Sunday, 25 September 2016

Margaret Drayton (novelist)

Yesterday was a day of extreme travel, which started in Leeds and then continued in Manchester and Stoke on Trent before concluding in Market Drayton...

I had a very lovely walk across Manchester from Victoria station to Piccadilly which took me through the Northern Quarter which felt like a very special place, full of cool-looking cafes and funky independent shops. I have traditionally been quite down on Manchester, largely because it's either rained or snowed every time I've ever been, but also because it has a confidence which hitherto struck me as misplaced arrogance. I've been hearing really good things about the arts scene up there recently, however, and, as a result of yesterday's charming walk, I think it's time for me to get over myself and start getting into the place. I certainly saw a lot of people wandering around who looked like members of my tribe. I'm going to take one of young Josh's tours of the city to see if he can further convince me.

The journey from Manchester to Stoke was uneventful, but it gave me a chance to finish the brass fanfare I've been writing for the NYMT concert, which I have dedicated to Jeremy Walker for all the hard work he does behind the scenes for that organisation.

I had a cup of tea in the cafe in the station and was served by two of the grumpiest men I've ever encountered behind a counter! Their behaviour went beyond rude and back into the realm of charming!

Nathan picked me up from the train station and we made the shortish journey to Market Drayton where my mother-in-law, Celia was celebrating her 70th birthday at the British Legion club.

We spent the afternoon helping to set up the room, or, more specifically keeping those who were doing the work company. I had a little sleep, we changed into glad rags, and the evening unfolded majestically. It's was a really lovely event. Huge swathes of Nathan's family were there and the highlight was almost certainly the entire room standing in a circle, holding hands and singing along to the family song: Gerry and the Pacemaker's You'll Never Walk Alone.

Celia had thought about every tiny detail of the evening, even down to her placing a basket filled with perfumes, breath mints, safety pins, heel plasters and Tena lady pads in the loos for anyone who needed them! There was a caricaturist, Snoopy The DJ, a short cabaret performed by Nathan, Sam and the kids, and a huge photo frame hanging from the ceiling provided by Nathan's cousin Leanne, which came with a table full of fancy dress items to wear whilst having your picture taken. Celia had even organised a coach to pick people up from various B and Bs and hotels in the area so that people didn't need to book taxis. It was a perfect night.

Nathan's enormous family continue to amuse and bemuse me. I still can't get my head around all the names, and the specific nature of their relationship to each other. There's a lot of confusing intergenerational madness going on, with cousins and things the same age as uncles and aunts and vice versa. My family are so much more simple by comparison. I have one aunt, one uncle, two brothers and four cousins. That's it!

The evening ended with a small group of us releasing helium balloons into the night air, whilst remembering absent friends.

Actually, the evening didn't quite end there... We returned to Celia and Ron's house at the end of the night, and were just getting ready to go to bed when one of Celia's neighbours (who'd been at the party) arrived in a bit of panic. The coach which had been laid on to take people back to their hotels had been hit by a car whilst crossing over a dual carriageway. Ten of the guests were still on board and the car which had ploughed into the coach was a complete write off. Fortunately no one was seriously injured. Some of the car's passengers were trapped in the car until the emergency services arrived (35 minutes later) and a lot of those on the bus were suffering from a bit of shock. But no one was seriously injured, thankfully. Celia, of course, is devastated but I genuinely think that everyone involved in the crash will feel hugely grateful that it wasn't a lot worse, and will probably grow to love to tell the story of when they returned from a 70th party and ended up in a mega accident! It's certainly the mother of all anecdotes.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Stop whinging about Bake Off!

I'm in Leeds. I'm eating breakfast in a Travelodge, feeing rather chuffed because it's proper food rather than one of those weird breakfast boxes, with the hideous reject Nestlé cereals in little tubs with built in pots of long life milk and manky granola bars which make your heart sink.

This morning an odyssey begins which sees me travelling from Leeds to Manchester, before changing train stations in Manchester and heading to Stoke, where Nathan picks me up and we travel to Shropshire for my mother-in-law's 70th birthday. Confusingly I have arrived at Leeds station to discover that two trains leave for different stations in Manchester at exactly the same time. You couldn't make it up!

I booked my tickets via, who have become my least favourite people as a result. A pre-ordered ticket from Leeds to Stoke ought to have cost £42. This journey involves a change in Manchester. If, however, you have the foresight to book the two journeys separately, the cost plummets to £7.50! Yes, of course I feel a little smug, but the cost of rail travel in this country shouldn't be a lottery which can only be won by the sneaky, and those who happen to book their tickets when some sort of sale is on.

I decided to travel with a "mobile" ticket. Normally with the Trainline, you are given scores of individual tickets including seat reservations and receipts, which tumble out of a machine in the train station and royally clog up your wallet. A mobile ticket, however, sits on your phone and saves your wallet from splitting at the seams. It's a good idea, although I'm not quite sure what happens when your phone gets nicked as you whip it out to go through the barriers! The problem, I discovered yesterday morning, is that the seat reservation information is on a separate screen to the QR code which you present at the barriers. I literally couldn't find the information I needed and got into something of a panic at King's Cross whilst looking for it. Cut to me calling up the company, and instantly being transferred to a call centre in India where the woman asked me repeatedly for different numbers: passenger number, ticket number... all of which she plainly typed in wrongly because she kept telling me the system had nothing which matched. I kept trying to tell her that all I needed to know was where on my Trainline app or mobile ticket I could find the information I needed. "What is your email address?" She asked. I told her. "This email address is not on our system." "Of course it is. I get spam from you guys every week..." She put me on hold. In the meantime, I approached the man on the ticket barriers who instantly showed me where to find my seat reservation and that was that. I hate the fact that the Trainline think it's acceptable to have a call centre in India. Nathan gets very angry with me when I get all aerated about this particular issue, but I feel very strongly that it's easier all round if someone on the end of a travel line has detailed knowledge of the geography of a country, and, indeed, how the peculiarly eccentric British place names are both pronounced and spelt. I waste so much time spelling things out. It's hopeless. Had I been put through to a call centre in the UK, the person I was speaking to would almost certainly have had the app on their own phone and would have been able to answer my question in seconds without the rigmarole of asking for all those ludicrous numbers. My heart sinks when I hear someone with an Indian accent telling me their name is Roger or Belinda or Sharon, because I instantly know they'll have a script in front of them which will ultimately lead to my being forced to ask to speak to their boss, who is only slightly more qualified to answer the question I'm asking!

I was in Leeds all day yesterday for a meeting. I can't be more specific than that. I already suspect it's not going to come to anything, even though I'd really like it to. I do love Leeds. It's an honest, buzzing city. I love wandering around the market and seeing the different stalls selling crazy combinations of items. There's one stall which resembles a jumble sale with piles and piles of seemingly random items of clothing careless strewn across a trestle table. A group of women were picking various items up, giving them a shake and holding them up against themselves. For a moment I felt a little sad for them before realising that they were perfectly happy, and plainly enjoying their search for a bargain.

I had lunch in the market. The man who served me called me "kid". Instant bonus marks. And then The Name of the Game by ABBA came on the radio. I knew I'd chosen well!

One of the things I forgot to mention last night in my blog is that our American adventure next year is costing us 10-15% more than it would have done had we booked before the Brexit vote, which, for a holiday as expensive as this one, is rather a lot of money. I'm not sure what else to say about the matter other than that if you voted Brexit... Thanks...

Speaking of Daily Mail readers, I was appalled to read the headline on that dirty rag as I sat on the train yesterday. "Sweet loyal Mary and a greedy rat." The piece was obviously about the Great British Bake Off and was written by that odious homophobe, Jan Moir. It was plainly admonishing Paul Hollywood for his decision to follow Bake Off across to Channel 4, like Channel are some kind of terrible money-grabbing organisation and working for them is akin to selling your soul to the devil. Channel 4 are a risk-taking, bold, brave and wonderful broadcaster, who I am proud to have worked with on many occasions over the years. So what if Paul Hollywood wants to work for them? The arrogant party in this particular story is the BBC for refusing to pay top dollar to keep one of its programmes and thereby putting its presenters in the dreadful situation where they have to make this sort of choice in a public arena. A message to the BBC: stop resting on your laurels, stop whinging about losing Bake Off and whipping up public opinion against those who dare to show loyalty to the production company rather than the broadcaster, and get out there and focus on making the kind of shows which make the BBC the envy of the world. End of rant.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Talking too loud

A very posh woman was talking incredibly loudly in Costa Coffee this morning. I couldn't see her, but I could hear every word she shouted. She was telling her friend (and the rest of the cafe) about the improvements she was having done on her house. Very loudly. Her home was obviously larger than it's possible to comprehend and she wanted us all to know about it. I'm afraid I found myself assuming that it wasn't her personally who'd paid for this enormous house and its phenomenally expensive alterations. I'm pretty sure a wealthy husband or a doting father would have played his part. And if that's misogynistic of me, then she shouldn't have been talking so loudly!

I have been working on a two minute fanfare to kick off the National Youth Music Theatre's West End Gala at the Adelphi Theatre at end of next month. I've been asked to use themes from Brass, so I'm quoting Billy Whistle, When You're A Pal, The Last Post and Reveille. I've done a first pass, but just need to let it sit and breathe for a while. Obviously it needs to have impact and a sense of occasion, but I'm equally aware of my slight tendency to, as Nathan puts it, "never knowingly underscore..."

This afternoon I worked on a new song from Em. I'm experimenting with reconstituting the chorus from another song in the show and allowing it to appear as in a very different musical setting. Andrew Lloyd Webber did something similar with Oh What A Circus and Don't Cry For Me Argentina. It's a quite useful device because it means an audience is more likely to leave the theatre humming a tune - and this seems to be one of the most important factors people use when judging the success of a musical. One of the big problems with new musicals is that people only tend to see a show once. Reviewers particularly will tend to predict that a show's melodies won't last the test of time purely because they're hearing stuff for the first time. In the case of Brass, particularly when it came to the re-written version, I used scores of leitmotivs; little two and four bar melodies which cropped up all over the place. Some of these tunes had significance. There was a death theme, for example, which the audience hears for the first time in the Prologue, when Bickerdike convinces Morrie to lie about his age in order to sign up. It's a fairly upbeat, innocuous scene, but the decision Morrie makes at that moment will ultimately lead to his death. I quite like the fact that the underscore at this point foreshadows this.

This evening we went into central London to finally book our amazing holiday to the States next summer. We've paid our deposit. It's all happening. Very exciting. I'm not sure I've ever had something in my diary that far in advance. I found myself wondering what will be happening in our lives in eleven months' time. What projects will have happened by then? What world events will have shocked us all? And most crucially, will I be fat or thin!?


So here's a conundrum: We woke up about a week ago to discover a rather large tree branch on the patio of our garden. It was the morning after highish winds, so we merely assumed that the branch had fallen from the tree above the patio during the night, and thought nothing of it until a closer inspection revealed that the tree branch belonged to a different type of tree! We have an ash tree in our garden and the branch of came from a sycamore tree. There are no sycamore trees anywhere near our garden. The branch has obviously been picked up and transported. It's still there. The leaves have crinkled up a little, but every time I pass it I wonder how the imposter branch actually got there. Is there a species of poltergeist which specialises in tree transference?

I worked at Jackson's Lane in the morning. A group of elderly people were sitting in the cafe waiting to have their first rehearsal for a play they're putting on. It's the sort of initiative I approve of immensely. There's so much in this world which is specifically aimed at young people, and all too often, the very old are entirely overlooked. The rate of loneliness is so high in this generation, and yet, we have so much to potentially learn from them. It makes no sense to me.

This evening I went down to Embankment Pier and boarded The Silver Sturgeon to assist on a quiz, which was a lot of fun. We went up the Thames as far as the Isle of Dogs. I wanted to wave at Brother Edward as we passed his house, but he was in Barcelona. Looking at Canary Wharf from the river is quite an experience. The lights from the buildings are almost blindingly bright and reflect on the ink black water rather perfectly.

We were running the quiz for an international crowd, mostly European, which meant no one was too cool for school, too pissed to care, or had too many chips on their shoulders about not being bright enough to do a quiz. All of these factors add up to a good time for all. Everyone was charming, dignified, polite and set out to have fun without feeling the need to get so pissed that they fell overboard or vomited all over the soft furnishings. Proof, if any more proof were needed that I view myself as European. I feel more comfortable in the presence of Europeans and feel proud that I share a commonality with them.

I got home to find that Nathan had been locked out of the house and had been taken in like a waif and stray by Little Welsh Nathalie downstairs. They'd spent the night making cookies for the great British Bake Off which we iced when I got home. I made a marmalade paste to smear onto the biscuits before topping them with melted chocolate and dried cherries. Down boy! They were delicious.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

This film makes me want to...

We're on the A1 in Huntingdonshire, heading south. I appreciate that Huntingdonshire is no longer a recognised British county, but I can think of no better way of describing the area we're in! There's a nip in the air and it feels a little misty. Autumn is definitely rolling in. I'm wearing a jacket and I haven't yet boiled over...

We've been to see Lisa, Mark and the kids this evening, and spent the most charming evening sitting around their kitchen table, eating fajitas, watching videos of boils being lanced on YouTube and hearing all about young Poppy's school. At one point she appeared with her timetable, which fascinated me for some reason. It was rather lovely to see the list of subjects. I remembered my own timetable, and how I used to dread certain days and look forward to others. I hated Tuesdays. We had double science and maths on Tuesdays. I loved Wednesdays. Double music in the afternoon, my drama club in the evening and The Kids From Fame on the telly to cap off a perfect day.

Driving back down the A1 is always a highly nostalgic experience, not only because of the musical film I made about the road, but because we lived for several years in Potton, just a few miles from the road in Bedfordshire. You can see Sandy Hill and the iconic television mast from the road. I used to play with a girl who lived in a mobile home, next to a pig farm in a wood underneath that mast. I remember that the television reception was actually really bad at hers. I think she lived too close to the mast for it to be effective. We used to eat fish fingers and vinegar-soaked chips. That's actually my last remaining clear memory of eating meat. I became a vegetarian in 1981 when I was about seven. Quite why I was hanging out in a mobile home on a pig farm in a wood underneath a giant television aerial is beyond me... but it was the 1970s, and at the same time I was also hanging out on a CND commune, and my brother's best friends were gypsies on a massive encampment on the outskirts of the town! Ah! Those were the days.

I was contacted by a chap yesterday who sent me the most curious and rather flattering email:

"My friends and I have become a little obsessed with your work. In particular, Tyne and Wear Metro, Coventry Market and Watford Gap. We quote them constantly and must viewed each upwards of 8 times. I digress, each year we hold a small awards ceremony for the best Vines (the 6 second twitter films) made within our circle of friends and would love it if you could provide a prize for one of the awards. Do you have any signed photos or memorabilia that you would be kind enough to send? I'd be more than happy to cover any costs this would incur on you!"

I have sent them a few pages from the original musical manuscripts I wrote for the Metro film. I hope it's the sort of thing they'll appreciate! It's always really lovely to hear from people who enjoy that particular trilogy of films. They divide people massively, and for ages I felt very embarrassed about them because so few people seemed to understand that they were written from a place of humour and certainly weren't meant to be taken too seriously.

Tyne and Wear Metro: The Musical continues to divide people on YouTube. It's now had 110k views but the latest viewer comment says: "this video makes me want to change species!" I'm actually still chuckling inanely to myself about that particular remarks! It's one of the better disses and probably only topped by the person who wrote, "this is the worst thing to happen to the North East since Margaret Thatcher!"

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The ghost of Maurice

I'm returning from central London to Highgate after an evening at the new writers' cabaret in the Phoenix Artists' Club, better known to people my age as Shuttleworth's.

It's such an important evening. It's essentially an opportunity for writers to try new material out without any pressure or any sense of not being good enough performers. Some are better writers than they are pianists or singers, others are brilliant pianists and not the best singers in the world, but the important thing is that there's a community of us who are out there, doing stuff, flying the flag for contemporary British musical theatre. It's such a supportive atmosphere. Everyone cheers and claps, and then hangs about afterwards saying lovely things to one another. I'm pretty convinced that the only way we're ever going to raise the profile of British musical theatre writing is by events of these nature. We need to form a united lobby and tell the world that we're here, we're fierce and we're not going shopping. Okay, I'll work on the slogan!

I took Ben Mabberley with me to sing the titular track from the song Em. I borrowed the word titular from one of the other writers who mentioned the word when describing his song. It made me laugh because it has the word tit in it. It's also quite a useful word. I might have used "eponymous" to describe the song in the past, but have only heard that word in association with central characters rather than songs. In a pop album, Em would be known as the title track.

Anyway, Ben did a brilliant job. That boy has a fine, fine set of chops on him, and I always enjoy introducing him to new groups of people. He told me he'd had a lovely evening and loved meeting the gang, so that was good. We rehearsed during the afternoon at my house and everything went rather smoothly. Sadly, this evening, I was ropier than I've been at previous similar cabarets in the past. It's a more difficult song, but, by this afternoon, I had it completely under the fingers. Sadly, the piano at Shuttleworths is a different beast to mine at home. It has an extra octave at the top, and the keys are higher. I know, I know: a bad workman always blames his tools. If truth be told, I got a crippling case of the heeby-jeebies and spent the entire performance focussing on overcoming my nerves instead of playing the notes I'd practised. I was disappointed with myself.

Hysterically, one of the other writers, a hugely charming Eastern European fellow, has written a show called "N"! So M followed N! This messed with the heads of anyone in the audience with OCD!

The lovely Siobhan from BBC Coventry and Warwickshire came and met us at Shuttleworths for a high-speed catch-up before the cabaret started. As ever, it was truly wonderful to see her. I reckon me and Shiv could take over the world if we put our minds to it. She is one of those incredibly rare BBC producers who is deeply creative without being stifling or patronising to the creative people she works with. She was talking today about the need for people in her position to try to understand the mentality of an artist. Creative people don't always behave in a corporately appropriate manner. We don't always understand or even respect the rules or etiquettes of the institution we've been brought into, and we don't approach work in the same manner - often taking things a great deal more personally than the people they're working with. We allow ourselves to be walked all over because we don't want to lose the contracts, but the moment we raise concerns, we're described as difficult. So often employers will inadvertently make us feel like they're doing us a favour by employing us. It's all too easy to accuse a creative person of being difficult when actually they're behaving in a way which is actually symptomatic of the way they're being handled. It was rather lovely to hear someone saying some of these things.

The charming staff at Shuttleworths got chatting to us, and I mentioned the olden days when the irascible Maurice, former owner of the place, would drag up and perform eccentric lip sync'd dance routines to musical theatre songs. He died four or so years ago, but his ashes are still in an urn in the building! He's also rumoured to haunt the place. The bar staff have all heard strange noises and seen weird shapes floating about in their peripheral vision. To me, having known Maurice in life, it doesn't surprise me whatsoever that he would haunt the place after his death. He was synonymous with Shuttleworths. That building creaks under the weight of its theatrical significance.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Booking a hollybob

Nathan and I drove into town today and parked outside Liberty's! It felt highly decadent and weird to be able to pull up and park somewhere so central. The shops were open. Tourists were drifting about. It felt very much like a week day and seemed highly counterintuitive and naughty to park on a single yellow lines. We half expected to return to find a clamp, or to have had the car towed away. No matter how sure you are of the rules, there's always some technicality the bastards can get you on. There are many streets in London, for example, which have different regulations on the different sides of the road. Southwood Lane in Highgate where we park our car is one such road!

Anyway, we were in town to meet Sam and Matt, and we had a rather jolly little lunch in my new favourite Greek restaurant on Brewer Street. I had borek: delicious little triangular filo pastry parcels filled with spinach and feta cheese. Lovely with a salad and paprika sprinkles...

We were going to eat at the new vegetarian version of Pret A Manger on Broadwick Street, but it's proved too popular and was full to the rafters! It was designed as an experimental pop up, but we read today that it's just been made a permanent fixture.

The purpose of our trip into central London was to take another step towards booking our holiday of a lifetime to USA next summer. We're driving coast to coast and have now planned our route through the central of America, taking in a load of the sorts of places I've hitherto only dreamed of visiting. We're doing it all: Grand Canyon. Monument Valley. San Fran. DC. NYC. The travel agent is going to spend Tuesday putting a package together for us, and, all being well, on Thursday, we'll be able to go in and pay for it. I think we all started to get a bit of a rush of excitement, and a sense that it is actually going to happen now. It's no longer a crazy pipe dream!