Thursday, 31 December 2015

Lee Hazlewood

It’s a cliche but they say you should never meet your heroes. And I never did meet my hero Lee Hazlewood: I’ve met a few other heroes though and more often than not wished I hadn’t.

But Wyndham Wallace did meet his hero Lee, and that meeting turned into an extraordinary eight-year friendship at the end of Lee’s life. A friendship that saw Wyndham flying backwards and forwards to Lee’s home in the US, putting on solo shows with Lee in London (two of which I had the pleasure of attending), and ultimately working as Lee’s UK publicist and manager.

In his book Lee, Myself and I Wyndham carefully chronicles those eight years with the respect and devotion that only a true fan and admirer of Lee’s work could. He also shows Lee warts and all for the grumpy old sod that he could be; the difficult old curmudgeon; the high maintenance drama queen. Balanced with this is a touching story of an unlikely friendship with this legendary songwriter and raconteur.


My own hero worship of Lee Hazlewood spans back to around 1990, when I was a 12-year-old girl at our holiday home on a remote and antiquated tiny Greek island. My parents had built the house only a few years before and were slowly shipping over to Greece bits and pieces to furnish our second home. And among the ancient Austrian wall-hangings of hedgehogs and the homemade flat-pack shelves was a dilapidated old boxed record player that probably originated itself from the 1960s or 1970s.

To play on the record player my mum had brought along the bulk of her slim record collection. She will be the first to admit she was never a massive music fan, she liked the Beatles and guitar pop, as well as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Nana Mouskouri. There was also a Zorba The Greek LP in there (of course). My brother Dan and I had brought along a few of our own LPs to play, some 1990 classics such as Martika and Kim Wilde. I remember Toy Soldiers being played an indecent amount. (Imagine that, kids - when you used to bring vinyl LPs to play on holiday rather than your tiny iPods.)

When we tired of Toy Soldiers and You Came, we started rifling through the funny old LPs from the 1960s and 1970s that were in our mum’s moth-earned collection. One of these was a battered LP with a brown background and two faces in close-up - one of a heavily moustachioed man and the other a pretty blonde young woman. It looked funny. It looked so unlike the records we liked. So we put it on. It was, of course, Nancy and Lee by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. A record my mum had bought in 1968 from Harrods (the price sticker was still on the corner) during her lunch break when she worked for an interior designer just behind the Brompton Road, London.

So we played Nancy and Lee, and we played it over and over again, compulsively so for the remaining weeks we were on this tiny Greek island. In hindsight this funny, old-fashioned island (where water was delivered to the houses just once a week, and where electricity had not been connected until 1988, and where in 2015 we still have neither the internet nor a phone line) seems the perfect place to enjoy the psychedelic country pop of Nancy and Lee.

I can’t speak for my slightly-older brother, but the sauciness and double entendres embedded in songs like Some Velvet Morning, Sand and Ladybird were lost on me. But I loved the songs so much that even though the whole LP in entirety is only about 35 minutes long, I played it over and over again on this battered old record player, never tiring of it. We played it loud, we sang along, we loved it. Really loved it.

When we packed up to come back to England and school, Nancy and Lee made its way into my suitcase alongside Kim Wilde and Martika (who had been remarkably quiet for the past few weeks) and flew back into the UK where it was opened up again in my Somerset bedroom and placed on my own crappy record player. Back in the UK, the record sounded very different. It had lost some of its freshness and silliness that had made it so much fun in the heat and sun of our ancient Greek island. And it ended up tucked in with my other records, which in turn made their way back onto the turntable. Maybe it had just been a holiday fling.

But over the next year or two I never forgot this funny record of my mum’s that was among my chart LPs. And then one day, on a mixtape that a friend of another brother’s had made for him, there were some solo songs by this guy Lee Hazlewood. I liked them… I liked them a lot. So I dug Nancy and Lee out again and listened to it afresh, and I fell in love with it all over again.


In the years that followed, aged about 15-20, I would duck in and out of second hand record shops and music markets looking for more old LPs by Nancy and Lee, either together or individually. I befriended the old man who ran the indoor market near the old cinema in town, he had half a building full of ancient records, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, and he knew what I was on the lookout for because I’d go in there often enough to ask him if he had any Nancy or Lee records. 

One day when I went in there, I must have been about 17, he told me he had something for me… it was a record I’d never heard of but it made my heart light up. A grey LP with a black and white photo of Nancy and Lee together on, called Did You Ever? I bought it at once and rushed home to play it. I still remember now, it was a sunny day, I had my bedroom windows open, and I sat on the edge of my bed listening to this amazing new (to me) record. It was magical. It seemed more sophisticated and grown-up than Nancy and Lee, but maybe that was because I was no longer 12. 

All summer I played Did You Ever? over and over again. Thanks to my friend at the indoor market, copies of some of Lee’s very old solo albums started to come my way as well, and while at Rough Trade in London I snapped up some of Nancy’s solo albums that Lee had worked on with her… I was gathering quite a collection.

This was all before the internet, when it was very hard to find out information about Lee Hazlewood that wasn’t on the back of record sleeves… and there wasn’t much of that. None of my friends were interested in this music, so there was nobody to talk about it with. That didn’t bother me, I was used to my friends thinking of music tastes were ‘weird’. In time, some of Lee’s older hard-to-find solo records were reissued and I ordered them up in the record shop I then worked in.

By the time I moved to London in 2000, I had quite a collection of Lee’s records but still knew very little about him. But on the back of the reissues there were a few articles in the Observer and music magazines that hinted at his 2002 book The Pope’s Daughter (about his friendship with Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy) - I ordered it on Amazon and waited about three months, seriously, for it to be shipped over from the US. (By the way, the book was awful!)

I also heard about a live show he was doing at the Royal Festival Hall… I couldn’t believe it and went online to book tickets. They were almost all gone as I only heard about it a week or so before the event. But there were a few tickets left up in the gods… Nobody I knew would want to come with me, tickets weren’t cheap, but I couldn’t bear to miss out.

Seeing Lee perform live on stage was amazing, and that 2002 show remains in my top five all-time greatest gigs ever. I left the Festival Hall and walked back to the tube at Waterloo feeling like I’d seen something truly special and unforgettable. In 2004, I saw Lee again at Festival Hall - we had better seats in the stalls this time, and although it was never going to be as magical as the first show it was still spellbinding. To add to the magic, a few months later I saw Nancy Sinatra perform on the same stage as part of Morrissey’s Meltdown. Just outstanding.

When I read in 2007, aged almost 30, that Lee Hazlewood had passed away I felt truly saddened, although I had known he was very ill. I was sitting in a cafe in Westminster having my lunch when I read it in a magazine. I instantly lost my appetite and felt tears pricking the corners of my eyes. It seemed ridiculous. I’d never met the guy, I didn’t know him, but I’d loved his music for so long and felt like I’d grown up listening to it. Lee felt like a big part of my life. For almost 20 years I’d hunted his records out in an era when rare music wasn’t as freely available as it is now, and I’d treasured each and every one. The only other death of a stranger that had affected me so much was the suicide of singer Billy Mackenzie in 1997, which seemed like such a personal loss when, again, I didn’t know the guy, I just loved his music.

So reading Lee, Myself and I now by Wyndham Wallace, when Wyndham is writing about the period up to Lee’s death, the shows I went to see (that Wyndham orchestrated), the tribute album Total Lee that I bought and loved in 2002 (that Wyndham was involved with)... it all struck a chord. It’s a delicious book and a tender book. I cried at the end, reading Wyndham’s speech at Lee’s memorial service. And now I’m writing this, listening to my mum’s crackly old 1968 LP of Nancy and Lee. Which, by the way, is only worth listening to on vinyl. I’ve tried a digital version and it sounds cold and soulless. Stick to vinyl, folks, it’s the future.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

'The Naked Guide To Bristol'

Everyone should read a guide book about the city or town in which they live. Don't think you know all there is to know, because there are guaranteed to be lots of amazing secrets and pockets of places that were previously a mystery to you. 

The Naked Guide to Bristol is an excellent example of what a good guide book needs to be, and so it should be since it is written and produced by a team of writers who genuinely do live in the city they are writing about (not like one or two other will-remain-nameless guide book series I have heard talk of...). 

There is no pandering to hipster pretensions, no filibustering or padding... instead what you get in Tangent Books' The Naked Guide to Bristol is a funny, wry and insightful poke around the workings of one of Britain's finest cities. Now in it's fifth edition (published 2015), the book remains bang up to date in terms of stuff like restaurants, pubs and cafes. 

But it is the history and cultural backgrounds to the various areas of Bristol that this book really excels at. Plus recommendations for the best places to grab a fry-up, coffee or pint in each district. In addition, plenty of space is devoted to Bristol's strong history of music and graffiti (although I felt Sarah Records were owed more than a passing picture caption for their eight years of service to the city, but there's hopefully time to address that in the sixth edition of this book). 

Hotels don't really get a look in in The Naked Guide to Bristol, but in an age where everyone books their accommodation via the internet there probably isn't much call for guide books to cover hotels anymore. 

In short, whether you live in Bristol or are planning a visit, The Naked Guide to Bristol is a refreshing and comprehensive, independent take on this fine city. I hope they expand the series to other cities in the South West. 

'Toast On Toast' by Steven Toast


Toast of London is one of the finest delights on Channel 4's comedy schedule. If you've not seen it yet, you're in luck because there are three seasons for you to catch up on and they're all available on 4OD

Steven Toast is Matt Berry's best creation to date, and considering he's been in everything from The IT Crowd to Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and Snuff Box, that's really saying something. 

Toast has been around since 2012 and follows the woefully outdated (and shit) thespian Steven Toast as he attempts to maintain some semblance of a life as a working actor. He's brilliantly full of himself, completely self-absorbed, disgustingly selfish and impressively untalented. 

Toast lives in squalor with his friend, the permanently pyjama-ed actor Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst); has sex with his sworn enemy Ray Purchase's wife (Tracy-Ann Oberman); and is constantly sent to ridiculous jobs by his useless agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan). Best of all, he regularly records voiceovers for hipster idiots Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif) and Danny Bear (Tim Downie). Please watch it. Toast is so good that guest stars in the current series include Jon Hamm, Brian Blessed and, err, Lorraine Kelly.

So it was only a matter of time before co-scriptwriters Matt Berry and Arthur Mathews put together a Toast book, and Toast On Toast is part-memoir, part-manual for aspiring thespians who want to follow in Toast's footsteps. It's brilliant. Not only for the amazing names of every single person who cracks a mention, but also for the brilliant send-ups of so many actors' worst nightmares. 

Steven Toast's deluded sense of himself is pitched perfectly. And to cap it all off there is a brilliant series of posters at the back of the book for plays that he has appeared in, such as 'De Oglee Dlecker!' by Flannery O'Mathews (co-starring Paul Hewson, Liam Galway and Noel Early... see what they did there?). 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

'Greengates' by RC Sherriff


Shame on me. For Greengates is the third book republished by the wonderful Persephone Books, yet it is the first of his books that I've read. And yes, you did read that right. 'His books' - for with Robert Cedric Sherriff, Persephone has broken with its usual custom of reprinting forgotten books by wonderful women writers. 

Greengates is a deceptively simple book. At face value it is an enormously readable novel about Tom Baldwin who retires from his job with an insurance company and settles into his suburban life (if you can call London's Edgware Road, W2, just around the corner from Marble Arch, surburbia!) with his kindly wife Edith and their grumpy maid Ada. But a year of nothing quickly gives way to the fact that for both Tom and Edith, retirement doesn't bring the promised opportunity for creativity and freedom. Instead, retirement brings boredom and resentment to the couple. That is, until they decide to up sticks and move to the country (if you can call the fictional village of Welden Valley, which is a 30 minute train ride from Edgware Road, country!) and life becomes exciting again.

There is so much more to Greengates than that plot summary, though. It is a novel about time: not just for people but for England as well. The stories of the Baldwins' two houses - Grasmere and Greengates - represent the way time has moved on in the country before and after the First World War (Greengates was first published in 1936). Grasmere is a dark and steadfast old house, rooted in the past, where nothing has moved with the times. Greengates is brand new, fresh and full of promises for the future. The furniture within the two houses, the journeys between them, the people who surround them... all of these factors represent the passages of time, of attitudes in Englishness, of the British tradition of resistance to change.

RC Sherriff writes with such wonderful eloquence. He has fantastic turns of phrases that are at once very neat and precise, while also being beautifully descriptive and evocative. There is no shortage of detail or fascination in his writing, and all of this closely exacting text succeeds in recreating the small and closed world of the Baldwins and their narrow frame of reference.

It's hard to explain why a novel about a couple of retired folk buying a house should be so compelling to a woman in her mid-30s but Greengates truly is - last night I found myself staying up into the small hours reading 'just one more chapter' until I had finished the whole book. And I already have Greengates inked in as the perfect present for several people I know.

There are two more RC Sherriff books republished by Persephone, A Fortnight in September and The Hopkins Manuscript. I'm making it my business to hunt down copies of both at once!


Thursday, 10 December 2015

'Popkiss: The Life & Afterlife of Sarah Records' by Michael White


When Sarah Records, the purest of all the indie labels, folded in 1995 it broke the hearts of not only its most loyal fans all over the globe but also those of some of its bands - bands who would never have found such a sympathetic home for their unique and unfashionable music elsewhere in the world. 

It's astonishing it's taken someone so long to do this but now in Popkiss Michael White has produced a potted history of Sarah Records, complete with interviews with some of the key players (label founders Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, as well as band members from the Field Mice, Heavenly, Brighter and co). 

What surprised me most of all is the brevity of the book (250 pages of text, plus a colour photo insert) given the decades that have passed since the label closed, the easy accessibility of many of the acts, the wealth of artefacts dutifully saved by anorak-clad Sarah fans (such as me) that could have been shared with Michael for his research... just so much information to be gathered and shared.

Michael writes in a friendly but authoritative tone, his respect for Clare and Matt is evident, and his admiration for the bands he speaks to shines through. His style is easy to read (despite the daunting prospect of this being published by the serious sounding Bloomsbury Academic, it is not a dry book) and you will whizz through it in just a few gleeful sittings that will have you reaching for the 7" rack at regular intervals. 

But Popkiss also feels like a disappointment in many respects. There are so many bands who don't even get a mention except for in the discography, and a lot of the interviews are just printed verbatim - which feels a little lazy. As a writer myself, this is something I would only resort to if a) I was up against a tight deadline and had no bright ideas left, or b) the editor insisted on it and I was being paid to go against my better judgement. I don't think either are the case here for Michael and wonder why he did it - especially as it is not a consistent style throughout the book. 

More than anything, what is missing from Popkiss is Clare and Matt themselves. Yes, they were interviewed and their anecdotes pepper the book from time to time, but they feel very absent from this biography of their record label. Which is a huge oversight. Sarah Records WAS Clare and Matt. It was unique because of their singular vision, their potty way of doing things, their stubbornness, their politics, the fact they never faltered from their principles, the shoestring budget they operated on... 

What I wanted to know was more about the minutiae of their day-to-day lives, how the label got off the ground, the meetings they had with other people, stories from them about what it was really like, the decision-making process for choosing a band... And I see no reason why the book couldn't have followed a more clear chronological structure. Michael White has said before that he feels this would have been impossible but I'd beg to disagree. 

In short, I enjoyed Popkiss very much but it feels like only half of the story. And once you've read one detailed chapter about a band making a cheap demo and receiving shitty reviews from the papers, you don't really need to read several more almost identical chapters about other bands. 

I'd be interested to know if the editor of Popkiss at Bloomsbury Academic was a Sarah Records fan themselves, as it feels like they didn't know anything about this wonderful and unique little label. Otherwise they would surely have intervened to point out how much was missing and how much more needed to be done. 

I've been harsh in this review despite how much I enjoyed Popkiss because I felt so invested in Sarah Records, and had anticipated this book for more than a year... but it feels like there was so much more to be said that was left out. And I just can't think why that was. 


Thursday, 3 December 2015

'The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter'

Photo: Jack Offord
There’s something for everyone at Bristol Old Vic this Christmas, and while Sleeping Beauty works its magic in the main theatre upstairs, The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter has transported the downstairs Studio into a magical woodland world for younger theatre goers.

Produced by the reliably consistent Little Bulb Theatre Company, The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter takes us into the woods for the very final day of autumn as the animals prepare for the coming of winter and, squee, the much-heralded winter unicorn (no press pictures were available of this magical being, presumably because such a special creature cannot be captured by even the best of photographer’s lenses).

Dressed a little like Brownies, our three narrators are wardens of the woods: fairy creatures who keep an eye on the woodland happenings and make sure all the animals play nicely. There will be no fighting here (take note, fox and badger).

Photo: Jack Offord

In a softly woven woodland made of a thick carpet, fabric trees and archways, and wooden tree stumps, our cast (Clare Beresford, Dominic Conway and Miriam Gould) take on the roles of all the creatures, from rabbits who need to sing opera to earn their carrots, to a fox who cleverly disguises himself as a jazz musician (remember, you can never trust a fox so don’t give him your purse).

With plenty of songs, it’s fun to see them all ended with a rock’n’roll-esque jump by the trio. And the audience participation is all very gentle and inclusive - well done to the school teacher who was coaxed on stage to help with one bit of the play!

The hedgehogs are adorable, the fox costume clever, but the spider truly terrifying! Clearly the idea is to encourage children not to be scared of these eight-legged creatures… but alas it was too late for this writer, who has spent almost 40 years quaking at the sight of a hairy arachnid: so to be rather close to a human-sized spider and all of its eyes was absolutely terrifying. I’d like a badge for bravery please!


The Night That Autumn Turned To Winter is performed until January 10 with performances at a range of times. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

'Sleeping Beauty' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Steve Tanner
Maybe I’ve had my head buried in the cultural sand but I managed to miss the hoo-hah that for this year’s Christmas show the Bristol Old Vic was turning the world on its head by, gasp, casting a MAN as Sleeping Beauty and, shock, a WOMAN as the person who wakes him from his enforced slumber. Will nobody think of the children?!

I’ll remove my tongue from my cheek to say that when I sat down to watch Sally Cookson’s Sleeping Beauty, I managed to do so without knowing this twist of casting. And it didn’t really occur to me as being A Thing while I watched the play for quite some time because, y’know, I was too busy enjoying the show.

Apparently Conservative MP Peter Bone is outraged at this gender role reversal, which he likens to being a bad April Fool’s Joke. Such is Mr Bone’s ire that he’s managed to whip up a storm of headlines and controversy in the national newspapers… generating a wealth of publicity for the Bristol Old Vic that was presumably far outside their marketing budget anyway. So good on him. 

From the Telegraph website

The only thing that depresses me about Mr Bone’s upset is that he’s not alone. In a poll on the Telegraph website, 75% of respondents agreed that they wouldn’t want to watch a gender-flipped pantomime (why not?). And there were several quotes from upset parents (who don’t seem to have yet even seen Sleeping Beauty) saying that their daughters would be devastated as they would look forward to seeing a fairy tale princess in her big white dress. Seriously? Really? This depresses me more than anything. Come on, girls, it's time to put some trousers on and play in the mud!

But when it comes to a Sally Cookson production we should know by now to expect the unexpected. Her previous Christmas shows for Bristol Old Vic include the absolutely staggering Peter Pan and the so-popular-it-ran-for-two-years Swallows and Amazons, as well as the open-air spectacular Treasure Island. She’s a director celebrated for her creativity, imagination and lack of fear when it comes to pushing the boundaries.

Photo: Steve Tanner
So she adds her twist to Sleeping Beauty by melding together the titular fairy tale with the lesser known story The Leaves That Hung But Never Grew. The result is a little awkward, and given Cookson’s past triumphs feels a bit confused and disappointing. 

In the first half, we follow Prince Percy (David Emmings) who is cursed by wicked Sylvia (Stu Goodwin) to prick his finger before his 16th birthday and sleep until he is woken by a kiss: the classic story of Sleeping Beauty. Backed up by a wonderful chorus of fairy grannies, or wise old women as the programme calls them, Sleeping Beauty in the first half takes on the tone of a Greek tragedy merged with an enjoyably silly geriatric sitcom and it works wonderfully.

For the second half, we meet intrepid explorer Deilen (Kezrena James) who is on a quest to fix her broken heart by finding the leaves that hung but never grew. Her story intertwines with Percy’s and the two set off on a series of adventures together, but the melding of the stories is not quite as successful as it should have been. If it was not for the fantastic force of theatrical pantomime dame-dom from Stu Goodwin as the multi-faceted evil Sylvia, it would be hard to maintain a consistent thread between the two halves.

The key issue with this production of Sleeping Beauty is that is lacks a clear main character. It’s neither Percy nor Deilen, and it’s sadly not Sylvia either. Meaning the audience is left a little uncertain about who to root for and quite where we’re going. But thank goodness for Stu Goodwin - who created a pantomime villain so wicked and so wonderful that I hope she gets her own spin-off show on the telly.

Photo: Steve Tanner
The music, directed by Benji Bowers, was as fantastic as you would expect, with a live trio on the corner of the stage who opened each half of the evening with a medley of modern classics, such as Living’ On A Prayer merging with Like A Prayer. And the costumes created by Katie Sykes were also fabulous - especially for the chorus of wise old women who later regenerate as a flock of sheep. But again, the thread of almost all of the characters in the first half wearing golfing socks petered out by the second half, somewhat confirming the feeling that we were seeing two entirely different plays.

Sleeping Beauty is, of course, a very fun show from Sally Cookson and Bristol Old Vic, and it is sure to delight all the families who go to see it this Christmas. But in light of the excellence of Peter Pan and Swallows and Amazons, it’s just not quite up there for me as a new modern classic. But bravo for shaking up the tired old idea of just who a fairytale princess can be!


Sleeping Beauty is performed until January 17. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

'Maman, What Are We Called Now?' by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar

Persephone Book No 115 is the real-life diary of Parisian Jewish journalist Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar written during the final weeks of World War Two while her husband André was imprisoned by the Nazis.

Betraying her experiences as a writer, Maman, What Are We Called Now? is a beautifully constructed series of heartbreakingly sad snapshots into the terrifying, traumatic and chaotic existence for those left behind by the war, desperate for news of their stolen loved ones. 

The book’s title comes from a question one of Jacqueline’s confused children, Sylvio, asks her not only what they are now called (as in, are they Jewish, are they French, what are they?) but also how old she is – the wartime experiences having snatched away all of her childhood innocence and simplicity. At the time, Sylvio was just 10 and unaware that asking such a question risked their dangerous situation being found out – they were living under assumed names and with false identities.

In the lengthy diary entry of August 6, when it is announced the Americans have arrived in Paris, Jacqueline’s initial optimism that war is ending is perilously balanced with her fears for Andr√©’s safety. The diary entry is so beautifully written and spells out Jacqueline’s steadfast loyalty to her Jewish heritage, along with her sadness that she has no fixed home anymore. The prose brings to mind sociologist Zymunt Bauman’s iconic book Modernity And The Holocaust.  

Jacqueline writes: “Being Jewish has become even more of an obsession than being French, an obsession which, like a hidden wound, has worked its way slowly and insidiously under our skin and right into our souls. Little by little it has made us into ‘foreigners’ in our own country, French but ‘different’ … It has turned us into outsiders.”

This echoes Bauman’s theory of understanding the stranger. First you try to make the stranger one of you, then you keep the stranger at a distance, and then you try to get rid of the stranger altogether. For Bauman the Jew is the archetypal stranger in society. Many Jews tried to assimilate into German society having emerged from the ghettos. They started wearing the same clothes as Germans, adopting the same religion, living in the same areas. But these attempts to assimilate the German way of life led to hostility. It stoked fears of the outsider coming inside.

The haunting internal questioning that Jacqueline goes through as she tries to make sense of what it means to be Jewish in this new world is particularly heartrending. Not least because she identifies more as French than as Jewish, and the Jewish identity has been thrust upon her by the Nazis as a reason to exterminate people.



Saturday, 24 October 2015

"Suffragette" film, 2015

This post contains plot spoilers about the 2015 film Suffragette.

On one hand I was very excited to see the 2015 film Suffragette because this is a period of history I have long been fascinated and inspired by. One the other hand I was very nervous to see the film precisely because I know so much about the era - and I was worried that the film industry would either a) over-dramatise things for effect to distort facts, or b) invent one or two things to make the plot more ‘Hollywood’.

I always refer to myself as a supporter of the suffragists rather than the suffragettes. The suffragists (the peaceful ones who campaigned for many decades but rarely made the news) far outnumbered the militant suffragettes (the ones who got the headlines for the few years they were active), and it frustrates me that the law-abiding, peaceful and effective suffragists are so often overlooked than their more sensational sisters. So while it looks unlikely that a film about Millicent Fawcett’s lifelong campaign and petitioning will be made any time soon, Suffragette is the best we’re likely to get for now.

Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) and written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), there is a refreshing volume of women in key production roles here - which is of course very rare when still only about 10% of films released every year are made by women.

The dominance of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in the pre-release advertising for Suffragette is baffling considering she’s in the film for fewer than five minutes. Baffling… or a cynical marketing ploy to boost audiences? I would argue it would have been more impressive and significant to have a lesser known actor take the role of Emmeline for this film to avoid it derailing the narrative.

And while I’m normally a fan of Carey Mulligan, I felt her leading performance here as laundry worker Maud was unconvincing, especially when paired alongside the far more effective Anne-Marie Duff (militant worker Violet) and Helena Bonham-Carter (pharmacist and rabble rouser Edith). In fact Helena, whom I normally shy away from, was so good that I’d go far as to say that hers is easily the best performance in Suffragette.

But what about the menz? As hardened Inspector Steed, Brendan Gleeson is impressively cruel and conniving but with just the right amount of doubt in his heart. However, as Maud’s husband Sonny, Ben ‘Paddington Bear’ Wishaw gives the worst performance of his life. We have seen and enjoyed Ben playing all manner of fluffy roles over the years, from Pingu in Nathan Barley, to Q in James Bond and, of course, the new voice of Paddington Bear. So Ben was going to have to whip out the mother of all monsters to convince us as Maud’s tyrannical and cold-hearted husband… and he failed miserably.

Suffragette did not disappoint me for the reasons I had expected. Gavron and Morgan mostly avoided over Hollywood-ising the plot and inventing too much for the name of drama (as if there wasn’t enough drama in the suffrage campaign to start with). Instead I have two other. major issues with the plot.

The first is the cack-handed way in which the entirely implausible plot of Sonny giving up his and Maud’s beloved son George for adoption so quickly, and the tiny fragment of protest that Maud put up which is entirely at odds with the absolute devotion to her son she has shown until this point - the son whom she barely mentions again in the rest of the film. Yes, Morgan wanted to shoehorn in the issue that mothers were denied all legal rights to their children until 1925, but it was dealt with so clumsily and awkwardly that it made very little sense here.

Moreover, the bizarre narrative arc - or rather, lack of a narrative arc - across the entire film was disappointing. We start conventionally enough with Maud’s story, following her as a laundry worker, devoted mother, tired housewife, and we see her neatly fall into a prominent role in the Women’s Social and Political Union with some new and important friends. But then suddenly Emily Wilding Davison appears and her story takes over, and the film ends with Emily’s death under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. But what of Maud’s story? What happened to her son? Where did she end up living, as she can’t have stayed in that derelict church for ever? What did she go on to achieve in the WSPU? Her story is never concluded. It is a deeply unsatisfactory ending.

So while I wanted to embrace a film about the campaign for women’s suffrage because we have waited so very long to have one, I feel that Suffragette has fallen short in a huge number of areas. However, the trailer for He Named Me Malala made that film look extremely interesting. And on Monday I will be seeing the BFI’s newly curated strand Make More Noise: Suffragettes In Silent Film, which is a series of 21 original short films from the 1910s that document the suffrage campaign. So there is still hope that an excellent film about women’s history is out there. I will report back.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

'Rebellious Spirits - The Illicit History of Booze in Britain'

Booze has always been on the cusp of banishment. It's part and parcel of what makes it so much fun. From the prohibition laws of the 1920s to the general fear of moral turpitude, the powers that be have frequently fretted about whether or not we know what's good for us. 

And now, Alchemist Dreams founder Ruth Ball has delved into the cocktail cabinet to research and write Rebellious Spirits: The Illicit History of Booze in Britain (published in a beautiful hardback edition by Elliott & Thompson). 

With a background as a chemist scholar and a career in handmade liqueurs, it's hard to think of anyone better placed to write such a book. What's that? You'd rather someone with alcohol-infused ancestry had put pen to paper? No problem. Ruth's very distant relation is Admiral Edward Vernon who, according to what it says on my bit of paper here, is "the man who invented grog as a way to serve the rum ration to the navy in 1740". It's safe to say that with Ruth at the helm of this book, we're in safe hands.

Rebellious Spirits is a damn fun read. How could it not be? With chapters devoted to each of the major spirit groups (whisky, gin and co), as well as the infamous speakeasies that have become so painfully hip again, Ruth has truly committed herself to the business of becoming the biographer for booze. So much so that she has not only recreated the recipes for several cocktails from days of yore, but also brought them up to date for more contemporary palates with a mixture of alcohols that are less likely to, err, blow the brains off our more delicate constitutions. If there's one thing alone we learn from Rebellious Spirits, it's that our forefathers were much harder drinkers than we are. 

I love the mix of historical facts with recipes and personal stories from the characters involved. And the characters we meet on the way are fascinating - as are the ingenious lengths they go to in order to conceal their illicit booze making from the authorities. To avoid giving away any spoilers, the best I can say is that you must read this book and learn that there are people out there who quite literally died so that you could enjoy a dram of whisky when you fancy one. 

For more information and to buy a copy, please click here

Thursday, 15 October 2015

'The Crucible' at Bristol Old Vic

Cast photo by Geraint Lewis
Arthur Miller’s famous 1953 play The Crucible made its British debut at Bristol Old Vic in 1954, so it is only fitting that it returns to this famous stage to mark 100 years since Miller’s birth (and 10 years since his death).

This is my second viewing of The Crucible, having previously seen a very dry production at the Nottingham Theatre Royal in the late 1990s. I’d be lying if I said I had enjoyed that one back then. But the opportunity to see this production directed by Tom Morris - the theatre’s executive director - was too good to pass by.

Morris wisely chose to present a ‘straight’ production of The Crucible, with none of the puppets or other distractions some of his other shows have become known for. When the script and cast are as tightly knit as they are for this performance of The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic, there is really no need for anything extra.

Centred around the moral backbones of John (Dean Lennox Kelly) and Elizabeth Proctor (Neve McIntosh), the entire and expansive cast is faultless. Particular praise must go to Rona Morison whose performance as teenage troublemaker Abigail Williams is outstanding - and whose narrative threads the whole show together into a disaster of literally biblical proportions for the town and the Proctors.

We open on Rev Parris (Jude Akuwudike) and his niece Abigail fretting about Parris’ daughter Betty (Zoe Castle) who has apparently been struck dumb and motionless after a night of revelry in the woods with Abigail and some of the town’s other young girls. Rumours quickly spread that the girls were engaged in witchcraft and this escalates to suggestions the girls were conjuring the spirits of dead babies, drinking blood, dancing naked and flying through the air like spectres. The town is divided between those who are quick to gleefully believe such scandal and those who think the girls are just playing for attention. But Abigail’s devious past leads her to guide the girls into truly terrible behaviour… while the illogical actions of the religious zealots and Governor Danforth (Jeffrey Kissoon) is spine-chillingly horrific.

Famously inspired by the metaphorical Communist witch hunts that informed Miller’s experience of life in America in the early 1950s, he uses the actual Salem witch trials of 1692 as an allegory for the horror of publicly - and falsely - accusing innocent people of all manner of evils with not a care for evidence, proof or reason. As has been noted by many, the message of The Crucible can be applied to any era you care to mention and this is doubtless part of the play’s resounding power.

For a contemporary spin, just consider the current trend for social media shaming. Where interfering people illicitly take photos of strangers doing perceived wrong acts, and post them online for others to share, name, shame and compulsively vilify. At times this has even resulted in people losing jobs and relationships with no course of action to defend themselves… and even if they did, nobody would listen because it is much more ‘fun’ to believe the salacious rumours than to listen to facts and reason.

The haunting refrain of “There’s a beautiful home of the soul … ‘Tis a land where we’ll never grow old” through this production of The Crucible is heartbreaking in its truth and simplicity. There’s a reason why Miller’s play has survived for so long and with its timeless message it will surely survive for generations to come.



The Crucible is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 7 November. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

"The Amazing Equal Pay Show", 1974

From out of the second wave Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s and 1980s there came a powerful surge of feminist theatre and film groups. One such collective was the London Women’s Theatre Group, formed in 1972 when Midge MacKenzie placed an advert in a newspaper looking for women to join her in forming their own filmmaking collective. In a pre-punk spirit, they forged on regardless of whether or not they knew how and taught themselves the required skills as they went along.


The sixth film to come out of the London Women’s Theatre Group (LWTG) was The Amazing Equal Pay Show in 1974, which worked with the Women’s Street Theatre Group (WSTG) to turn some of their feminist street performance into cinematic film. The result is a chaotic, anarchic and “political burlesque” (according to the BFI) about women’s fight to be paid the same as men for doing the same work. Watching it in 2015, I am again reminded of the punk DIY spirit, even though the main UK punk heyday was still around the corner waiting to explode in 1976.


The LWTG filmmaking styles foreshadow the work of punk directors such as Derek Jarman and Julien Temple, particularly in the later’s 1980 film about The Sex Pistols: The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. Aside from both films being superficially concerned with money, they are both films led by a duo of chaos-creating grotesques.


In The Amazing Equal Pay Show, the Machiavellian and upside-down moustachioed male villain (played by a woman, of course) parades around as a top-hatted circus leader who manipulates the women into doing what he wishes in the interests of boosting his capitalist purse. And at his side is the grody Poodle - a dollybird puppet trussed up in stockings and suspenders, pink wig and with a mask covering her true features; a woman who is routinely reminded to dance and distract the masses from their misery. The age old trope of man pitting women against women and hoping for a fight.


Meanwhile The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle has the Cockney pantomime villain of guitarist Steve Jones lording it around the UK in a Rolls Royce as he hunts down the unscrupulous Malcolm McLaren who is delivering his step-by-step guide to generating cash from chaos while on the run from the establishment… with dwarf Helen Wellington-Lloyd and punk matriarch Jordan bringing up the rear in bondage wear.

The overriding message of both films is "no future". For the Sex Pistols there was no future for the working-class youth, and for the London Women’s Theatre Group and Women’s Street Theatre Group there was no future in a capitalist society that was determined to keep women in the kitchen, dependent on men for every single penny. Neither film ends hopefully, but both show the underdogs kicking against the system and fighting for a voice.


The Amazing Equal Pay Show is clearly a consciousness-raising tool, drawing women’s attention to the gross financial inequalities they endured at the hands of men, but doing so in a carnival manner incorporating circus ringleaders, song, pantomime, drama and horror. With no clear narrative, and the cast swapping characters and genders, it’s not surprising to learn filmmaker Midge MacKenzie had spent time in the 1960s with the likes of Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Goddard. 

What stands throughout The Amazing Equal Pay Show is the LWTG’s burning desire to speak on behalf of all women and to give them the voice that patriarchy and capitalism denied them.


In an era where women couldn’t buy anything expensive without finding a man to stand as guarantor for them, an era with no social media and many homes still not even having a telephone, a voice was one of the many things that a lot of women were denied.


Postscript:


In 1975, Midge Mackenzie would go on to devise, develop, co-produce (and author the accompanying book to) the BBC’s groundbreaking TV drama Shoulder To Shoulder about the suffragette movement, which remains the only televised drama of this important time. While director Linda Dove would win awards for her feminist film-making in subsequent years.