Archive for the ‘alcoholism’ Tag

Story Snippet: Harrison

Three of us are having a late night summer wander around the backstreets of Hampstead. We come to St John-at-Hampstead church. As we walk through the churchyard there are two winos sitting on the bench in the yard. I acknowledge them and keep moving round the side of the church – I have something I want to show my two companions. As we walk down the side path between the building and some graves there are three teenagers sitting on a bench smoking weed. I acknowledge them and move past. Just beyond them is the object of the diversion – the tomb of John Harrison, a key contributor to the measurement of time, the inventor of the marine chronometer, and a self-taught clock maker and repairer. Born in 1693, his claim to fame is that he worked out how to measure longitude at sea, vital to global navigation. He won a £20,000 prize for his efforts, although getting the Board of Longitude and Parliament to honour the award proved difficult and drawn out. We read the lengthy inscription which tells Harrison’s story as best we can by phone light. 

We head back to our main course past the weed-smokers and back into the church yard. There one of the winos asks, to our surprise, “Did you see the Harrison grave?” I confirm we have, taken back a bit by the fact he has any knowledge of or interest in the relatively anonymous tomb. The other one pipes up that he is actually George Harrison. (18th century John  Harrison was also, as it happens, expert in the technicalities of music, given his mathematical genius.) The jolt from the first one’s question reminds us once again that winos, street people, addicts, burn-outs, bums and the like are human sons/daughters, maybe parents, friends, certainly relatives. Too easy to lose sight of. 

One of the nominees in this year’s inaugural SMART film festival, our international Smartphone film festival, helps underline this same realisation – José Rocha Pinto’s ‘In the Depths of the City’

And on the subject of addiction and drinking, our Amy Winehouse film for MTV and Paramount was announced this week. ‘Amy Winehouse and Me: Dionne’s Story’ plays on the 10th anniversary of Amy’s trip to the great stage in the sky (23rd July 2011 – in the UK it TXs  Mon 26th July at 10pm on MTV):

 

In contrast to the predictably grim Mirror piece, our film (on which my focus was story and script) is constructive and substantial, showing a process of grief over a decade finally coming to its crux. It centres on Amy’s godaughter, singer Dionne Bromfield.

Here’s the trailer: play

 

Human Behan

brendan behan

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.

Meanwhile, back in old media Hammersmith I walked past a cinematic Hammersmith Odeon shiny in the night rain, down past the painter Frank Brangwyn’s walled house, to the Riverside.

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

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