So I’m sitting at breakfast as usual, late Saturday morning, a West Coast Irish sense of urgency (think mañana but less pressing), listening to Robert Elms on Radio London. After a bit of a dull gardening item an Irish poetry enthusiast with a Dublin accent pops up to talk about his guided walk to mark today’s [Saturday 13th] 150th anniversary of the birth of WB Yeats. He says “it’s probably too late for your listeners” – red rag to a British bulldog, I was going to get to Wolburn Buildings for the start of the walk regardless of the sub-90 minute lead-time. Niall McDevitt was the name of the poetical Irish gent punting his walk on the wireless and it was the said poet who wandered up Woburn Walk, location of WB’s bachelor pad, at the appointed hour of one, in red trousers, perfect to lead a walk through a busy Saturday afternoon London, the biz in hi-viz.
As he started the walk-talk an Indian lady appeared at WB’s balcony – an artist who uses his old love-nest as a studio. She gamely waved a large photo of Yeats to the assembled motley crew. Niall explained that WB moved in as a 30-something virgin, determined to pop the ol’ cherry and in need of a bit of space from his artist father and painter brother Jack over in the family home in Chiswick or thereabouts in West London. His married mistress found the place, in a small, quiet passage opposite Euston and within walking distance of the Brain of London which was the British Museum Reading Room, the internet of its day. The affair only lasted a year but WB stayed there for 24 years (1895-1919) until he eventually married. For the Irish Shakespeare that was a long time in prime years to stay in a foreign metropolis. Perhaps we dare think of him as London-Irish in some small way?
The Euston location was convenient for his Monday evening At Homes where the likes of Ezra Pound and Maud Gonne pulled by for cultural and literary chat. It was also convenient for jumping on the train to Liverpool to catch the ferry round to the West Coast of the Emerald Isle.
From Wolburn Walk we headed across Bloomsbury to the bust of Tagore in Gordon Square to review Yeats’s Indian connections. (The Nobel-prize-winning Indian poet Tagore while in London lived in the Vale of Health just below where I was born).
Then along the greenery into UCL (founded by one of my distant forebears) and the building of Faber & Faber where TS Eliot was based. Niall put forward the proposition that Yeats’s Second Coming was the great poem of the 20th Century and not The Wasteland. I let it pass – he’s obviously wrong.
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold
At Museum Street opposite that Brain of London we stopped for an interlude at the Occult Book Shop where the proprietor, a 2nd generation bookseller who has just inducted the 3rd generation, gave us a fascinating talk about Magic and the Golden Dawn, an occult order which Yeats joined in a serious way. On the wall were pictures of various key personages including the Hackney Jew who set up the shop and an oil portrait of Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, one of the primary influences on Yeats life (alongside a Fenian whose name escapes me, Sean O’Something). Irish Nationalism and Magic – his Big Two Things.
From there into Covent Garden where we strangely enough went right past my hairdresser where I had a 3pm appointment – what’s the chances of the line from Woburn Walk happening to pass that spot? Near the Freemasons’ HQ in Great Queen Street we stopped to talk a bit of Blake. In the old Masonic children’s hospital opposite was the place where Blake did his engraving apprenticeship for 7 years. Niall’s core territory is bounded by Shakespeare (who spent a lot of time in London in Southwark) and Blake (who grew up in London in Marshall Street – opposite my first job at Solus Productions at No. 35) and Rimbaud (who spent a little time in London in Camden Town) and Yeats (who spent a lot of time in London in Euston, Primrose Hill and Chiswick).
I peeled off when we got to the other side of Lincoln’s Inn as hair cutting called. They were heading in the direction of temples where Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawners worshipped. That kind of shit freaks me out a bit any way so probably just as well. Rewind. As we were starting off in Wolburn Buildings Niall mentioned the fact that Yeats was big into the after-life and would appreciate our celebration, indeed might well be with us if his hopes for the after-life proved well founded. At that moment one of the walkers’ mobile rang, he fumbled it and dropped a small case he was carrying, from which spilled a number of harmonicas. As in mouth organs. Or blues harps. So harps, the symbol of Irish poetry, fall out on the streets of London. Nuff said.
I had the great honour and pleasure of explaining to Enfant Terrible No. 2 this afternoon how a record player works – and indeed how a record works. “So if you turn it over are there more songs on the other side?”
It reminded me of the time the four of us were in the car listening to a Sherlock Holmes story and I had to pause the tape to explain what a ‘typewriter’ was, as the mystery revolved around a typewriter with a dodgy E.
So I walked down to Alan’s record shop on our high street with the ETs and No. 2 bought his very first piece of vinyl, a Rolling Stones (later) hits LP – he was after the track Wild Horses. He asked me to show him how to play it in the shop. I demoed on the knackered old deck. “So the lines are different songs?”
I showed him how to check the record for blemishes, how to handle the disc, how to check the weight/thickness.
It’s interesting how they came to this place, to the point of being introduced to Alan as customers after one and a half decades of just being local kids. After years of wall-to-wall rap the younger one recently got into reggae, then Dylan and The Stones; the older one into The Doors and Dylan. When Snoop Dogg put out a reggae album as Snoop Lion he provided the bridge for ET2 into the rasta world. And Yelawolf’s Nashville connections prompted thoughts in the head of ET1 of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. After years of Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa how amazing to get a text saying: “Just been listening to Bob Dylan’s song ‘Hurricane’ – the man’s a genius”.
What’s also interesting to see is how all the musical education/indoctrination did actually get in and get noticed. I used to make them tapes for their birthdays based on what they were interested in – so at 4 for example it was cops, robbers and superheroes – cue Police & Thieves, The Batman theme (The Jam), etc. Now tunes like Riders on the Storm (from the cowboys & Indians phase) are resurfacing in their consciousness.
This afternoon’s lads’ trip down the road was a real landmark and a deep pleasure.
Started the day with the best documentary I’ve seen so far – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the revolution. I was introduced to its talented, measured director Stanley Nelson as I entered Showroom 3 cinema. I told him about some footage we found in the attic of Solus, my first job, of James Baldwin with two Panthers in London (with Huw Wheldon for BBC’s Monitor shot by Jack Hazan).
It’s a masterful historical doc, the story told perfectly in a clear, disciplined and balanced way. Huey Newton’s story is plain tragic. The women protagonists are powerful and impressive. The stand-out character is Fred Hampton, a captivating orator assassinated by the Chicago pigs.
The story couldn’t be more resonant than now with the chain of events unravelling recently like this:
I chatted after with Stanley and Dick Fontaine (of the National Film & TV School) about the trustworthiness of police testimony then and now, and the power of the US authorities through the last 50 years.
Middle of the day was Roast Beef’s curious The Russian Woodpecker – an oblique route in to capturing the looming resurgence of the Cold War. It takes an artist, Fedor Alexandrovich, to know which way the wind blows in Russia/Ukraine and to become as much an over-the-horizon radar as the mysterious Duga early-warning system he discovers in the shadow of Chernobyl. Conspiracy theory, Cold War paranoia, arty kookiness and Soviet spookiness make a heady brew. Fedor and director Chad Garcia attended the screening in Sheffield’s library.
Rounded off the day at a session on Long Lost Family chaired in his usual ebullient way by ITV’s Simon Dickson (a former colleague at Channel 4) and featuring Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell. It is quite the most emotional show on TV and beautifully made (bar the music). The high production values and excellent direction mark it out from its roots in a Dutch format and a US version. Captures exactly the strengths of UK factual TV. Constructing the format on the official social worker process of adoption reunion was clever thinking. Davina and Nicky are both total pros with real heart. I’ve just watched the latest episode and there was not a dry eye in the hotel room.
My session today was as panelist rather than chair, on the subject of the rise of the Short Form Doc. Showed clips from a range of my recent commissions from Circus Girls to Body Mods, from Futurgasm to The Black Lesbian Handbook, to give a sense of the variety of output. The session started by showing two of the earliest short form films known, from late 19th century France (including the Lumiere Bros.) Shared the platform with Katie Metcalfe from the Short of the Week site/Sundance and a couple of struggling documentarists from Greece among others – it was a good, broad mix. My old friend Bill Thompson from the BBC was in the audience and captured the session in this cheeky tweet:
The new Sheffield DocFest Director, Elizabeth McIntyre, was also there and was strongly supportive of my assertion that it was misleading and plain wrong to portray short form as the little brother of long form documentary. It is not short TV, not cheap TV, it is a thing in itself, a fabulous form.
I met the acting Director at breakfast (Mark Atkins), as well as the recently retired Director (Heather Croall) and the current Chair (Alex Graham) so that was the full set today.
Before my session I went to the Brett Morgen masterclass in the City Hall where I hung a bit with the Music Doc posse from yesterday – Brett, Paul Viragh, Chris Wilson and Leslie Lee. I picked up some good tips from Brett – who talked about Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Kid Stays in the Picture and Crossfire Hurricane – including his ambitious approach of striving for an immersive cinematic experience to distinguish his docs e.g. to solve the problem that dozens of books and numerous films had already told the Stones story when the band brought Crossfire Hurricane to him – he sees his films as “a ride”. Also his use of asynchronous sound is interesting.
After the ‘Make it Short’ session, which seemed to go down really well, I went for a drink with Bill and had a fascinating chat with Bill, Brett and my friend & former colleague Jan Younghusband (of BBC Music) about new tech, AI and the spaces of human presence in our era.
I sat outdoors for a bit in the afternoon watching a documentary about the relationship between human beings and the earth on the hill of Howard Street, on a lawn in a deckchair in the June sunshine, enjoying its hippy vibe whilst reading ‘Our Mutual Friend’, all round green&pleasant.
In the evening I went to see a film about The Damned (Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead) by Wes Orshoski. It was entertaining with some really funny moments, quite conventional but a great range of interviews (from Chrissie Hynde to Mick Jones). Wes spoke a bit after the screening, an enthusiastic Yank, and Captain Sensible’s son was in attendance. From Neat Neat Neat via Smash It Up to Eloise The Damned turned out some great tunes through their various early incarnations. In short, they were The Ramones of Britain. A bit too silly for their own long-term good, condemning themselves to being something of a footnote.
Today’s first day for me at DocFest 2015 has been dominated by music which is at it should be in the home of Joe Cocker, Comsat Angels, Heaven 17 and The Human League. I headed North in time to chair a lunchtime session in the uber-Victorian town hall on the current state of play of music films and rock docs. We had something of a supergroup on the panel, the Cream of the cream, including:
- Brett Morgen, director of Cobain: Montage of Heck and the Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane
- Paul Viragh, writer of the Ian Dury movie Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll
- Jessica Edwards, director of Mavis, a new documentary about Mavis Staples
- Julia Nottingham, producer of the surprisingly romantic The Possibilities Are Endless about Edwyn Collins and his wife, representing Pulse Films who made my favourite film (scripted or unscripted) of last year, Film4’s 20,000 Days on Earth, featuring Nick Cave
- Chris Wilson, producer of Hotel California, centred on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the rest of the 70s Laurel Canyon set
We covered a fair bit of ground including the reimagining of music docs in the form of films like Pulse’s The Possibilities Are Endless; Brett’s technique of cutting and designing the audio track first (particularly evident in his The Kid Stays In The Picture film about Robert Evans); films inspired by magical live experiences and made by fans; the commonalities between scripted drama about musicians and music docs; the opportunities in theatrical releases with a cinematic approach versus those in TV.
I had a good chat with Brett and Chris outside a cafe in the afternoon about music and film geekery from 12 Years a Slave (Brett went to film school in New York with Steve McQueen and thought there was a massive leap forward from Shame to 12 Years) to Fiddler on the Roof.
Paul, Chris and Brett plus Leslie Lee who produced our session wended our way to a slightly bizarre karaoke bar to watch the Champions League final at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin before heading over to the Showroom cinema to watch the Cobain film nice&loud.
My favourite scene is when Kurt plays the master tape of Nevermind to his mother and she realises the implications of how scarily brilliant it is and tries to warn him.
What the Cobain film leaves me with are these keys to Kurt’s life:
- fear of humiliation
- sense of shame
- love of playing live
Watching/photos of diving. Flowers. Roof top views (Mediterranean). Chicas with black hair. Sea breeze. Church bells. Tortilla. Long lunches (Mediterranean). Generosity by children. Records. Record shops. Tranquility. Fountains and water in gardens. Watching movies with the Enfants Terribles. Saracens. D’s laugh. Sparrows. Playing Top 3s en famille. Handstands under water. Community.
Blues guitar. Cafe con leche. The Sagrada Familia (especially the coloured interior light). Sitar at sunset. Crema Catalana. Back in Black (memories of driving to school with JRT). Dappled sunlight in Spanish squares. Flamenco singing in real-life. Parrots (especially escapees in London). Sharing Peking crispy duck. Curvy architecture.
Palm trees. Browsing flea markets. Rum’n’Raisin ice cream (especially in South of France, seriously alcohol-soaked). Waves. Working away quietly with someone sleeping in the room. Chalky old-school mineral (Vichy) water. Collecting things. Collections. Traditional shops. Fresh sheets. Beautifully designed playing cards. Harbours. Breasts. Siestas. Playing backgammon in the shade after lunch. Strolling the city at sundown. Teaching your children stuff. Deep sleep.