one, not least as it overlapped with her intense marriage to Fred Sonic Smith.
Her smile which punctuates the film is another thing that stays with you.
I liked the moment when she meets Jesse Jackson at an anti-war demo, as it struck me that he bears the names of both her children – Jesse is the daughter (on piano), Jackson the son (on guitar).
The presence of Allen Ginsberg in the film really resonated for me. I have been writing about him in recent times – here’s an extract. His poetry, in my experience, has the marvellous effect of inspiring the reader to write poetry. Patti is clearly a descendent of his, and that they were friends is inevitable. Blake, Corso, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Burroughs are all present in the film as a constellation at the centre of a particular cultural universe – one that really sings to me.
The line that punched out for me was where Patti asserts that we all have a voice and a responsibility to use it. As I watch my 19 year old wrestle with the shape of his identity and life mission it’s a salutary reminder to tread softly as someone lays their dreams at your feet, to be careful not to crush nascent ambitions or visions, to enable them to use their singular voice and realise their dreams of life.
My mission is to communicate, to wake people up – it’s to give them my energy and accept theirs. We’re all in it together, and I respond emotionally as a worker, a mother, an artist, a human being …with a voice. We all have a voice. We have the responsibility to exercise it, to use it.
The night before last the New York jazz club of the 30s and 40s Cafe Society was recreated in London at the Purcell Room on the South Bank for one night only. The club was set up in 1938 as an alternative to the largely segregated, mob-run nightclubs then on offer. Behind it was Barney Josephson, the New Jersey-born son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. His declared ambition was to create ”a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front”. His socialist tendencies are well captured in the club’s motto: The wrong place for the Right people.
Cafe Society was opened in 1938 by Billie Holiday and it was there within the year that she unleashed upon the world Strange Fruit, a song like no other. Picking up on my earlier post about great song lines, Shelter from the Storm, there is one line in this poem turned song that ranks among the all-time great song lines:
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
If you ever wanted to illustrate irony… that word “gallant” kills off a view of the Confederacy in one mighty blow. When Holiday first heard the lyrics her one question was: what does ‘pastoral’ mean? Which is ironic in itself in that her whole being understood what Strange Fruit meant which is why she made the song so much her own.
With the same irony that has Danny Boy being composed by an English lawyer, it was actually written by a white man, a Jewish school teacher called Abel Meeropol – pen name Lewis Allan, after two children he lost in their infancy. Meeropol’s motivation was simple: “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”
Here’s the poem he brought to Holiday and Josephson at Cafe Society, already set to music, already performed in obscure left-wing circles, ripe for the magic of a singer who could perform it from her soul and evolve it into something uniquely powerful.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Holiday delivered this body blow to audiences throughout her career – here’s one later take on it (the instability of the picture seems to suit the song, as if it can’t fully be retained by the technology):
Barney Josephson didn’t seem to have his own Wikipedia entry so I’ve just made him one
Two nice Jewish boys bookend my summer of music, both of the first generation of singer-songwriters, both strongly connected with New York, both out of the Sixties which has been the theme of my live music over the last few weeks. The first was Bob Dylan at the newly revived Feis in Finsbury Park a couple of weeks ago (18.vi.11), the last Neil Diamond at the Millennium Dome last night. In between two unique evenings of singer-songwriters recorded for BBC4 at Porchester Hall for the ‘Songwriters’ Circle’ series.
The last time I wrote about ‘Songwriters’ Circle’ on Simple Pleasures part 4, magic of the internet the fella who makes Boo Hewerdine’s guitars got in touch. At this summer’s Feis I spotted Boo going into the artists’ entrance round the back with his kids and his trusty guitar case, on his way in to play with Eddi Reader. Little wheels spin and spin big wheels turn around and around…
Bob Dylan I have seen from time to time over the last few years and this was his best performance in London for the best part of 15 years (since Hammersmith Odeon). Because he was evidently enjoying himself. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was the highlight, him singing in his reinterpretive style (see his memoirs ‘Chronicles’ for something of an explanation), the crowd singing along reverting to the 60s style as recorded (on Blooms Day, 16th June 1965 in NYC, so its anniversary just two days before this performance), everyone enjoying themselves hugely. I was on a (musical) high for a week after the Feis – I think I’ll make this my last time seeing Bob live, go out on a high.
The following evening was another flower of the 60s, Van Morrison, doing the sunset slot with style and statesmanship. The last Feis I went to (somewhere around 1996 by my calculation, called the Fleadh back then) was headlined by the same pairing, though both Van and Bob on the same magical night. It was memorably the night of the day I learned to make frozen fruit dacquiris. It segued into a party back at Watermint Quay over in Clapton (the place not the bluesman), dancing in the basement, pharmacy in the attic space. This time Van didn’t get out of orbit (unlike the transcendency of his Astral Weeks gig at the Albert Hall a couple of years ago) but it was the right music at the right time, perfectly conducted by the Man in the softening glow.
The first of this round of ‘Songwriters’ Circle’ comprised Leon Russell, Nick Lowe and Paul Brady. Leon Russell did his Dr John type thing with great shaggy beard, cowboy hat and shades – classic old school. In his time he’s played with Dylan and The Band as well as The Stones and Clapton (the bluesman). He performed with George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh. At this more intimate gathering of musos, Paul Brady was the glue, veteran of countless Irish seisiuns, he knows how to accompany his fellow musicians and get some energetic interaction going. Back in the 60s he was playing traditional Irish with The Johnstons, moving to NYC in 1972 (where Dylan had been drawn to The Clancy Brothers a few years earlier and sucked up some Irish know-how himself). The three of them rounded things off with ‘Mystery Train’ which I know from Woodstock vets the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, although I first became familiar with it in the Paris Metro thanks to my old pals Stu and Jon who made it our theme tune on the legendary Select Latin trip – Train arriving, sixteen coaches long.
I met Paul Brady and Leon Russell fleetingly after the show at Khans, the injun just round the corner from the venue. Hadn’t been in there for yonks. On the subject of we’ll always have Paris, one of the last times I was there I walked in with a new girlfriend (now wife), bumped into a friend from Paris who offered us her flat in St Germain, we ended up going, our first time away together, so I scored a good few impress-the-new-girlfriend points, it’s a place of good happenings for me.
Back to this summer of love, the following night was even more quintessentially 60s with Donovan, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Roger Cook. Donovan was a bit on the charmless side – back from before ‘Don’t Look Back’ he seems to have struggled awkwardly in the shadow of Dylan and he just doesn’t feel comfortable in himself. Buffy the non-vampire did ‘Little Wheel’ (Desert Island Disc choice of Fay Weldon which is how I came across it) and peaked in her Nam protest song ‘Universal Soldier’. Her songs have been covered by Neil Diamond, as well as Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker. And Donovan (a successful version of Universal Soldier). Wheels within wheels.
Roger Cook went from his 1967 composition ‘Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart’ (which I know through Marc Almond’s later duet with Gene Pitney) to his 1971 ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, yup the Coke advert one. 1971 was a very special year of the Sixties. Much of what we think of as epitomising the 60s actually happened in the first couple of years of the 70s – in short, the 60s culminated in 1971, year of the wonderous ‘What’s Going On’. That’s my favourite record (with words). And one of my first records was ‘Hot August Night’, also released in 1971 (though that’s not when I got it). I spent hours drawing and colouring to it on the dining room table. It has its 40th anniversary next month and is still Neil Diamond’s best selling record. He played some great choons from it last night including his opener ‘Soolaimon’ (1970) with its herald of African drum beats, ‘I Am I Said’ and ‘Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show’. The Brill Building trained songwriter talked a bit about Nam and the assassination of Kennedy, King and ko. He played one of the tunes he wrote for The Monkees, ‘I’m a Believer’. ‘Cherry Cherry’ was a highlight, very 60s sounding. Yet for all his 60s credentials, it was in the early 70s he reached escape velocity and I think of him as a Seventies guy. I contemplated that record cover for hours in the days I only had a couple – I wanted a jean jacket like that, I liked the Jewfro, what was that hand position all about?
A resonant one for me last night was ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, memorably reinvigorated and given the seal of approval from another great lyricist of a later generation, Shane MacGowan. At one point Neil Diamond also punted his latest record, ‘Dreams’, a selection of covers a la Bowie’s ‘Pin Ups’, including Leon Russell’s “underrated classic” ‘A Song for You’ which he didn’t play live but which idea brings us neatly to the end of last night’s gig, rounding up my summer of music – the Diamond geezer put up a grainy black and white photograph of a 12 year old girl on the screens. She had travelled from Kiev to Rotterdam to New York City, alone it sounded like. She grew up to be his grandmother and he said he dedicated this, like every other performance of his, to her. Not very rock’n’roll but pretty peace and love.
Here’s a rather salutary assessment of the economy from our Chairman here at Channel 4, Luke Johnson, in the FT. I have to say, it resonates for me – I’m pretty much a “a house is for living in” kinda guy.
For too long it has been more profitable in the west
to finance consumption rather than production.
That cannot continue. I am afraid that the west’s credibility
– and luck – has run out.
In the early days of Simple Pleasures 4 I began reflecting on what people really need, a stream of consciousness prompted by a Demos gathering which reminded me of a book which had really gotten me thinking – Coasting by Jonathan Raban.
Been meaning to get back to that post, Reflections on the Fundamentals of Life, for ages – nothing like a bit of financial meltdown to encourage thinking about the principles of economics.
So what did Coasting prompt? Looking back I seem to have re-invented Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. Still, no harm working out stuff for yourself.
What struck me last week, the week of the US presidential inauguration, was that Britain is in desperate need of a bit of self-confidence. With the City fucked by its own petard and North Sea oil drying up we’re really going to have to work out where we add value to the world.
So we arrive on earth like the Terminator, naked and balled up as a package with the basic needs outlined in that earlier post. The economics of our existence start from the need to cover those basic needs by doing the equivalent amount of work or value adding. But those needs simply meet our bestial basics. As King Lear argues, we need something over and above that to make life worth living.
“O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.”
Watching Vicky Cristina Barcelona the other week, what constitutes that ‘something over’ has got really out of whack. The New York life-style portrayed in the movie (through Vicky’s impending marriage) was truly repellent.
The shift of emphasis from consumption to production and adding value could be the silver lining of these dark clouds. Is this the moment when we reflect and recognise what is true value and what matters? These are themes that have been on my mind over the last couple of years such as in this post prompted by a Buffalo Springfield classic.
The schadenfreude around the collapse of the banks, or more so, the bankers stems from the fact most of them don’t produce anything or add value – they guess and they gamble, they speculate and they risk, they continue to short-sell bank shares the moment the ban is lifted to profit as usual at other people’s expense.
Talking of profiting at other people’s expense, Luke’s article reminds me of a bafflement I had as a teenager about just how did the economies of the West and the rest fit together. How come American’s have those huge fridges and South-East Asians live in huts, scraping together a bit of meat to go with their bowl of rice? How come we get paid hundreds of pounds a day when for equal effort and more they get pence? How come poverty here comes with a 32″ telly? A good friend of mine lent me when we were teens a copy of a JK Galbraith book, The Nature of Mass Poverty I think it was, which I struggled with but didn’t ultimately come to grips with – I’d probably get on much better with it now as the interest is truly there.
Luke raises similar questions: So why should industrious Asians earn a tiny fraction of what citizens in the west earn? Especially when they have so much of the cash and productive resources, while we have deficits, high costs and poor demographics.
Now what I know about economics you can fit on the back of an ATM slip – hence this second stream of consciousness thinking out loud.
Around the JKG time I was also baffled by how can this constant growth add up? How can countries expect to grow year on year with finite resources? How can we expect pay rises as a given year on year? Doesn’t there come a point where no matter how clever you are about squeezing the most out of existing resources and in creating technology to increase productivity those two graph lines eventually run into each other and cross?
My gut feeling about this moment is that we must use it as a time to readjust our values, to refocus on what is really important. We must use it to refocus as a country and as individuals on what value we can add. Having said that, it was a bit depressing to see the reactions to falling oil prices – after a few weeks of people really thinking about the car journeys they were making, the headlines swiftly reverted to ‘Supermarket forecourt price wars!’
The next three commissions on my plan are Landshare, where people who want to grow their own food are linked to people who have bits of land which can be grown on; the Secret Millionaire online where the online community get to give a million pounds to community groups and small charities which quietly add value, largely unseen; and a project on Adoption that tries to highlight the value of each and every child and enable it to be realised fully. I feel they are the product of a particular positive, back-to-basics vibe. Despite the grimness of the IMF report which ranks Britain’s economy as the most adversely impacted this year of any major economy and the Lords scandal which ranks Britain’s high ranks as smelling as rank as it comes, I can’t help but feel there’s opportunity here…
By way of research for my upcoming project (Codename Sam I Am), I’ve just been watching ‘Are You Dave Gorman?‘ (DVD kindly send to me today by the lovely Dan Lloyd at Avalon Public Relations – Amazon are all out of them, reckless fools) and I can’t really go to bed now without starting to collect together my favourite Adam Gees, the bastards who fight me day after day for Google supremacy and the more retiring ones.
So to get the Adam Gee Collection off to a fruitful start who better than Adam Gee, Mr Gay UK from Barnsley (originally kindly brought to my attention by Mr Robert Marsh of Fremantle Media back in his heady days at C4).
Let’s offset that with a suit, New York attorney Adam M. Gee, a small town lawyer with big city results, specialising in personal injury and medical malpractice (suing against it, that is, not carrying it out).
On the sports front pride of place should probably go to Adam Gee, a shit-hot golfer, the first overseas player since Nick Dougherty in 2001 to win the Lake Macquarie International Amateur Championship. I kid you not.
Irritatingly the owner of http://www.adamgee.com seems to be some kind of drugged out hippy who makes clothes. Please don’t visit the site – it will only encourage him and probably cost me my top spot in Google in the process. Do you really want to know about the ‘Alchemy of Energee’? Do you buy the notion that fashion provides protective energee and inspiration leading to growth and well being? Or do you think it just keeps you warm? We’re talking about a character who makes clothes with “the fabric of the universe”. He’s peddling something called a Gee Shirt (doesn’t he realise the T refers to the shape? where’s your other arm going to come out in a G-shirt?) He’s flogging Geens – aargh! Let’s hope we don’t share any.
If you are an Adam Gee or know any good ones, please do add them to my nascent collection.
Well, over a year has elapsed and things are looking up. Project codename Sam I Am was Osama Loves and it turned out well. Almost as satisfying, the freaky adamgee.com has at last begun to sink and is currently sitting at #4 rather than the #2 spot it clung irritatingly to for month after month. Only a couple of the more colourful Adam Gees make Google page 1, the golfer and former Mr Gay UK, the lawyer has been displaced to page 2 reflecting the times as no-one can afford lawyers these days – and, like a good Christmas game of Risk, I’ve now occupied 16 of the top 20 Adam Gee slots, including the top 3. It surprises me that no new Adam Gees have bubbled up like the geoscientist (not to be confused with the gee-o-science I’m currently engaging in) in Adelaide or the rugby league referee. Nonetheless we do seem to be a varied lot, pretty much no overlap, and if you are one (or know one) please do chuck yourself (or them) [via the comments] into the pot, that rich mix jambalaya that is the Adam Gee collection.
Having just written about the Oirishness of Ryan’s Daughter in Sons & Daughters below, an irony occurred to me today. The great cinematic inspiration which drew David Lean into the world of cinema was in fact an Irish film-maker, Rex Ingram. Lean was much taken with silent cinema and Ingram’s Mare Nostrum (1925) was the movie he saw as a boy which opened his eyes to the potential of the medium.
The only Ingram film I’ve experienced to date was Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino [above with Alice Terry, his leading lady and Ingram’s devoted wife] which I saw as a Channel 4 Silent at the Parkway Cinema in November 1992. Those performances were dedicated to Lean. The film had been lovingly restored by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, to whom a few years later I had the pleasure of explaining the potential of interactive media (at that time, CD-ROM) and how it might be applied to silent cinema. I met them at their Photoplay Productions office in Primrose Hill and soon came to realise that these were people who did it For Love Not Money. That was a real inspiration.
The music that night was conducted by Carl Davis. I remember seeing him just before in George & Niki’s, the little caff on the corner beside The Parkway. Those were days when there was cinematic magic to be had in Camden Town.
The Parkway, and Peter the cinema manager who dressed in a tux for every evening performance, are now history. The building still stands but the soul has departed. I worked as one of the Friends of Parkway to save it from the developers (organising, among other things, a premiere of one of the Lethal Weapons (the one with Patsy Kensit as a Sowd Dafrikan) – look, we just needed the dough, beggars can’t be choosers) but in the end I guess we only saved the bricks and the chopped up screens.
Weirdly enough, Ingrams’ full name was Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock. He was born in Dublin, the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman. Ingram’s own prompt into cinema was seeing the Irish actor Maurice Costello in an early movie of A Tale of Two Cities when he was on holiday in New York around 1910 (the year my local cinema, The Phoenix, was born).
His first job in the biz was at Edison Co., then he moved in 1914 to Vitagraph where he both acted and wrote. In those days stardom and technical craft were not so separate and he got a rounded education in movie-making. It was when he joined Universal in 1916 (the year Ryan’s Daughter is set and the year Ireland’s greatest modern drama was unfolding on the streets on Ingram’s native city) that his directing career began in earnest. His first undertaking there was directing his own script, The Great Problem. His subsequent films were distinguished by interesting, atmospheric locations; off-beat characters; and imaginative settings and lightening (Ingram was also a sculptor and artist). It was ‘Four Horsemen’ that made his name after he moved to Metro – whose bacon its success ultimately saved (which makes him to some degree responsible in another way for Ryan’s Daughter, which was an MGM film). In the mid-20s, weary of Hollywood, he set up the Rex Ingram Studios in Nice (where he made ‘Mare Nostrum’, which he considered his best movie). He left movie-making shortly after his first sound picture (in which he also starred), moved to North Africa, then back to Hollywood where he devoted himself to sculpture and novel writing. He looks very dapper in the pictures I’ve seen of him, a cross between Martin Scorsese and Gary Cooper.
I haven’t yet seen the Film4 funded ‘Garage‘ nor another current Film4 movie ‘In Bruges‘ starring celebroDub Colin Farrell (though I love the poster: ” Shoot first. Sightsee later”) but I have the impression the Irish energy in cinema is on the up so I’ll return to the theme Once I’ve seen those two.
Never done one of these meme things before but who am I to deny the luverly, busy & lively LJB. So here’s the deal: You list 8 facts/habits/things people may not know about you. At the end of the post, you tag 8 people and let them know via their blog comments (LJB cheated and only did half her tagging duties but then that’s where I peter out too so we’ll let that go). Seems like a cheap trick to drive traffic to your blog or turn you into a sheep (note to self: tag Herd) or am I just being silly&grumpy and it’s all just a big harmless game, talking of which it reminds me of a cafe game I used to play with my good friend and best-man Stuart called Secret & Obvious – (1) go to a cafe (2) find a table with a good view of the pavement, preferably outdoors (3) for each passer-by say something Obvious about them (4) then something Secret (5) alternate turns with your fellow player – that’s it, hours of good clean giggly fantastical fun.
So here we go…
(1) My first published photos were in An Phoblacht, the journal of Sinn Fein (they were of Gerry Adams and Ken Livingstone – who coincidently I saw in Strutton Ground at lunchtime today being accosted by a voter, occupational hazard I guess but it must be a pain if you’re trying to get somewhere on time) – so that’s the Ken & Gerry show in Conway Hall, how do I get myself into those weird situations?
(2) My cat is called Tommy Boy after the New York record label – the CD was behind his head when we were trying to come up with a suitable name
(3) I collect pictures of Lost Gloves – God knows why but it’s a bit addictive – if you think I’m weird, other people try to pair up my One Lost Gloves with matching partners!
(4) My grandfather worked for Picture Post (I have a lovely photo of him at work just across the room now taken by Thurston Hopkins) – he was a VSP (Very Special Person – just made that up but you can’t have too many Three Letter Acronyms)
(5) I’m a pantheist
(6) I have a lot of books and in my bookcase I have two Shelves of Honour – these include Tom Jones, The Complete Plays of Joe Orton, Clockers, The Riddle of the Sands, Black Box, Northanger Abbey, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and a special section devoted to old copies of Ulysses
(7) I have put a sign above the front door, one of the old style Irish road signs, saying Donegal / Dun na nGall 1 which means one mile but I read as one day – whenever things get tough, it’s only 1 day to get to Donegal – I love North-West Ireland and my wedding reached Ramelton (The Bridge Bar) on Day 3
(8) I have 8 watches – one for every day of the week plus one for good measure – the best one is a 1920s mechanical digital one, but it stopped working properly on my wedding day, which is odd as it’s not electronic
So who do I tag? maybe that’s what the blogroll is for. I reckon it’s going to have to be Mark Earls of Herd fame (for reasons mentioned above); Alfie (likes playing and what else is he going to do in his sick bed); Jule (usually game for a laugh): Russell (has plenty of idle time in caffs on his hands); Oli B (somebody might as well work out how to make money out of it). That will do, enough already.
[Picture courtesy of Thurston Hopkins/Getty Images]
* Brevity is the soul of lingerie.
* Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.
* You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.
* You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.
* She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.
* If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.
* Salary is no object – I want only enough to keep body and soul apart.
* Take care of luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.
* This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
* I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.
* All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends.
* It serves me right for keeping all my eggs in one bastard.
* That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.
* I don’t care what is written about me, so long as it isn’t true.
And, to celebrate the 40th anniversary this month of the Prague Spring, a little mash-up:
* The two most beautiful words in the English language are “cheque enclosed”. The two most beautiful words in the Czech language are “Czech freed”.
I promised previously on Drinker with a Writing Problem to report back on ‘Brendan at the Chelsea’ at the Riverside, Hammersmith once I’d seen it. Well on Thursday I made a bee-line back from the rather sober Oxford Media Conference to get back in time for the press night of the play.
As I emerged from Hammersmith tube I bumped into Grant Dean of Eidos (home of Tomb Raider) and his sweet little daughter. Grant and I know one another from the BAFTA Interactive Entertainment Committee – he went on to chair the Video Games Committee while I went on to the TV Committee to try and make the rest of interactive entertainment beyond games part of the mainstream of the Academy. I remember trying to convey to the TV Committee a concept I called ‘New Television’ (you can imagine how well that went down) and introducing to them, among a selection of other emerging sites, this new thing called ‘YouTube’ (which I’d only come across two or three weeks before). A couple of years down the track and Malcolm Garrett, Martin Freeth, Terry Braun, Martyn Ware, a few other stalwarts and I are still fighting that particular battle.
And there I watched a barnstorming performance by Adrian Dunbar as the Irish playwright Brendan Behan. A charismatic, cathartic, compelling performance.
The play was written by Behan’s own niece – Janet, daughter of writer and playwright Brian Behan. I saw her straight after curtain-down in the foyer and I’ve never seen anyone so charged. It had taken her six years to get this very well written, tight, witty script staged. What a kick to see it realised with such skill and energy to climax in a standing ovation. What a kick to hear your audience join in the singing – “Fair fucks to yer!” responded Brendan (whether that was in the script or not – no idea).
In the bar after, the superbly talented, modest and warm Brid Brennan, who played Behan’s missus, told me and the Missus that, from her experience, the kind of reaction the performance prompted from the audience that night was something very special. My Missus reckoned the turning-point was the scene where a drunken Behan crashes on stage at a performance of his play ‘The Hostage’ on Broadway – in his naturally ebullient way, he breaks into song (Adie has a wonderful classic Irish tenor voice) and the Riverside audience joined in becoming the Broadway crowd.
Equally stunned on emerging was Anna Nygh, Adie’s wife, also an actor. She’d heard him rehearsing the lines around the house (a helluva lot of lines as he drives the two hours of dialogue) but had no notion quite how much he was inhabiting the character – or vice versa… She summed it up by confirming ‘It’s taken his acting up a level’.
The action is centred on Behan’s room in the legendary Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd in New York. He’s struggling to write a book about New York of which he’s already drunk the advance. It’s not only his publisher he’s let down but also his mistress and baby son. And his wife Beatrice is just about to show up from Dublin. With a tape recorder on his desk and a pint of whiskey under his mattress, he reflects on the journey that brought him from inner city Dublin to the weird&wonderful diversity of the streets of New York, through which the paparazzi pursue him. One of the highpoints of the play is a Berkoff-like set piece when Behan enacts the moment a journalist lured him out of sobriety by sending a free drink over to him at a bar, three fellow under-cover hacks watching from the shadows.
The show is punctuated with cracking lines. Like the one about the definition of an Irish homosexual – a man who prefers a woman to a drink.
When Adie emerged from the dressing room afterwards, I had to congratulate him for making such a good fat man. He’s so slight in real life but with just a bit of a belly added beneath his shirt he played Behan’s drinker’s bulkiness with such conviction you saw it in his restricted diabetic movements and bloated lumbering.
What ‘Brendan at the Chelsea’ showed above all was the paradox of a man who clearly loved life and spent every day trying to kill himself. He expressed a great fear of just being an ordinary human Behan which was why he disappeared to New York in the first place – he loved being immersed among the extraordinary flotsam of a big city.
The play is on until 3rd February – do yourself a favour…