Thursday, 21 June 2018

Oliver and the Foxes

I was awoken last night by a sound which I can only think was cats shagging. It was the most unearthly noise, but one which I found somewhat mesmerising. The two animals sounded a bit like babies crying, but the extraordinary thing was that they were matching each other in pitch. One would let out a sort of strangulated moan and the other would copy it. As the first’s cries rose in pitch, so the other’s would, to the extent that the noises started to sound like the wails of pleasure rather than pain.

We went to see Abbie playing Nancy in a production of Oliver in a garden in Earls Court last night. She was great. The role suits her enormously and I was very excited to hear her singing As Long As He Needs Me, which she did with moving panache.

Oliver is a bit of a weak show if I’m honest. It’s musically very entertaining and there are some amazing songs, but it’s dramatically frustrating. We never really find out anything about the characters, and most burst into song before we know anything about them.

The production wasn’t without its issues either, many of which were sound-related. An open air show is always going to be a challenge in this respect but there WERE a smattering of head mics so it should have been a lot better than it was. Sadly, the sound man didn’t seem to know who was wearing them at any given time, so much of the ensemble scenes took place in silence. In fact, to make matters a little more comic, we’d periodically hear people whispering off stage - “come off this way.”

In one of the songs, the only mic which was on, was being worn by someone singing hugely out of tune, so you could see thirty people singing, but only hear a sort of squawking noise, which was a shame.

During Abbie’s big solo, a man with Alzheimer’s walked onto the stage and walked right up to her, peering into her face. Quite how Abbie managed to stay composed, I’m not sure, but she didn’t come out of character or miss a note. There’s a pro for you! Eventually the bloke playing Fagin appeared and escorted the man off the stage, not before his wife had also sauntered into the action. Just after they’d disappeared behind a hedge, a huge gust of wind dislodged a massive sign on the back wall which subsequently blew away - all whilst Abbie bravely continued. I was very proud of her.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Gummy Brass

Back to the grindstone. For the next three days I’ll be back at Mountview School, resurrecting our children’s musical so that Andy Stanton, the writer of the original book, can come and have a look at what we’ve been doing. Apart from being utterly knackered as a result of really caning it on 100 Faces, I’m going to try to make the most of my last ever days in a building where I studied for a year in the mid 1990s. Mountview, the quintessential North London drama school, is moving to Peckham. I never thought I’d ever hear myself saying that! When I next work there, I won’t be able to walk there through the woods.

As I set off this morning, I could see a massive crowd of commuters walking purposely towards the tube. They get off busses in their droves at the top of Muswell Hill Road and swarm down like a sea of glistening angry wasps. I felt a great relief not to be joining them.

On the subject of Mountview, I think now is as good a time as any to announce that I shall be directing a production of Brass there in November. I was keeping the information under my hat until the creative team had been assembled, but I’m pretty sure we’re there now. Obviously I’m very excited, not just to be directing theatre again after an almost two-decade hiatus in TV, but also to breathe life into a new production of my over-sized baby!

Obviously, I have big shoes to follow after Sara Kestelman and Hannah Chissick, but I can’t wait to get inside the material and show the world exactly how I imagined piece. I am something of a slave-driver in a rehearsal room. I’m not sure the cast will be ready for the emotional roller-coaster they’re about to go on!

In the meantime, however, we head from the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous in the shape of Mr Gum, which will keep me busy for the next three days. I believe we have some of the original cast coming back. I’m excited to see who they will be. I can only apologise to the newbies! It’s the baddest maddest piece written since Mad Joe McBaddy adapted Cats for the Macclesfield Amateur Dramatic Society!

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Be safe

A somewhat sobering end to a very pleasant day came this evening when I was witness to a girl being hit by a car in Shepherd’s Bush. It’s difficult to know exactly what happened. She was in the middle of the road. I’m not sure the car was moving particularly quickly but the impact was enough to smash its windscreen. I think she might have hit it with her head because she was lying on the ground, not moving. A massive crowd of people immediately gathered around, peering and cooing. There was very little point in my staying. Some people were closer when it happened and would have seen more detail. It was certainly a fairly chilling sight and I sincerely hope she’s okay.

It instantly took me back to my childhood when we were often witness to people being hit by cars on the busy A6, which hurtled through the town where we lived. Some were killed. A huge piece of graffiti down the local rec read “The Greatest Greg” in tribute to a lad who was hit by a motorbike. I myself was once run over. I was returning from a fair, holding a goldfish in a plastic bag. I still remember the sensation of flying through the air. I still have a scar on the back of my ankle. I don’t know what happened to the gold fish!

It’s a Saturday, which means I was up with the lark, and away to the synagogue. It’s genuinely something I relish, particularly on a summer’s morning. I stroll down to the tube in my suit and kippah, buy myself a lovely cup of tea from the little kiosk, and spend the journey to Queensway going over my music, whilst gently warming up my pipes.

The singing was a little scrappy today. We were without a conductor so had no one to keep us in time, and, crucially, no one with a tuning fork to give us our starting notes! That particular role fell to me because I have a good internal pitching mechanism, but, it turns out, under pressure, I’m likely to start things a tone too low. We had an absolute catastrophe at one point when our tenors set off a fourth lower than my starting note, which caused such mayhem that I spent much of the number giggling. Not singing made me realise for the first time that the congregation sing along with us, which was rather nice to hear. Perhaps they were singing extra loudly to show their support... or to cover our shame!

Singing without a conductor is an odd experience. On one hand there’s a tendency to listen to each other more acutely, which is good for pitching, but, on the other, a choir will get slower and slower!

After shul I took myself to a cafe in Holland Park and worked, for five solid hours on the music for 100 Faces. It was an intense experience. I only came out from under the headphones on one occasion and that was only to buy myself another cup of tea!

I had a pizza with Michael in the evening to fill him in on how comically bad the choir had been in his absence, and, it was as I arrived at the tube to start my journey home that I witnessed the accident.

...And now I feel sad again.

To those reading this blog who know they like to drink quite heavily on an evening out, please be extra careful when crossing roads. Even if the traffic is moving at a slow pace. Even if you assume a car is going to stop because you’ve smiled and waved at the driver. Even if you’re chancing it and think he’ll slam on his breaks because he doesn’t want to hit you...

Be safe.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Sloane Square carnage

I hit rush hour at London Bridge tube today and edged, ever further underground, in a swamp of people, wondering what would happen if a terrorist decided to blow himself up in such an over-crowded, confined space. I guess the thought of terrorism is never far from the mind of a Londoner, however much we try to project a “Keep Calm and Carry On” exterior.

I’ve been out and about all day today, latterly at a workshop performance of a musical called Henry by my friends Michelle and Lawrence. It was actually me who introduced them to each other and encouraged them to team up as writers. I was thanked profusely in the programme, which touched me greatly. I am very proud to announce that their writing partnership has yielded very rich rewards. The show, though in its relative infancy, plainly has legs. It’s atmospheric, musically inventive, yet very mature, and deeply intriguing. I’m very excited to see how the work develops.

Leading the cast was young Jack Reitman, a Brass family member, and also one of my 100 Faces. He did a great job and I had another proud Dad moment.

I sat on Sloane Square this morning waiting for Philippa. A strange warm, damp wind was circling around me. I sat and watched London pigeons limping and strutting ineffectually around me. There’s nothing more tragic than London pigeons. They always seem to have half their feathers missing, and their claws usually resemble gnarly stumps.

My mind drifted away, to perhaps the last time I’d been on the square itself. It was 1996. I was still at drama school and working as an usher at the Royal Court Theatre. This was about a month before the place closed down for a lengthy refurbishment and we were all dispatched to the New Ambassadors Theatre in the West End.

After the show one night, the ushers were offered overtime to work on an art installation which was due to happen on Sloane Square. Our job would be to usher audience members out of the theatre, across the road, and onto the square itself, where a giant paddling pool had been set up and filled with sand and gallons of water.

The whole area was surrounded by wires to enable the paddling pool to be floodlit and a weird atmospheric, experimental, electronic sound track to be piped into the ether. You know the sort of thing? Curious subtonic rumbles and weird synthy beeps and bleeps.

I don’t remember much about the installation. I remember there being some somewhat self-conscious actors, and a giant canon thing which was spewing little white feathers into the air which were falling onto the audience like snow. I knew it was pretentious. I remember feeling shame.

The audience had to sit on the floor, on some sort of plastic matting. There was a general sense of non-plussedness.

Suddenly, and I can’t remember how it happened, the paddling pool burst and a cascade of water and sand flooded the area where the poor audience was sitting. Initially we thought it was part of the piece, but then it became obvious that something terrible was happening! I still remember the screams as people realised they were soaked through. People started standing up. Others started laughing uncontrollably.

At that point, the installation’s technical manager started yelling, “every body off the tarpaulin. There are live cables. You’ll be electrocuted.”

Panic ensued. The audience started running about. People were tripping over each other, bumping into one another, falling on the cables. The ushers, who were completely ill-equipped to deal with such an incident, stood helplessly, wondering whether their own lives were more important than those of the audience. I howled with laughter, more relieved than anything that the terrible installation was over.

The audience kept running. No one waited around to find out what had happened. In the space of three minutes the entire square was empty, but for a few rather damp-looking actors, some ushers, red-faced organisers and a scene of profound carnage. Sand. Water. Tarpaulin. Feathers.


Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Last of the huskies

It was one of those days today when they get the frequency of trains going along the Bank branch wrong. I ended up taking a near-empty Charing Cross train to Camden before attempting the “Camden hop” (up the stairs and back down the other side) in a sweltering clump of angry commuter. I am always astounded by what people consider to be appropriate behaviour during moments like that. A train was waiting at the station, which meant there was a huge pile up of people, half of whom were getting off the train, whilst the rest, realising there were precious few Bank trains, were suddenly running down the stairs pushing people out of the way like a bad game of skittles.

...And then, just as the situation couldn’t have got more dangerous, a small child appeared on one of those irritating pink neon scooters (the ones which always end up being carried by parents because the kids who ride them get bored and want to go home). This particular little bogey-flicker was using the platform as a lovely smooth surface to scoot on, blissfully unaware of the rush of people heading down the stairs towards him. Carnage. One man slipped whilst trying, last minute, to avoid the little brat. Another stopped in his tracks and created a pile-up. My bag fell off my shoulder and the husky mug I’d bought in Canada in 1992, which I’ve been trying to use to avoid wasting paper cups, smashed on the floor into a thousand dangerous shards.

The train doors closed in slow motion and none of us made it onto the train. When the Dad of the child kicked off and told us all to watch what we were doing, I wondered if he deserved to be throttled! It’s one thing to bring up your child to think it’s the centre of everyone’s world, but quite something else to believe it yourself!

Yes, yes, I know children need to be able to stretch their legs and express themselves, but it’s vital, for the safety of the world, that parents assess risks properly.

I waited for the crowd to disperse, before carefully picking up the pieces of my 26-year old Canadian companion, which I wrapped in the newspaper I’d been reading. It was the last of a little set, including a bowl, a plate and two mugs, which I bought when our youth orchestra went on tour to Canada. Every time I got one out of the cupboard, a little memory of that golden time would pop into my head. But one by one they broke.

As I dropped the shards of the last one into the bin, I could have sworn I heard a husky dog crying...

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Stiles and Drewe Award

Another weekend and another Saturday morning spent in shul. I was singing with a chorister called Joey, whom we worked out, I’d met in the late ‘90s when I was going out with Stephen Twigg, Joey’s MP at the time. I didn’t quite know how to process the information that Joey was ten at the time! I feel that many people are being placed on the earth these days simply to make me feel like an old man! 

It was a good choir. Our voices blended very well and the pitching felt relatively precise. I had a bit of a brain fart in one of the numbers, but, fortunately, was standing next to Gabriel, who seems to have a permanent ear fixed on what’s going on around him. If you make a mistake, you can rely on him to point it out, which is, of course, a double-edge sword! There’s a slightly odd tradition within choristers which involves raising a hand in rehearsals when you make an error to show everyone else that you’re aware of it, and that they don’t need to point it out. It’s never something I got into, largely because I don’t come from a choral tradition, but also because I worry that if I got into raising my hand every time I made a mistake, I’d not be able to prevent myself from doing it in performance! Anyway, Gabriel’s third ear was very useful today as he immediately realised I’d sung myself into a musical cul-de-sac, and was able to briefly sing my part until I was able to reverse out of it again! 

I strolled down Old Compton Street for the first time in an age on Saturday afternoon and was rather thrilled to see two large rainbow flags billowing outside one of the gay pubs. It must be Pride Season because, I’ve been rather horrified at the complete lack of rainbow flags being displayed on on London’s gayest street in recent years. It’s absolutely indicative of the death of Soho, and the fact that the area has become a grotesque theme park for heterosexuals wanting a taste of something a little bit naughty. One assumes that rainbow flags might dissuade punters from parting with the vast sums of money required to pay astronomical rents in the district and this makes me really sad. I loved those streets when they were seedy. When tourists were too scared to come in, and they belonged to us. There were no edit suites or fancy chocolatiers. There were sex shops, brothels, jazz venues, theatres and anything-goes-gay-bars. And the place thronged with a remarkably special energy. 

I spent yesterday night at a quiz in Thaxted. I have now been a professional quiz master for a year, but am not sure my general quizzing knowledge has improved.  I pulled a few astonishing facts out of my arse, but actually, it was Helen and Sascha’s random knowledge of fashion which brought the largest reward. Ten out of ten! We scored five on the history round, and two of our team are history teachers! In the end what did for us was the picture round, worth a quarter of the overall marks, which featured nothing but images of male sporting captains from the twentieth century. It was one of those rounds which made me want to cry. Six members of our team immediately disengaged, leaving my Dad and Stuart to cobble the answers together. I was hugely proud of them for getting 26 out of the forty answers correct. One of the other teams - a mass of middle-aged testosterone - scored 38. How can you compete with that?! 

I drove Helen back to London in a weird, somewhat spooky, muggy mist, which had been generated by a brief rainfall whilst we were quizzing.

Today saw Nathan and me trekking down to the Savoy Theatre for the Stiles and Drewe Best New Song competition. The song Brass was highly commended last year, and this year, Shone with the Sun, met a similar fate. I would love it to have won, largely for Arnold Wesker, who championed the song from the moment we wrote it in 1998. He even picked it as one of his Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, but sadly never got to see it in its home in Brass, and didn’t live long enough to know that people sing the song in auditions and cabarets across the country. 

It was performed in the contest by Amara Okeredo, an Arts Ed graduate, who’s just gone into Les Mis playing Cosette. Not a bad first job, I’d say! It wasn’t a surprise for me to learn that she’d landed such a big role. The girl is profoundly talented, both as a singer and as an actress, and she sang Shone with such profoundly and panache, creating an incredibly special moment, which made me brim with pride. 

There was an empty seat next to Nathan, in an otherwise packed theatre. I wondered at one point whether Arnold was sitting there, smiling, every bit as proud as me. He said on his Desert Island Discs that he’d “included the song, to remind himself that he had a talent.” 

Not a day goes by when I don’t think about that man, desperately grateful for everything he gave me. He encouraged me to be a composer when all I wanted to do was direct, and he taught me the importance of loyalty and integrity. 

Thank you, Arnold. And thank you Amara. 

The student singer of the yet award went to Alex Cardall, who was in the original cast of Brass. He has turned into a remarkably fine performer

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Death of Maida Vale

I sat in the bedroom yesterday, composing at the piano, whilst, next door, Nathan rehearsed his “Broadway and Beyond” show with a pianist and another actor. It was somewhat surreal to hear the sounds of 76 Trombones and Lullaby of Broadway floating down the hallway from the lounge. I realised at that moment that I live a somewhat eccentric existence. Our neighbours must be utterly perplexed by the sounds which float down into their flats!

I read with horror yesterday that the BBC is due to close its iconic Maida Vale studios. Yet again, the BBC’s quest to modernise and save money blithely sweeps away the past.

I was greatly saddened when Television Centre in White City was sold off, not just because of the building’s architectural value, which was great, but because the building hummed with creativity. You couldn’t enter that building without immediately getting a sense of its importance and the extraordinary amount of incredible television which had been commissioned, written, filmed and edited there.

The BBC’s decision to sell-up, and build ghastly, shiny atrium-based buildings in Salford and Central London, where there were no offices and all business had to happen on ridiculous primary-coloured chairs, in open spaces, was indicative, in my view, of a corporation losing both its heart and its way.

Maida Vale was around before TVC. In fact, it’s pretty much the oldest surviving BBC building which alone has to give it some weight. Of course the BBC has described it as “wholly unsuitable for the 20th Century.” But then, they would, wouldn’t they?

A quick history of the place. Wikipedia informs me that it was built at the turn of the 20th Century as a roller skating rink! Who’d have thought roller skates even existed in 1908, let alone were enough of a crave to merit a giant building in their honour. One assumes roller skating went out of fashion, because the BBC acquired the building and had it refurbished as a series of seven studios which opened in the mid-1930s.

It immediately became the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Studio MV1, within the complex, is the largest classical music studio in London, with space for 150 orchestral musicians.

From 1958 to 1998, the building also held the BBC’s seminal Radiophonic Workshop, who used cutting edge electronic technology to create sonic adventures, including the theme tune for Doctor Who. And if you’re looking for an important woman who fought off gender prejudice to become a pivotal figure in this brave new world, look no further than Delia Derbyshire.

An almost bewildering number of artists have recorded sessions at Maida Vale, from The Beatles and Led Zep to Bax, Bliss and Sir Adrian Boult.

The BBC has announced that they’re moving what goes on in the building to the Olympic Park in Stratford, no doubt at great cost into building utterly devoid of atmosphere, which doesn’t quite work the way it’s meant to.

Maybe I’m a bit of an old fart. I’m sure there were heavy running costs associated with a building like Maida Vale. Perhaps it genuinely wasn’t working, but for creative people, there’s so much importance in standing on the shoulders (or in the shadows) of giants. Every time I walk into a studio and see what else has been recorded there, I feel inspired. I want to raise my game. It’s almost as though the energy of the genius minds who have worked in a space continues to reverberate somehow. And I feel losing this is a heavy price to pay.