Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How to Spoil a Holiday

It could be that our Frith Street 'Lao Shi' sees us chewing our pencils and decides we're wondering how to spend our holiday free time. Or maybe he thinks we'll forget everything if we don't attend a twice-weekly Mandarin class for a whole month. So he doles out these two sheets of characters for us to translate. No sign of a glossary

Zao Gao! It's printed on on recycled paper so the lines run together, especially when the characters have about fifteen strokes. Even worse, it's in traditional 'fanti zi' style characters instead of the simplified 'jianti zi'. It's the kind that's designed to be read from top to bottom instead of left to right.

Oh well- at least one page has a picture to clue me about the story. Something to do with a big vase on a boat.

I'm off to Cornwall for four days next week, regardless.

A Bit of a Gaffe

Ooh, my favourite - a soiree at Probsthain's. It involves what a 'friend' of mine says I'm good at: shameless free-loading. It's true they put on a good supply of sandwiches and wine at the cosy shop-cum gallery opposite the British Museum. However, as I intended to review the book, 'China's Global Strategy' without pay, and as I even bought a copy, my conscience is clear.

At least, it's clear as far as the free-loading charge is concerned. Besides, one glass of wine and three thin triangles is hardly gluttony. Oh, and a lovely sausage roll that was more like a tiny cushion than a bolster.

But I should have done my homework about the author, Jenny Clegg. I did discover she lectured at The University of Central Lancashire in my home town of Preston. But when I received a denial from the namesake I picked out on Facebook, I went no further.

It was a refreshing change to hear a talk about a book with a positive attitude to China's political aims. It was later that I made the second mistake - mentioning my own book and blethering on about stereotypes in US films, such as the early Fu Man Chu, etc.

This morning I began to do what I should have done before. To my shame I found a list of the author's previous works on a website - including one called 'Fu Man Chu and the 'Yellow Peril': The Making of a Racist Myth'

So I'd been telling her something I'd read in her book, probably giving the impression it was my own idea. Even worse - not only did I find it in the bibliography of my own book this morning, it was even quoted in the text! No wonder she looked a bit strained when I asked for her signature on my way out.

It took me a while to find an email address to send an explanation and apology. Well, at least the book itself had made an impression on my failing memory - one of the more enjoyable reads among the weighty tomes.

Maybe in future I should save my breath to cool my porridge. In other words, apart from eating and drinking, just keep my trap shut.
Jenny Clegg's China's Global Strategy: Towards a Multipolar World :http://us.macmillan.com/chinasglobalstrategy

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Council Speak

'If only 46% of the homes at the development are 'affordable', what's the point of building the others?' I'd been dying to ask that question for a while, and now was my chance.

We were in Lewisham Shopping Centre, viewing screens with 'architects' impressions' of the new Loampit Vale development - houses, shops and a leisure centre.

I was laughing at R's suggestion that the non-affordable homes were meant for squatters, when the developer's head appeared from behind a partition. I listened while a young woman told him it was a 'crap scheme' because the new swimming pool would be smaller than the one it replaces. Then I put the question.

'No, no! ' He laughed at my literal-mindedness and poor grasp of council-speak. 'Affordable' doesn't mean that. It's the recognised term for 'social housing''.

'Social housing. Do you mean council houses?'

He winced again at my obsolete terminology. 'Housing Associations.'

'But how will the poorer people be separated from the people in the 'unaffordable' houses? Will there be fences, or will they be on different side of the street?'

'Oh, no, madam. The properities will look the same. We call it 'Blind Tenure'.

Blind tenure. I could hardly believe it. It's worse than 'affordable housing'. 'Blind' must mean 'barely noticeable difference in wealth' - even if some are commuting to banks on Canary Wharf via the nearby DLR, and some (46%) are a lot less well off, perhaps unemployed.

I suppose it's an improvement on the current separation of private and council estates. I wonder if they are still called that. New terms in the brochure are : 'pocket park'.'grey water recycling' and PTAL (Public Transport Accessibility Level)

I've thought how to defuse social tensions , too. With BMWs parked next to clapped out old bangers in the driveways, they could call it 'Vehicular Variation'. Or even 'Blind Driving'.

Blind tenure, etc:

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Friday Late at the V&A

Somebody once told me the best time to visit London galleries is Friday afternoon, because the usual clientele go off to country houses.

So it was a surprise to see visitors swelling an already crowded V&A as we left at 6.30pm. It seemed a party was just getting started. In the entance hall, popular music of the forties was playing on a gramophone. Women drifted about in frocks, hats and red lipstick. A Fred Astaire/Judy Garland film was showing on a twenty foot screen.

It had been a day of false starts and revised plans when we'd intended to see 'Genova'at the Chelsea Cineworld. Then we had to go back because I'd forgotten to turn on the cooker. No chance of making the film start time, so the V&A instead, even though I'd recently misplaced my ticket.

Negotiations for a temporary ticket took time, then we had trouble finding the cafe - the map didn't make clear that you couldn't enter from the courtyard. There was a snaking queue from the drinks counter where half a dozen young people in uniforms served in a languid fashion. They didn't seem to have got to grips with the coffee machine so I read my book while R ordered a cappuccino and an orange that cost 75p.

There was plenty to keep me amused, though. A young man in an apron was telling an exasperated American that no, late opening for the museum didn't mean extended hours for the the kitchen. A stooped old man in a black cloak and a knapsack, supported between ski poles, was asked by a waitress if he wanted his 'usual tea and lemon cake'. Cloaks and little multi-coloured bumfreezer jackets with matching hats were very popular.

We'd have no time for the exhibitions, but I'd heard good reports of the newy opened Performance Galleries, which was free.

Reaching them was complicated - up flights of stairs and through a long room full of marble statues where a tour guide was giving a talk in German. Then another long room full of silver and stained glass, maybe not in that order, but we couldn't linger.

The Performance Gallery was well worth the trek. A haven of calm after the crowds, it included cases with dozens of costumes: Mick Jagger's impossibly narrow jump-suit, Margot Fonteyns' Swan Lake tutu, Ko-Ko's enormous outfit for the D'Oyly Carte 'Mikado' and Madam Arkadi's jewelled velvet gown. There was a display of model stage-sets and videoed highlights of recent West End productions, posters, programmes and photos.

Our return to the entrance led us through a gallery full of jewellery in a room with glass winding stair-cases and then through the museum shop. Here padded silk jackets and exquisitely embroidered coats seemed as theatrical as those in the rooms upstairs.

As we left I picked up a postcard about a whole series of Friday evening entertainment linked to current exhibitions. Customers are invited to 'chill out with a glass of wine'. I'll be back, but with oranges at 75p, it'll probably be with flask and butties to consume on a bench in the courtyard.

Fridays at the V&A http://www.vam.ac.uk/activ_events/events/friday_evenings/friday_late/

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Rare Sighting

When I raised the blind, I could hardly believe my eyes. Surely, the specimen before me must be one of the common kind, widely regarded as a pest.

The resemblance to the everyday variety, though, was superficial. Standing out against the grey trees and pavements, identifiable because of its size and colour, it was a fine example of a threatened species.

It wsn't the predominant white plumage that distinguished it, so much as the side marking and the well-define Crest. Well - 'Dairy Crest' to quote the logo in full.

For what I'd spotted was a beatifully marked milk float! I'd assumed they were extinct - this far into London, anyway. I wondered if the offspring wore green, red or gold caps, like the old days.

Sadly, when I googled, and put my post code in the website search box, the computer said no; my district wasn't covered.

I might have guessed - it was a vagrant, drifted off course. Never mind. I've left my email address for future contact, in case they ever do recover and breed in sufficient numbers to re-establish hereabouts.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dancing at Lughnasa

Last night's energetic production of Brian Friel's 'Dancing at Lughnasa' at the Old Vic must be one of the best I've seen.

I can't imagine a better staging , the set consisting of an ancient cast iron cooking range, a kitchen table and an over-sized radio, under a giant tree whose bare branches soar into the Old Vic's cathedral-like space. (brace yourself for the symbolism, inluding a dead rooster in the final scene) The recent conversion to in-the-round seating is a great success - much better than when you were hardly within ear-shot, let alone sight, of the action if you were in the cheap seats.

Set in in rural Ireland in 1936, on the cusp of change, it's a portrait of five unmarried sisters, narrated in retrospect by the grown-up illegitimate son of the youngest. The action takes place over three weeks of the annual harvest festival, called Lughnasa. Rooted in a pagan tradition that has been all but eradicated by Christianity, the idea of dancing at Lughnasa is the dramatic equivalent of Chekhov's sisters' yearning for Moscow, ie it ain't gonna happen. By the end of the play the Welsh wastrel who fathered the love-child is off to fight with the International Brigade in Spain, the eldest sister has lost her school-teaching job and a local factory supercedes the hand-knitting that contributed to the household budget.

The strong ensemble acting reveals the mutual support and undertanding between the sisters. At the same time they are memorable as individuals. Niamh Cusack stands out as the determinedly-cheerful Maggie, reciting riddles, singing snatches of thirties radio tunes or leading her sisters in a manic dance around, and over, the kitchen table. Michelle Fairley as Kate strives to keep up the family standing in the small community, constantly threatened by the twin evils of intrusion and isolation.

Apart from the failed- salesman wastrel and the narrator, the other male role is that of Father Jack, an uncle sent back in disgrace from his mission in Uganda. His doomed attempts to reintegrate echo the loss-of-language theme explored in Friel's 'Translations'. Perhaps a tad robust for someone soon to die, his gentle confusion evokes sympathy for a key character. This is a subtle and complex play whose themes, embracing the effects of change and the meaning of religious rites, are held together by the playwright's marvellous command of language.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Bit of a Mish-mash

A genre that embraces 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'The Ladies' Number One Detectve Agency' offers something for every taste. Getting to know some new varieties is one reason I go to my local library's crime reading group .

Unfortunately, the book up for discussion at last month was a bit of a mish-mash - J. D. Robb's 'Naked in Death'.

The title was pretty accurate - a serial killer in America is bumping off prostitutes after removing their clothes.

Trouble is, the victims aren't the only ones getting their kit off. Police detective Eve Dallas gets naked, too, when she falls for smouldering sophisticate Roarke. So far so Joan Collins. Some, me included, might suspect she's letting her hormones get the better of her and doubt her credentials for getting the job done. Especially when he's a prime suspect.

While some members liked the steamy sex in this police procedural, others thought it slowed down the plot. Is it a crime thriller or a romance?

If that's not enough, there's a futuristic twist - the story's set in the in the year 2058, an aspect that's signalled on page 3 when the shower and the toaster respond to voice commands, more James Bond than Asimov. But the science-fiction aspect seems mainly a device to provide wealthy Roarke with a room full of state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. The side-benefit for Eve is she can can keep an eye on her possibly bent superiors.

Prostitutes, renamed 'Licenced Companions, are legalised and paying taxes. Nothing so strange in that, perhaps, but the killer's 'gimmick' is to shoot them with outdated weapons - guns. It means he has access to a collection of vintage collectors' items. Hence Roarke, a gun coonnoisseur with no alibi, is in the frame. As is Eve's taste. Call me a namby pamby pacifist, but a hero who's also a gun-fetishist, even if he didn't remind me of Batman, is a real turn-off.

Only one member of the crime reading group felt intrigued enough to read the next book in the series, which she felt gave much more space to the plot and less to the passionate pair, although the relationship between Eve and Roarke continues. With romance in the background, the formula would work better for me. 'Naked in Death' was an uncomfortable and distracting mixture .

Friday, March 20, 2009

Van Dyck at Tate Britain

For all the marvellous brushwork, there's something quite repellent about these seventeenth century aristocrats and courtly hangers-ons on display at the Tate. The reason lies not so much in the expensive clothes as the body language: the stuck-out elbows and the knowing looks that express both pride and, by implication, a vague disdain for the onlooker.

The catalogue tells us that this half-turned-away pose, invented by Van Dyck, was much imitated by his contemporaries as well as by later artists. Considered an improvement on the stiff full-frontals of the Elizabethan era, to my mind it merely reinforces the expression of aloofness.

Van Dyck painted wealthy courtiers at a time when upper-class clothes were flamboyantly theatrical. He was, as excellent audio guide discloses, a genius at depicting 'flesh and fabrics'. His habit of consorting with royalty gave him plenty of opportunity to play to his strengths. He spent a few months in England in 1620-21, getting to know potential customers and gathering commissions, before leaving for Italy. He returned in 1632 , was given a knighthood and appointed by Charles I as court painter. A big house and appropriate income went with the position.
As he was the son of a Flemish silk merchant, it's not surprising that there are yards and yards of the highly-cloured shiny stuff on display, set off by Flemish lace cuffs and collars, satin-lined sleeves and soft leather boots. Another innovation ascribed to Van Dyck was the double portrait, not of married couples but of friends, usually male. One of the fanciest canvases shows a pair of cavaliers, typical of the young earls and dukes who formed factions or early gangs, based on shared hobbies and enthusiasms.

The famous painting of Charles I on horseback has a wall to itself, the riding-teacher standing by to hold his hat and gaze with upturned eyes. Van Dyck charged wives and mistresses of courtiers £60 for a full length portrait, although parts of the canvas must have been completed by apprentices. Art experts have calculated that the painter couldn't have been solely responsible for his studio's enormous output over the eight years of his life that remained after his return.

There's no evidence here that Van Dyck even noticed England had any poor people. The only servant depicted is a young Indian boy, dressed as smartly as any liveried flunkey and pointing out a parrot in a tree to a pioneer expat Englishman.

Van Dyck's strength as a painter was, as the audio guide has it, 'flesh and fabrics' and there's any amount of dress material here to prove it, not to mention rosy complexions and curled locks. There's even a case with an example of a costume lent by the V&A and a facsimile of Van Dyck's will. The curators make a case for Van Dyck's influential role in the history of portrait-painting, an argument supported by examples of from earlier as well as later times. His work was not intended for the common gaze, which was perhaps just as well. Many of the individuals shown in all their finery were killed fighting on the royalist side in the civil war or, like the king, were executed. After an hour or so of exposure to their supercilious glances, that particular bit of news, conveyed by the audio-guide, didn't upset me.

Van Dyck Exhibition:http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/vandyck/default.shtm

Thursday, March 19, 2009


This thriller, by American Garner McKay, recalled those Jacobean dramas I studied when I was at Goldsmiths: 'The White Devil', 'The Duchess of Malfi' and 'The Revenger's Tragedy. Horrors piled on horrors as unspeakable acts of violence vied to turn the audience into gibbering wrecks. They usually involved actors like Alan Howard and Helen Mirren, taking their clothes off and shouting a lot.

The superb set for 'Toyer' at the tiny Arts Theatre is brutish-modern, establishing an unsettling mood from the start. It looks like an executive's office - the sharp-angles of black chrome-framed furniture framed by smokey walls, behind which spot-lit figures appear without warning.

LA psychiatrist Maude, played by angular Alice Krige, enters dressed for tennis, because this is her home, but what follows is no thirties house-party comedy, although it sets the ironic tone . Her answer phone relays a message from a colleague, concerned about her state of mind - they've just examined the twelfth victim of a stalker who drugs, rapes and then mutilates his victims. Shortly after this, a young man raps on the glass. It's Peter, played by boyishly charming Al Weaver, a security guard who helped start her car after the tennis match. He wants to use the phone.

'Maude, I love that name', he says, the prelude to many unctuously insincere and/or ambiguous remarks. Her psychopathology training didn't include Tennyson, so she won't get the allusion, but she can't have had that particular compliment paid so often. For Peter, it's the first of many verbal ambiguities that keep the atmosphere electric.

Over the next hour and a half the audience empathise with the strung-out Maude whilst wondering how she can be so naive. Despite assuring Peters she's 'old enough be your mother', she has the toned body of Madonna, and the reflexes of a kick-boxer. Which is just as well

I won't give the game away about the outcome of what turns into a battle of wills and the ability to deceive in this sophisticated yet tacky drama. As for whether Maude falls for his charms, all I'll say is prepare yourself to look away when they move into the bedroom - those walls are like the ones they have in police station interview rooms. The denouement is as chilling and as not-quite-credible as what has gone before

All it lacked was the slow-motion 'dumb play' featured in Jacobean drama, and the strobe lighting beloved of seventies directors to transport me back in time. As I remember, we students learned that the taste for graphic horror and sex in the Jacobean era reflected a sick society. So perhaps feeling slightly queasy when I came out is a good sign.


Tennyson's poem on record (click on the Webster recording to the left of the bearded poet):

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Writers Café

They say London's a city where everybody comes from somewhere else. Not so surprising then, that the Writers Café I attended on Monday had international flavour.

As regular readers of this blog will know - those kind enough to heed my reminders - for some time I've been trying to write fiction. I've been on courses, read books and joined a couple of local group for feedback and advice. I've written quite a few stories, the first draft of one novel and an outline for another.

It made a change to attend a group where I didn't know anybody, and the pub had a calm atmosphere, in contrast to The Counting House on Cornhill. The Shooting Star is a fairly modest Fuller's pub off Bishopsgate, in the quaintly named Catherine Wheel Alley.

I met a friendly Russian woman ordering a drink at the bar. The upstairs room was a bit forbidding at first, with its long boardroom-style table, but the dozen or so writers, mainly in their twenties and thirties seemed comfortable and supportive to the people who'd requested twenty-minute reading slots.

It's a great treat to be read to, recalling childhood pleasure. There was a variety of themes and styles: a low-key tale of a man whose son and family move abroad was followed by one about a young woman's fantasies in her overheated apartment;next an engaging portrait of a boy doing his homework while his parents wrangle in the next room; finally two poems: one enigmatic about a seashell and hidden passion, one welcoming a friend's newborn daughter. Readers were English, American and Australian.

I didn't linger for drinks afterwards, but the Russian lady gave me a story about an elderly exile who reminisces about her childhood while walking a troublesome dog. It was excellent entertainment for the journey home.

I think I should follow Fagin's advice: 'Make them your models, my dear!'

The Shooting Star: http://www.viewlondon.co.uk/pubsandbars/the-shooting-star-info-13392.html

Saturday, March 14, 2009

More Gin and Vice

It was back to Cornhill on Friday, this time after dark, for a further dose of 'Gin and Vice' a talk by Rob Taylor of The Benjamin Franklin House.

Hogarth's famous drawing 'Gin Lane' depicts eighteenth century London, when the between rich and poor was at its most extreme and a servant could be beaten to death with impunity. Rob Taylor is an expert on such Georgian topics as the price of high class courtesans and tavern prostitutes and the ingredients of the gin-based cocktail known as 'poor man's punch'.

When friend Joanna read my January 30th blog of the talk she knew her fellow trainee Westminster Guides would be keen to hear it so she asked Rob to speak to an invited group at The Counting House pub, on Cornhill.

Caroline Rance, who belongs to the same online writers group as me, said it sounded just her kind of thing. Her book Kill-Grief will be out on April 16th. The title is a good way of describing the role of gin in the lives of the poor at that time. As Caroline says, it was their only anaesthetic against the many hardships they were forced to endure.

The Counting House plays a similar role in the lives of bankers and city men. The noise that hit us when we walked in, you'd never know there was a credit crunch. As last-minute arrivals there was no chance for R and I to get a drink until the interval but were lucky to get a couple of spare seats in the front row in the room reserved for the talk.

Apart from Rob I recognised a few familiar faces. One of them was Linda Stratmann, a real-life-crime writer I'd last seen at a talk about forensics for authors. She's nearly finished a first draft of a book which picks out a murder in each of all the different London boroughs and she generously advised me on a novel I'm writing myself.

After our exposure to the cheap vices of Georgian times we blinked when the barman charged £7.50 for a pint of Grolsch and a pint of Guinness. It made me almost nostalgic for the good old days of 'poor man's punch'.

The Counting House: http://www.viewlondon.co.uk/pubsandbars/counting-house-review-7225.html

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stone Poetry

'Due to a signal failure at Liverpool Street, there are severe delays on the Central Line. Passengers are advised to seek an alternative route...'

I'm immediately into the London commuters' default mode: one third alert to further announcements, one third calculating alternatives, one third drawing on reserves of patience and fortitude. You'd go nuts otherwise.

Soon, having detrained at Bank, I'm waiting for a 25 bus in Cornhill and taking in the scenery: poetry in grey stone, soaring over the hubbub of office workers hurrying into Pret-a-Manger. Coleridge spent a lot of time figuring how to get here - not to Cornhill, of course but to this state of heightened perception. He should have tried London Transport.

I'm not really commuting, thank goodness. I'm on my way to a lecture on music and film near Chancery Lane. It starts at 1pm and it's already 12.30pm. Bank station is very confusing.

The third Lord Burlington spent a fortune 'Palladianising' his main residence after the Grand Tour, more or less de rigeur for eighteenth century aristocrats. He wasn't to know that a few centuries later anyone could walk into the courtyard off Piccadilly and admire the facade it it cost him hundred of thousands to construct. Not to mention the gilded ceilings with their scenes from the classics. Anyone can go in for free. It's the same story all over London.

Thoughts about the effects of grand architecture were prompted by a talk at the Royal Academy last week, as well as a chapter on statues in a book by a Chinese artist visiting London in the 1930s.

As I admire the Bank of England' decorated pediment and the three statues I can see from the bus stop, I recall a baritone I sometimes hear intoning on Radio 4 :

'I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.'

Don't get me wrong, I'm as fond of a nice tree as the next person, but for inspiration I prefer something hand-crafted in grey stone, that doesn't shed its leaves every Winter.

Joyce Kilmer's Tree Poem:http://www.bartleby.com/104/119.html

The Chinese traveller in London: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiang_Yee

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Blood Test

'No, my dear, you've got it all wrong. We're no longer a drop-in centre.'

The receptionist's smart blonde bob and air of efficiency was in keeping with smart new clinic at New Cross. That wasn't the point, though.

'But it says here...' I showed her my doctor's form with its list of options.

'Ah, yes, that's an old form. You'll have to let the practice know.'

As I'd had the form a few weeks I didn't say much, in case I got into trouble.

Luckily there was a cancellation for next day at 8.25am. After she reassured me my Freedom pass would get me through the New Cross Station barrier at that time of the morning - it did - I decided to go for it. Plenty of time to return home before my Chinese class and another night off the booze wouldn't do me any harm. It was a 'fasting' test.

The ambience was a big improvement on the dingy old place near New Cross Gate, which inspired dread of a death sentence.

At Waldron the interior was all was space and light, with automatic sliding doors and an enormous mural inside depicting the borough's notable architecture. I recognised Deptford Town Hall and the spire of a Hawksmoor church bathed in light emanating from the clouds. The various departments leading off corridors around the atrium were called 'suites'.

Next morning I reported at Suite 9, the blood test centre on the second floor. It was almost deserted, the pale floors gleaming.

'Just sit there and the receptionist will be out shortly', said a passing assistant behind the counter, pointing to a line of empty chairs. So I settled to wait. Even the magazines were shiny and new. I was soon thanking the powers that be I didn't have the problems aired in 'Take a Break'.

Sure enough, as more people arrived names were called by a man in a white coat carrying a sheaf of forms. It took me a while to realise I still had my form, and I approached the counter again. 'Oh, why didn't you come to the desk when you first arrived?'

The nurse who took the blood said the same thing, only rather more sternly. Still, it was quick and painless and all was shiny and new in the consulting room, where two other gents were being seen to.

I asked how soon the results would get back to the doctor. 'Five Days!'

'Oh, so quick!' I complimented her. My test was just routine, but I thought of a cousin, younger than me, who died of lung cancer while her test results were still being processed.

The nurse crossed the room and began tapping away at her computer. I hung about until one of the male attendants, seeing me, asked her if I should wait.

'Oh, I didn't see you were still there ' She carried on typing.

It seems that like Lennox in 'Macbeth' I should not have waited on the order of my going.

So, what with my out of date form, being given wrong instructions and not recognising when I'd been dismissed , I enjoyed my visit to the Waldron. It was like being in a Kafka novel.

The new building is impressive. Now all they need is to improve communications.

Waldron Health Centre: http://www.londononline.co.uk/profiles/180052/

Monday, March 09, 2009

Gun Crazy

By request, R's birthday treat was a trip to the BFI to see this 1949 made B/W film, considered a classic of the film noir genre, although made on a B-movie budget. Afterwards, he said, we'd go to the Hole in the Wall pub near Waterloo station.

We almost turned back after getting drenched in a freezing sleet shower. We had to take a replacement bus instead of the train followed by a cold wait at New Cross on the draughty middle platform.

NFT3 was full and no wonder- it was a gem of a film, a kind of precursor of 'Bonnie and Clyde' in the depiction of young lovers living on the proceeds of bank raids, but with some special twists in the way of plot and direction.

John Dall was very watchable as a well-meaning young man who is obsessed with guns but unwilling to shoot people. He falls for Peggy Cummins, a sharpshooter in a fairground show. In the tradition of film noir dames, she's not so scrupulous. It's also typical that she wants the kind of lifestyle that honest work won't bring. It all goes excitingly downhill to the final scene where the doomed pair are cornered in a foggy marsh.

Direction, acting and atmosphere were all very good, especially in the bank robbery scene, shot from the back of a car in which the leads are travelling, in one four-minute take.

An extra surprise treat was Peggy Cummins making a personal appearance, answering questions before the start of the film. She looked smart in black pants and a red jacket, with perfectly coiffed silver hair. It was odd to see the sweet 80-year-old lady being helped into her cinema seat one minute and soon after appearing onscreen as the irresistible femme fatale.

As we left, we saw her getting into a chauffeured car parked outside the cinema. The rain had stopped but we swerved the Hole in the Wall. As our clothes were still damp, it seemed wiser to take a rain-check.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Friendly Reviewers

Just before my holiday I agreed to write a short story review. Having missed my first choice of books I wasn't bothered which of the others I was offered. I'm free to report as I find and the only rule is I shouldn't know the author.

It's easy to imagine writers tempted to indulge in mutual back-scratching.

This letter condemning some over-generous theatre critics makes a similar point. Not having seen the 'glowing reviews', I was surprised to read that 'Plague Over England' was heaped with praise. I wouldn't go so far as to call it 'truly terrible' play. But like the writer, I've seen enough plays to know a bad one, and for all its worthy aims and thorough research, Nicholas de Jongh's piece had serious flaws. Episodic, and with too many minor characters it lacked suspense.

Its only human to take a kindly view of a play written by a friend and it's hard to see how this play could have been reviewed by a stranger to the well-known Evening Standard critic. However, I agree that reviewers have an obligation to be objective, especially when they could benefit, as the writer suggests, from favours returned. I'm not quite sure how, because it isn't made clear in the letter.

I don't review plays anymore, but when I did I knew about of time and effort, not to mention talent, involved in bringing a work to performance. It's rare to condemn a play outright, because there's nearly always some aspect that's well done. With such a wide range of things to consider - acting, set, lighting, costumes, etc, it's almost impossible to find nothing to praise. It seems to me the critic risks a loss of credibility with his readers, though, if he fails to point out serious flaws in the writing.

For me, 'Plague over England' was a timely reminder of how attitudes change and how easy it was, and is, for the establishment to demonise particular groups. I'm reminded of the recent case Hollywood delegates to Iraq to appologise for all the middle-east villains cropping up in recently. (I suppose they'll all have to be European, now)

I'm even more convinced, though, that the part of John Geilgud was severely underwritten. I read in 'Peter Hall's Diaries' that in 1970 Michael Feast had an opportunity to observe the original - he played Ariel to Gielgud's Prospero in a version of 'The Tempest' directed by Hall. I even found myself thinking of ways the character could have been shown to be very well-known and admired -a scene with fans at the stage-door, for instance, or a TV interview before his arrest for 'importuning'. That's a sure sign that a play's inadequate - when you can think how it could be improved.