Archive for the ‘the phoenix’ Tag

Sound of the Suburbs

gene kelly in singing-in-the-rain

100% pure enjoyment

100 years ago the Phoenix rose from  the ashes. It wasn’t called the Phoenix then – it was The Picturedrome. Then later The Coliseum and then, in my mum’s time, when she was growing up down the road in Church End, the Rex. On 9th May 1912, The Picturedrome opened for business, two years after it was actually built, in the North London suburb of East Finchley. The first company, taking a big risk with this new technology of the cinematograph, went bankrupt, although had, through jumping early, secured the Phoenix’s place as the oldest purpose-built cinema in the country. The opening film was about the sinking of the Titanic.

On Sunday afternoon 13th May 2012 I walked down our high street with wife, son, neighbour and a couple of kids from our street to a special centenary screening of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, this being ironically the first sunny day after weeks of ceaseless precipitation. The theme of the short three-film programme was the transition to sound as the Phoenix was the first cinema in the area to show a sound film. On 22nd July 1929 the Phoenix screened ‘The Jazz Singer’ (made in 1927, premiered in London’s West End in September 1928) the first movie to feature synchronised song performances and a sequence with synch dialogue including the famous, self-referential line: You ain’t heard nothing yet!

The centenary programme therefore opened with a trailer for ‘The Jazz Singer’. It was a very different kind of trailer from what we’re now used to – a presenter in full evening dress addresses us to camera, a barely supressed smile on his face, amazed himself that this new fangled invention of sound cinema actually works.

Look what I’m doing, can you bloody believe it?! He introduces scenes from the movie’s New York premiere, not dissimilar from the opening scene of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ when on-screen partners Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) attend the opening of their new movie at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre.

That was one of my most memorable sound cinema experiences – being taken to Graumann’s by my best-friend’s family to see a new movie called ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ with the best of Dolby Surroundsound blowing my teenage ears and mind. That was the same trip I bought myself a new fangled machine called a WM1 – the first model of Sony Walkman, basically a brick, I still have it as a reminder of how technology evolves. In a while I’ll be off for a jog with my electric blue iPod Shuffle, about the size of a badge. Watching the scene of Al Jolson blacking up minstrel style, my 12 year old leaned over and whispered “That’s racist …isn’t it?” “Yes, it is really. Things change.”

The second film on the programme was the first ever sound animated film, ‘Steamboat Willie’ starring Mickey Mouse. The audio was mainly spot effects, animal sounds and the like. Mainly animals in pain, tortured and terrorised by a soon to be famous rodent on a Southern steamboat. “They can’t do that, can they?” whispered the 21st Century boy. “Not really, you’re right, animal cruelty. Things change.”

Disney’s cartoons had not really stood out from the competition until Walt took a chance on sound. Like Premier Electric Theatres (who had the Phoenix built in 1910) he had been facing bankruptcy – in the wake of seeing ‘The Jazz Singer’ he staked all on the new invention and an empire was born. It opened in New York’s Colony Theater on 18th November 1928, now Mickey’s official birthday.

The main feature for the Phoenix centenary celebration was the 1952 classic MGM musical co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, about the tricky transition to sound.

I was particularly looking forward to the film after having thoroughly enjoyed, a couple of weeks earlier,  the excellent (highly recommended) West End stage version that opened earlier this year at the Palace Theatre, starring Adam Cooper, who played adult Billy in the final scene of ‘Billy  Eliott’, as he launches himself into the world of ballet dance.

The parenthetical Broadway Melody ballet sequence in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, showcasing Kelly in partnership with Cyd Charisse (who passed away relatively recently in 2008) is still emblematic of the boldness and innovation of this golden era of musicals. Kelly and Donen, alongside Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed, constituted the Freed Unit at MGM who also collaborated on ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ (1944), ‘The Pirate’ (1948), ‘On the Town’ (1949), the magical  ‘An American in Paris’ (1951), ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (1954) and ‘Gigi’ (1958). Unlike the later lazier approach of adapting Broadway musicals, this was an original story suggested by the song Singin’ in the Rain, written by Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, a song-writing team established in the 20s and 30s, around when this film is set. From that span off the script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who also wrote ‘On the Town’. Surprisingly, given the coherence of the story, most of the other songs (bar two) were originally composed by Freed & Brown for different Hollywood movies before Freed set himself up as a producer. Astonishingly the film made only moderate returns at the time of release, won big fat zero Oscars and received little critical attention. Well, what did they know, what’s not to like? Exquisite dancing by Gene Kelly, not just in the eponymous central scene (to the 1950s what Walking on the Moon was to the late 70s), but in all his performances from the romantic empty studio duet with Debbie Reynolds to the jokey stuff with Danny Kaye lookalike/actalike Donald O’Connor; gorgeous Technicolor costumes and sets; beautiful singing, not least by Reynolds; ensemble acting with real chemistry in its core trio; and a witty, tight script with some really original, organic comedy like the out-of-sync film gag and the scene where the actions of the silent stars are totally at odds with what they are saying unrecorded. The Enfant Terrible and his little chums found further (unintended) comedy in the back-projected driving scenes (“Things change.”)

I hurried off at the end of the afternoon’s good clean family fun to get changed and off to the TV BAFTAs part 1: the TV Craft Awards. I had that post-Musical feeling of expecting vaguely for people to break out in song at any moment around me. By the end of the evening the Live from the Clinic team and I were on the point of song with a win in the Digital Creativity category. The British Film Academy was set up way later than its American cousin. The first Oscars were awarded in 1929, two years after ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is set. David Lean and Powell & Pressberger (whose ‘The Red Shoes’ I suspect is part of the Technicolor race-memory of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’) helped establish our Academy in 1947.

It’s been interesting to see the early history of cinema high in the collective consciousness this last year with ‘The Artist’ (not entirely deservedly, in spite of its bold timing and originality) sweeping the awards and ‘Hugo’, so lovingly made (in the UK) by one of the world’s great cinephiles (and a huge fan and champion of ‘The Red Shoes’ team). Then on stage at the National Theatre in London (in the auditorium named after that great bridge of theatre-cinema, Laurence Olivier) I took the older Enfant Terrible earlier in the year to his first proper play, which against the odds given his teenage phillistinism, he really enjoyed, ‘Travelling Light’ by Nicholas Wright. It looks at the emergence of cinema in Poland and the journey from the stetl to Hollywoodland of the founding fathers of the movie business. It featured Anthony Sher, who has never happily crossed from stage to screen – I saw him recently hamming it up in ‘Three and Out’, which was shot in large part opposite The Phoenix in East Finchley’s sister Art Deco tube station (The Phoenix featuring fine gilded Art Deco reliefs along the walls of its barrel-vaulted auditorium). The Art Deco archer adorning East Finchley station was sculpted by the man who created the stairway to heaven in Powell & Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life of Death’ (Eric Aumonier). Back from the sublime to the ridiculous, ‘Three and Out’ stars East Finchley local, Mackenzie Crook opposite Colm Meaney and Gemma Arterton – when I occasionally see Crook getting on or off the tube with me what springs to mind is never ‘Pirates of the Carribean’, but always that astonishing play ‘Jerusalem’, carried by  Mark Rylance’s barn-storming performance, an actor who in another way seems indifferent to the silver screen. There’s a great scene in Singin’ in the Rain where Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) mocks the mugging and crude acting of the silent stars by comparison with the luminaries of the East Coast stage. “What do you have to be so conceited about? You’re nothing but a shadow on film… just a shadow. You’re not flesh and blood.”

The interior of the Phoenix, including its Jazz Singer era decor like the bas-reliefs, was restored to mark the centenary of the building in 2010. As part of the fundraising I put on a screening of Sam Taylor-Wood’s ‘Nowhere Boy’ with the kind help of colleagues in Film 4. I also bought the Enfants Terribles an illuminated plaque on the timeline in the upper foyer representing the 100 years of Cinema in its lifetime to date. For a donation you could buy a year and movie. I went for 9 years later – ‘Modern Times’ and 1936, by the greatest exponent of cinema of all time, Charlie Chaplin (whose name the younger ET bears) – one who never really needed to make the leap from silent to sound, who struggled with the transition, sounded suitably strange in his first spoken words on film (the wonderful humanist speech at the end of ‘The Great Dictator’) and who embodies the truth that even if things change you don’t always have to change with them to be able to capture the things that don’t change in 100 years, 1,000 years, ever.

gene kelly and cyd charisse in singing-in-the-rain broadway melody ballet sequence

High life

Make Believe – the Phoenix rises

Kicked off the weekend at the newly restored Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley – the oldest purpose-built cinema in the land – and the best. It opened exactly 100 years ago as the Premier Electric Theatre.

As I walked back at 2pm, returning from The Media Festival Arts at the Roundhouse where I spent much of Thursday and Friday picking up all kinds of good tips on arts media (I was on the Advisory Board chaired by the charming Peter Bazalgette, comprising a lovely bunch of art-lovers including Marc Boothe, Alan Yentob, Fred Bolza from Sony Music, Pete Buckingham of UK Film Council, Dick Penny from The Watershed in Bristol, Andrew Missingham, among others), I bumped into Paul Homer, manager of The Phoenix outside the recently unscaffolded building. “How’s it going?”, I asked. “A builder has just gone through a water pipe.” Four hours to go til re-opening after months of closure. ” …And another has gone through the electricity cable on the 3rd floor [that’s where the projection room is]”. “Oh”. “I’m getting a sandwich.” “Good move…”

As things panned out, in the best show biz tradition, by 6.15pm work-arounds had been found. The crowd showed up – a full house. I met my C4 Arts colleague Kim Peat by chance in the queue – we both do some pro bono work for The Phoenix. I met a photographer who photographed our Big Lunch/Landshare street party last year. I had my first coffee from the new cafe out on the new balcony. And then I went in to the newly redecorated auditorium, which I had had a sneak preview of the week before, with its two ‘lost’ art deco panels brought out of storage, the hole with a light bulb popping through disappeared from the ceiling and its new womb-like rich red colour.

Opening the reborn picture house was Stephen Frears’ “Tamara Drewe’. Rarely has the disparity between trailer and film been so great. A beautifully made film, and funny. Some wonderful acting, very well written and crafted without flaws.

I asked the first audience question in the new Phoenix – about Frears’ take on the closure of the UK Film Council – he’d just praised the bravery of the financiers in letting him go with a non-starry cast. John Woodward, Pete Buckingham and Tanya Seghatchian (who was on the panel I produced) all handled the difficult situation around UKFC admirably and with humour at The Media Festival Arts. I’m really hoping the coherence of the UKFC doesn’t get lost in this precipitous decision, especially with regards to training and emerging talent. Frears agreed at least in this respect – his jury is out otherwise til he sees where the pieces land.

Tomorrow the new 100 year time-line is unveiled (got a sneaky peak at that too last week, but not yet wired up). I acquired 1936 for the Enfants Terribles – Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was the film I chose from that year. The younger one’s middle name is Charlie. Tonight I’m subjecting/treating them to a viewing ready for tomorrow. Spanners are already on my mind.

As Paul was announcing the re-opening from the stage yesterday (tough guy though he is) he found it hard to keep back the tears after a project that has taken years to realise and a week that has offered him little sleep. He just couldn’t believe it. Much as a certain young girl can’t believe her luck towards the end of Tamara Drewe. She nabs a quick mobile pic to capture the moment. And so have I…

The Auditorium minus screen 3rd Sept 2010

Exterior 3rd Sept

The scaffolding comes off 7th Sept

The new fin and neon 7th Sept

Finishing 9th Sept

Title display sign 10th Sept

10th Sept (morning) Posters reappear

10th Sept (2pm) Water pipe and electricity cable drilled through

10th Sept (6.15pm) The crowd shows

10th Sept (6.45pm) The newly decorated foyer

10th Sept (7pm) The new balcony and fin

10th Sept (7.15pm) Full house

10th Sept (9pm) Stephen Frears is charming

Rising from the Ashes

nowhere-boy-anne-marie-duffIf I wanted to boost the SEO for Simple Pleasures part 4 I’d be writing this evening about Jim Morrison, The Snowman, lonelygirl15, Dylan Thomas, Lara Croft and Albert Camus, but I’ve got other stuff in mind, first and foremost The Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley, London N2. I’m just back from there where we went for a family matinee outing to watch Glorious 39.

Glorious 39 is considerably less glorious than Inglourious Basterds – basically it belongs on TV like many BBC Films ‘movies’ – but the Phoenix itself was its usual blaze of Art Deco glory, gilded but faded but ready to rise again in even greater splendor…

…which is why two nights ago I arranged a preview screening of Nowhere Boy at the Phoenix. It was just the second public screening of Sam Taylor-Wood’s new film about the young John Lennon and it was raising money towards the Phoenix Restoration Fund. The Phoenix is the UK’s oldest purpose-built cinema and to celebrate the centenary of its 1910 opening the charity trust which runs it is striving to complete a major restoration by its 100th birthday next year. (If you feel like donating a couple of quid, you can do that here – we’ve got 90 grand left to raise to release the lottery grant needed to do the job.)

Anne-Marie Duff – of Channel 4’s Shameless, Film4’s Garage and The Virgin Queen fame (especially Shameless! pretty much the best TV drama of the last decade) – kindly pitched up to do a Q&A after the screening and gave a great insight into her intelligent and feeling approach to acting. She plays Julia, John Lennon’s mother, who found herself giving him up as a child but later helping spark his musical genius. The scene of Julia teaching John to play the banjo and then his swift but hard-earned mastery of the instrument is thrilling.

Film4’s Nowhere Boy was rousing. I didn’t like Matt Greenhalgh’s script for Control but this was a story well told and moving. Anne-Marie as Julia and Kristin Scott-Thomas as John’s aunt Mimi (who raised him) were both powerful and affecting, making sense of a tragic love tussle. But the big revelation was the charismatic Aaron Johnson as the young Lennon, old school charisma and strikingness on screen.

Sam Taylor-Wood came in to visit us a couple of years ago at Channel 4 to talk about her work and inspirations, and showed us a short art video depicting the decomposition of a partridge and a peach – very impactful in a short, sharp way. A feature is a very different prospect and she pulled this one off with energy and aplomb. I suspect her interactions with the actors were lacking in experience but the thesps were all good enough to make up for any wooliness in that aspect of the direction.

One of my first insights into Channel 4 was in 1988 when a programme called Lennon /Goldman: the making of a best-seller was being cut in Solus Productions where I was working, my first job. It was about the rather grubby biographer of Elvis and Lenny Bruce and his biog of Lennon which was due to come out shortly after. The director, Binia Tymieniecka, kindly gave me a copy of  it, The Lives of John Lennon, which I dug out after the Phoenix show.  I could see from a cinema ticket bookmark that the last time I had dug it out was in April 1994 when Stephen Woolley (who I believe used to work at the Phoenix) & Nik Powell’s Backbeat came out. The inscription reads: You’ve heard the gossip. You’ve seen the rough cut. Now read the book. The gossip and the aforementioned insight involved Goldman pulling all his contributions from the documenatry at the 11th hour (not sure what kind of C4 contract allowed for that kind of veto, but Channel 4 was still in its naively golden first decade then).

This week (Tuesday) was the 29th anniversary of John’s death. I remember it clearly – I was in Tijuana in Mexico and saw the headlines in Spanish, struggling to translate them exactly. I associate that time with realising for the first time my eyesight was dodgy, taking off my specs and realising the degree of my myopia (your youropia, his hisopia), getting a bit upset about it as a person who’s always been visually driven, through still and moving pictures. There’s a lot of play in Nowhere Boy about John’s short-sightedness – Mimi’s always reminding him to put on his specs and he’s always taking them off again as soon as he gets out of range. He has to put them on when Paul (superbly played by the fresh-faced Thomas Sangster) is teaching him guitar. The chemistry between John and Paul is palpable. On Tuesday I was listening, trusty ol’ iPod on shuffle, on my walk home past the Phoenix to Yer Blues from the White Album and was greatly struck by the haunting words he wrote in India and recorded just a few miles from the Phoenix at Abbey Road:

Yes I’m lonely wanna die
Yes I’m lonely wanna die
If I ain’t dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why

In the morning wanna die
In the evening wanna die
If I ain’t dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why

My mother was of the sky
My father was of the earth
But I am of the universe
And you know what it’s worth
I’m lonely wanna die
If I ain’t dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why

The eagle picks my eye
The worm he licks my bones
I feel so suicidal
Just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones
Lonely wanna die
If I ain’t dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why

Black cloud crossed my mind
Blue mist round my soul
Feel so suicidal
Even hate my rock and roll
Wanna die yeah wanna die
If I ain’t dead already
Ooh girl you know the reason why.

The-Snowman

I'm coming down fast but I'm miles above you

%d bloggers like this: