Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Sweaty head

It's been a somewhat testing day, largely due to the weather which has been hot, sticky and wet. Every time I've arrived at a new location I've had to take a towel to my forehead to get rid of sweat, rain water and goodness knows what else. The tubes were filled to the rafters with people whose hair had all gone frizzy and all I've wanted to do since 8.30 this morning is lie under a duvet.

I had a meeting with Jezza and Victoria this morning about the future of Brass in the hands of the NYMT. Exciting things, if not quite what we expected, are afoot. A number of complicated but crucial decisions were made in the meeting which I believe are critical for the long-term happiness of all cast, writers and current and future creatives. More difficult decisions are often taken out of your hands. I can't really say a great deal more until we've crossed a few more ts, but I believe it's sometimes more important to take a longer-term view on things.

I popped into Central London to see my agent and to have lunch with Nathan at a crazy little pizza place on one of the back streets between Covent Garden and Holborn. I can't really imagine how it survives. It sells pizzas for about a fiver, and you sit eating them in a little back room on a mish-mash of benches surrounded by cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling. It was just what the doctor ordered, however...

The doctor has also ordered me to have a lovely cup of tea in front of the telly. Thankfully the large amount of work I did yesterday enables me to take things a little more gently today. It'll be back to the grindstone with a vengeance tomorrow.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Ghostly shadows

I rushed from Soho to Tottenham Court Road late this afternoon in an attempt to get on the tube before the rush hour started. Of course what I hadn't bargained on was the hideous pre-rush hour I encountered, created by tourists in their neon coats and heavy-rimmed glasses who'd plainly finished shopping on Oxford Street and were returning to their hotels in shitty places like Brent Cross for an early evening meal. The tube station was buzzing like a hive, with huge groups of young girls studying maps, and standing exactly where Londoners are basically programmed not to stand!

The warm weather we've been having becomes all the more surreal in the mid-afternoon. Since the clocks went back on Saturday night, a strange phenomena has started to occur. At about 4pm, the sun seems to drop like a halogen stone from the sky and weird, ghostly shadows creep across the streets. Because it still feels like summer, your body clock tells you it's too early to lose the light, so everything takes on shades of the post apocalyptic.

I got up rather early and decided to spend the day writing in caf├ęs across London, the first of which was down in Borough, where I sat for an hour before, and then again after, an osteopathy appointment. The Starbucks opposite Borough Station is a charming little place. I know we're all meant to pretend to hate Starbucks for not paying taxes and for being generally loathsome for reasons only a Guardian reader would understand, but for some reason the staff in this particular franchise always seem to be in very good moods. They smile. They are helpful. They genuinely appear to enjoy their jobs and this can be hugely infectious. The last time I was there, one of the baristas was singing happily to herself as she worked in the back kitchen. I was charmed!

I ambled into Soho and had my fourth cup of tea in a cafe on the corner of Old Compton Street, where two care-in-the-community old dudes had been deposited by their carer, who'd paid for their food up front and made himself scarce after asking the cafe owner with a sort of knowing wink to keep an eye on them. I assume it was an exercise in independence which was a regular occurrence in there because the cafe owner wasn't at all fazed and carried out his task with great aplomb, particularly when one of the men began to panic because he didn't have any money and wasn't sure how he could pay for his sandwich. The owner told him very kindly that everything had been sorted out and that he wasn't to be upset. "But how much will it be when we next come here?" "You never need to worry about things like that when you come in here," came the reply. It was an incredibly touching moment.

Cafe four was the Starbucks on Wardour Street where there are plenty of sockets for tired mobile phones and lap tops. By the time I exited, I'd achieved a huge amount of work, but was buzzing from too many cups of tea. I met Nathan for dinner in his ridiculously late lunch break - 4pm - and was basically climbing the walls, having been living in my head-phone-fuelled, low-blood-sugar-tinted world of music and tannins for 7 hours! Not the best time to brave a rush hour, but I still seem to be alive.

...Small mercies, and all that!

Fighting wasps

Whilst chatting to my mum on the phone this morning, I noticed what appeared to be a pair of wasps fighting on the pavement. They were really going for it; rolling about on the Tarmac, getting stuck in. It was a proper brawl. On closer inspection, I realised I was was actually watching was a wasp attacking a bee. My save-all-bees instinct instantly kicked in, and I carefully trod on the wasp, pinning it down for long enough for the bee to disentangle itself and fly away. At that stage I released the wasp and was not unhappy to note that it flew away as well. I used to kill wasps with great alacrity, but have to confess that these days I find it difficult to deliberately kill anything, however gross it is.

I made a point of walking down to my favourite cafe this morning to do some work, but found it closed, so I took myself instead to Jackson's Lane, where, for some time, and until the lunchtime rush, I was the only person in the cafe there. I did, however, bump into a drama school acquaintance. We had a brief catch-up chat, and were horrified to realise that it's now 19 years since we were students at Mountview. He lived below me in bug-filled bedsits in Crouch End which were called Highgate Lodge, but known locally as Hellgate Lodge. There was rarely any hot water, we shared bathrooms and had baby belling ovens in our bedrooms to cook with. There was a single pay phone in the building's hallway, which was the only number I could offer anyone wanting to get in touch. This was before the days of mobile phones. If I went on a date, I'd have to give him the payphone number, which, of course, meant I could always find an excuse for someone not calling me back, convincing myself I'd simply not had the message passed on to me!

The one positive thing about Highgate Lodge was the fact that I had a little ledge outside my window, where I could sit and drink orange juice for breakfast whilst looking out across the North London skyline. Majestic on the horizon was Alexandra Palace, and I spent hours gazing at it, deciding then that it was London's most beautiful building. Little could I have known that the best part of twenty years later, it would be the location of my wedding.

It's been very hot today. Fiona, who's just returned from the States, called me in a state of confusion. It's almost November, and the mercury was up at 21 degrees.

I went out this evening to rescue some cup cakes from the car which Nathan had brought back with him from his trip to Flanders where he was singing in British Legion concert. It was still fairly warm and I was able to go out comfortably in a T-shirt. Sadly the cup cakes had melted in all the heat and ground themselves into the car's parcel shelf. As I strained to scrape cake goo off the upholstery I heard my trousers rip all the way from buttock to bollock! When I returned back to the house, I discovered we'd entirely run out of tea to drink with the melted cake. All in all a pretty disastrous outing!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Waves and ripples

I'm in Brother Edward and Sascha's sitting room, listening to the waves from the Thames lapping below us, looking across to the O2 where Lady Gaga is singing tonight.

We've actually just been watching footage on You Tube of the Mini-pops, that ghastly early 80s troop of lipstick-bedecked, helium-fuelled children who used to perform cover versions of songs written for adults. The Mini-pops were controversial even at the time. Viewers were horrified by the sexualisation of children, and newspapers described them as the "mini-whores." The show was subsequently axed after one series. It is brutally awful. We watched with terror as two children gyrated their way through "You're the One That I Want." I remember thinking the 'Pops were rubbish at the time. In retrospect, they were also deeply sinister. Apparently, they were better accepted outside of the UK in countries like Canada who have a better-established tradition of child stars.

Our You Tube fest took us on a search for more old school gems, and we ended up watching about thirty Eurovision songs; winners, losers and never-selecteds from every decade of the competition. It's charming viewing. We saw the only entry ever from Morocco, listened to Cypriot and German ballads from 1983, a surreal 1969-winning tune from Spain (the disastrous year when four songs won) and half a tonne of Schlage from Scandinavia.

As I sit here, I find my eye periodically distracted by a boat lit up like an enormous Christmas tree, drifting along the pitch black Thames outside. In it's wake, a series of waves ripple in an ever-growing triangular shape through the water, before crashing against the river bank.

I have to leave fairly soon as I'm heading back to Highgate by public transport, and it feels a long way away at this time on a Sunday, when the transport network in this part of town goes to sleep. The Isle of Dogs is a funny old place, full of dead ends created by building works. The whole area is now a massive building site, littered with cranes and hastily erected tower blocks pointing towards the stars. It's as though the recession never happened. It would seem developers are making up for lost time! Within a year, the view from Edward and Sascha's flat will have changed out of all proportion. Change is a funny thing. It doesn't happen at all up in my North London gaff, but Edward's part of the world is as transient as fame.

Meriel's day

It was Meriel's birthday on Thursday, so a group of us met today in Rye to celebrate. Rye is an awfully long way away. Ironically, despite being only 30 miles from Lewes where Meriel lives, it takes almost the same amount of time to get there from Lewes as it does from London... If London behaves of course, which it didn't today. On our way down we got stuck in some inexplicable traffic jam on the Ball's Pond Road, which essentially made us an hour late. The journey down was somewhat edgy, not just because Nathan and I hate being late, but because an email arrived about Brass which slightly hurt my feelings. One of the issues about being the writer of anything is that you tend to get a little over-looked. The next time you're out and about in London and you see a show poster, see how often the name of the writer is displayed. Not very, is the answer. At the UK Theatre Awards Brass was billed as "performed by the NYMT, directed by Sara Kestelman." Even the award for best playwright was announced by the name of the show rather than by its writer! It is, of course, part of the writer's duties to put up with this. Nathan reminded me yesterday that being in the limelight is what turns a level-headed individual into a crazy person who craves more and more attention, and I guess there's a massive element of truth in that.

Anyway, once we'd arrived at the harbour at Rye, eaten something, and my godson Will had come bounding over to say hello with a huge pleased-to-see-me smile on his face, the panicking began to subside.

A picnic on a pebble beach in October oughtn't to have worked, but I actually sat for much of the day in just a T-shirt, despite having brought scarves and hats and things.

We had drinks in a little pub overlooking the harbour where the locals ignore the smoking ban in the back half of the bar. The landlord obviously didn't like the cut of my jacket, because he kept me waiting to be served as long as he could, and then charged me a whopping £7.80 for two pints of lemonade! A couple of pints of beer would have been cheaper... In Soho! Plainly he saw me coming. I did the terrible English thing of paying without questioning anything and then whinged for hours afterwards!

We went into the town of Rye which is a mile or so in land from the harbour. It's a beautiful and ancient town, which winds up and down a hill. A curious observation we made about the shopping street was that there seemed to be a lot of shops hanging out in pairs. There were two old-fashioned sweet shops, two shops which sold natural remedies and vitamins right next to one another, and even more curiously, two pharmacists literally sharing a wall. I went in to buy Gaviscon and asked the woman behind the counter how it worked to have two shops selling the same stock next to each other. "It's brilliant" she said, "we share medicines when we run out of stock, and often, if we don't sell it, they do..." Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

Anyway, we bought sweets, ate chips and then went back to Meriel's house in Lewes. The last part of the trip was a bit of a disaster in terms of timings. Nathan, who is off to Belgium in the morning, had booked a hotel for himself in Folkstone (further East than Rye) and yet the journey to Lewes took us over an hour in the opposite direction. There was no way around it, however, as there weren't enough spaces in cars to get me back there any other way.

So essentially we had a quick cup of tea and a gander at Meriel's new house before I had to take a train back to London and Nathan had to drive for a couple of hours past Rye again and back to Folkstone. Frankly, it would have been quicker and cheaper for us both to drive back to London and for Nathan to head to Folkstone first thing in the morning!

Still, it was worth going to Lewes to eat the delicious and highly camp cake which Meriel had saved from the jaws of disaster with some hastily improvised decorating skills! A great day all round.

Friday, 24 October 2014


I deliberately opted to start a days' work in Julian's studio at 10.30am today, assuming the later start would avoid the rush hour, and the overly-crowded tubes which I've started to dread. How wrong I was. The carriage was full of steaming, sweaty people and I ended up sandwiched between a Dutch woman holding a toddler and a man with such hairy ears he was suffering from dandruff!

I love working in a recording studio. My days with Julian are always special and always start the same way. I exit the DLR at Limehouse and go to the local 7/11 to buy cakes, tea and milk for anyone working with us that day.

Julian works from a small studio deep inside an old Victorian factory situated at the end of the fabled Cable Street. It's an absolute hive of creative activity. As you walk through the corridors of the building, you pass hundreds of doors, each with a fashion designer, a musician, an artist or a crazy bohemian inside. I'm told there are dominatrixes working within the complex, and rooms where trans-people gather together to try on dresses and chat.

Julian's studio is at the end of the longest, dustiest corridor. It's filled with curios; bizarre microphones, crazy keyboard instruments, chairs and sofas with the stuffing coming out of them... But it's a home from home. I always feel very happy there because it means I'm creating.

Today's mission was to record a potential song for Eurovision. The BBC have called for submissions. It's very hard to know how serious they are about it. One assumes the moment EMI pops up with a "young artist with a great look", the search for songs from members of the public will instantly come to an end, but because I made such a big deal about them giving opportunities for writers, it's vital that I put my money where my mouth is... And not to put too fine a point on things, I'm offering them a million pound package. Nathan and I have created the Eurovision holy trinity: great song, great singer, great gimmick. Years of Eurovision appreciation has taught me what the competition needs and if the BBC think that's an arrogant statement and would like to cut me down to size then all they have to do is give me the rope to hang myself with. If that's not mixing deathly metaphors...

My worry is that the people who have been put in charge of Eurovision at the BBC don't know the art form well enough, and will simply think that a pretty bird, with an edgy song has a hope in hell of winning. The UK needs to play a sneakier game.

I can't really say too much about the song itself. What I can say is that the singer is Alison Jiear, who sang Yellow at our wedding, but is perhaps better known for her performance of I Just Wanna F***ing Dance in Jerry Springer: The Opera.

The experience of working with her in the studio is quite remarkable. She came in, ate Jaffa cakes, had a cup of tea and then a coffee, a quick warm-up singing through with the track, and then nailed it in two takes. Two takes! If that isn't a sign that she needs to be representing the UK, singing live in front of 500 million people then I don't know what is. We're talking the most astounding vocal tricks. Two takes. No auto tune. No moving stuff around. Two takes!

I shall be devastated if the BBC don't take this entry seriously, and frankly, if they don't, I shall enter it next year for a different country and then spill the beans. And that's a promise! I'm waiting. Eurovision, come and get me.

Peace and love

I heard today of the death of someone I was at school with. He wasn't in my form, but he was in my year group. He was disabled, and so people are queuing up to say how brave he was. I can't comment on the level of his bravery in later life, but it struck me at school that he was simply getting by with the tools that God had given him. Sometimes I think we rather patronisingly describe anyone who lives with a life-altering condition as brave, regardless of whether they're actually brave or not!

Anyway, it's very difficult for me to think about this bloke without remembering how brutally bullying he was towards me. He may have been disabled, but he hated the gays and had extraordinary upper body strength, which one day found him throwing me over a wall and into a thorny bush! It's understandable really; the bully-or-get-bullied culture in schools was so prevalent in those days that he was obviously simply being nasty to me because so many others were being nasty to him, just as I was horribly cruel to a tragic young lass called Amanda whose face was shaped like a spoon. It certainly can't have been easy to have grown up disabled in a Midlands Town and I suspect he had to overcome a huge amount of prejudice, which was possibly more hidden and subtle than what came my way because, even then, it was unacceptable to be unpleasant to disabled people... At least to their faces. We have Blue Peter to thank for that!

What is sad about all of this is that, because I ran away from the town where I grew up, largely due to incidents of this nature, it's impossible for me to know how some of these people from school developed and bloomed in adult life. I'm sure this particular lad grew into a wonderful, gracious, tolerant and genuinely brave individual. And at times like this I need to remind myself of the thing I've always argued about gay people, namely that we need to rise above the blame game. Homophobia happened. It shouldn't have, but those who gave people a hard time for being gay can't be blamed because they simply weren't given the facts. It's a marvellous thing that the UK, within my life time, has rejected and indeed reversed homophobia. In fact, one of the heads of Channel 4 said to me the other day that the film of our wedding made him feel genuinely proud to be British. Gay people, it turns out, have have a much easier ride than disabled people, to the extent that Our Gay Wedding: The Musical tanked at a recent diversity awards, largely because I think our concept of diversity these days no longer includes sexual minorities.

So I very much hope that my school chum rests in peace, and that he genuinely found peace and love in his time here on earth.