Archive for the ‘theatre’ Tag

Sydney Cohen vs 4,300 Italian Fascist troops: Syd won

sydney cohen syd king of lampedusa

Sydney Cohen

On this day in 1946 a plane went missing without trace over the English Channel. On board was Sydney Cohen, an RAF pilot and the ‘King of Lampedusa’. He was flying home to be demobbed but his aircraft crashed in the Straits of Dover. The wreckage was never found.

Lampedusa is a small island 175 miles (280 kilometres) south of Sicily. (These days it is most often referred to in relation to the European migration crisis, receiving migrants from North Africa.)

map lampedusa sicily tunisia

Syd Cohen was a tailor’s cutter from the East End of London. He was an orphan (born 1921) who before the Second World War lived with his sister Lily in a block of flats in Stoke Newington.

How he became Italian royalty is one of the great little stories of World War Two.

20 year-old Sydney Cohen joined the Royal Airforce in 1941 and was based at North Weald near Epping. He was subsequently stationed on Malta. On 12th June 1943 Sergeant Cohen took off from the island with his two-man crew in their Swordfish biplane. With him was Sergeant Peter Tait, navigator, and Sergeant Les Wright, wireless operator and gunner. They were on a search-and-rescue mission after reports of a German plane crashing into the Mediterranean. Returning from the mission their compass started malfunctioning and they found themselves off course (actually heading away from Malta) and low on fuel so had to make an emergency landing on the Island of Lampedusa.

fairey swordfish plane

Fairey Swordfish

“The plane had a fit of gremlins so we had to make for the nearest land. As we came down on a ropey landing ground we saw a burnt hangar and burnt aircraft around us.”

The Allies had been bombing the island. As Sydney prepared to submit to the inevitable fate of being captured…

“a crowd of Italians came out to meet us and we put our hands up to surrender, but then we saw they were all waving white sheets shouting: “No, no – We surrender!” The whole island was surrendering to us!”

“It was a bit of a shake-up but I put on a bold heart and asked to see the commandant. I was taken to the commandant’s villa but an air raid started and everybody suddenly dashed from the room. I concluded that the nerves of my hosts were a bit jagged. They asked me to return to Malta and inform the authorities of their offer to surrender. They gave me a scrap of paper with a signature on it.”

Sydney accepted the surrender of the commandant of the demoralised garrison, refuelled, flew the scribbled surrender on to headquarters in Tunis, and in effect single-handedly captured Lampedusa and 4,300 Italian troops. It was arguably the first step in the retaking of Europe by the Allies.

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison Lampedusa

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison

king cohen of lampedusa newspaper headline

The British press picked up on the story to help boost morale. ‘Lampedusa Gives In to Sgt. Cohen!’ was the front-page headline on the Sunday Pictorial the very next day. The News Chronicle gave it the headline: ‘London Tailor’s Cutter is now King of Lampedusa’ establishing the monicker which went on to provide the title for a highly successful Yiddish musical play by S.J. Charendorf.

grand palais yiddish theatre programme king of lampedusa sj charendorf

Programme from Grand Palais, East London

Charendorf was a Czech-American journalist, London correspondent for the Jewish Morning Journal of New York. He was on his way to the Ministry of Information to file his story about Sgt Syd Cohen when it occurred to him that it had the makings of a brilliant play. He turned back home to write it. He changed the hero’s name to Sam Kagan and created parents and a fiancee for him but Sam was clearly Syd.

poster king of lampedusa grand palais london

Poster from Grand Palais

In November 1943 Charendorf took his script to Meier Tzelniker, the actor-producer-director who ran the Grand Palais Yiddish theatre on the Commercial Road in Whitechapel. Tzelniker commissioned some music and wrote the lyrics himself. He also cast himself in the lead role alongside his daughter Anna. The show premiered on New Year’s Eve 1943/4. It was a slow burner but Charendorf got the newspapers interested in the story again and it took off.

King of Lampedusa 2nd act newspaper cutting

The King in Act 2

King of Lampedusa yiddish play

‘The King of Lampedusa’ was a huge hit at the Grand Palais with 200 consecutive performances.

play scene the king of lampedusa

Naturalistic East End cheek-pinching from The King of Lampedusa

The BBC went on to broadcast an English version with Sydney Tafler playing the title role.

In time it came to the treacherous attention of William Joyce aka Lord Haw-Haw. In one of his nightly propaganda broadcasts from Berlin he threatened:

“The Yids at the Grand Palais should not be laughing for much longer at the ridiculous play ‘The King of Lampedusa’ because they are earmarked for a visit from the Luftwaffe.”

Although Cohen went missing in 1946, he did get to see the play while on leave in Haifa in 1944. It was a performance in Hebrew at the Hamatae Theatre. But he never saw the London production.

A final weird twist of a bizarre story – In the wake of Sydney meeting his end on a plane, so did the would-be producer of a movie of the story. After the war the film rights to the play were sold, however the film was never produced because the producer who acquired them, Walter Sistrom, suffered a burst appendix on the plane taking him to Columbia Studios in LA and he died.

 

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Coincidence No. 460

I am watching ‘Othello’ at The Globe with Enfant Terrible No.2. I notice the line, when The Moor has killed Desdemona:

“Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon”
The same night there is a lunar eclipse which turns the moon red. It is known as a Blood Moon.
blood-moon-total-lunar-eclipse-27 july-2018

27th July 2018

The longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st Century took place on 27th July 2018. It lasted 103 minutes (the entire celestial event lasted nearly 4 hours).

The Casting Game No. 76

SuperMario

super-mario

to play

Mark Rylance playing Iago at the Globe (July 2018)

mark rylance actor as iago in othello at the globe theatre july 2018

Coincidences No.s 208 & 209

13.ii.18 Theatre503

I meet the Creative Accountant, Sydney Levinson, for tea in Mayfair (Little House). At the end of the meeting he has to head for home to get ready to see the play of a friend of his at a small theatre in Battersea – Theatre503. I’ve never heard of the place.

I leave the tea with Sydney to go to a special preview screening of a documentary I’d recently commissioned, Sorry I Shot You. The screening is in Bermondsey in a back-street cafe run by an ex-offender. The director of the film, the protagonist, and various people at the gathering are also ex-cons. I meet an interesting and pleasant man called John who has done time in Liverpool for armed robbery. He is smartly dressed and articulate. He has recently written a play about his time inside which is about to be put on …at Theatre503.

10.iii.18 & 14.iii.18 Wildwood

I am walking from home to Crouch End through a string of woods. When I get to Queen’s Wood I read the information board at the entrance which explains that the woodland which covered England until 5,000 years ago was known as ‘Wildwood’. Not a term I have ever heard but I know a road called Wildwood near where I live, beside an island of woodland. I explain all this to my friend Roddy over breakfast at Banners.

An email comes through this evening about a newish band I’ve never heard of: Wildwood Kin.
A family trio – two sisters and their cousin – Wildwood Kin formed four years ago while in their mid to late teens. Their extraordinary debut album Turning Tides entered the UK charts in the top 40 and whilst it borrows from early folk influences, not least in their hypnotic three-part harmonies, it delves deeply into other genres, featuring both electric and acoustic instruments and boasts inventive electronics and spectral atmospherics.”

I’m listening to their inventive electronics and spectral atmospherics (out of Exeter) as I write this and it’s not unpleasant. Though I’d sooner have the band I saw last Monday (5th March) at the Imagining Ireland gig at The Barby, Saint Sister, a harp-keyboards duo (out of Derry & Belfast), not actual sisters but with a sisterly vibe. 

saint sister irish band

Gemma Doherty (Derry) & Morgan MacIntyre (Belfast)

Here’s a really striking song they performed, Corpses:

 

Best of 2017

The Florida Project halley moonee

The Florida Project

Film:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Florida Project

Lady Bird

Last Flag Flying

Last year: Manchester by the Sea, American Honey

Male Lead:

Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread

Steve Carell – Battle of the Sexes

Last year: Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea

Female Lead:

Frances McDormand – Three Billboards

Bria Vinaite – The Florida Project
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird

Last year: Sasha Lane – American Honey

Male Support:

Woody Harrelson – Three Billboards

Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards

Last year: Jack Reynor – Sing Street

Female Support:

Brooklyn Prince – Florida Project
Mary J Blige – Mudbound

Last year: Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Director:

Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards

Last year: Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

Writer:

Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards

Last year: Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

Editing:

Dunkirk

Cinematography:

Roger Deakins (my old boss, in my first job) – Blade Runner 2049

Last year: Vittorio Storaro – Cafe Society

Film Music:

Three Billboards

Last year: Sing Street

International Film:

The Square (Sweden)

Single/Song:

Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child

Last year: In Tiburon – Van Morrison

Album:

Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Bjork – Utopia
Avishai Cohen – 1970

Last year: Blackstar – David Bowie, Keep Me Singing – Van Morrison

Gig:

Hothouse Flowers – Electric Ballroom
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Millennium Dome
Avishai Cohen – Barbican

U2 – Joshua Tree – Twickenham
Hollie Cook – Borderline

Last year: Imagining Ireland – Friday 29 April 2016 at Festival Hall

Play:

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Girl from the North Country
St Joan (Donmar)
The Ferryman

Last year: Jesus Christ Superstar (Regent’s Park)

Art Exhibition:

Basquiat – Barbican

Last year: You Say You Want a Revolution? (V&A)

Book:

Everybody Lies – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

M Train – Patti Smith
My Promised Land – Ari Shavit

Last year: The Sellout – Paul Beatty, Judas – Amos Oz

TV:

Stranger Things S1

Last year: Ambulance

Sport:

Lions beating & drawing with All-Blacks

Harry Kane scores his 8th hattrick of the year becoming top European goal-scorer and taking record for most Premiership goals in a year

Event:

?

Dearly departed:

  • Roger Moore
  • John Hurt
  • Martin Landau
  • Sean Hughes
  • Brian Kant
  • Jerry Lewis
  • Christine Keeler
  • Walter Becker

Best of 2016 – with links to all previous years

Enemies of the People – part 2

april-fools-day

The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population — the intelligent ones or the fools?

Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People (1882)

Murray Melvin on Brendan Behan

Brendan Behan

I’m on the Tube heading for home from Stratford. I’ve just been interviewing actor Murray Melvin at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where he worked with Joan Littlewood.

It was the first outing for my LiveScribe smart-pen as recommended by Jemima Kiss of The Guardian for interview recording. It performed fine but I ballsed up the last bit (5 mins) because of a technical mistake (you need to restart record mode when you change pages in the smart-notebook (it ain’t that smart).

So I want to capture that last bit for posterity while it’s fresh in my mind as it was about Brendan Behan. Murray played the hostage in the original TRSE production of the eponymous play.

Most importantly he poopooed the notion that Joan wrote any of Behan’s stuff.

Behan habitually attended performances of The Hostage in Stratford and would get up mid-show in the auditorium to interject. For example, after a song: “I’ve written an extra verse for you.” The audience loved the disruption. So did Joan as it kept the actors on their toes and the performance fresh and alive. And the new verse would be even better than what was already in the script.

Murray felt Joan loved the “destructive” nature of Behan’s character. In the same way that she was drawn to the destructive energy of the teenage boys hanging out in front of the Theatre with her encouragement.

Murray emphasised that Behan was from a family of storytellers. He would regale the company with stories, prompted by Joan. “Tell us the one about…” He’d go on for three hours then notice the time. The bar’s open, he’s off. Then Joan would ask the assembled actors: “What did he say about your character?” and scribble down furiously the collective memory of what had been said. From that she’d spot the moments of real brilliance and extract from the 3 hours 3 minutes of pure gold.

Murray-Melvin

Bright Light (Day 23)

Joe Papp

The more I learn about Joe Papp and the Public Theatre the more interesting the comparison with Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop looks. It will be interesting to have a couple of dual case studies like this for variety though it ups the workload/research significantly. The Art chapter could go down a similar route. That was the focus of the morning’s activity.

Lunchtime was a very extended affair in the style of old school journalism. I met up with a local, Martin Bright, formerly of The New Statesman and The Observer, now running an ambitious social enterprise called Creative Society (set up under the banner New Deal of the Mind, indicating its historic roots in the job creation of the Depression – it creates jobs for the disadvantaged young mainly in the creative industries). He was just back from being interviewed by Vanessa Feltz on London Radio about the Ralph Miliband affair.

I brought Martin up to speed on my writing activities and he made some excellent suggestions for Journalism related people and set-ups. It was fascinating how much what he is doing and what I am writing about overlap or interconnect.

On my return from Maurizio’s cafe I got a bit caught up with a tangent into the colourful world of Charles Bukowski before knuckling back down to a last burst of writing for the week (about Paul Arden). I also began setting up my Advertising interviews.  I went beyond my 5pm deadline and was left wanting to carry on but having to return to domestics, which is a good position to conclude the week. I regularly get to the weekend now disappointed the week is already ending rather than relieved the weekend is upon us.

Though this is a very exciting weekend for me as it sees the coming to light of Was It Something I Said with David Mitchell, Richard Ayoade and Micky Flanagan, a project that has been the best part of two years in the making, in the journey from Quotables, from digital to TV. It’s on at 10pm on Sunday on C4 straight after Homeland, good slot I think. It’s a comedy panel show about stuff people have said and written.

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