Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Eurovision boo

My dear friend Jo came to stay with us last night. She'd been rehearsing with an impro troupe in Islington and needed a place to crash, so we stayed up into the wee smalls, laughing hysterically at YouTube videos whilst drinking cups of tea. It made me miss the old days a little. A whole gang of us used to have all sorts of adventures together. Picnics, trips to the seaside and parties where we'd dance for hours on end. I'm hoping those carefree days will return at some point, when the kids are a little bit older and everyone's settled into the routine of who they actually are as opposed to who they long to be. It strikes me that almost everyone my age longs for something they don't have, be that kids, or a loving partner, or money, or happiness, or, in my case, a mortgage, a roof terrace, a pension and job security!

Julian and I spent the day in the Crouch End Vicarage, slowly working our way through the rest of the Oranges and Lemons mix. I'd had a mini-freak out in the night after listening to our end-of-day-one rough mix and deciding, as I always do at this stage, that I'd written something hopelessly dense and utterly pointless. Today, however, we took a deep breath and worked through the piece bar-by-bar, slowly polishing every hemi-demi-semi quaver until we started to see the gold hidden in the concrete.

Yesterday I extolled the virtues and inherent speed of the Victoria Line. Today I find myself forced to retract almost everything I previously wrote! The Victoria Line was on a go-slow today, literally crawling from station to station, just when I needed it to go quickly. The same recorded announcement came over the tannoy system every three minutes informing us that we were being held at a red signal. The driver eventually announced that the delays had been caused by someone pulling the emergency cord on a train somewhere ahead of us. I sincerely hope whoever pulled it did so in a genuine emergency situation. Rule number one: If you get into trouble in London, no one actually cares. In fact, you can consider yourself a nuisance if you don't have the decency to slink off somewhere convenient to have your heart attack.

I don't know what it is about me running late for Eurovision events. In fact, the one time I actually got to see the contest live (1998, Birmingham) the train broke down outside Northampton for five hours and the contest had started before we were on the move again. I don't think I've ever been so distressed!

As we pulled into Earl's Court (having changed onto the Piccadilly Line) the announcement came through that the train would be stopping "half in and half out of the station to enable Underground staff to go onto the tracks to retrieve an object!" We weren't told which object. I would have liked minute-by-minute running commentary by the driver, but none was forthcoming. Minutes later, the train was held in the platform to regulate the service. There was a collective sigh of "whatever next" from people in the carriage.

So, this evening I was heading to the 60th anniversary Eurovision concert at the Hammersmith Apollo. The last time I came here was to see Kate Bush. That place certainly allows me to tick off all my obsessions one by one!

Highlights of the evening were almost certainly seeing Brotherhood of Man singing Save All Your Kisses for Me and Nicole giving a rendition of A Little Peace. Both songs instantly took me back to scenes from my childhood, aided hugely by the presence of Brother Edward, who kept reminding me of little memories of his own. My first strong recollection of Eurovision was from the year Bucks Fizz won. 1981. I remember my Dad saying that if we scored more than (I think) seven points in the final vote, the UK would have won, and thinking how clever he was to know that.

The whole thing was being televised and will be shown on Friday night. I felt genuine pride when the entire auditorium erupted into jeers and boos at the mention of Russia. I am appalled the BBC opted to include a Russian act in this particular celebration. For starters it's not fair on the performer, but for puddings, there's no place in Eurovision for Russia whilst it has draconian anti-gay laws. As a result I believe the audience responded with appropriate noises. Sadly, we were later duped into cheering. The warm-up man came on a few songs later and said, "we're going to get some shots of you all cheering and smiling now..." It was plain to me that this was the emergency band aid for the Russian catastrophe, but the audience fell for it, buoyed up and excited by the presence of Loreen, so you'll be able to watch all of us  cheering wildly for Russia. Just know we weren't. Not even slightly!

The absolute coup de theatre was Conchita Wurst and Dana International appearing from behind a screen singing Abba's Waterloo. The room erupted with trans-pride. That, right there, encapsulated the joy and importance of Eurovision. Love or hate its campery and cheese, an extremely important political message about tolerance and equality was sent out tonight. If only every day Russians were allowed to see it.

Sunday, 29 March 2015


It's our first wedding anniversary today. We kicked off the celebrations in a rain storm up at Alexandra Palace, which is, of course, where we got married. We thought it would be rather nice to go up there exactly a year on to evoke a few memories and see if the old place was still looking fabulous. The hope had been to take Nathan's photo for the front cover of the Pepys album up there, but rain very firmly stopped play!

Spring must have come very early last year, because it was only when we were standing there this morning, shaking and shivering in the sheeting rain that we realised how lucky we'd been with the weather on our wedding day. It was glorious this time last year. The sun shone. The guests wandered around the boating lake eating ice creams, and the blossoms were in full bloom. Today they were barely visible.

As we drove up this morning, both of us felt a little flutter in our tummies recalling the nerves we'd felt as we took the taxi up to the Palace with Nathan's sister on our big day. Nathan grabbed my hand and pointed to our rings: "we weren't wearing these twelve months ago..."

We drove from Ali Pali to Huntingdonshire to meet up with Lisa and Mark and celebrate three things: the life of their son, my honorary God-son, George, the second birthday of their daughter Rosie, and our wedding anniversary.

When we arrived - late of course because the clocks had gone forward - Lisa told us that she had a present for us in the sitting room, and as we walked in, four people popped up like Jack-in-boxes from behind the sofa. It took us both a few seconds to compute that Philippa, Dylan, Deia and Silver had travelled up to Huntingdon to spend our special day with us. It was a wonderful, wonderful surprise and we both felt very deeply touched. They all met at the wedding, but Lisa and Mark and Philippa and Dylan come from different parts of our extended friendship groups, so it was rather surreal and quite pleasurable to see them all together in one space. The kids got on famously, Philippa and Lisa seem to adore one another, and Mark and Dylan instantly disappeared into the study to play songs from the musical Matilda, and look at Mark's drums for what seemed like hours!

Lisa cooked a lot of stunning food for us, mostly things from the Ottolenghi cook book, which, for a veggie, is a huge treat. Chilli-infused halloumi? Not 'arf!

We went for a lovely walk in Spaldwick village, which I learned today (due to community activity) has some of the fastest broadband in the country. It's also the only place I know whose village shop is also a delicatessen!

We went to the blustery churchyard to see little George's grave, which looks beautiful covered in primroses. The last time I visited this particular church was during his funeral when hundreds of white helium-filled balloons were released into the air. I will never forget the beautiful image of them all flying up to heaven with little messages attached, silhouetted against the bright spring sunshine.

There was a last-minute dash to the train station in Huntingdon to get Philippa, Dylan and the kids to their train. We went via Brampton, erstwhile home of Pepys, and passed Hinchingbrooke, the ancestral home of his Pepys' supporter and cousin, Lord Sandwich.

I didn't sleep at all last night. My mind was full to the rafters with thoughts and worries about films and projects, so when I got back from the station, I had a lovely sleep, like a little old man, on the sofa.

We came home and went back to Ali Pali. It felt right to start and finish our day there, and, because it was dry again, we were finally able to take Nathan's photograph, in front of the glorious rose window up there which was glowing like some kind of mystical orb, whilst the lights of London twinkled and fluttered in a sea of darkness.

Tyres, trenches, tea and tarts

I was up incredibly early this morning and on the road before 9am, taking the westerly M25 route around London to a little village just outside Gatwick Airport.

The car journey was eventful for two reasons. Firstly, because I overshot the exit for the M23 by a miserably embarrassing twenty miles. I was in some kind of trance, listening to ABBA, and suddenly realised I was in Kent! I might have got all the way to Dartmouth, had one passing car driver not beeped his horn obsessively as he passed me whilst pointing down at my car wheel...

It turns out I was driving with a flat tyre. That was the second eventful aspect of the journey. It didn't seem to be having any affect on the car's steering, so I decided to crawl to my destination before stopping to change the wheel. I'll be honest: the process made me feel quite manly! I realise I've actually never changed a wheel on my own before.

I was in Surrey to see a reconstructed trench system, which has been dug into a field behind a farm building. It's hugely authentic: in fact it was created by First World War archeologists, so the attention to detail is staggering. There are dugouts, braziers, support trenches, and even a little railway system. We're definitely going to be using it for our promotional film for Brass.

I drove from Surrey to Catford, for the latest episode of Craft and Cake, which found me working on a project for my brother's wedding next week. Speaking of which, from about mid day today, we were blessed with a plethora of first anniversary greetings, which was a little perplexing as our anniversary is actually tomorrow. Of course we then realised that the first messages were coming from Australia, where, of course, today is tomorrow.

Craft and cake was fun. Julie had created an amazing raspberry and mango mousse cake, which was messy to serve but absolutely delicious.

From Catford we drove to Covent Garden. Jem, whilst waiting for his American visa to arrive, is living with a friend in the most beautiful penthouse apartment just off Upper Saint Martin's Lane. He cooked for six of us today, all wonderful people that we must make a huge effort to keep in touch with once he's no longer here to bring us all together. The food, as ever, was sublime. Jem is one of the best cooks I know. We're going to miss him bitterly when he joins Ian across the pond. Ian Skyped us all today from a Starbucks in the lower midtown district of Manhattan. I think he was on about 30th and 8th, which instantly made me want to be over there with him. It's far too long since I've recharged the New York batteries.

Friday, 27 March 2015


Today was meant to be a day off, but it felt like nothing of the sort. I had rather too many things to do and technology kept failing me. It was 4pm by the time I'd had my lunch, which meant for at least the three hours before I wasn't functioning as a human being. Today I had another mass storage device grind to a halt. I'm hoping this one's just an issue with cabling, which was chewed through by our per rats about three years ago. But then again, I thought Nathan's device looked fixable.

I am not quite sure where the hours of today managed to go, but I worked myself into a right old tizzy at one point. I must learn to stop doing that!

I took a trip into Muswell Hill to develop some photos, pay in a few cheques and buy some card for a crafting mission I'm presently on. I sat in a cafe, four doors along from Barclays Bank and was continually disturbed by their free wifi announcements popping up on my screen. On one hand, I think it's fabulous that Barclays wifi has such a large reach that customers in two nearby cafés can take advantage, but on the other, if you're half way trough a very tricky bar of music and your screen is suddenly filled with a box which says "would you like to log on to free Barclays wifi?" it can get somewhat irritating. Particularly when, if you tick the "no thanks" box, you're asked again in exactly ten minutes. To make matters worse, the box takes at least twenty seconds to load, during which time you can't do anything but sit and stare at it! Starbucks uses a similarly frustrating system. Frankly, I'm not keen on anything which can crash into my computer without being invited.

I went to Earl's Court this evening to see an evening of songs and monologues performed by the Earl's Courtiers in the immensely grand setting of St Cuthbert's Church, with sits on the equally impressive Philbeach Gardens. Abbie was performing. In fact, she'd also directed the evening. She sang You Have to Be There, which is from the musical Kristina by Benny and Björn off of ABBA. It's a glorious song, which she did with great dignity and aplomb. Abbie's having a bit of a rough ride at the moment, so our thoughts and prayers should all be with her and her family, particularly in the next few days.

I don't think there's much else to say about today. At midnight last night I finished the eleventh draft of Brass and sent it out to a few people for their thoughts. Quite a lot of people who saw the show felt it could do with being 15-20 minutes shorter, but only seemed to have suggestions as to what else I should add rather than any comments on what outstayed its welcome. The new draft is fairly different, yet, I'd say, less than five hundred words shorter than the last! I maintain that the overall pace of the first production was slow, however, so am hoping this version isn't going to be subjected to too many more trims. Trimming the piece is like hacking off pieces of my own flesh!

Thursday, 26 March 2015


My eyes feel like they're closing as I walk through Victoria Station. It's been a long day and I'm almost in a panic to get home. Sadly my tired feet won't carry me any faster than I'm going, despite the fact that everyone around me seems to be running like bridesmaids in a rain storm. I suppose at this time of night no one wants to miss their last train home. Returning to London after the relative calm of Hove is always a shock to the system. I'm sure I'll soon be running everywhere myself, but for a few blissful hours I'm operating at a slower speed.

There must have been some sort of storm in the night, because when I woke up this morning, the pavements in Hove were shimmering with rain water, and the sea was a yellow raging tiger.

PK and I worked our way through the last of the songs from Brass. We ended with Scared - or Sacred as Paul misread it. It's the big love song in Brass, the moment that the four protagonists realise they've fallen for each other. And of course they do so in song. Why else would I write a musical? I get sick and tired of people who don't understand the one basic rule of musical theatre. When the stakes are too high to speak, sing. And when singing isn't enough, dance. If your drama doesn't happen in music, then you've written a play and you won't have to get the MU involved!

At the end of the day, PK showed me some of the tracks he'd been working on, including I Make the Shells, which is so epic and symphonic that I secretly burst into tears!

I treated PK for lunch at a greasy spoon. The plan had been to take PK's wife, Olivia, with us, as a thank you for always cooking such lovely food when I'm working there, but she has such an astonishingly healthy diet, that the idea of fried and processed food entirely freaked her out. She genuinely couldn't imagine what anyone would manage to eat in a greasy spoon, so stayed at home and ate hummus in pitta. Meanwhile, we returned stinking of fried bacon. I suddenly saw her point!

To save money, I booked my train tickets in advance, but due to filming commitments, had to keep cancelling tickets and buying new ones. By the time I'd travelled to West Worthing and back, twice, I had exactly twenty extra tickets and receipts in my wallet. So many, in fact, that the wallet wouldn't close!

The cheapest tickets were for the latest trains, and, because we finished work at six, I sauntered back to Hove and met Fiona for tea whilst waiting for the train. We sat in Hove Station for a while, which is peopled by the most bewildered assortment of misfits I've possibly witnessed under one roof. An announcement came over the tannoy at one point about delayed trains and cancellations, which no one could hear. I went to the ticket desk to ask what the announcement was all about. "I dunno" said the man, "I couldn't hear it. I should think it was just routine..." "But it featured the word cancellation," I said, "surely that's a little more than routine..." "Oh.." He said. And that seemed to be the end of our conversation.

Another staff member just giggled nervously whilst a third, somewhere on the autistic spectrum, barked something. She looked at me: "Did you get any of that? Me neither..." Her face said it all; "we're a bit rubbish aren't we?" In fact, I think she may even have said words to that effect, prompting Fiona to comment on what a typically English thing it is to wear ones uselessness on ones sleeve. It sort of ties in with the whole supporting the under dog thing. It's okay to be rubbish, if you're bumbling and being charming at the same time.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Tyne and Wear Metro

Meriel reminded me this morning that it's exactly four years since Tyne and Wear Metro: The Musical was first aired, which means, exactly four years ago, I was in a state of confusion and shock! I'd hitherto been rather used to my films being positively received by audiences, but Metro: the Musical caused what can only be described as a disproportionate amount of mayhem!  I guess I first realised that things weren't going as smoothly as usual in the back of a taxi heading away from our premiere party. Our producer, Alistair, kept checking his iPhone and suddenly announced that the film was trending on Twitter. I didn't really know what that meant at the time, and assumed it was a good thing, until we started to look at the comments and realised the film was being utterly savaged! People were going as far as to say that piece made them feel ashamed to be from the North East and they were saying so with vitriol!

As the days went on, it was YouTube which established itself as the main battle ground.  Exactly 50% of those that saw it hated it, and because I'm a glass-half-empty type of person, I ignored the positive comments and focussed on the fact that as many people had given us the thumbs down as had opted for a thumbs up. As the days rolled on, the YouTube hits grew and grew. For at least a year I would periodically go online and force myself to look at the terrible things that people had said. I was like someone watching a road traffic accident. I couldn't look away once I'd started to drive past.

These days, of course, I'm proud to have created something controversial, something with 100,000 YouTube hits and something which has riled and excited people in equal measure, because all of these things are cited as definitions of good art. As it happens, I watched the film from start to finish twice last week and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was made with love and humour, and that's good enough for me... And the 50,000 people we can assume liked the film!

So, anyway, this time four years ago, I was in Newcastle with my entire family. We'd spent the day walking from Tyne Mouth to South Shields, via the Tyne ferry, which anyone from the region will know is a fair old hike. My family have always been big walkers but on this occasion, my mother was struggling and none of us could work out why. She continued to struggle throughout the rest of the year, really, and by the summer was in agony. Her joints ached. She could barely lift her arms above her head. Even the vibrations of cars passing on the street outside her house caused her to shudder. The doctors, of course, told her it was merely wear and tear, just as they'd told me that my whooping cough was psychosomatic. It turns out that my Mum had a condition called PMR (Polymialgia Rheumatica.) I am mentioning this fact because I know a number of this blog's readers are women of a certain age. PMR is treatable with steroids, but if left, can lead to Temporal Arteritis, which is a more serious condition, which Nathan's mother is currently getting over. PMR and TA are both more common than you might think and don't seem to be particularly high up on the list of conditions that GPs spot. Nathan's mother actually diagnosed herself! So here's the deal: If you're post-menopausal and you find yourself inexplicably aching profusely in the shoulders and neck, ask your doctor about PMR. Simple.

Today's been spent in the familiar surroundings of PK's loft in Worthing, working through three more of the tracks from Brass. The Prologue almost sent us insane. It's twice the length of any other track and vocal lines weave their way in and out like trains at Clapham Junction. A couple of performers needed an astonishing amount of remedial work and we spent hours digging out solos which had been buried under a heap of other stuff. It was epic.

Speaking of which, I've just been on an epic walk along the seafront in Brighton, from First Avenue in Hove all the way to the Brighton Marina, which must be a six mile round trip. I was accompanied on the journey by an orange crescent moon, which looked very much as I imagine the eclipse must have looked in Manchester last Thursday, with the difference that today's moon was mounted in black velvet rather than greyish skies.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Scummy Brummie

I was up with the lark this morning to drive to Birmingham with a young cameraman called Tom. For the first time in my life, I signed up to the Nathan school of navigation, which involves planning your route and then staring at street view images on google to familiarise yourself with visual landmarks which turn blue and red lines on a map into something tangible. So instead of turning off the M6 onto the A38, I turned left after seeing a weird concrete over-pass, and got into the right hand lane at a distinctive red brick church in the city centre... It's actually a lot of fun, not just because it entirely does away with the need for a map on what might otherwise be considered a fairly complicated journey, but also because it's blinking impressive to those who are in the car with you! "Have you not got sat nav?" asked Tom. "No," I said smugly, "I don't need it!"

We made it to Brum in pretty good time, where we met a bubbly lass called Tina, who talked candidly to us about her experience of diabetes. The interview happened in a whole food cafe where all the food was either vegan or dairy free, which I thought felt somewhat un-Brummy!

We were back in London by 4.30pm, feeling wiped out and achey, which was a shame, because I was back on the road again at 7, heading to Victoria Station to get the train to Fiona's house in Hove where I'm staying tonight before doing the last two days of first stage mixing on Brass.

I desperately wanted a nice quiet journey down to Hove, but the experience was blighted by a man to my right eating some kind of meat pasty which smelt like one of the kids in my form at junior school, and an enormously fat Nigerian bloke behind me who did nothing but shout a blend of English and Nigerian at the most extraordinary volume, which became almost impossible to ignore.

Fortunately he got off at Croydon, and I must have got used to the urine-biscuit-smelling pie because everything was fabulous by the time we'd passed Gatwick. That was, of course, until we got to Hayward's Heath, where the train divided, and the first four carriages went off to Hove. Sadly, when the dot-matrix machines inside the trains have been switched off, and you approach the train in the platform from the back end, there is no way on earth of telling where the first four carriages start...

The man opposite on my the table tapped me and said "this train does go to Hove, doesn't it?" "I certainly hope so!" I said, and we both laughed. I went back to my work, wondering if anyone ever ends up going to the wrong station and thinking how terrible that would be.

A second later the man opposite was legging it out of the carriage, and a fight or flight instinct told me to run after him. Just as well. We weren't sitting in the front four carriages and barely made it there before the train doors closed and we ended up somewhere ghastly!

Hove was freezing cold. It's often either very hot or very cold here. We've been told to expect temperatures around zero tonight and tomorrow, which begs the question; where on earth is spring?!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Renoir's sky

It's been one of those days when everything moves at a lightning pace. The list of things to do grew faster at the bottom than I could tick things off from the top, and we skated through the day, dealing with one pressing need after another. It was high octane!

Things kicked off with the rather good news that the Arts Council has given us a little grant to film a music video for one of the songs from Brass. This is particularly exciting because it will give us something to use when publicising our CD release and hopefully mean that more people in the world will want to engage with the Brass. Today's task was to make the first tentative steps towards booking locations and trying to fix a date for the filming that most, if not all, of the cast could do.

At about 11am, just before we were due to leave the house, I realised, in something of a panic, that the competition for which I'd recorded my Shakespeare setting with Julian on Saturday, had a closing date of today! I'd previously thought I had ages, and am incredibly relieved that something in me made me check. Of course, as with all these competitions, there were things which needed to be sent in with the MP3, including the sheet music with chord symbols attached, which is a slightly odd request, but rules is rules. So I hurriedly added chord symbols to my score, formatted everything so it looked vaguely nice, and sent the email into the ether. I hate it when you don't get an acknowledgement. There's always the dread that the email has got lost in transit, disappearing with all your hopes and dreams.

We met Fiona for lunch in Renoir in Kentish Town, which has gone right up market with fancy menus, gluten free cakes, soft lighting and potato wedges instead of fries. Our time together was all too brief. She was heading to Goodge Street to have a pair of boots mended and we were rushing to Gospel Oak to meet Lil and Cat with whom we shared a taxi to Regent's Park, where, rather bizarrely, we met Uncle Archie, and got into his car to drive to Sky TV for a meeting. Sky TV owns a sort of epic village-sized self-contained campus somewhere out towards Heathrow.

The car journey there was hugely amusing. We were all crammed into the car like little like sardines, and the seat belts in the back kept going into crash mode, which meant Nathan and Lil were periodically being throttled! At one point there seemed to be a danger that the car door wouldn't actually close with everyone inside. Cat told us that she'd fallen out of a car door as a three year old in similar circumstances, which made me laugh hysterically, largely because I remembered a school exchange trip to Germany where the door of our mini bus opened as we were going round a corner, thankfully at a very slow speed because two children on the back seat slid out! I don't remember it being too much of a crisis at the time - there certainly wasn't a law suit that I'm aware of - so I'm actually beginning to doubt my own memory.

Anyway, the meeting at Sky went well. Everyone was very friendly and rather pleased to see us, which I see as a rather good sign. The project is a terrific one, and I desperately hope it flies.

We came home via Central London where we discovered that Nathan's computer's storage device is a great deal more broken than we'd first imagined - or at least hoped. No one knows if it's even fixable, and it could be two weeks before we find out, which, if it weren't for the discovery that Joseph, our studio engineer, had kept his own copy of the Oranges and Lemons choir sessions, would have landed me firmly in the doo-doo for my mixing session on the piece next Monday!

So, we deposited Nathan's device at a repair shop on Tottenham Court Road, and headed off to the Apple Store in Covent Garden, where I spent an obscene amount of money on another storage device and a replacement computer cable for one that broke during whatever incident took out Nathan's storage device.

Someone stood up for me on the tube on the way home! Can you imagine?! In fairness I was resting my weary legs by sitting on the floor of the carriage, so he may have thought I was either disabled or mentally unstable. Nathan is fresh-faced and shaven at the moment, and I've got a big white beard, so that may also have contributed; in fact, I was slightly worried that the people at Sky might think Nathan was my son rather than my husband! Fortunately they'd all seen our wedding, so assumed he was my toy boy instead!

We came home, gobbled down some food, and then I jumped in the car and drove to Joseph's house in Dalston where all the necessary vocal tracks were transferred to my new storage device. Problem solved.

I've come home with just enough time to watch a QI semi-final before bed. Now that's a packed day!

The Man in the Straw Hat

Tonight the Fleet Singers performed The Man in the Straw Hat at St Anne's Church on the bottom of Highgate West Hill. The concert was absolutely fabulous; more fabulous than I'd imagined it could be in my wildest dreams. The choir completely raised their game, everyone focused like crazy, and some beautiful music floated into the roof of the church, which was full to the absolute rafters.

We arrived at St Anne's to find Little Welsh Nathalie and Richard covering the walls with stunning pieces of art based on words and images from the libretto of the piece. It was so exciting to think that other people had been as inspired by the project as me, and amusing to think of Nathalie making all this art based on my composition in the flat below ours!

We rehearsed the strings in the afternoon. All but one were players I've worked with on many occasions in the past, and they were universally brilliant and very forgiving when the rehearsal slightly over ran.

The audience was full of friendly faces. My Mum, Dad, Brother, Brother-in-law, Mother-in-law, Sister-in-Law, plus Jem, Tina, Meriel and Meriel's Mum, who had come all the way up from Lewes especially to see the performance, which was just lovely. I also finally got to meet a very lovely gentleman who has followed my work for the last few years, and made trips to Leeds to see Brass as well as seeing all of my London shows. He's never said hello before, so I very much enjoyed meeting him.

Hilary, Abbie and David from the Rebel Chorus gave the choir a bit of extra oomph, and, in the absence of anyone else, I sang tenor, which is not exactly something I'm cut out to do. Singing tenor is hugely tiring if you're a bass! My voice held out, surprisingly, all the way through the rehearsals and right the way to the last note, which I literally couldn't get out!

At the end of the piece I was accosted by the smiley and highly charming people who live in 31, West Hill, which is the house in which Betjeman spent the majority of his formative years. One of the poems I set to music references 31, West Hill several times. In fact, it's pretty much the first and last words sung in the entire piece, so it was genuinely lovely to have them in the audience.

I spoke to the audience at the end if the show and encouraged them to donate to the Fleet Singers, pointing out that there are very few choirs who actually commission new music and how grateful composers like me are to people like them. They're always so chanting and fun to be with. I've had a ball working with them.

We caught last orders at the Bull and Last before heading back to Nathalie and Richard's flat where I had a vodka and coke and we listened to Rumours on a proper record player. I'd forgotten what a fine album that is. It's got an almost mystical quality. Or maybe that's the alcohol speaking!

Sunday, 22 March 2015

You'll always have a friend

I'm currently walking across the Isle of Dogs, with a straw boater in one hand, a computer bag hanging from my shoulder and an incredibly heavy 'cello strapped to my back, slightly wishing that I had a shorter journey home, for the sake of my back if nothing else!

It's been a long old day, which started with a gentle morning's work in Highgate and continued with a journey to Limehouse, where I had lunch in a greasy spoon before heading to DIN, Julian's recording studio at the end of Cable Street. I love DIN, probably more than any other recording studio that I've worked in. I love walking through the corridors of the complex it's in. I love the smells of plaster, damp and dope. More than anything, I love the fact that it's the site of so many musical adventures. It's where we recorded Blast, and Hampstead Heath: The Musical, and Coventry Market, Watford Gap, A1: The Road Musical, Metro: The Musical, and, more recently Our Gay Wedding. There are little pieces of me everywhere. Sometimes I'll happen upon a piece of sheet music from a previous session. One of the mugs by the sink used to belong to me. There's a bottle of vinegar I bought about six years ago on the shelf above the microwave. I have sweated more in that studio than any other place but the gym. It's been the site of crazy adrenaline rushes, mega low sugar hypos, tears, rows and much laughter.  This is where Julian and I were almost sent mad painstakingly inputting 2000 individual bell strikes into Oranges and Lemons, and where we over-ran by six hours during sessions for the first recording of the Pepys Motet. It's also where I found out that my friend Kevin had committed suicide, so it's been the site of a veritable revolving door of mini dramas. Someone once told me that Julian and I were like an old married couple. He's certainly been more than patient with me in the past.

Anyway, today, DIN was the setting for the last studio session on Brass. We timed out at the Pool on this particular track, and considering it's one of the best, if not THE best song in the show, not recording it was definitely not an option.

Five lads from the cast came to record it. Josef, Nate, Tom, Jake and Jack. Nathan kindly stepped in to do some ensemble vocals so that there were two singers on each part. It's also nice to have his dulcet tones in the mix on one of the songs; makes it all a little more personal, somehow.

We were joined in the studio by Nate's Mum, who made delicious chocolate chip cookies, and my Mum and Dad, who arrived carrying a straw boater for Nathan to wear whilst performing The Man in the Straw Hat tomorrow. Hence why I'm schlepping my way across London carrying, amongst everything else, a bashed-up straw hat!

Of course, nothing ever goes hugely smoothly in the course of a Benjamin Till session, and today's issue was a broken mass storage device (cue PK riding to our rescue through the virtual waves like a the most brilliantly-equipped sonic life boat man in the world.)

Anyway, disasters aside, the cast sang brilliantly and it felt like such a great number to finish things off with. The NYMT kids are such a brilliant bunch of young people. My Mum was hugely impressed by their conduct and talent. I've said it before, but anyone worrying that the future is not safe with the young people of today could do a lot worse than hanging out with the original cast of Brass. Conscientious, sparky, witty, intelligent... Bravo.

After the session I hung around in the studio and Julian very kindly recorded me singing a setting of a Shakespeare song I'm entering into a competition which, I suspect, will already have been won by someone else. I am rather suspicious of competitions ever since this year's Eurovision debacle. I added a bit of 'cello to the recording, for a touch of soul. I miss playing the 'cello and must do more of it. It struck me today how happy it makes me feel.

I hot-footed it to the DLR and travelled further East where I hooked up with the parents, Brother Edward and Sascha for a delicious and enormously filling meal at a restaurant in Canary Wharf, which Edward incredibly kindly paid for.  I'm not actually sure that any of us explicitly thanked him, which is unacceptable, so Ted, if you're reading this, many thanks. You're a Mensch.

I popped back to Ted and Sascha's to watch the last remaining Eurovision songs to be announced, which include Russia's effort, which is one one those sickening "hands across the world" peace and love songs, which, from Russia, just makes me want to throw up. The video is a saccharine affair with children and old people and married heterosexual couples kissing each other. Obviously no gays were featured in this message of hope because that would be illegal. I seem to remember that one of the lyrics is "we are all the same." Yeah right. Except the gays. And the Ukranians. Bleuggghh.

Friday, 20 March 2015


This morning I made Nathan get up at shit o'clock to come with me to Hampstead Heath to witness the 89% solar eclipse. My instinct had been to jump in a car at 6am and see how far North we could drive, but Nathan had a session of physiotherapy at 11am. There's nothing like physio to thwart a gloriously spontaneous act!

Sadly, it very quickly became apparent that there wasn't going to be a sun. My weather app assured me that it would be perfect eclipse-viewing weather, but instead we had heavy, murky clouds and an impending sense of doom!

Fiona, on tour somewhere in the South of England, texted to say she'd got up early especially to see the eclipse, and was sitting in a dusty lorry park wondering why! She plays with a band called Placebo, which one of her Mum's friends wrongly heard as Placenta, and couldn't understand why she couldn't find any tour dates listed on the internet!

So, basically, the eclipse in London was a bit of a damp squib. It was noticeably darker as we walked across the Heath, and at one point there was a tangible sense that something odd was happening. The air felt heavy somehow, as though it were charged with a sort of electricity. At one point all we could hear were barking dogs and birds squawking. I genuinely think they thought it was dusk, and were doing what animals do at dusk before settling down for the night.

As we turned the corner by the men's bathing ponds we could see that people were flocking in large numbers to the top of Parliament Hill. They looked like matchstick figures in a Lowry painting silhouetted against the brooding clouds. Like the people in his famous painting heading to the football match.

We got to the top of Parliament Hill just as the eclipse reached its zenith. There was quite a big crowd up there. 300 people or more. Lots of them were sitting on rugs, looking hopefully into the sky. Lots of Heath People (a distinct breed) had tipped up with their dogs, all of which were going absolutely bananas. We met a charming elderly dog called Poppy, who just wanted to be stroked. It turned out she was the smelliest creature in carnation and we ended up having to wipe our hands on the grass. Everyone seemed in good spirits, however, and there was a lovely community vibe up there. I like the fact the people still want to experience these big events in large crowds. And all of them had obviously decided to do what the Brits do so well: make the most of a disappointing situation. I was proud of us all.

On the way back down the hill, we could feel the skies lightning, and all the birds becoming active again. The green parakeets seemed to be having a particularly pleasant time. Maybe they were being buoyed on by the bagpiper playing in the bandstand. I'd be surprised if they weren't. I've never heard a bagpiper playing with vibrato before. It made for quite an emotional experience!

There's something deeply moving about the concept of an eclipse. I think it perhaps reminds us how vulnerable we are and how transient life is. One moment the sun is there - and then suddenly it's gone.

During the 1999 UK eclipse, I was in Spain, where said eclipse wasn't actually visible. It was an odd day all round as it was also the day I split up with my last long term partner. I sat and watched the television footage of the event in our hotel room, feeling deeply homesick and weeping bitter tears as the veil of darkness engulfed my friends and family. I think the fact that it was brilliantly sunny in Spain at the time made the situation a little more surreal.

I swore at that point that I would one day witness a total eclipse, somewhere the weather wouldn't spoil the fun. There's one in California that I have my eye on in a couple of years' time.

As if the eclipse weren't depressing enough, I got on the tube to be instantly confronted by one of those people who puts the little packets of tissues on the seats with a note which basically says "I'm poor, would you like to buy some tissues for fifty pence?" Ten minutes later, a very jovial chap got on the train with a big portfolio of paintings, which he took out to show to the carriage one by one, charmingly explaining that he was part of an art collective. Of course no one bought anything. To be honest the paintings weren't very good, but I made a pact with myself to buy a painting directly from an artist the moment I have a bit of spare cash.

Anyway, I found both situations extremely troubling. There was something rather "La Boheme" about the painter with his portfolio, and the tissue salesman reminded me of the plight of some of the soldiers returning from the First World War with no jobs other than menial ones which found them walking around tourist spots with trays of ghastly nicknacks which they were forced to sell for a penny a piece.

I went to Old Street to sit in a cafe with Philippa. We sat opposite each other writing, periodically chatting and eating butternut squash soup. Before parting we walked up to Arnold Circus, that rather curious bandstand on a hillock in the centre of a late 19th Century social housing development. It's definitely one of London's most curious locations. Philippa tells me it's situated at the end if the "Strand" ley-line. It certainly has a very curious atmosphere and acoustic, which is enhanced by the tall, red-brick mansion houses which surround it on all sides. If you stand in the middle, and sing, one particular pitch rings out far louder than the rest. Funnily enough, this particular pitch is bang in the middle of my speaking range, so as we were chatting, I kept hearing certain words echoing and reverberating in the most surreal manner. I started humming the note in question and it created an almost singing-bowl-like effect. It would be a perfect place to meditate if it weren't for the gangs of Bengali yoots hanging about with looks of mischief plastered across their faces.

I came home and worked like a crazy horse. In fact, it's 10.15pm and I'm going to work some more. Nothing like an eclipse to make you reappraise your life!

Buying and selling

I became a prisoner in my own home today when I woke up to discover that Nathan had not just taken his own set of keys with him to work, but my set, AND the spare set from the kitchen draw! How this managed to happen is a mystery. I imagine his pockets were positively jangling with the sound of keys when he left the house. People must have thought he had a tambourine hidden in his jacket pocket!

I made the most of being housebound, finishing the second draft of the eleventh draft of Brass, tidying up scores for A Symphony for Yorkshire and even getting half an hour of 'cello practice in. My fingers tips, as a result, are grey from the metal of the strings and threatening to blister. It's amazing how one's body loses its stamina for such things.

It turns out that leaving the house would have been a big mistake in any case. When I finally went out, it was absolutely freezing. Proper wintry. And I was only wearing a suit jacket and a waistcoat. (Well, obviously a shirt as well, I'm not a stripper...) I don't know when we can expect spring to arrive, but it was certainly here by this time last year, when we were busy filming sequences for Our Gay Wedding, bathed in sunshine and cherry blossom.

This evening I went to The Menier Chocolate Factory to see a new show by an American friend of ours. I left myself an inordinately large amount of time to get down to London Bridge, which turned out to be a good move because the tubes were mega messed up due to an "earlier fire alert at Kennington" which apparently meant they had to "regulate the service."

The show at the Menier was called Buyer and Cellar, and told the (mostly) fictional tale of an actor who is employed to work in an Olde Worlde shopping mall in the basement of Barbra Streisand's Malibu residence. It's fictional because we don't actually know if anyone works down there, but the startling part is that Streisand genuinely has a Olde Worlde shopping mall in the basement of her home! I've seen pictures of it on the internet. She has a doll shop, a sweet shop, a gift shop and a clothes shop filled with dresses she wore in various films and Broadway shows. None of us, I suspect, will ever know what she actually does down there, but this one man show makes a number of brilliant and entertaining guesses.

It's witty and painful in equal measure, and really rather moving in places because it paints Streisand as a bit of a damaged loner, trapped in the castle her fame has forced her to build around herself.

The show is performed - brilliantly - by Michael Urie, whom English people will know as the brilliantly camp and morally dubious assistant in Ugly Betty. It's a dazzling display of comic timing, energy, commitment and focus.

It's definitely worth a watch... particularly if you're gay, or a Streisand fan, or Jewish, or, all three.

We hung out afterwards with the cast and crew, most of whom are American, with their remarkable can-do attitudes. Every time I find myself in the company of leading Broadway figures, I'm reminded why we don't do musicals well over here. We just don't respect the art form well enough.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Back to the grindstone

So Les Mis is 30 years old? I find that rather astonishing. I think I remember when The Mousetrap was 30 years old and that seemed ancient! They're presently running a campaign with a series of cast members looking suitably dramatic and glum, under the banner "thirty years on." I keep wanting to scrawl underneath, "and still no one's smiling!"

I had my first day back in the work place today, directing a corporate film about diabetes. Only I could walk away from a situation like that wondering if I myself have type two diabetes! It's certainly something which is not unknown in my family, and, as I learned today, it's very definitely a hereditary condition. Then again, I'm a fully fledge hypochondriac, so any statements I make about illness must be taken with a healthy pinch of salt.

The woman I was interviewing today was so so lovely, with big kind blue eyes. I instantly took to her and hope I've done her story justice.

We ended the shoot in a little park around the corner from her house, which she described as a "rec," a word I've not heard in many years. I instantly remembered The Rec in Higham Ferrers. "You gooing down Rec, Chunkas?" We used to ask. I relayed my memories to our contributor, who said, "why do they call them recs?" "Rec is short for recreation ground!" I said. "Oh" she replied, "I always thought it was spelt "wreck", and it confused me because I thought our rec wasn't really a wreck at all!"

Anyway, it was nice to be back in a work-shaped saddle, even though it was just for one day...

I came home and we had chips and a halloumi and salad in pitta for tea whilst watching the Big Painting Challenge. I'm beginning to rather like the artist Lachlan Goudie who is one of the experts on the show. I initially thought he was a little on the dour side, but latterly he's shown himself to have a somewhat sensitive, kind disposition.

I know nothing about painting, however. I don't understand how to appreciate visual arts, and certainly have no aptitude whatsoever when it comes to drawing and such. I do like watching painters at work, however, in the same way that I like watching anyone whose skill set is so far removed from my own.

The Big Painting challenge is a funny old format, which rather proves, in my head at least, that painters have a tendency to be slightly antisocial, somewhat sour-faced loners. The "life and soul of the party" contestants on shows like Sewing Bee and Bake Off all seem to get along famously, and be genuinely upset when one of their number has to leave. The painters are a great deal more self-centred and mono-syllabic in their interviews, and I've not yet heard one of them praising a fellow contestant's work, even in the fake way that you get on The Voice, which, come to think of it, is even more ghastly!


I ended up in Farringdon today, which is a part of London completely off my radar. It's not an unpleasant corner of the world. It's a little overfilled with advertising execs for my liking, but it's quiet and interesting-looking, with quite a lot of early Victorian buildings clinging to winding roads. The tall concrete tower at Barbican, by contrast, looms large in the distance, like something from A Clockwork Orange or 1984, reminding us never to get too complacent!

The last time I came here was in 2010. I was meeting a solicitor from the MU to talk about a hideous court case I got myself embroiled in. The memory of it still makes me shudder. Sadly, it's one of those ghastly life-events, the memory of which gets triggered periodically by women with mad eyes, or anything to do with the city of Leicester. I met the MU solicitor in the Starbucks in Farringdon and she talked me through some of the things I could expect to happen in the courtroom. She'd never have been able to predict the madness that actually occurred! When I arrived at the courtroom for the hearing, I was greeted by an entire choir, who stood on the steps, hissing music at me as a show of solidarity with the conductor I'd been forced to take to court for telling me the music I'd written wasn't soulful enough for her choir to sing! Funny old world, isn't it?

This evening we came to the RTS awards. We were in the same ballroom as the last awards ceremony we'd attended, in an almost identical spot, eating an almost identical menu.

We were up for the best arts programme and were seated on a table with our rivals in the category, none other than Grayson Perry, who rather deservedly beat us with his extraordinary Who Are You series.

There were about sixty thousand awards to sit through. Ours was up really early in the evening, so for the rest of the night we sat back, ate chocolates and counted as the huge glut of awards on the table disappeared one by one.

It was a proper star-studded occasion. As we entered, there was a huge press scrum going on with people like Sheridan Smith, Russell Tovey and Claudia Winklemen standing in front of an enormous board covered in the RTS logo.

Afterwards we met the other losers in the category, namely the makers of the BBC's Messiah at the Foundry, who proved how small the arts commissioning world is by being 1) The lovely Tom Service, whom I was at university was and 2) the equally charming Ben Weston, who was brought in to mentor me for a period when I made A1: The Road Musical. It was genuinely lovely to see them both again. They were similarly gracious losers. We were all gracious losers. That's what happens when the right programme wins! Bravo Grayson... Or that should be Clare, as she was dressed in a beautiful swishy frock tonight.

Monday, 16 March 2015

How do you pay tax on nothing?

It's 10.30pm and I'm only just returning home. I left the house eleven hours ago. I felt a very strong sense of a universe shifting this morning when I got up. The effort I've been putting into networking and job hunting finally started to reap dividends with a few little nibbles whilst I sat at the kitchen table this morning, calmly working my way through the eleventh draft of Brass. I actually made a couple of mini-breakthroughs in the Brass department as well, so by lunch time I was actually feeling fairly buoyant.

As if to compound my sense of optimism, three letters came through the post from the Jobseeker's Allowance people, reminding me that the £0 they'd paid me in the month that I'd attempted to sign on should be classed as taxable income. Great. I'll tell my accountant to make sure that my yearly income is adjusted by £0. Quite why there's no one in these offices who can point out what a silly waste of paper sending these sorts of letters is, I've no idea. And that someone thought it wise to compound the problem by sending the letter in triplicate almost beggars belief! Frankly, if you're looking to save money on the benefits system in this country, instead of taking benefits away from people who can ill afford to lose them, I'd suggest a little look at how many useless, functionally illiterate people wander around these DSS offices and how much pointless admin gets sent through the post by computers. It's disgusting really.

I went into Central London this afternoon to meet an old friend who is running a corporate filmmaking company. When I first worked with him he was about 22, and we all knew he would be a millionaire at least by the end of his life and probably a great deal sooner! His offices - which are in Covent Garden - are absolutely stunning with edit suites and wooden floorboards and fabulous views over Neal's Yard. I felt like a proud mother when I walked in! He's married now and has a house in Ealing. A proper grown up.

Nathan and I had a late lunch together at Stock Pot. I had a blueberry and apple pie whilst Nathan had the spaghetti bolognese he always eats in that place!

From Central London I took the tube to Belsize Park and walked down past the Royal Free (dodging Ebola patients) to Gospel Oak for a rehearsal with the Fleet Singers. It was their last practice before the concert on Sunday and things are slowly coming together. I was particularly proud of the tenors and basses today. The altos rather disappeared into their shells again, which was a shame, because when you coax them out, they're capable of making the most beautiful sounds. They'll get there!  They just need an injection of confidence.

I walked most of the way home. That part of town is a bit of a tricky place to get to via public transport. I would have walked even further, but the Heath looked a little murky and I was carrying a computer, so opted to take a bus from the bottom of Highgate West Hill up into the village, from whence I walked down the hill and back home.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Victorian dictionaries

We've come to Thaxted to see the parents and are currently in the sitting room lounging in front of a gloriously cozy open fire, whilst Nathan and my Mum frog a knitted lavender-coloured cardigan. I'm always horrified when I see people ripping knitting apart. I think about all the hours that have gone into creating the garment, and seeing it as wool again feels somewhat sacrilegious. My Mum says I'd never have survived in the 1950s, when people were forever knitting jumpers and ripping them back again, out of necessity mostly, but also because everyone in those good old days was obsessed with making do and mending.

It's Mothering Sunday, and Facebook is full to the brim with people writing tributes to mothers that are, mothers that were, and mothers that never will be. I'm slightly cynical if I'm honest. I don't understand why we need a single day to remind us of our mothers. I personally think that every day should be Mothers' Day, and that needing a dedicated twenty-four hour period to assuage our guilt for not being attentive during the rest of the year is fairly tragic. I also think the whole thing has become a little too commercialised. My Dad said he was in Sainsbury's this morning and had never seen so many people walking around with cheap bouquets of flowers.

Nathan and I stopped by the side of the road outside Thaxted and picked a bouquet of wild daffodils to give to my Mum. They look lovely in a vase by the fire. Much nicer than a cheap bundle of carnations from Kenya.

My Mum has only just discovered that a "muff" is not necessarily just something you knit with wool. She has reminded me of my Grannie, her mother, who had a best friend called Betty Wanklin whom she went on and on about. We used to encourage her to talk about Betty Wanklin, particularly after it turned out that Betty Wanklin had a dog called Tosser. My Grannie spent a whole afternoon on one occasion doing impersonations of Betty Wanklin shouting the word Tosser, without realising why the ever-growing group assembled in front of her (who kept asking her to tell the story again) were having absolute hysterics!

We had something of a nostalgia fest in the evening, talking about school days and the scrapes I seemed to get myself into on a regular basis. My Mum reminded me about the little crusades I went on, which on one occasion saw me removing myself from school assemblies on the grounds of being an atheist. It caused mayhem. On one occasion my mother was called in by the head teacher and told that I was the most dangerous student in the school. A bit of an over-exaggeration, I suspect, but I was a fairly militant child!

The day ended in the presence of a Victorian dictionary, which we dipped in and out of, looking for beautiful and comic old-fashioned words. I rather liked the word "besprinkled." His hair was besprinkled with grey!

As the embers in the fire started to die we left Thaxted to wend our way back to London.

Organs and Suzy Qs

I worked for a large percentage of the day after allowing myself a rather glorious lie-in. I've started staggering my way through the new draft of Brass for a second time, focussing today on the opening sequence, which is entirely different to how it was in Leeds last summer.

I applied for three jobs in the late afternoon before heading off to Crouch End to pick Julian up from his Misses' vicarage. Our task today was to record the organ for the CD version of Oranges and Lemons and we were doing so at the Swiss Church in Covent Garden.

Heaven knows how I managed to park on Endell Street, literally outside the church, at one minute past the time when it became legal to do so. Maybe there is a God after all, because it meant we could unload all Julian's recording equipment without any hassle. As we unloaded, a poor bloke tried to park in the space behind me. I felt for him. I genuinely did, because, like me, he wasn't the best parker in the world. What surely wasn't helping his confidence, however, was the group of twenty lads standing outside the pub opposite, who were jeering and cheering every time he reversed the car to have another crack at getting into the space. I imagined myself in that position and decided I'd have given up long since and found a spot which wasn't being so brutally scrutinised!

The Swiss Church is a stunning eighteenth century barn of a building with a tall, arched atrium roof and the most serene four-second echo.

The organ itself is Swiss built (of course) and brand new, which means it's perfectly in tune. To make matters even more perfect, our organist, Peter, is a very fine player. I sat in the organ loft whilst he played. In fact we shared a stool, I turned his pages, and on one occasion got to pull out one of the stops, which gave me almost as much joy as rubber stamping my husband's hospital letter on Thursday afternoon with the words "hard of hearing."

Peter changed shoes before starting to play, curiously into a pair of black brogues which looked almost identical to the ones he'd taken off. They looked a little like tap shoes from a distance, so I was half hoping for a quick Suzy Q before we got going!

Of course I know nothing about organs (pfnah pfnah) and was actually quite embarrassed when I saw the subtle modulations Peter was having to make to the music I'd given him. I've never had the opportunity to study a church organ before, and ask questions about the two keyboards and the octaves one is expected to write in. I learned much.

The only thing I couldn't apologise for was the ludicrous keys that Oranges and Lemons finds itself drifting through. That's the fault of the church bells themselves. Here's a fact for you... All church bells, depending on their size, ring in different keys. The biggest (and therefore lowest) bells I recorded whilst working on Oranges and Lemons were hanging in the tower at Mary le Bow church. This particular set of bells ring in C major. In fact, the bell you hear ringing on at the end of the composition is the iconic Great Bell of Bow; a fruity bottom C. The bells in other churches were in keys ranging from C sharp major and every semi-tone up to E major; so I had to be incredibly inventive when it came to key changes, to ensure that every bell we recorded was featured in the piece. And that meant regular visits to somewhat ghastly keys! The organist maintained he'd never played a B sharp before!

I was hugely excited and proud to walk into the church and hear the enormous beauty of an organ playing music which I had written. I haven't had a kick like that since hearing the carillon at York Minster playing the opening of the Adagio from A Symphony for Yorkshire.

The session went incredibly smoothly and quickly, and we were done by 9pm. We de-rigged and I drove Julian back to Crouch End, before hot-footing it to Canary Wharf where Brother Edward, Nathan and Sascha were eating lasagne and watching the final of the Melodiefest, which is the annual mega-competition which the Swedes use to chose their song for Europe. I'd like to point out that Sweden has placed in the top five at Eurovision for as long as I can remember, largely because they take their selection process so seriously.

British Eurovision fans are up in arms about the apparent under-hand nature of our "selection" process. We don't know who judges the entries, nor do we know the criteria they use for judging the songs. None of the entrants are given feedback.   To relegate the unveiling of the song to something which happens on the red button when the Melodiefest is one of the biggest shows on television demonstrates quite how complacent the BBC have become. And frankly it's insulting to the hoards of British Eurovision fans who are sick of doing badly every year.

I'm told the trick is to hit the BBC with a carefully-worded freedom of information request in the hope of shedding some light on their apparent shady processes. The tragedy with freedom of information requests is that the BBC can actually refuse to answer certain questions, which, of course makes a mockery of the notion of freedom of information. That said, the more questions they refuse to answer on the subject, the more of a stitch-up their process seems and the more we can demand more transparency in the future.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

A heap of rubble

Our garden had turned into a building site by the time I woke up this morning. I suspect someone had done someone else a favour, either because they were too nice to say no, or because a little bit of money had exchanged hands! When you live in rented accommodation, it's always hard to get to the bottom of what goes on in the communal garden! Whatever the case, I woke up with the bricks, rubble, mortar and God knows what else of an ten foot wall from God knows where sitting in a heap under our tree! I don't really know who was more confused: Me or the squirrels. It looked like a sort of post-earthquake hell-zone. I was half expecting to see a load of sniffer dogs searching for survivors. I can only assume one of our neighbours - quite a long way down the terrace - has knocked a wall down, which is being rebuilt somewhere. As the day went on, a rather camp little petrol-powered wheel-barrow was going up and down the alleyway collecting bricks and taking them elsewhere. It was all very curious. And a little noisy!

Anyway, true to their word, every thing was removed by the close of business, and the garden was swept and left looking rather lovely.

I spent the day sitting at the kitchen table slowly working my way through the Brass re-writes, stopping periodically to apply for a job, or send an email to someone or other about another potential idea. I'm like an ideas factory at the moment!

I am now at the end of the first draft of the eleventh draft of Brass, if that makes sense! Eleven drafts! Eleven Drafts, I say, (for what I tell you three times is true!)

I went to the gym and worked the late part of the afternoon and into the evening on my sofa, before signing up for a website which advertises jobs in TV and film. I tend to assume there's no such thing. Jobs in my industry are invariably only advertised so that no one can be accused of nepotism or internal appointing when it turns out that the job has already been given to someone known to the company! But, hey ho, if we all remained jaded and brutally pessimistic about our industries, we'd end up going entirely mad! Sometimes you've just got to keep your fingers crossed and hope there's a chance.

I'd gone entirely cross-eyed by the time Nathan returned from work and he had to take me for a walk around the block to buy a tin of pears and clear my head which was filled with little stubs of dialogue from Brass all shouting at one another and vying for air.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Polyps and piano bars

Nathan had his long-awaited appointment with a vocal specialist today, funnily enough, with the man who removed a polyp from my vocal chords about four years ago. He's the best in the business and did a cracking job of operating on me... The full week's voice rest after the operation was a bit painful for a man who can't stop talking and I got a mega dose of whooping cough almost immediately after recovering, but none of these things can be blamed on Mr Rubin!

Anyway, unfortunately, Nathan didn't end up seeing the guru and was instead sent to the next door room to a wan who seemed spectacularly uninterested and turned out to be no more useful than our local GP, prescribing exactly the same pills and telling him to come back in four months if they'd not done any good. Well, they didn't do any good four months ago... Sometimes I despair!

Nathan came out feeling utterly deflated, and properly fobbed off, so I told him to go back in and insist on being seen by Mr Rubin, there and then.

...And what a difference a different consultation makes! Mr Rubin did all sorts of extra tests on Nathan, ruling out anything sinister and basically coming up with a diagnosis which felt a great deal more believable, and more crucially something which involved actual hands-on treatment rather than a load of proton pump inhibitors.

I was in the waiting room when the BBC announced that Terry Pratchett had died. There were audible gasps of sadness from people in the room. I guess it very much demonstrated how loved Pratchett was a writer. The news anchorman actually prefaced the story with the announcement, "now we've got some very sad news..." It's not every day that a news reader is anything other than brutally dispassionate.

As we left the hospital, Nathan had to go to the reception to book himself in for his next appointment. The woman behind the counter had a stamp on her desk, which I asked if I could have a go on. She was surprisingly accommodating and handed the stamp over, so now Nathan's official letter is emblazoned with the words, "hearing problem." Every time he shows it to an official from the hospital from now on they'll be obliged to talk to him really loudly!

We went from King's Cross to Friern Barnet, in the process learning, via twitter, that the journalist who interviewed me on Tuesday had put a lovely piece about The Man in the Straw Hat, in the Camden New People's Journal with the heading "Betjeman and Benjamin" which I thought was rather sweet.

We were in Friern Barnet to say a final goodbye to Ian Knauer. We ate chocolate and drank tea (Nathan didn't partake in either, because both are dreadful for acid reflux - which is apparently part of his issue.)

Saying goodbye to Ian was incredibly difficult. A bit like saying goodbye to a score of potential future happy memories.

This evening, we went down South to Kennington to see a West End Wendies cabaret in an upstairs room at Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec. It happens every Thursday night, I'm told, and is a well-organised, beautifully-compared  open mic night, where a mixture of industry pros and Joe Publics get up and perform numbers from the shows. It's very much based on the New York piano bar model. I could have been at the Duplex, Monster or Marie's Crisis. Abbie and Julie both did a little turn. It's very much worth tipping up one week if you like the occasional night of musical theatre classics performed by a hotch-potch of crazy eccentrics of varying abilities.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Sweeney Brass

We've just returned from an extremely pleasurable night at the theatre, made even more pleasurable by the presence of many of the cast of Brass who were in the audience with me. We went as a little NYMT trip, organised by the lovely Jezza, who'd been given tickets by Hilary Williams, an NYMT angel, and one of the producers of the show we saw tonight.

Talk in the foyer was of the Brass re-writes which I'm currently working on. Word had got around that four roles had been cut from the show and I was instantly cornered and asked to spill the beans. We played a guessing game. It's always interesting to see the characters that people assume are going to go. Three of the characters seemed to surprise no one. The fourth shocked almost everyone. This particular decision even made Philippa, the dramaturg, gasp, and the process has been like cutting my right arm off, because with every line of his that I cut, I'm reminded of the remarkable actor who played the role in our production last year and the real life Pal whom he so exquisitely brought to life. Still, I guess, for an actor, there's something rather comforting about knowing that you were the only person to ever have played a role, and when the show comes round again, he'll have to play someone else.

The show we saw tonight was Sweeney Todd, performed in a pie shop which had been set up in a night club in the heart of the West End, next to Les Miserables. I'm told the original production took place in an actual disused pie shop somewhere in South London. The word intimate doesn't do any justice to the production. It was intense. Claustrophobic. Dark. Brooding. Engulfing. There couldn't have been more than seventy in the audience, all seated at long communal tables which doubled up as stages for the eight cast members, the majority of whom were quite remarkable. Top marks to Siobhán McCarthy, who played Mrs Lovett with humour, pathos and power, and, on the more subtle stakes, the lovely young actor who played Anthony without any of the simpering whimper which so often comes hand-in-hand with that particular role.

It was deftly directed with an almost flawless attention to detail. It deserved every second of its lengthy standing ovation, and I would recommend it without hesitation. But book soon. It's a limited run, and it WILL sell out.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Interview in Highgate

I went up into Highgate village first thing this morning to meet a very charming journalist from the Camden New Journal. We were taking about The Man in the Straw Hat, but he asked me all sorts of questions about my entire career, and had done a great deal of research, for which I was very grateful to him.

He actually started crying when I talked about our wedding, which touched me enormously. I got a little tearful myself when talking about the terrible things LGBT people are still having to face in various corners of the globe. My thoughts have recently been occupied by the terrible plight of gay men in Syria. There was a time when Damascus was a relative safe haven for gay people. I can't imagine how terrifying it must be to live there with no option of escape. I sometimes wonder if LGBT people in some of these terrible counties find themselves trawling through the internet for images of gay people in places where gay people are free. Would they find the concept of two men getting married in a musical touching, or over the top in a deeply horrifying and sinister way?

Speaking of tears, I sent my Mother a photograph yesterday of the little silver elephant which I always wear around my neck sitting on the grave of my grandparents, her parents. I think she found the image, and the blog I wrote yesterday, fairly moving, and sent me a poem by Tennyson, which came to her mind and I thought was highly appropriate:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

I made a start on the new draft of Brass today. It's a deeply daunting experience, not least because Nathan fundamentally disagrees with one aspect of the notes I went through with Philippa last week and Nathan can be fairly insistent and dogmatic when he gets the bone between his teeth! I guess I have to dive deep into my heart to find out what I myself really feel. Nevertheless, a start has been made on the new draft, which I guess is the most difficult part dealt with.

Sent to Coventry

I went to Coventry today, the ancestral home of most of my family. I was there to meet Hamish at the Belgrade theatre. We talked about musicals, and the general lack of funding in theatre at the moment. Coventry has just been massively hit by another round of cuts. It's deeply depressing. No one can afford to commission or perform new musicals and no one in this country is taking responsibility for the development of composers and writers. What commissions there ARE usually come as a result of producers buying the rights to books and films, which of course inevitably leads to the watering down of passion. So all in all the meeting was a little bleak....

Far less bleak was my lunch afterwards with Siobhan from BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, who was the brains and braun behind Coventry Market: The Musical, which was a massive community musical film we made in 2008, featuring the shoppers and stall holders of Coventry's famous circular indoor market, which was built from the ashes of the city after the Second World War.

Siobhan was on great form and took me to a little vegetarian cafe in a dodgy-looking concrete jungle on the edge of the city centre. All the food on the menu was named after different actors. Shiv had a "Tortilda Swinton" and I had the "Ingrid Burgerman." When I first looked at the menu, I didn't realise we were in the land of food puns, and only did so as I said out loud, "what the hell is Soup Pollard?"

After lunch I went to Stoneleigh, a little village outside the city where my Grannie lived from when I was born to when she died about ten years ago now, I suppose. It's a stunning village, but it was all a little wind-swept today. Spring has not yet been declared in the Midlands. I parked up on the Main Street and ambled down to my Grannie's old house, which I was relieved to see still bore the name, High Beams, which my family gave it more than 40 years ago.

I walked down the lane to the river, which remains beautifully clear with bright green reeds undulating in the water like the tails of tropical fish. I stared into the water for some time, wondering how many times I'd stood on that particular spot as a child and in how many different weather conditions. I remember when the whole lane flooded and we had to walk along wooden raised walkways, which have long since disintegrated or been engulfed by cow parsley.

I walked across the meadow to the church, and stood for some time looking at my Grandparents' grave and feeling supremely emotional. I don't quite know why it affected me so badly this time. I suppose I was experiencing an emotional response to the way and speed that time passes. There are probably very few people left in the village these days who remember my Grandparents. I stared into the old house, with its new lamps and lovely leather sofas, and tried to remember what it looked like twenty or thirty years ago. The bubble wrap in the windows, the strange polished stone eggs, the high-backed, 1960s swivel chairs in the study which would have been so amazing for children who wanted to recreate blind auditions in The Voice.

I drove back home to London, listening to a debate on Radio 4 about Islam and the fact that large numbers of Muslims think that Armageddon is on its way. Apparently, the end of the world will be signified by in-fighting within Muslim sects and wars fought largely in Syria. (Familiar sounding?) The actual end is triggered by a Muslim army marching into Rome (bit random) and Jesus reappearing, ripping the cross in half, and telling everyone he was a Muslim all along. (Seriously!) So basically, ISIS are all behaving like c**ts because they genuinely think they're bringing about the end of the world, which is, you know, nice. I'm fast losing patience with that lot. Since they started tying gay men to chairs and lobbing them off buildings, I'm been thinking they need to be wiped off the face of the earth to enjoy the wrath of an eternity of nothingness. They're backward and violent and it's time to start getting tough with communities and individuals in this country who don't take enough responsibility for their own. Let them go to Syria. Why stop them? Just don't let them return.

I rehearsed the Fleet Singers again tonight. Get your diaries out. Our concert is on Sunday 22nd March, which would appear to be two weeks away! Someone had made absinthe-flavoured chocolate brownies for the interval refreshments, which were absolutely delicious, in a sort of heady way!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Portrait sixteen and goodbye-ee

It's been a day of meeting friends. Everyone needs a day like this from time to time...

Hilary came up to Highgate first thing and we walked through the woods up to Muswell Hill where we bought pastries before heading back via Parkland Walk with its Mrs Tiggywinklesque elevated views across the city.

It's always so lovely to see Hils. There was a time before she moved to Lewes and had little Jago, when we saw each other all the time and I miss our chats about music and singing and art.

We went down to Giraffe on the South Bank this afternoon for Ian's goodbye drinks. So many people were there: Abbie and Ian, Julie, Sam and Matt, Anthony, Shannon, Llio... We laughed a great deal, had some lovely food, wound Anthony up a treat and sang Goodbye-ee and lots of other First World War songs. In fact, at one point we sang in such glorious multi part harmony that the entire restaurant started clapping!

Highlight of the evening was undoubtedly taking Llio's portrait for the front cover of the Pepys Motet album. Llio sings the pivotal alto three track on all movements of the piece. The third alto sings almost constantly through the piece, and has a lot of prominent solo lines.

We set up a fabulous photograph in front of the Royal Festival Hall with a load of candles and lanterns. Anthony and Nathan shone torches onto Llio's face and Shannon dropped glitter in front of the camera for a little added campery. The results were dramatic and beautiful. Llio looked like Tori Amos; red hair glowing like the embers of a dying fire.

We drove Ian and Jem back to Friern Barnet at the end of the evening, vowing to see Ian again before he leaves next Saturday. Procrastination, or what? I genuinely don't want to say goodbye to him! None of us do.

We get to keep Jem for a few more weeks...

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Brunch and daffodils

I received another wonderful email from Australia in the midst of the UKIP mayhem yesterday, which I found deeply moving. "Dear Ben, I watched "our gay wedding" here in Australia this week. Many thanks for sharing that part of your lives. It was an education for me..truly…and changed my views…to better ones. The basis of all human rights is ultimately love…and you demonstrated this wonderfully. So thank you. My best wishes to you and Nathan... people who point you towards a better view of truth/kindness are ultimately good friends… May you both be well and happy..live in peace and concord."

It is profoundly moving to know that our love has been partially responsible for an epiphany of this nature. The thought almost blows my mind, in fact. More excitingly there seems to be a growing number of people in Oz who are referencing our wedding whilst calling for equal marriage in Australia.

I cast my mind back a year to a time when we thought by doing the project we ran the risk of becoming national laughing stocks. I am so relieved that we were brave enough to do it.  A year on, we've been nominated for five major awards and moved many people in a country ten thousand miles away. Seems astonishing I'm out of work!!

Philippa sent me an early morning text this morning. I must have been awake when it arrived, because I heard the phone gently vibrating. I answered the text and got out of bed to go to the loo. When I got back in, Nathan was as warm as toast, and it struck me that there's actually very little that is more wonderful than the feeling of getting back into bed for a snuggle with a toasty warm partner!

I had brunch with Llio in Muswell Hill. I haven't seen her for a while, and she was looking fabulous. Rob Viola walked past the cafe, waved, and popped his head in, apparently just to say how cool Llio's hair looked! He was absolutely right of course: it's pillar box red and glows in sunlight. On a beautiful warm spring day like today, it glows big time! We spent our brunch buoying each other up. Both of us are writing and recording music in an era where no one seems to want to buy recorded music, so a lot of mutual support is required!

I walked back to Highgate through the woods which were full of silly, happy, bounding dogs and thronging with the sound of birdsong! The first daffodils are up as well.

From Highgate, I went to Kentish Town to rehearse the Fleet Singers. We made our way slowly, but surely through about half of the piece, and bits of it are beginning to sound really rather lovely.

There was a glorious sunset as I drove back to Highgate. As I walked up the steps to the front door of the flat, an aeroplane passed over, high in the sky. It was glowing blood red and was a curiously beautiful sight.

We heard this year's UK entry for Eurovision this evening, which is a fusion of Charleston music and trip hop. It's very Will i Am, and I rather like its vibe. I'm told the Eurovision fans are less convinced. I guess it all depends how well the performers perform the song live. I was horrified that the BBC didn't opt to unveil it on terrestrial telly. You had to press the red button for the big reveal (hopelessly inauspicious.) I was also horrified that they opted to interview the performers rather than the song writers. It is, after all, the Eurovision Song Contest. A contest for songs, not singers!

Photograph fifteen (and why I hate UKIP!)

My day started with a rather comic exchange with a chap called Owais Rajput who is standing for UKIP in the Bradford East constituency and who recently, and for no apparent reason, requested my friendship on Facebook. I woke up today to see that, as usual, he'd posted a lot of rambling nonsense on his wall about his party. What continually confuses and intrigues me, however, is that this particular UKIP member is an Asian man.

The bad idea bear which often sits on my left shoulder forced me to comment on the post. "Quick question. If you get elected for UKIP, at what stage will you have to deport yourself?" It was deliberately incendiary, but, as I pointed out in a later post (once the shit had really hit the fan), I was genuinely fascinated to know how a man of Asian origin could align himself to a party, the members of whom have proved themselves time and time again to be desperate bigots.

I then asked Mr Rajput what his personal - and his party's - stance on gay marriage was. I've asked UKIP people this question many times in the past and they always seem to fudge their answers in a rather sinister way. They usually end up telling me that it's not an interesting enough question to merit an answer. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Gay marriage was repealed in California after several years, so I should think it'll be a while before my community is out of the trees in that respect.

Mr Rajput's answer to me was astonishing. He told me that he could only answer my question after the process of "inductive approach" had taken place. He then said a lot of other things, mainly party jargon in incredibly badly written English which made me wonder if UKIP had actually encouraged an illiterate man to stand for parliament, largely, one assumes, so they could send out the message that they're not a party of racists.

I immediately looked up the meaning of "inductive approach" and it turns out that Mr Rajput was actually telling me he'd base his opinion on gay marriage on the results of a post-election local referendum! In fact, every opinion he had would be based on what local people told him through opinion groups and referenda. If only we could all be that flexible!

Of course no political party can practically be run like that. Referenda are expensive, and frankly, even if the majority of the good citizens of Bradford East are in favour of something it could well be that the rest of the nation, in their mini-referenda, feel rather differently. This "bottom up" politics is naive and completely impractical. What is Mr Rajput suggesting? That, if they don't approve of gay marriage, the citizens of Bradford can opt to make it an illegal practise in the city? Insane nonsense.

Of course the conversation thread rather quickly turned nasty, with a series of UKIP cronies joining the conversation;

"Why you choose gay marriage for your platform I suppose is cos you are gay. Well that's your business so don't impose it on the rest of us"

Rajput continued to have his ten pence worth and I started to get the very strong impression that he simply wasn't very bright;

"Benjamin, now you going to teach me, how to do politics in Bradford East? no you not, only my Bradford East people will dictate me through thr local working groups, definitely no dictations from outsiders."

(Seriously, this is what he wrote, I copied and pasted it from the thread... Is it not a little worrying that a man who can't string a proper sentence together has actually been chosen to stand for Parliament?)

I told him my business was done and that I no longer wished to waste my time talking to someone who refused to answer a very simple question. To which he replied;

"Benjamin, you sure your business done here? I wish but that is not the case, your business done and UKIP business started from here. Thanks provided us the business. UKIP knows only one business, how to serve local people of United Kingdom."


The messages continued, with another Asian man from Bradford diving in and asking Mr Rajput to answer the very simple question I'd posed. Mr Rajput told us he was only prepared to answer our question once he'd been elected. He then wrote to me; "I won't take no dictation from you." Seriously! You couldn't make this stuff up!

The other man from Bradford continued, "Owais hasnt given an honest opinion. He cant. UKIP wont let him. Benjamin has asked a perfectly valid question. If he cant give his opinion or views how can he perform at hustings etc, and how can he sway the floating voter?"

Mr Rajput's response to this was short but sweet... "Keep dreaming"

Things turned even nastier when one of the UKIP cronies started spouting thinly veiled homophobia;

"A gay having a go at people because they have a different opinion to him 😂.Im not sure if it's ironic or hypoctical 😃" (emoticons included!)

Then the conversation took a remarkable turn to the surreal, with one of the cronies, who'd been quite brutal previously said;

"I respect gay peoples' rights to get married but I don't have to agree with it. After all it is now the law of the land. I have never been married and no regrets at all. I have my pets but all but one of my family bar one brother are dead."

And here's how the conversation then went;

Me: I'm genuinely sorry to hear that Pat. I hate to think of any one not having family around them. On the bright side you have a very fine looking dog, who makes me very envious

(I'd looked at his profile which showed the picture of a King Charles Spaniel, and, frankly, being rude to a man struggling through life like that felt pointless and cruel.)

Him: Well Benjamin 2cats and Polly are like family and keep me company so never feel lonely. Got my motorbike to get about. Thanks.

Me: What are the cats called?

Him: Punchy and Smuffa-Jane would you believe it?

He then sent me three pictures of the cats and the thread came to a close.

In the midst of all this arguing, I took a Pepys Motet portrait. This one was of Carmen, who sings soprano one on all six movements of the piece. And when I say soprano one, we're talking obscenely high notes. I think she sings a top E on the recording, which is about as high as Mozart'a infamous Queen of The Night goes. It sounds like whistling! It's brilliant!

I photographed Carmen in front of various pieces of graffiti in Shoreditch. This part of East London is renowned for its graffiti. It's where Banksy and all the famous street artists ply their trade and it's one of the only places in the capital where I think graffiti actually enhances the visual environment. In Pepys' day it would have been mostly fields. Shoreditch would have been a small village with a few coaching houses and a church on the way to Bethnal Green, the village where Pepys shipped all his belongings during the great fire of London.

I had a quick tea with Carmen and then went to Hackney City Farm to meet Philippa and talk about suggestions for a re-write of Brass. Just as I sat down, a child literally starting banging his fists down on the out of tune piano there. It was a shocking, heart-stopping noise, and Mummy wasn't nearly fast enough in making it stop. I think for a moment she thought what her child was doing was actually sweet. I wanted to bring the piano lid down on her child's hands to give him his first lesson in cause and effect.

We made a run for it and completed our meeting back in Shoreditch, stopping off en route at Philippa's house where her husband Dylan dropped a phone charger out of the window, in the process whipping his wife across the face with the cable. It would take me too long to explain why Philippa's husband was dropping a phone charger out of an upstairs window. Sometimes it's best not to ask with Philippa...

Still, the notes she gave me were good ones. Very good. Obviously I was a little intimidated. Rewriting anything can be a big slog, particularly something which has already been performed. I'm actually going to be cutting four whole roles from the show. It feels really odd to be thinking about cutting roles, but I have to keep telling myself that I'm not cutting the actors who played the roles, just the parts themselves in future productions. It's not that I'm cutting roles which were not performed well. On the contrary, one of the roles is going because the actor who played it was SO good, he made those who saw it think he was playing a larger role than he actually was!

I came home via Caledonian Road where I saw the huge floral shrine to the teenaged lad who was randomly stabbed there this week whilst riding his bike. Such a dreadful story. Killed because someone wanted to steel his bike. Everyone reading this will know I'm a bit of a bleeding heart liberal when it comes to criminals, but in this instance, I'd lock those bastards up and throw away the proverbial key.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

70s number ones

I'm watching a programme about the best number ones of the 1970s which is reminding me quite what an epic decade the 70s was for music. We've had I Feel Love, Heart of Glass, Wuthering Heights, Bridge Over Troubled Water... These songs changed the sonic landscape of pop music like no songs have ever done since. People aren't really aware of how daring these songs were for their time, because they have been aped so many times since. The emotional intensity of Bridge Over Troubled Water is the stuff of legend. Personally speaking, it reminds me of my Mother, who used to sing it to me when I was a child.

Dancing Queen came second, predictably to Bohemian Rhapsody. Obviously I'd have loved ABBA to win, but I'm not sure you can argue with that particular result! Bo Rhap is the only song to have been number one in four separate years! What an astonishing factoid!

Today's been spent working ferociously; editing music and then speedily creating a last-minute pitch for a TV project, which I'm keeping my fingers firmly crossed about.

I went to the gym. I'm still not entirely sure I'm 100% over the illness I had pretty much throughout February, but I guess if you can run 6 km without dying, you can't really be that poorly!

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

On the verge of nervous breakdowns

After a tiring day of writing arrangements, formatting parts and running at the gym, Nathan and I decided to give ourselves a little treat. For two utterly broke individuals, that was probably only ever going to amount to a walk on the Heath or a chip supper from Toffs in Muswell Hill, until we remembered that the lovely Matt Lucas had given us theatre tokens for our 40th birthdays. An hour later, we jumped in the car, drove down to our secret road off the Strand with its free parking spaces, and bought tickets to see the musical version of Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

I'm ashamed to say that I haven't actually seen the original Almodóvar film, which is quite some admission for a man who loved All About My Mother so enormously. I think I've always been the partner of men who don't particularly like watching films with subtitles (yes, sadly that includes Nathan)!

The show was okay. Some things stood out. Tamsin Grieg is a fabulous actress and Haydn Gwynne absolutely stole the show with the most gloriously subtle, yet simultaneously over the top performance. I know her as a telly actress, so was rather astounded by her totes legit musical theatre chops, but Nathan, of course, knew her previous work in the West End, which included playing the original Miss Oolie in City of Angels.

The set was perhaps the most ghastly looking thing I've ever seen on a West End stage. It looked like a melamine flat pack from MFI, all white and lit with ludicrous primary colours. It offered nothing to the show. Nothing whatsoever. And in many instances it was a distracting eyesore.

The book and lyrics were good. The lyrics were excellent in places. Gwynne sings a divinely moving song about feeling invisible as an older woman which was beautifully structured. Sadly, the music did nothing but groove. It was all baselines and drum beats and not a lot of musical content, particularly in the realm of tunes, which had the effect of making everything seem a bit bland and non-dramatic. There were a few too many songs as well which seemed to rather come out of nowhere.

But overall, I applaud any musical which fills its stage with strong female roles, and after I'd accepted that everything looked a little cheap and sounded a little bland, I was able to sit back and enjoy what was being offered to me. Will it run and run, however? No.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Portraits 12, 13 and 14

My day started with a touch of tinnitus, which I could have done without. Sadly, the more I mention tinnitus in this blog, the more likely I am to receive emails offering me curious American remedies. I've genuinely no idea how that works. I mean, how do those bastards know my email address?

Today's been another day of photographing Pepys singers, starting with Rebecca Shanks, a soprano who has sung in every composition I've written for the Rebel Chorus in the last five years. Rebecca's involvement with the Pepys Motet goes all the way back to 2010. Long-term readers of this blog will recall that when I first put pen to metaphorical paper, I was in the process of trying to raise the finances to perform an even more ambitious version of the motet, which was actually scored for forty individual singers. In this initial incarnation, the singers split into eight choirs of five, each of whom represented a different aspect of Pepys' life. We had a gospel choir representing Pepys' family life, an opera chorus representing his brutal snobbishness and a folk choir singing passages in the diary which mention the often lively occurrences in the streets and theatres of 17th century London. Add to this a choir of students from Magdalene College, Cambridge (where Pepys studied) and a choir of Naval officers (to represent Pepys' job as a naval administrator) and you have an incredibly complicated and ambitious piece of music, the rehearsals for which sent me closer to the edge than perhaps any period of my life ever! Read back over blog entries from October 2010, and you'll be introduced to a man on the verge of nervous breakdown! On one occasion I remember rehearsing the folk choir in a flat in Vauxhall, before driving through the night in a terrible storm to Dartmouth in Devon, where I had a 10am rehearsal with the navy boys.

Still, the performance itself went incredibly well, despite the fact that the forty singers were actually singing together for the first time. We performed at St Olave's, the church where Pepys and his wife are buried and it was a visual and sonic feast. The folk singers dressed like pagans, the musical theatre choir came in their tuxes, the Magdalene college crew wore their gowns, and the navy officers set many hearts a flutter by arriving in full ceremonial uniform including swords. The last movement was performed "in the round" with the forty singers actually surrounding the audience. I'm told it was like medieval surround sound!

Rebecca sang in the early music choir in that particular performance and when it came to the recording she sang the third soprano line on all six movements. Today, I photographed her in a mixture of city locations with giant skyscrapers to represent the City which Pepys knew so well, but plainly wouldn't recognise if he were scooped up, great skirts, vests and all, and deposited in the 21st century.

I walked from the Gherkin to St Paul's, feeling my way through the City like a tourist without a map. The second portrait of the day was with the charming Scottish mezzo, Helen Stanley, who sang alto on four movements of the motet. I photographed her by the Millennium footbridge which links St Paul's to that other great London cathedral, the Tate Modern.

I'm one of the few lucky people who can actually claim to have been on that particular bridge on the day it opened; the day it bounced up and down like a trampoline! It was a curiously unsettling experience, which would even have made an old sea dog a little queasy. I actually think it would have been a bigger tourist destination had they allowed the bridge to keep its wobble, but I guess, no matter how much we were all assured at the time that it was perfectly safe, eventually the whole thing would have collapsed into the Thames, taking scores of bemused elderly people with it.

I had a cup of tea from a little Italian cafe which was so insanely strong it gave me the jitters all the way from the bridge to Borough.

I had osteopathy in Borough after working for a few hours in a cafe there. I read a newspaper in the waiting room, which, for the first time, made me understand why some people actively like the Tory Boris Johnson. He's apparently had a quite the showdown with Asim Qureshi, director of Cage (which campaigns against the US-led war on terror.) Qureshi claims that MI5 have to take a great deal of responsibility for the behaviour of the ghastly Jihadi John, whom they apparently harassed. Johnson tore into Qureshi with a tirade of abuse which, in my view, makes perfect sense; "if you are going to have an impact on the lives and the minds of young Muslims, you have to focus on what these people are doing wrong and not immediately start scattering blame around. You have got to focus on where they have got their lives wrong, the false choices they are making, the false understanding they have of Islam..." And I'm afraid I agree.

The third and last portrait was of Jana Sutherland, another stalwart of the Rebel Chorus, who sang in the musical theatre choir on the original forty-part version of the motet. I photographed her at Drury Lane, which is mentioned twice in the sections of the diary I have set to music, the first time, most hauntingly, in relation to the plague; "I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon their doors..." The second reference is far more jolly, and talks about milk maids dancing in the street, watched over by none other than Nell Gwynn, standing at her lodgings door in Drury Lane.

On my way to the tube I bumped into young Josh, the assistant director on Brass. He's in a young writers' group at the Soho Theatre, and was heading in the wrong direction, so I walked him to the theatre and we sat and nattered for an hour.

I went home via the new station at Tottenham Court Road where there's something horribly wrong with the escalators which were shrieking and screaming so much I thought my teeth were going to fall out. It was a truly hideous noise, which must be fixed for the sake of the collective sanity of the thousands of people who go up and down there on a daily basis!

Feet like stumps, I'm home again, feeling exhausted but upbeat. Let's hope the tinnitus doesn't haunt me tonight!