Thursday, 19 October 2017

Racial hatred

I witnessed something very unsavoury and unpleasant in Crouch End today, as Julian and I returned to his studio from lunch. We were walking along the pavement towards Cecile Park when we became aware of a smallish car tearing up the hill from behind us. It screeched around the corner without indicating and almost ploughed into a man who had stepped off the pavement to cross the road. The car slowed down and the passenger shouted out of his window, "get out the road, you black bastard." Julian and I were profoundly shocked. Although I'm sure this is a tragically familiar occurrence for people of colour, it's not something I have witnessed very often. In fact the last time I saw anything comparable, I was so incensed that I rugby tackled the bastard who'd spat at an Asian family to the floor in the ticket hall of Tottenham Court Road station.

It is official. There has been a thirty percent rise in hate crime since Brexit, and today I saw it with my own eyes. I heard June Sarpong speaking with great erudition on the subject on Radio 4 yesterday and she pointed out very sagely that successive governments had managed to get us to a point where people knew they weren't allowed to say those sort of things, but that hearts and minds haven't yet been changed, which was why a torrent of ugly hatred washed over the country like a tidal wave after Brexit.

Of course the car was moving so speedily that we couldn't get its number plate in time, but I'm semi-proud to say that, although we were powerless to report the crime, the four people who'd witnessed the event immediately rushed over to the guy who'd been abused and poured as much love as we could onto him. I hope it helped a little.

Troubling times...

Am I the only one who gets a bit irritated at the Facebook trend where people seem to be displaying all sorts of profound inanities in giant letters on brightly coloured backgrounds? Surely you'd only decide to do this if you felt you had something really important to say? We are genetically programmed to notice things which are displayed in this manner and if we're going to teach our subconsciouses that words in big letters on brightly-coloured backgrounds aren't important, then how will we ever stop at a stop sign or know that hazardous chemicals are lurking within the boxes we open at work?


How about we save this treatment for statements we genuinely think are important, or really REALLY funny? Otherwise, maybe stick to the normal-sized fonts?

Love Oscar The Grouch.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Me too

I've been following with great interest the "me too" threads on Facebook, slightly shocked and deeply saddened by the high number of my female friends who have endured unwanted sexual advances from men. I certainly hope that women find solidarity in the process of sharing their stories, and my thoughts are with anyone who has been affected by this sort of thing. We should never forget that the innate aggression within some people manifests itself in many ways which can be distressing and life-shattering to both sexes. Countless men are beaten to a pulp on Saturday nights merely for looking at someone the wrong way, and many of them are just as frightened to come forward because masculine pride tells them they should have been able to look after themselves. Men can also be sexually abused by men.

Initiatives aside, I have always believed that it's only possible to stamp out inappropriate behaviour by being brave enough to confront it as and when it happens. I'm not altogether sure that any of the dinosaurs or misogynists, who still believe that it's appropriate to treat women like objects, are likely to read a "me too" post on Facebook and suddenly have an epiphany about their behaviour. A policeman turning up at their door, however, is an altogether different prospect.

My worry is that "me too" actually enforces the notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. From a gay man's perspective, one whose friends are almost exclusively female, I'll confess to finding the campaign a tiny bit alienating because it seems to generate them and us battle lines. I have seen some distressing examples today of men being shot down in flames for questioning the logic of the idea. I sometimes think if we were to digest everything written online about the subject of equality, we'd conclude that men were simply incapable of getting it right. I can't tell you the last time I read a post on Facebook which applauded a man who'd made a woman feel empowered. Why don't I see posts about the good guys? Sometimes refusing to see the good in people, and instead bashing them with a stick, ends up reenforcing behavioural patterns. And sometimes, in the process of attacking, you miss, and strike someone who doesn't deserve to be hit. The LGBT community couldn't have got over the damage done by HIV/AIDS without straight allies, but, at the time, I'm sure it felt as though we were accusing every heterosexual of being homophobic. How could they ever expect to understand how it felt to be gay? I sometimes felt as though we were waiting for someone to slip up simply so that we could say we told them so.

For this reason I'm hugely grateful to the friends of mine who, instead of simply writing "me too," were brave enough to explain the story behind their statement. I know that it's not always possible to do this. Some stories are too traumatic and raw to share on an Internet forum. But by saying THIS man treated me badly because he did THIS to me, they're potentially making men more aware of the scale of the problem and the myriad things we do which women find inappropriate. That's something we can all learn from, and sympathise with, without feeling bad simply for being male.

So what am I saying? This is a wonderful initiative if it's giving women the strength to say "enough is enough, let's take positive action to stamp this behaviour once and for all." If, as a result, just one woman has the courage to tell a man that she finds his gaze or his actions inappropriate then it will have been successful. But I would love to see another initiative, with a positive spin, which, instead of reenforcing what seems to be a widening chasm between men and women, actually empowers the men who get it right. And yes, women have an absolute right to be treated properly and I'm not advocating that any woman should feel the need to thank a man for not breaking the law. Neither am I in any way trying to undermine the very serious crimes which are presently coming to light, or suggest that the "me too" initiative was anything other than a great thing, but we live in aggressive, frightening times, and we have to keep remembering that there is much good in the world and that the bad stuff tends to happens when we feel divided.

My sincerest apologies if this post has offended anyone. Please let me know your thoughts on the subject.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Ruby and the sickening yellow light

I feel like the last two days have somewhat rolled into each other to the extent that they've become a sort of amorphous blob of time. At some point yesterday - don't ask me when - I drove up to Manchester. It always takes longer to get there than you hope. I think it's something to do with the fact that Manchester is not actually on the M6, so you exit the motorway only to find yourself on another flamin' motorway.

I went up to Manchester to record Ruby singing the role of Em on the album. She's currently doing a rep season at Bolton Octagon and her first show opens tonight, so it was impossible to get her down to London to record her vocals.

We ended up taking a punt on a studio in a grimy Victorian warehouse on the edge of the city centre. It was the sort of run-down place which will be gentrified at some point, but definitely not in the very near future! It took ages to find the entrance. A walk around the back of the building revealed the sound of a rock band smashing the hell out of their instruments.

Ruby had already managed to find her way into the studio by the time I'd arrived and was warming up in a room which smelt of BO. I'm used to scuzzy recording studios. It rather goes with the territory and I genuinely think it aids creativity if you don't think you're trashing a place when you spill your tea everywhere in the heat of the moment. The loos always leave a lot to be desired though. These are no places for those with OCD!

Ruby was on great form and we were able to do complete takes of all of her songs, which means there's a real flow to her vocals. She acted them all beautifully. That's the style of performer she is. Very intimate. Very breathy. She falls off notes. She speaks some notes, and sings others. It's a breath of fresh air in a world where many young performers belt the hell out of songs without really thinking about the words they're singing or the dramatic intention behind them.

We finished late in the studio and the journey back down south was punishing. I'd decided to break the journey in one of the Premier Inns in Northampton, but blithely drove to the wrong one, which wasn't my finest ever hour. The woman behind the reception looked at me like I'd gone mad when I told her angrily that I had a booking...

The drive back this morning seemed to take forever, with horribly slow-moving traffic around Luton. I popped my head into the cinema in East Finchley where Natalie Walter and Ben Caplan were filming trailers for Michael's UK Jewish film festival. I'd suggested both actors, so I suppose you could call me the casting director. I thought I'd pop in to offer moral support and see how they were both doing.

Just as I exited the cinema on my way to Julian's studio, all hell broke loose. Nathan, who flies to America today, called to say he was at the airport but had left his passport on his desk at home. It's the stuff of nightmares. I instantly rushed back to the house, grabbed his passport, and started tearing along the North Circular towards Heathrow. In the meantime, he was in a taxi heading towards me. We met at a filling station on the A40, just west of Hangar Lane. I stood by the side of the road, his taxi slowed down, the window opened and I threw the passport in.

Sadly he just missed the flight, and they charged him £150 to get on the next one, which has only just taken off. The taxi cost £50. The poor thing started crying when he told me that he'd only gone to Heathrow by tube to save a bit of money. Now he's £200 down.

I was with Julian by midday, which was when the weird "end of the world" sun appeared which has had social media aflutter all day. We're told it was caused by a sandstorm, which is somehow linked to the arrival of storm Ophelia in the U.K. It was certainly the most eerie sight. It was bright orange, and it reflected in the windows of Crouch End like some sort of halogen light. The clouds started bubbling up over lunch, and then, at about 3pm, the sky turned a sickening shade of yellow. It was almost as though I'd put a pair of weirdly tinted sunglasses on, or that the world was suddenly lurking behind some sort of sepia filter. There was a strangely charged quality to the atmosphere which made my fingers tingle, like I'd been fiddling about with a Van de Graaff generator. I didn't like it at all. It made me feel really uneasy. Brother Edward texted, "is it me or is this light really scary?" Brother Tim, in Manchester, was writing about it on Facebook. The birds in Julian's garden started making really strange noises. Every time I tried to take a picture of the weird yellowness, my phone corrected the colour and made the sky white. The wind got very strong and Julian's house, which is a creepy old Vicarage, started creaking and moaning. It was a surreal and somewhat scary period!

Both Nathan and Fiona are in the air at the moment, which I don't like on a night like this. Nathan has already been told to expect turbulence. Fiona, who is flying to Glasgow, seems to be heading for the eye of the storm. I shall be pleased when they're both safely down.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Vocal sessions

We had a mega day in the studio yesterday recording ensemble vocals for the Em album. I invited twelve singers to perform, all of whom I've worked with before at various stages in my career.

It was a long, somewhat brutal day. This was always likely to be the case because we had a lot of very complicated material to cover, all of which needed to be spot on. An ensemble vocal is next to impossible to tune or tidy up in post production so what gets recorded goes straight onto the album. If one of the twelve singers makes a mess of just one of the bars that you're recording, everything has to be done again. The level of concentration required is therefore intense. Performers are literally singing non-stop. It's utterly exhausting.

At the last minute I asked young Harrison if he'd conduct for us. I hadn't initially thought we'd need a conductor, but both Hilary and Nathan passionately disagreed so when Harrison offered, I was rather relieved! He did an astonishing job, and made a massive difference to the session. He's apparently in pain this morning after waving his arms around so frantically.

We recorded some great music and achieved perfection on a number of occasions. We had a few rather hairy moments, particularly towards the end of the session when we started to run out of time, but that's the nature of the beast.

I was hugely grateful to all the vocalists for their commitment. No one moaned about being tired, vocally or physically. Everyone simply got on with being fabulous. It was a joyous session.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Llio and Chris

I read my news feed this morning to discover that yet another well-known figure (in this case Harvey Weinstein) is being trialled by the media before any court of law can do its job. Our capacity to be titillated by tittle-tattle never ceases to amaze me. We just love to hear about a full-scale fall from grace. We look at pictures of Weinstein and say "oh yes. He's definitely dodgy. I always thought he was dodgy." I was sent a petition today which demands that he be "removed and banished from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for life." But should we not be waiting to see if he's found guilty before entirely wrecking his career? What I find most bizarre is the queue of male celebrities wading into the mess to distance themselves from Weinstein just so the world knows they're decent, kind and not misogynistic.

In my view, anyone accused of a crime should have the right to remain anonymous until they're actually found guilty. I can't see any reason why this wouldn't be the case. Being falsely accused of anything is hideous enough without journalists actively looking for every piece of dirt they can find on you, and exes coming out of the woodwork spilling the beans for a bit of extra cash. And even if someone is found innocent (which the press never seem to report), the tendency is still for people to say there's no smoke without fire. And of course, by this point, a million deeply personal and highly-embarrassing things have been revealed.

We did another day in the recording studio today, which started with Llio finishing off the session she started yesterday, which timed out as I legged it off to Greenwich. She was, predictably, wonderful. Beyond wonderful, actually.

This afternoon, Chris McGuigan came into the studio. I asked him to sing the role of Illya in something of a panic yesterday after being let down badly by another vocalist. I'll confess that I didn't actually know Chris' voice particularly well, but have always considered him to be good people, so felt, if nothing else, we'd have fun in the studio. It turns out that he's a wonderful, moving and hugely versatile singer, whose voice suits the role and the musical material down to the ground. He performed some sequences with an almost breathtaking fragility and others with exciting virility, growling his way through the rockier numbers. I was, thrilled beyond words and left the studio feeling greatly relieved. It's all coming together.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The charge of the women

Today marked the arrival of the women on the Em soundtrack, and my GOD they arrived! 

We essentially spent the day recording Jackie Clune and Llio Millward and both were on sparkling form. I haven't seen Jackie for many years, not since I directed her in Taboo more than fifteen years ago. She was pregnant at the time, and managed to give birth to four children in the space of two years. Her first son was followed by triplets eighteen months later. Imagine that?! I can't imagine how upside down her life must have been turned.

Jackie is perfect casting to play the landlady in the show. She's always had one of my favourite voices in the world - not dissimilar to Karen Carpenter - but she's also from Irish stock, which is perfect for the role of Mrs Fitzsimmons. She made me cry whilst singing The Morning Always Comes, which is the final song in the show and on the album. Every time I write a musical, I try to recycle a song from my extensive bottom drawer of previously-written material which I've always felt deserves a wider audience. In Brass this song was Shone With the Sun, which couldn't have found a more perfect home, despite being fifteen years older than any of the other songs in the show. I wrote The Morning Always comes in 1999, and it was originally demoed by Sara Kestelman and Nathan in 2003. The song was subsequently performed at my friend Kevin's funeral, which gives it an added significance. It didn't quite land in the performances at Central, largely because I'd split it into two separate songs, but it's now become a single, charging, epic number which drives forward for seven minutes, changing key a whopping eight times! It's nice when a song finds its feet in this manner.

Llio absolutely aced her vocal sessions. She was on remarkable form, belting notes I didn't know she was capable of belting. The song Delusion now bristles with energy and life. The strings have lifted the song somewhere very special indeed and Llio's voice sails, diva-like, over the top. By the end of the session I'd become so excited, I started dancing!

I literally ran from Crouch End down to Greenwich. The tubes were arriving just that little bit too infrequently and I made the mistake of taking the Victoria line to Euston in order to change onto the Northern Line, a journey which involves travelling through Kings Cross twice! I felt really very silly.

The class went well, but I over-ran slightly and ended up eating into my time with the Show Choir. The students brought some tremendous material with them. Some of the girls, in particular, utterly aced the tasks I'd given them. One of the lads, at my request, sang in Welsh. He probably could have been slightly more imaginative than singing Ar Hyd Y Nos, but it had me choking back the tears. I'm trying to encourage all the Celts and Midlanders in the class to embrace their souls. It's gonna be hiraeth all round next week!

We now have three songs up and running in Show Choir. A bit of private practice may well mean that we can have some fun finessing the material in our last session next week. I don't mind saying how blinking lovely I Miss the Music is sounding!

Star spotting and insomnia

We had a very busy day in the studio today which started with a string quartet session. It was a very happy session and we achieved the vast majority of what we needed to achieve. Rachel, the lovely viola player, brought vegan flapjacks (delicious) and all four players brought their A games. The session lasted three hours and we recorded music for six of the album's tracks.

Fiona stayed behind after the session to record some fiddly-diddly Irish folky violin which we added to the landlady's song. James Fortune, whom I see way too seldom, popped in just after lunch to add some penny whistle to the same track. Penny whistles only really come in the keys of C and D, which is fine for the first part of the song, which is in D. Unfortunately the second part of the song is in E, so James was forced to do all sorts of weird and bizarre fingerings just to get the necessary extra D and G sharps. He did a sterling job.

The afternoon found Ben Jones adding his lead vocals to the mix, and we were joined by young Harrison who kept me more than entertained by showing me films of goats making strange noises which genuinely made me cry with laughter.

This evening we went to Channel 4 to bid a fond farewell to the commissioning editors responsible for Our Gay Wedding: The Musical, which I'm pleased to report is one of the ten shows of the last seven years which the station are proudest of. It was featured in a special film package along with the Paralympics and Educating Yorkshire. Jay Hunt told us afterwards that we'd "changed the world" by making it.

We very much enjoyed star-spotting at the party. Blue did an impromptu performance and all the great and the good of Channel 4 were there including the Bake Off team and many comedians.

It's 3am and I can't sleep. At 1am, I was awoken by a text message which informed me that someone who's meant to be performing on the album wanted to postpone his session on Friday because he has a press night on the same day for which he wants to be in good voice. Rule number one about professional conduct: do not make your employer aware that you're over-stretching yourself. It is wholly unacceptable to ask me to change my plans to facilitate an actor being in good vocal health for someone else's gig! That's just madness. That's an actor inadvertently telling a writer that performing on his album isn't even the most important thing he's doing that day, which is plainly not something the writer, who has spent two years on his project, wants to hear! Thirty six hours before a session... via text... and at 1am! When I made my feelings clear, I got an astonishing text which said "well what do you suggest I do?" The truth? Don't shit on my doorstep!

I once assisted the director Phyllida Lloyd on an opera at the Royal Opera House. I accepted the job despite having already accepted a job directing another show at the weekends in Oxfordshire and simultaneously being resident director on Taboo. I just didn't feel I could say no to it. I was so tired that I regularly fell asleep in rehearsals and brought absolutely nothing to the table in the four weeks I was contracted. Inevitably, the clashes started to happen in the later stages of rehearsal. They decided to run a dress on a Saturday, but I was already committed to rehearsals in Oxfordshire that day. For a time, I simply hoped the clash would go away. If I kept a low enough profile, perhaps no one would miss me if I didn't turn up to the Opera House. And then, of course, I was given a task which meant I could pretend no longer. I took myself to Phyllida with my tail between my legs, hoping charm and a genuine sense of shame would get me off the hook and stop her from hating me. She taught me a very important lesson that day: "if you're telling me that you're not coming to the dress rehearsal and that you've made sure everything is going to run smoothly in your absence, then thank you for letting me know. If you're telling me that your absence is going to drop me in it, then that is not okay. Not at all. Go away and think about that." 

The comment has haunted me for the past fifteen years. But I'm a better person for having had it said to me.