Monday, 16 October 2017

Ruby and the sickening yellow light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Vocal sessions

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Llio and Chris

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The charge of the women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star spotting and insomnia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Lady Muck

A lie-in! A lie in I say again, excitedly! Until 9am. And then I stayed in bed, pointedly, clutching a cup of tea until 11. I felt like Lady Muck. All I needed was a box of chocolates and some sort of bed jacket to complete the look!

The afternoon became about manic admin. I paid a load of invoices and set things up for the recordings for the rest of the week.

I then took a tube to King's Cross to do some research at the British Library. I wanted to find newspaper headlines for a little radio broadcast I'm mocking up to create atmosphere on one of the songs. Quite specifically, the song is meant to be sung on February 15th, 1965. I opted to find headlines in the Guardian, as it seemed the paper which the character who sings the song would most likely read. I was astonished to discover that the Conservative leader's desire to ENTER Europe was the main headline. How hugely ironic!

"Britain in Europe was revived as a Conservative theme by Sir Alex Douglas Home when he spoke at the National Conference of Young Conservatives at Friends' Meeting House, London, on Saturday. Not since the collapse of the Common Market negotiations when Mr MacMillan was Prime Minister has a Conservative leader so eagerly revived the theme."

On page two, a headline read, "Britain must not shirk role in Europe's destiny." Fifty two years later, I find myself quite agreeing!

I watched a shocking Panorama this evening which showed what an enormous spike there's been in race and religious hate crime since the Brexit referendum. Shockingly, bar far the largest spikes came in areas which voted leave. It's difficult to know what to say about that other than that not everyone who voted Brexit was was racist but that all racists voted Brexit. So if you voted Brexit, many thanks for doing your part in stirring up that particularly hideous hornet's nest.

I went into Covent Garden to see if I could get my phone fixed and my laptop injected with more memory. Unfortunately the two issues can't be sorted by a single staff member, so I added myself to a 2 1/2 hour queue to sort the first of my problems and was advised to book online for the other issue.

Michael met me for lunch and we sat in Cafe Rouge, both of us pretending to relax, but secretly doing loads of admin in our heads.

It turns out that my phone can't be fixed for free because it's out of warranty. Apple are sneaky little bastards with their planned obsolescence. The battery life basically started to majorly die a few months after the warranty ran out. It's definitely no coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that I stopped being able to hear calls properly at the same time. Very poor form.

To make matters a little more frustrating, EE, my mobile phone provider decided to pack up today. I could neither make nor receive calls. I popped my head into an EE shop to ask when they thought the service might be up and running again, and the man took me over to the counter to "find out more information for me." Minutes later I realised I'd been hook-winked, and that he was trying to get me to take out an early renewal of my contract with the company, offering me a brand new phone and a package which included better storage and calls to America. I stopped him in his tracks, "I'm not sure today is the best day for me to renew my contract with you guys... you may recall that I only popped my head in the door to tell you that your network has gone down." He blushed. I said I'd have a think about his offer. Sadly I may not have a choice!


Monday, 9 October 2017

Sonica

Wow, this morning was tough! I woke up after far too little sleep with my right eyelid glued shut with blepharitis gunk. It was desperately painful. The pain has eased considerably during the day and I'm not sure it looks anything like as bad this evening which is a relief because yesterday it was noticeable enough for the entire Em cast to ask what the heck was wrong!

I travelled down to Clapham today to record in one of my favourite studios, Sonica. It's always good to be back. Over the years I've recorded a fair amount of material there including sessions for The Busker Symphony, Four Colours, Songs From Hattersley and all of the Pepys Motet. I think Mat and Paul who run the studios think I'm insane. The sessions I've done with them have always tended to be on manic and somewhat ambitious side... particularly when it came to Pepys. There has been a fair amount of ranting, raving and gnashing of teeth within those four walls!

Sonica was the place where I recorded Tanita Tikaram singing on the London Requiem which ranks as one of my all-time favourite sessions. She had always been a hero of mine, right from my childhood years, and she turned out to be so sweet and funny and generous. It's lovely when life turns out like that.

Sonica's only problem is its location. If Highgate is twelve o'clock on a map of London (which it pretty much is) then Sonica is at 6 o'clock. It could be worse: The two locations are, at least, on the same tube line... but at the two opposite ends, with an hour's journey in between.

I stood up for most of the trip down there, boxed into a corner by angry commuters. Fortunately I was by an open window, which meant I could stare into the faces pressed against the window in the next door carriage, and then out into the alluring gloom of the dusty tunnels where, I've heard, an entire sub-species of mosquito has evolved. Someone also once told me that there were scorpions down there. Surely a rumour?

The session went well. The studio engineer was a lovely chap called Sam, and Ben Holder played brilliantly. We rocketed through songs, particularly in the second half of the day when the pressure was on. We realised after lunch that we had just thirty minutes allotted time on each track, which is nothing when you realise that the instrument you're recording almost never stops playing!

Clare Chandler from Edge Hill University popped into the studio, and brought with her, as usual, an enormous blast of sunshine. I shall be working with students at the university at the start of November on an Em album-related project which I'm very excited about. Loads of them are genuine Scousers, so I can think of no better group of students to be involved.

I am thrilled to report that I get a lie-in tomorrow. Not a massive one - I have huge amounts of admin to do - but the idea of not having to set an alarm when I fall asleep tomorrow is almost too wonderful to comprehend. I'm going to eat takeaway in front of the telly tonight by means of celebration.

Quizzy rascal

I opened a tin of tomato soup a couple of nights ago, very excited about the prospect of light snack at the end of a tiring day. I took the lid off the can, and was slightly horrified to find something light-coloured which looked a little like a finger nail inside. A bit of digging revealed it was actually a baked bean. And not just one baked bean. It was a full tin of Heinz baked beans! How bizarre is that? One wonders how many other tins have been mixed up in this manner. More worryingly, it occurred to me that someone might one day open a tin of vegetarian soup and find a meat-based soup inside. We were with my Mum last night, and, as I recounted the story, she chipped in: "I've opened a tin of baked beans before and found sausages inside! In fairness, it did say 'baked beans with sausages' on the label..." The point of my story seemed to be slightly lost on her!

I met Little Michelle in Cambridge yesterday and we had a lovely little drift around the shops together. We found ourselves somewhere near Magdalene college and it suddenly struck me that we might be able to visit the Pepys Library. It's so rarely open, but a quick check on the website revealed we were in luck. Michelle has sung both versions of the Pepys Motet, so was the perfect person to drag along.

The Pepys Library consists of the large collection of books which Pepys bequeathed to his old college when he died. It's a hugely important resource which features an esoteric and highly eclectic set of books including a series of incredibly rare medieval manuscripts. It's astonishing that the collection has survived for over 350 years entirely intact. They even survived the Great Fire of London. The books are still in the cases that Pepys himself designed and had built by navy carpenters. They are actually the first example in the world of adjustable shelves. Fact.

Nathan picked us up from a pub near Lammas Land and we drove down to Thaxted for a ten-minute cup of tea and slice of cake before hot-footing it to a community centre in a deeply rural village near Bishop's Stortford, where the phone reception was non-existent.

We were doing a quiz. It was a quiz for fun rather than a quiz for work. It was one of those quizzes where the quirky personality of the quiz mater shines through in an occasionally brutal manner. There were all sorts of super hero questions and questions about Star Trek and Lego. It was a real geek fest. There was a music round, but it revolved around male vocalists from the 1970s, which was so specific it hurt. It was one of those quizzes which I started to lose interest in towards the end, which is really very rare for me.

This morning we woke up and tidied the house for a major rehearsal for Em. Twelve of my favourite people gathered in our front room at 1pm and we went through the ensemble vocals for the album whilst drinking copious cups of tea and eating biscuits and sweets. I think people in the room were differently prepared, shall we say. Some were rather too reliant on those who were better prepared. It was a fairly gruelling rehearsal but at least everyone now has a sense of what they need to go away and practise! There's a lot of material. Next Saturday in the studio will be exhausting unless everyone brings their A game. But what a treat it was to have all of those wonderful people together in a room. It's like a little family. A lot of the singers were in Brass at some point along its journey. Others have come on board with Em, premiering songs at various cabarets or, in the case of the hugely luminous Maeve, reading the script and providing Irish know how! I always feel a bit like a mother hen in those circumstances.

Sadly, I had to dart off before the end of the rehearsal to mark another quiz. It was was in a liberal synagogue in Knightsbridge and went very well. I'm officially exhausted, though. My enormous puffy eye is an indication of how run down I am, but I certainly feel like I'm living life!

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Blepha-what?

I'm currently on a train bound for Cambridge. The automated woman's voice has just said "welcome to this.... service... to Cambridge." The curiously unrealistic pause before "service" makes it sound like she's putting the word in sarcastic inverted commas. Like she's only calling it a service because she's been forced to!

I have blepharitis. For the uninitiated, blepharitis is a rather painful infection of the eyelid. The whole thing has gone all puffy and I look well dodgy. Like someone who's been in a fight.

I walked up to King's Cross station this morning from Covent Garden where I've unsuccessfully been trying to get my iPhone fixed. Central London was full of horrible-looking, ageing skin heads. Many were carrying union jacks and some were walking bulldogs, which were also wrapped in flags. Plainly there's some sort of right wing march or protest going on. They were behaving really aggressively, shouting at each other in the street in broad Essex accents with no sense of decorum or how other people might be intimidated by them. I find it profoundly depressing that my country's flag has been misappropriated in this manner. I feel ashamed enough to be British at the moment without this added joy.

I officially hit the wall yesterday morning. That's a silly phrase isn't it?! I didn't physically hit anything and there was nothing official about my waking up so knackered that the alarm clock actually made me scream! It took me thirty seconds to realise where I was, and what on earth was going on! I A lot has been written about sleep cycles. Recent research suggests that we have two of them per night, so it's actually easier to function on just one, than it is if you're woken up mid-way through the second, which is plainly what happened to me yesterday.

Still, the weather was so beautiful as I walked along Parkland Walk to Julian's that a lot of my woes instantly evaporated. The sun was low in the sky, so low that it often blinded me. Great columns of trees were lit up so brightly that they glowed lime green. It seems that very few of the leaves on the London trees are in any hurry to turn brown. I wonder if they've already turned in Scotland?

We finished the guitars in the studio and I'm really pleased with how the songs are shaping up. I feel we're consistently recording to a very high standard, and this makes me very happy, blepharitis or no blepharitis!!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Recording days

We spent all day yesterday in the recording studio. All the way from 10am until 10pm, recording drums and bass. It was a really good session. We worked hard, stuck to time, and got everything done that we needed to do. Nick the bassist and Martyn the drummer played exceptionally well. I was really thrilled. There was a slightly irritating moment when the studio engineer announced we'd have to stop recording for an hour and a half as a result of a church service going on next door. I guess that's one of the perils of recording in a studio which was once the crypt of a (still-functioning) church. I was told it's a bit of a happy clappy church these days, so was quite surprised when clouds of incense stared wafting up the stairs. I don't associate incense with the "shake-your-tambourine" brigade.

Ben Jones and his mate Dan came to hang out in the studio in the evening. It was lovely to see them, and watch them appreciate the musicians and the set up in the studio.

I couldn't sleep last night, and lay, pathetically, worrying about things I couldn't do anything about at 2am. When my alarm went off at 7, I felt like I'd done several rounds in the ring, a sensation which worsened throughout the day!

I switched the news on and immediately learned what a profound dick Theresa May had made of herself at the Tory Party Conference. She may be a deeply religious person but Big G plainly doesn't approve of her antics. The tragic attempts that the Tories are presently making to attract young people are nothing short of laughable, and to see any Tory promising to build new council houses seems utterly bizarre. They sold them off in the first place. Does that mean they're finally acknowledging that Margaret Thatcher was evil beyond words?

The studio went well today. It was guitars from 9am. The lovely Thomas brought a veritable Aladdin's Cave of instruments with him: Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, a twelve string, a slide guitar, a mandolin...

He was on fire and played track after track exquisitely. As I dashed off to Greenwich, an hour before the end of the session, I was surprised to discover that we were already ahead of schedule. Julian and Thomas stayed on to finish another number, which means we've finished eight out of the thirteen songs with another day to go.

Julian, I discovered today, suffers from a condition called misophonia, which means he gets uncontrollably angry upon hearing certain sounds. The condition is also known as "sound rage." One of the sounds which makes Julian flip is the noise of someone slurping tea - which is something he accuses me of doing all the time. I have some sympathy for him. Some people make the most God awful sounds when they masticate!

The choir rehearsal this evening at Trinity was a lot of fun. And thankfully we had more men! It's so lovely working with those young people. Some of them sit there, staring up at me, with big smiles on their faces. Some of them make my day when I see them immersed in song. They genuinely seem to embody the notion of singing for joy. We did a big old improvisation and I introduced them all to the concept of heterophony, which strikes me as an evening well spent!

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Drums and bass

I did half a day in the studio yesterday. Julian, my producer, came down with a chronic migraine during the morning, so we had to call a halt to proceedings, which was a terrible shame, as I felt that we were destined to end the day ahead of schedule and we now seem to be behind. Poor lad could hardly see the computer screen. We were attempting to record me playing the melodica. It's quite a piercing sound which can't have helped Julian's head. When I started practising the night before, Nathan was forced to leave the room!

Today is a big old day. It's the first point of no return; the stage at which we have to commit to keys and tempi for all the songs. The session involves recording drums and bass. We layer songs from the ground up. After drums and bass comes the guitar, then piano, then strings and then finally, the vocals. As you journey through the various sessions, the songs start to come to life.

So in the absence of a session yesterday afternoon, I did a heap of admin. There's still a heck of a lot to sort out. I'm still trying to track down two performers for the album (a cellist and a singer) and don't really have enough time to deal with the questions which have started to come thick and fast from the performers I've already booked.

I'm very much enjoying being in Crouch End, however. It's such a genteel place to mill about in, and there are some wonderful little cafes and restaurants. The place is laced with memories for me. I lived here, a life time ago, in 1996 and it really hasn't changed that much. It was a funny period in my life. I was at drama school and living in a miserable bed sit. I had a little fridge, a sink, a baby belling oven and a mattress on the floor. The bedsit was in the attic of a rambling Victorian mansion. Bathrooms were shared. An enormous window looked out towards Ali Pali and I used to sit and enjoy watching the tiny matchbox-sized busses passing in front of the building.

I was desperately lonely. Coming to London is a a major shift for anyone. It comes with the sudden realisation that you are utterly insignificant in the world. I used to walk down to the 7-11 (now a Costa) just for something to do in the evenings. I also used to listen to late night radio, and for the first (and last) time in my life, I understood how some people become obsessed with radio presenters, and start to view them as their friends.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Guns will tear us apart again

The scenes from Barcelona on the news this morning were incredibly distressing. Seeing images of women being pulled from voting stations by their hair and people desperately trying to hold onto ballot boxes which are literally being ripped from their arms by riot police is something which cannot and must not be ignored by the rest of Europe. Article Seven of the European Union treaty suggests that any member state found to be using violence against its own people should be suspended. It has never yet been triggered, although Poland and Hungary have sailed fairly close to that particular wind, the latter for its treatment of migrants.

Of course the issue of Catalonia is a complicated one. I'm sure many Catalonians want to remain a part of Spain, and an independence referendum with a turn out of considerably fewer than 50% needs to be treated with caution. But the Spanish government's brutal response to the referendum is an absolute own goal. If I were Catalan and in two minds about whether independence was the right thing, I would almost certainly think it was now. The Spanish leaders, probably out of fear, have shown complete contempt for their own people, and a flagrant disregard for the democratic process.

...And then there's what happened in Las Vegas last night. A group of young people at a country music festival simply mown down. No doubt it will do nothing to encourage the Americans to tighten gun controls. I am astounded that they appear to be so collectively incapable of seeing the irony here. Americans are utterly obsessed with terrorism but apparently happy to equip their own people with the tools to tear each other apart, seemingly without the excuse of a religious ideology.

In other news, I started recording Em in the studio today. We're working at Julian's wife's vicarage in Crouch End which I can walk to. It's actually a most agreeable walk. We both live within a stone's throw of Parkland Walk, a fabulous nature reserve which follows the route of an abandoned railway line which once ran from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace via Highgate.


Sunday, 1 October 2017

Getting it right

I watched Strictly Come Dancing this evening, and, apart from being utterly in love with Debbie McGee and terribly

impressed by Alexandra Burke, it struck me what a fabulous display of equality and diversity that show is. Two female presenters. A judging panel which is equal male and female where both males are gay. An openly lesbian contestant. A black woman dancing with a paralympian. Asian, Latina and a multitude of dancers from European countries... old and young dancing together. It's extraordinary.

...And even more extraordinarily, it doesn't feel forced. I haven't often felt like patting the BBC on the back recently. All too often, in my view, they have seemed to want to play it safe to the detriment of art, but this show is, in my view, still getting it right, and it's no wonder that it's still a ratings success.

That's really all I have to write about tonight.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Yom Kippur

It's 11pm and I'm at Shepherd's Bush station. The platform is absolutely ram-packed with people, many of whom are doing some sort of tragic flash mob. They're playing Uptown Funk on impossibly loud speakers and the people around them are filming them on their mobile phones, whooping and cheering encouragingly. Without wanting to sound like a grumpy old fuddy-duddy, I could well do without it. I just don't think it's appropriate to clog up a tube station late at night, when people plainly just want to get home. By all means have your pop-up disco in a large space where those who want to join in are free to do so, but I'm tired and just not that into people making a racket like this. It feels a bit desperate if I'm honest, like all the noise is a product of them wanting the world to know how subversive and decadent they're being rather than a product of genuine fun. It's almost as though they need to make noise to convince themselves they're having fun. Horrible. It's raining, so everything is sticky and damp. I'm so claustrophobic I want to vomit...

... I am now on the tube train itself. The disco has followed me into the carriage, and loud, thumping music and the sounds of shrieking are destined to travel with me for the next half an hour. To make matters worse, the couple pressed up against me have just started snogging. It would be hard to imagine how much more horrifying this journey could get.

...At Tottenham Court Road I changed onto the Northern Line. Whilst standing in that station, they repeatedly made announcements quoting the somewhat ghastly attempt by Transport for London to urge us all to be vigilant in reporting suspicious packages and the like. It's all really "street" and plainly meant to get under the skin of young people, "see it, say it, sorted." My eyes hit the back of their sockets every time I read it or hear it being said.

I've spent the entire day today locked within the Victorian splendour of the New West End Synagogue. It's Yom Kippur, which means it's the final day of a series of religious festivals associated with the Jewish New Year. The service started at noon and finished at 8pm and we were singing almost constantly. It was an absolute roast. There was definitely an "in it together" war-time spirit vibe amongst my fellow singers, all of whom had also been singing at a marathon service for Kol Nidrei the night before. We sang well-over 300 pages of music.

I had a thoroughly lovely time. It is so nice to sing in a choir and be able to make music without the pressure of having had to organise everyone and deal with the high-maintenance behaviour of singers. I'm also thoroughly relieved to have done the gig. It's been hanging over my head for the last month and I've been terrified of learning so many pages of material. I am not unaware of the irony. Whinging to Michael about the difficulty of learning so much music in Hebrew is an example of the high-maintenance behaviour I find so difficult in others!

I am now home. My little canvas shoes are wet. Orthodox Jews are not allowed to wear leather or show dominance over animals on Kol Nidrei/ Yom Kippur, so we've been treated to the sight of men in suits all day, all of whom were wearing, trainers, deck shoes or slippers! It looks very comic.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Where oh where did my big choir go?

You know when you look out of the window early in the morning and witness a day which is struggling to wake up? The grey of the sky makes everything murky and bleak. The trees in the garden are fed up, and bent double with rainwater. I even dreamed about rain. Flood waters were so wide I was preparing to get in a boat to cross them. 

I drove through the rain to Maidenhead on Wednesday to run a quiz. I've always wanted to go to Maidenhead on account of it having a bridge over the Thames with a near perfect echo. Apparently, if you stand on the footpath which runs underneath it and sing, you get a very charming effect.

This may be a useless stub end of a fact, but I think Maidenhead is also the place where Edward Vii used to woo his mistresses, most notably Lillie Langtry. We may even be able to go as far as to say that he took the maidenheads of sundry maidens in Maidenhead! Never let the facts get in the way of a good pun!

Anyway, I didn't get to visit the town itself, and ended up running the quiz in a conference room, in a business park, on an industrial estate on the outskirts of the town. Ah! The glamour! The rancid glamour!

At 3.30pm yesterday, I left Highgate for Greenwich to do my teaching at Trinity. As I walked along the river, it struck me what a special location the conservatoire is situated in. It's right by the Thames in part of the magnificent 17th Century Royal Naval college, which, I read today, has been designated an UNESCO site of "outstanding universal value." The white buildings glow a magical peachy colour at sunset. One building looked so beautiful that I had to ask one of my students if it was being lit up by lamps. They filmed the end sequences of Les Mis there.

I had spent time in the week studying the CVs of my pupils, and pouring over them for spelling mistakes and inconsistencies. If you're going to have Rodgers and Hammerstein on your CV, you ought to spell their names properly. I also wanted to make sure that no one was filling out their biogs with skills they couldn't actually back up. One of my pet hates is people claiming to play musical instruments they can't actually play to a standard which would be useful in a show. Having basic flute skills is neither here nor there. There are high class musicians who would be able to get to a basic standard on pretty much any instrument in an afternoon! It was all very good natured. We had quite a laugh after the students began to realise that none of them were going to be spared my acid tongue!

The show choir was more challenging. Last week, 120 students attended. Tonight I'd be lucky to have had half of that number. The biggest hit was the lads. We had two tenors and one bass, which doth not a choir make! Of course I couldn't fail to take it a little personally. Choirs don't usually haemorrhage members like that. I'm told the problem is that the ensemble is not a compulsory thing within the college, so life takes over and the numbers diminish. A visitor isn't able to incentivise students who might think twice about appearing flaky in front of a member of staff. It seems a bit shortsighted of the students if I'm honest. When a visiting professional comes into a college, he, more than anyone else, has the power to give them employment in the future. Lack of men aside, we had a tremendous rehearsal. At the end, we sang I Miss the Music in complete darkness but for the light of mobile phone torches. Marvellous.








Thursday, 28 September 2017

Just get back to people, okay?!

I applied for a job recently. The employer was looking for a composer with experience of creating large-scale, ambitious and site-specific community projects. It sounded so far up my street that three separate people sent me the link to it. I played the game. I called the organisers to ask for more information and ascertained that there wasn't a specific brief: they were just looking for interesting proposals. I spent a lot of time working up an idea which I was really excited about. I submitted it and got the "thank you for your interest in this post, we'll be in touch" email... and have heard nothing since. Zip. Zilch. No interview. No "Dear Mr Benjamin, we've decided on this occasion not to meet you, but good luck in your chosen career." No "the standard of applications was very high, but we'll keep you on our files for future opportunities" (which I've subsequently learned means we'll add you to our mailing list and inundate you with unwanted emails about arts projects which you haven't been invited to pitch for...)

So here's the thing: if you're an employer and you have a vacancy, it is hugely rude to expect people to jump through all the hoops that applying for your post requires them to do if you're not prepared to contact them to tell them that you're not taking things further. I don't know how it works in other employment sectors but it happens all the time in the arts. I once applied to work as a teacher. The application form was so involved, that it took me two days to fill in. After not hearing from them for two months, I contacted the bursar whose name was on the form and asked when I was likely to hear anything. Her tone was dismissive: "if you've not heard anything from us you have to assume you've not been successful. Lots of people applied. We can't be expected to get back to everyone." Common decency surely dictates that you should. I didn't have time to reply to close to a thousand messages of good will from strangers I received after my wedding, but I sure as hell replied to them. Nathan doesn't have the time to reply to all the people who contact him asking him questions about his knitting patterns, but he does. Top producer Danielle Tarento says she has a policy of responding to absolutely everyone who writes to her, and she's the busiest producer I know.

Over the past year, during some really bleak times, I have applied to close to fifty jobs on the Arts Council website. I only heard back from four. And I'm a BAFTA nominee!

If you're lucky enough to be an employer in the arts, please take heed. Creative people will often throw their hearts and souls into their work in a way that very few other people seem to be able to comprehend. There's often an almost pathetic lack of distinction between the work we do and the way we perceive ourselves. If, as an employer, you're not even prepared to respond to someone who has invested time and emotion trying to pitch something to you, regardless of the reason, you're sending out a very clear message that the person's idea (and his or her career to date) is so insignificant that it's not worthy of comment. And this can be brutally damaging. If you're in arts admin, the bottom line is that you're making money out of creative people, so there's a double responsibility to treat us with respect.

All creative people have those moments which stick with us for ever, where someone's throw-away remark destroyed our confidence. Whilst at university, a very close friend came to watch me rehearsing a production of Dangerous Liaisons. After the rehearsal she said "you're literally the most awful actor I've ever seen. Stick to directing." I was so mortified that I immediately pulled out of the production and haven't acted since. Fiona told me the other day that she'd been practising an almost impossible Tchaikovsky cadenza in her house in Kentish Town one day, with he window open, and someone passing in the street had shouted "you can't play it!" The fact that she's remembered this for the best part of twenty years is indicative of how fragile our egos are.

I'm not doing a "poor luvvies" rant here. You need a very thick skin to work in the arts, and over the years, those of us who are still working professionals have developed incredibly thick skins and coping mechanisms. But I'm writing this because I think it's something we can all think about in the future, whatever line of work we're in. If you're the person who gets back to everyone who looks like they've spent time in contacting you: Thank you. If you're reading this and feeling perhaps you could do better in this respect, maybe think about how you could implement a different policy. If you're reading this and thinking "I completely know how that feels", then you have my deepest sympathy. It's horrible. If you're an artist, please dust yourself off every time some passing dick tells you you can't play, make, create, write or act, however they tell you, whether it's vindictive or subconscious. Art is subjective. I've even heard there are people out there who don't like ABBA. The world needs you to keep on doing what you're doing. So please, keep going.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Don't cut off your nose...

I literally don't know if I'm coming or going at the moment. I have so much to achieve that I'm starting work at 7.30am and going through til 9 without stopping.

This evening, I decided that enough was enough, and threw in the towel at 7.30pm, made some pasta, and watched the Bake Off live, which I think has transferred to Channel 4 in the most excellent manner. I'm not even minding the ad breaks because it means I have time to make cups of tea and return plates to the kitchen. I may sound mercenary or a bit contrary when I say this, but I'm not missing any of the old guard. Noel and Sandy have really found their rhythm and I've even taken to Pru, who I think is rather witty, a bit naughty and very kindhearted. 

I had Countdown on in the background earlier, and, whilst watching the lovely Rachel Riley doing her sums, it suddenly struck me that there's never a point in walking out on something to prove how much the rest of the world will miss you. (Carol Vorderman.) It's one of those horrible facts of life. People will have a brief panic and then you'll be replaced by someone cheaper, younger and probably just as good.

Many years ago, I worked as the resident director on the West End production of Taboo. I was young, something like 26, and the producers never quite seemed to trust me to get on with my job. As audiences dwindled, they paid me less and less, which felt rather mean-spirited as I'd previously done six months pre-production on the show for the ludicrous fee of £500!

Anyway, I got more and more dispirited and finally said "fuck you very much. I'm amazing. Try steering this boat without me!" I was horrified when they accepted my resignation and immediately replaced me with a cast member. When the show did its UK tour, and then went to Broadway, I was, of course, nowhere in the mix. Lesson learned. Don't cut off your nose to spite your face. If you want to leave a job, make sure you can put your hand on your heart and say you'll be happy for whoever is brought on board as your replacement. That, or that the job is just so genuinely awful that it's a relief to leave.

And, of course, the flip side of that argument is that, in the process of thinking we don't want our precious gig to go to someone else, we do often put up with relentless hideousness. My greatest regret in life is not walking out on Beyond The Fence when I was first compromised. I stuck at it and stuck at it because I needed the money and wanted the show on my CV. In retrospect I realise that it threatened my marriage and triggered a nervous breakdown which I took some time to recover from. I am still feeling the dark ripples of that awful period because it encompassed both of my fields of expertise: telly and theatre, and the worlds are very small. I know there are people out there who have heard that I'm impossible to work with and that fills me with great sadness. And when you get the reputation for being difficult, just being passionate about something starts to raise eyebrows. And then you really are in a no-win situation...

That's probably the most honest blog I've ever written. Apologies if it feels like I'm over-sharing!

Monday, 25 September 2017

Walking through Islington

After a day of working yesterday, which felt profoundly painful on a Sunday, I jumped on the 43 bus to Highbury to meet Fiona and Michael for a bite to eat. I realised, as we trundled down the Archway Road, that I usually have work with me when I'm on a bus, and that I don't tend to notice how ludicrously slowly they seem to travel! The twenty miles per hour speed limit we have in most of the North London boroughs feels desperately slow. Frankly, in London, you're lucky to be able to travel at half of that speed. There isn't a road which isn't congested in some way, but on those few occasions when you are able to travel at 30mph, like the times when you're returning home from a gig in the middle of the night, it's really nice to be able to do so.

That said, I've now got quite used to driving at twenty miles per hour in London. It can therefore get very confusing in the boroughs where the speed limit hasn't yet been lowered. Bizarrely, this includes the tourist haven of Westminster, where clueless people repeatedly step out in the road to take photographs without any warning. If there really were a place in London where it might be useful to slow the traffic, it's there. But then again, nothing feels consistent in London when it comes to road travel. Parking regulations differ from road to road. In Highgate, you can park on any street, and most single yellow lines, any time of the day or night except weekdays from 10am till noon. This is, of course, just enough to to deter commuters from driving here, dumping their cars and taking the tube into town. In Hackney, however, where, let's face it, you only visit if absolutely necessary, the regulations prevent people from parking six days a week from 8am til 10pm. I can't imagine how residents cope. What happens if you have the builders in? Or friends to visit? These kind of regulations smack of cynical money-making schemes. The most draconian parking regulations are often in the poorest parts of town where middle class lawyer residents don't threaten to take their councils to court!

My general confusion was aided by the fact that the 43 bus appears to have changed its southbound route and now goes along the Cally Road, bypassing Highbury Corner entirely, which meant I had to do an irritating schlep by Shanks' pony.

We had our tea in an Italianish cafe on Upper Street. The service was a little languid but the food was good. Michael disappeared to a party in Walthamstow and Fiona and I decided to go on one of our epic walks. It's one of the things we like to do when we're together. We talk and walk and do both things at an incredibly fast pace! We walked up through Highbury Fields, then along past Highbury Barn to Finsbury Park, where we did a loop past the Sobell Sports centre, up into Crouch End and back to Highgate. It was a walk which triggered many memories. Even though we're both Northamptonians and Fi now spends most of her time in Brighton and Glasgow, that particular part of London will always be special for us both. I can't count the number of times we've trudged along those pavements together, each time nattering about whatever was important to us at the time, which of course changes as you enter and exit different phases of your life. For me, what's incredibly special about my relationship with Fiona is that our lives have always worked in tandem. It's as though we've always been travelling at the same speed, right from the age of 14. During those 30 or so years we've constantly had each other's backs and only rowed, I think, three times. That's a proper friendship.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Premiere!

This morning found me, once again, singing in a choir at New West End Synagogue. It was a four piece choir, one person per part, so there was a lot of pressure to get things right. I've actually worked really hard on the Shabbat repertoire, so very much felt on top of things. That said, there's still a sense that I've gatecrashed a party. There are all sorts of amens and little passages of text which everyone suddenly starts singing, none of which are written down. I think it's simply assumed that, as time goes on, I'll learn what's going on by some mystical oral folk-song-like tradition. I certainly wouldn't be allowed to sit and transcribe what's being sung, because I'm not allowed to use pen or pencils in the synagogue! I learn a new rule every week. Today I learned that, when making a cup of tea in shul, etiquette dictates that I pour water from the hot water vat into a little jug before I pour it into my cup. I haven't yet got to the bottom of why this intermediary receptacle is necessary, but it's something to do with mechanical devices and the preparation of food. Next weekend is Yom Kippur, which means I'm not allowed to wear leather shoes with my suit as it's deemed inappropriate to show dominance over an animal on this particular festival. Everyone therefore goes to synagogue wearing trainers. The more I learn about keeping kosher, the more I learn why so many Orthodox Jews are vegetarian!

Today witnessed the world premiere of my first ever musical setting of a religious Jewish text. It is now my ambition to become to Jewish sacred music what John Rutter is to Christmas carols! Michael commissioned me to write the piece back in June and has been waiting for the right moment to unleash it on the unsuspecting public. The choir themselves seemed to really like it. One of them, Joey, who sings tenor, and has basically sung in every synagogue in London, told me it was his favourite ever piece of synagogue music, which felt like high praise indeed. He has a fabulous voice.

I think we performed the piece really well. I got uncontrollably nervous half way through, which was a very strange sensation for me. I don't actually remember when I last went all trembly-voiced whilst singing. It was probably back in the days when I sang with the Northamptonshire Youth Choir... probably singing the Libera Me solo in the Faure Requiem. I suspect I suddenly became aware of the magnitude of the occasion: the fact that the congregation were listening intently and that most of them were standing because, never one to do things by halves, I'd chosen to set a text which takes place during the holiest moment of the service. I've also managed to write a really low bass line, which goes down to a bottom D, and, of course, when the nerves start to come in, the one thing you can't do is support the really low notes. There were a couple of moments when I realised I was beginning to sound like a distant nematic drill, so was forced to stop and take a deep breath!

Q: How do you get a viola player to play tremolando?
A: Write solo above the note.

Aside from a few moments of crashing nerves, I think the choir sang my piece very well. We certainly created a moment. It was an emotional and quite theatrical rendition, which didn't go down hugely well with the Rabbi, but a lot of key people in the synagogue were highly impressed and lavished praise on me and us afterwards. It's a shame that the Rabbi wasn't too keen, but when setting religious texts, you're always going to have the issue that some people don't want anything too fancy, or anything other than what they already know. Also, on first hearing, who can ever really know if a piece of music is going to get under their skin? My hope is that he'll have an epiphany next week. He's plainly a good and very learned man. He delivered a wonderful sermon today on the importance of failure. Recent psychological research suggests that people are more likely to succeed if they accept and, for a time, wallow in their failures. The feeling is that people who take failure to heart are more likely to learn from their mistakes and fight to succeed than those who allow it to be like water off a duck's back. Interesting philosophy.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Trinity

I am trolling home on the Northern Line from deepest, darkest Greenwich where I've been teaching at Trinity School. First up was a class with third year students where I heard twenty actors singing ninety seconds each of a song of their choice. My aim was to get to know them all as performers, so I asked them to prepare a passage which told me all I'd need to know about who they were. I also allowed them to tell me three sentences about themselves. It's fascinating to see what people choose to say and sing under these circumstances. By and large I think they all rose to the challenge. I was expecting all sorts of faffing, whinging and nervous behaviour, but I saw very little. They seemed very professional, highly unflappable, and when I started talking at the end, all the pads of paper came out and reams and reams of notes were taken. I hope I gave them good advice. I think they deserve it. There was a lot of talent in that room.

After the class I dashed across the courtyard to run the show choir. It was a tough old space to rehearse in. There's something like 150 singers in the choir who sit in a long, thin room, with the basses and tenors sitting at the back, which means the men are a good twenty meters away from where I'm standing. An additional issue was the last-minute loss of a pianist for the rehearsal. One of the singers, a young chap called Bobby, stepped in and saved the day, manfully sight-reading the accompaniments. Note-bashing rehearsals are never much fun, but I think the choir is going to make a very wonderful sound which I'm rather excited about. I actually wish the rehearsal was an hour longer and that I got to run the choir all year round. It could be something very special indeed. We're singing Mr Blue Sky, Skid Row from Little Shop of Horrors and I Miss The Music from Brass.


Quizzing

I've just returned from marking a quiz in the City of London. It took place in an upstairs room at the Counting House on Cornhill, which has to be one of the most fabulous pubs in London, certainly in terms of its gaudy and opulent Victorian architecture. It was originally a banking hall and is lined with intriguing dark, wooden staircases and galleries. A huge domed atrium hovers over the bar.

The quiz went down very well. Abbie was quiz-mastering and got the teams feeling suitably competitive. There was a good level of knowledge in the room as well, which always makes for a nice atmosphere. There's nothing worse than running a quiz and having a drunken woman (and believe me, it's always a woman) kicking off because she thinks the questions (which she's not listening to) are too difficult. When men find something too hard they tend to fold their arms and go quiet, which can be equally challenging but fortunately less disruptive. The worst ones are the ones who say "who cares?" when you ask them a question they don't know the answer to. Like they are somehow the guardians of what makes for an interesting question. I personally know very little about sport or science but would certainly not dismiss a question about one of those subjects as being boring. Listen to the question and it's answer, and maybe, just maybe, the next time you go to a quiz you won't feel the need to kick off!

The quiz I ran two nights ago (also in the city) was designed to launch one particular legal firm's diversity week, and we were asked to pepper the quiz with a few appropriate questions. I was actually fairly horrified to discover that only one team knew which city the Stonewall riots had taken place in, that no one knew which country had been the first to give votes to women, and that very few people seemed to know who Rosa Parks was or which country Dana International was representing in Eurovision when she brought trans rights to the front of everyone's consciousness. I guess belonging to a minority group has made me more interested in knowing about equality and diversity right across the spectrum, but I'm all too aware that younger people don't seem to be that bothered about knowing how they got to where they are. There are huge numbers of young gay men who don't know a thing about the White Night Riots or Stonewall, and I think the concept of women's rights and the debts we owe to a whole host of pioneering females are entirely lost on many young women today. I think it's a terrible shame, and it worries me because it leads to a lack of respect for the older generation within our communities, and God knows, after Brexit, those blessed Baby Boomers aren't exactly riding high in their children and grand children's opinions!

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Apologia

I read today that Theresa May is waging war on modern slavery. "The world must act" she says, "to stamp it out." Lovely little smoke screen there to divert attention away from her government's catastrophic Brexit negotiations. Like any one is going to deny that modern day slavery doesn't need to be expunged. It's a bit like waging war on murder, and needs to be viewed as the cynical smoke screen that it is. What I also feel obliged to write is that, if the definition of modern day slavery is that a person's basic human rights have been removed, May needs to take a good hard look at her decision to get into bed with the DUP. She's such a ghastly, evil woman.

This evening we went to see Stockard Channing and Lady Edith from Downton Abbey in Apologia at the Trafalgar Studios. I don't actually know when I last went to see a piece of straight theatre, so it was quite a treat to get back into that particular saddle. So what can I say about the piece? The set design was exquisite. The lighting complimented the design perfectly. The writing was, in the main, good. I sometimes got a little tired of the somewhat transparent way in which monologue sequences were set up. The writing, in places was a little unconvincing, and I felt that one of the characters, a soap actress, had been handed a plethora of really dodgy lines. The writer had imbued that character with more cynicism and wisdom than her years would dictate, and a far fruitier vocabulary than I believe she would have had in real life. The result was a character with no redeeming features whatsoever, which felt lazy. The rest of the cast were lovely. Laura Carmichael had been handed the somewhat thankless task of playing a born again American Christian, but managed to make the character really very likeable, and Desmond Barrit played an ageing hippy homosexual with exquisite comic timing.

Watching Stockard Channing on stage was a deep, deep thrill. Of course the auditorium was full of gay men. She is unbelievably popular with my sort on account of having played Rizzo in Grease. Don't ask me what it is about sassy characters like Rizzo that the gays like so much, but I'm sure a great deal of it was due to the genius of Channing who was actually 33 when she played the teenaged role.

Her performance tonight was honest, understated, psychological, intelligent, and, right at the end, heart-breaking. From the moment she walked on stage you somehow knew you were in the presence of greatness. It was a mammoth role, but you instantly knew you were in a safe pair of hands. She played a highly complex character: a woman who had been engulfed by sixties radicalism to the extent that she had possibly chosen that world over the happiness of her children, who, as grown men, were taking pot shots at her left, right and centre. It was a testament to Channing's remarkable acting skills that the audience were able to remain on her side throughout. As she took her bow, obviously exhausted, I realised how lucky I was to have seen acting royalty in such a tiny theatre. It was a hugely thought-provoking and magical evening.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Jewish new year

I was back at the synagogue yesterday for another rehearsal. We're entering a really important and holy period in the Jewish calendar, namely the Jewish New Year, and there are myriad services of atonement and celebration, all of which require music. One of the big complications is that, although Jewish religious services are built on a foundation of song, on Shabbat, if you're orthodox, you're not actually allowed to play instruments, so everything has to be sung unaccompanied. Perhaps because of this, and because Judaism is a dwindling religion, very few composers and music makers have paid a great deal of attention to this issue and this means the music which IS there is often barely fit for purpose. There's the "Blue Book", which is a Victorian creation filled with psalms and such. It has not been updated, so all the music is written in ancient Hebrew which means a modern day singer is constantly having to change vowel sounds and exchange s's for t's. It's also written for mixed male and female voices, which means, in a modern day orthodox context where all choirs are male-only, singers are forced to change keys and octaves left right and centre, and this can lead to a fair amount of sonic muddiness. To make matters worse, the original compilers' desire to save paper, has meant that the music is a confusing mass of tonic-sol-fah notation with the lyrics to different verses, none of which have the same metre, crammed underneath the soprano line. All of this makes sight reading almost impossible. My heart sinks when I see something which has been photocopied from the Blue Book. What should be a walk in the park is destined to become a traumatic crawl across No Man's Land!

There was an open day going on at the synagogue when we arrived yesterday and a few people were milling about looking at the building's beautiful Victorian architecture. For me the greatest sadness is that every time I show up to a synagogue, a huge number of security people are standing outside, checking bags, asking questions and generally converting what should be a warm and inviting experience into something which is laced with suspicion. It's a reminder of how many people out there have issues with Jewish people and how unsafe the community has been made to feel in recent years. I could be wrong, but I'm really not sure I've ever seen security people outside a church, or indeed, a mosque. How awful that this very small, totally unthreatening community is forced to worship under such extreme circumstances.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Costwolds for five hours

Yesterday started very early indeed with a 8.45am rehearsal at shul. I bought a bottle of water from a corner shop en route and was asked by the man behind the counter if I wanted a bag. Surely the point of a bag is to carry more than one object? Water bottles aren't exactly hard objects to hold! In a different corner shop, on the same street, earlier in the week, under remarkably similar circumstances, I was asked if I wanted a "small bag." What? As opposed to a bin liner? Surely I can rely on a shop keeper's wisdom to offer a bag which is the right size for my purchase? He or she doesn't really need to bring me into the decision process about the size of bag I'm getting. Or perhaps she was trying to tell me that my purchase wasn't worthy of anything other than a small bag and therefore, if I was hankering for a bag which I'd also be able to put my music folder into, I was going to be sorely disappointed? These thoughts troubled me as I walked to the shul.

Yesterday was the first time I was due to sing as part of a quartet with only one person singing each line. There was therefore a lot of pressure on my shoulders. The last time I'd sung in shul there were two of us on each part so I was able to coast a bit and rely on the other bass, James, to pitch the odd crazy interval or sing the more tongue-twistery lyrics!

Singing in shul is a really lovely experience. I spend so much of my creative time in high-pressure environments, with one hand on a stop clock or frantically orchestrating under headphones whilst people are enjoying the bonding sensation of rehearsing and performing. It's a genuine pleasure to have no other task than simply to sing and to know you're well-prepared enough to be able to relax and have a cup of tea instead of panicking between numbers. The other singers are friendly and great fun to be around, and one of them, Gabriel, was an absolute godsend, keeping me on track and whispering things in my ear like "there's a perfect cadence sung to Amen coming up" and "now we all face the wall..." Gabriel and I know each other of old. He was the boyfriend of my dear friend Hilary back in the day.

I felt as though I held my own throughout the service and was secretly rather pleased with myself. A bar mitzvah was happening as part of the proceedings which meant we got to witness the curious and wonderful sight of the entire congregation lobbing hard-boiled sweets at the lad who was entering adulthood. It's quite a hard core moment. The lad was forced to duck and protect his head as the sweets flew at him, with force, in their hundreds.

After the service, Michael and I went along the Portobello Road. It was my brother's birthday yesterday and I wanted to get him something nice. Michael had spoken highly about a little boutique where they sell all sorts of quirky glass and ceramic statement pieces. My brother has a fabulous collection of colourful glass, and I found him a bright orange decanter to add to it. Portobello Road, as you might expect, was buzzing with excited tourists having their pictures taken in front of street signs and the colourful houses down there. I wondered how many of them were fans of Bedknobs and Broomsticks... or Notting Hill come to think of it. The whole place is highly chi-chi these days with artisan bakeries and coffee shops on every corner, a far cry from the grotty street market we visited as children where I bought a scarf with piano keys on it as an ode to Bruno from Fame, and my brother got mugged!

Hovering over the district, Grenfell Tower reminds us that there's more to the area than this new influx of yuppies and yummy mummy. My heart still sinks when it looms into view, particularly at night time, when it becomes a pitch black, bleak silhouette against the sky.

I jumped in a car in the early afternoon and drove to a little Oxfordshire town called Burford, or more specifically a tiny village on the outskirts of said town called Little Barrington, which I think is over the border in Gloucestershire. I haven't really spent a great deal of time in the Cotswolds although my mother tells me we went there often as children. It's a stunningly beautiful part of the world. The landscape undulates with little villages and towns sitting neatly in the dells. Little Barrington itself is very charming and rather ancient, and filled with rows of 18th Century stone cottages which surround a winter-born stream and a rather "moundy" village green.

The parents and Edward and Sascha had hired a little cottage with Sascha's parents, Hans and Joey, who were over from South Africa. It was lovely to finally meet them and they seemed incredibly charming. Hans had brought some very classy bottles of wine to England with him which everyone but Joey and me polished off with great alacrity, purring and cooing like fans of wine tend to. I was surprised to hear them describing the wine as "crisp" and "fruity" rather than as "stomach bile" which is how we all secretly know it tastes. We ate in a lovely gastro pub before returning to the little cottage for Dutch hot chocolate. By the end of the night my brother and my Mum were decidedly tipsy. My brother became obsessed with linguistics, which is his drunken default, and my Mum was telling stories about her own mother.

I drove back to London late at night, stopping, as I love to do, at a service station which, as usual, made me feel very happy!

Friday, 15 September 2017

Flash fires

London appears to be quaking in the wake of yet another dreadful attack. This one, fortunately, has killed no one. We're told that the home-made bomb, planted on a District Line tube train, didn't detonate properly and caused a flash fire instead of an explosion, which means most of the victims have superficial burns. Had the bomb gone off as intended, many would have died. The police have defined it as a terrorist attack. I don't know how they can be so sure. It could simply be the work of some nut job jumping on the current bandwagon. For something to be defined as terrorism, an ideology needs to be established. Terrorism shouldn't be lazily defined as "that which causes terror." Until police can establish who did this, and why, they have no right to call it an act of terrorism.

London, of course, keeps calm and carries on. I don't get a sense of any degree of rising panic. The media are doing their best to whip us up, but I think we've all decided to be stoic instead. Stoic and a bit bored of it all. As Andy Hamilton said on the news quiz tonight, "I think we're all outraged-out."

I was rather touched to hear stories on the news about those who'd witnessed the attack providing support for one another. Strangers in London very rarely so much as acknowledge one another, let alone go out of their way to look after each other. I'm beginning to think that the terrorists are doing us a massive favour and bringing us all closer together. How ironic!








Thursday, 14 September 2017

TV musicals? What TV musicals?

These illnesses always go on just slightly longer than a man can endure don't they? Mine is following an almost identical pattern to Nathan's, who now seems better, so I'm hoping it will pass through my system soon enough. The high levels of stress continue, however. I drove to Oxford yesterday for a quiz and spent most of the night experiencing adrenaline bolts shooting through my upper chest, which is just ludicrous. I could, of course, go to see my GP, but the curse of the freelancer is that I'll simply be told I need to take some time off work and, of course, if I do that, my stress levels will rise further, largely because I won't be getting paid to do anything! It's all very dull. I wish I had the energy to knuckle down at the start of a day and just plough through. Maybe tomorrow...

There's nothing else to say for today. I heard from a TV exec this afternoon who tells me that no one wants to put any musical dramas on telly any more. There's a weird, and (in my view) somewhat arrogant, belief that there's not an audience for them. Largely, one assumes because the execs are all too cool for school. What upsets me is that you can only really say there's no audience for a specific genre of telly drama if there have been lots of examples of it which have flopped. Because musical dramas aren't actually put on the telly, no one knows if there would be an audience for them. My message to any TV commissioners reading this: Take a punt! But whatever you do, don't waste time on cynical projects where you're producing dramas you THINK might appeal to a specific demographic, or an audience you feel you ought to be trying to attract. Don't tell your writers they have to justify people bursting into song by using dream sequences. People sing in musicals. Get over it. Just let someone write something from the heart and it'll find its audience soon enough.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Shit day

I have to say that I'll be very pleased when today is over. It's been a fairly miserable one from start to finish, and to cap it all off, it's pissing down with rain.

I'm still not well. I've got a headache now on top of an upset stomach. I've spent the day learning music for Synagogue but still managed to feel like a hick from the sticks in rehearsal this evening. All the other vocalists seem to be hugely well-versed in both public singing, blagging it and singing in Hebrew. I just have to keep chipping away at it, but every second I spend learning music takes me away from this obscene list of things I have to achieve in other corners of my life. It's a horrible mess.

To make matters worse, my agent called today to tell me that the When The Wind Blows project was pretty much dead in the water on account of no one having the foggiest idea who own the rights. The situation is so complicated that people have simply started to wash their hands of it and are just waiting for me to go away! I guess the phone call was the universe telling me to throw in the towel.

The day ended with me locking myself out. I left my keys on the kitchen table. Nathan was out. I sat miserably underneath the awning of a local pub, going through my bag again and again in case the keys were hiding somewhere. Thank God for Fiona's perspicacity. I texted her to moan about my predicament and she instantly remembered that I'd given a set of keys to little Welsh Nathalie downstairs when we went away. Thankfully Nathalie was in and so the crisis was mercifully averted.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Asking the universe

I spent most of yesterday lying on the sofa wondering why on earth I was feeling so profoundly wiped out. To begin with I thought it was the weather. It was wet and cold. But then, as I stumbled to the kitchen to switch the heating on, I realised I was ill. Proper ill. There's something going round. Nathan's been ill. My brother's been ill. My dad's had something which has the same set of somewhat grim symptoms. It's a sort of stomach virus thing. Not very nice.

Today was all about chipping away at a list of things to do which covers two A4 pages. For an example of the magnitude of my task ahead, one of the points on the list reads "learn music for Yom Kippur." There are 200 pages! There are also 200 pages of music for Kol Nidrei, which is another service at the synagogue I'm singing in. Then there's quiz mastering, prepping for the Em album recording, general admin and sorting material for the show choir. It seems a portfolio existence requires a fair amount of delicate balancing!

That's really all there is to say. I had a meeting this afternoon and enjoyed walking back to the tube through Soho. There was a thunder storm this evening with lots of lightning and we had pizza for tea whilst watching episodes of the X Factor from the weekend. That's it.

Actually, that's not quite it. Five days ago, I realised I had lost the silver elephant which I have worn around my neck every day for the past fifteen years. One day, when I'm not feeling so ropey, I will offer readers of this blog the full story. The elephant, which is called Little Great Alne, has a huge amount of significance for me because it provides me with a link to my mother, my Auntie Gill and both of my brothers. When I'm feeling low, or when I am telling people about the story of finding my brother, Tim, I often realise I'm holding or touching the elephant.

I have been really very upset about losing her (or him - Little Great Alne is gender fluid!) I have looked everywhere. I even started pulling the washing machine apart when Tanya was staying. Anyway, I finally told my mother today that I'd lost him and I could sense that she was really upset on my behalf. My mother is a great believer in the power of the universe, so I was hoping she'd throw a bit of energy out there which might encourage Little Great Alne to come home.

Two hours after the conversation, Nathan appeared in the sitting room, asked me to close my eyes and hold out my hand, and promptly placed a very familiar silver object in my palm. Little Great Alne was apparently on our bedroom floor in a hugely obviously place where it's almost inconceivable we wouldn't have looked over the past five days. Plainly she'd been on an adventure. I hope she's had a fabulous time, but I'm not sure I want her to go gallivanting again any time soon.

Perhaps there really is something in this idea of putting it out there to the world. Seek and ye shall find?

...And if the universe is in a listening mood, there's something I would desperately like it to help me with. I mist prefix this by saying I normally try not to jinx creative projects by announcing them before they're signed, sealed and delivered, but this one is languishing and needs a jolt forward...

For the past two years I have been in conversations with the remarkable author, Raymond Briggs about the idea of turning his chilling and deeply moving graphic novel, When the Wind Blows, into a musical. The novel tells the story of a retired couple, Hilda and Jim Bloggs, and a nuclear bomb. It's a story which holds deep significance for me. My mother was a keen CND activist and I directed the play version as a student, with actor Richard Coyle playing Jim.

To cut a two-year story short, Raymond himself wants me to create the musical version, a theatre has offered to commission and premiere the piece, both Raymond's agent and my agent are working tirelessly to try to make it happen but Penguin, who hold the rights to the book, don't seem to be able to give us the go ahead. And so we sit and we wait...

Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear war ricochets around the world. There has never been a more important time to revisit the show and I am devastated that we're being prevented from moving forward by what appears to be nothing but official paperwork. And I'm afraid I'm finally losing hope and this makes me incredibly sad.

So what do you say, universe? Will you offer me a much-needed helping hand?


Sunday, 10 September 2017

Truffle oil

I went to St John's Wood Synagogue yesterday! I was invited there by Philip Sallon to listen to the 16-strong male voice choir. This large choir is apparently a phenomenon which happens just once a month.

It's actually quite difficult to get into a shul these days. Sadly, a high amount of security is required outside, so you can't turn up without an official invitation. That said, saying we were friends of Philip's had us welcomed in with open arms.

Philip missed most of the service itself. He was preparing the hall for the kiddush, a food-based social which takes place after every service. Philip, in true Philip style, had decorated the hall top to bottom with Ivy and flowers. It looked an absolute picture. He was wearing a sailor suit!

The choir sang well, but it was actually the cantor who stole the show. Most of the Shabbat service is sung, and the singing is led by a cantor or "chazan" whose job it is to sing a bewildering amount of religious text. He will also perform various set pieces with the choir. This particular chazan is flown over from Israel to do the service, so he feels like the real deal. He's deeply authentic and performs with an infectious level of emotion, and all sorts of impressive runs full of flattened seconds and major sixths. His voice was incredibly high, much to the chagrin of the tenors in the choir who were having to sing stratospherically high to match him.

From the Shul I went to Wimbledon with Michael for a walk across the famous common followed by dinner with his cousin, Gillian. Sadly there were no wombles on the common, or maybe they were hiding. Wimbledon village is a very charming place, but I wasn't overly impressed by the common. It's rather flat and boring, and has none of the charm or magic which Hampstead Heath exudes in spades. It was also raining.

The food was lovely, as was Michael's cousin. I had a tagliatelle with mushroom and truffle oil. Truffle oil has always had quite a curious effect on me. It makes me a little light-headed. Gillian tells me that the oil is less popular with women than it is with men, and that it's particular popular with alpha males. She has a theory about the oil's smell, which I couldn't possibly put into writing! It's a fairly broad and spurious assertion but I would be very interested to know if certain foods appeal more to specific genders and why on earth that might be.

My brother called in the late evening to tell me that he and his friend Fiona had won the Eurovision Fan Club's "Stars In Their Eyes" competition. They went as Gemini, the infamous Liverpudlian duo who represented the UK at the contest in 2003 and, in the process, did worse than any act up to that point had ever done. You may remember the song, Cry Baby. Not for its melody but for how out of tune the performers sang!

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Northampton

I got up at shit o'clock yesterday and drove to Northampton where I'd been booked to do a day of filming with BBC Look East about the Nene composition.

The day started at the music school, with an interview at a piano, where they asked me to play a few themes from the piece which I couldn't really get my fingers around! The thing about telly is that you always get told to do painfully embarrassing things which usually involve mocking up a scene to demonstrate something which the cameras weren't there to film when it actually happened. Yesterday's involved Beth coming into the room and our having the most painfully embarrassing conversation about red kite bird song! Egg sandwiches all over the place!

The thing is, as a maker of telly myself, I completely understand why these things have to happen. And Shaun from the BBC is so good-natured and fun to be around that it never stays eggy for that long. It was great to be at the music school. That building literally hums with memories. Every single corner has some significance attached to it and it never seems to change. I talked passionately about the importance of access to creativity and culture for young Midlanders. So much gets written about inner city kids but, in my view, that's not where the issue is. If you live in Elephant and Castle, for example, you've got all the Southbank London cultural institutions not just on your doorstep, but coming into your schools and running local initiatives to fulfil their funding criteria. This allows young people to aspire to be involved in the arts. You just don't get that level of initiative in the Midlands, where kids often can't get back to their homes by public transport after the theatres in Northampton have finished. If your nearest theatre or concert hall is 20 miles away, and your school has cut music and drama from its syllabus, how can you ever be expected to experience art, let alone participate in it?

From Northampton, we went to Hardwater Mill at Great Doddington. On my epic walk along the Nene last December, I stopped there for some time, listening to, and recording, the sound of a sluice gate, which actually turns out to be a hydro-electricity generator. It made a fabulous rhythmic boom which has become a feature of my composition and actually set the tempo for the first four minutes of the piece. In summer, however, the sonic experience created by the generator is entirely different and far less exciting than the sound I heard in December.

The filming day ended down by the Nene in Higham Ferrers, my childhood home. I was encouraged to talk about my past which was a little difficult at times. I don't really see myself in the lad who used to go down to the river on blustery winter days, or the teenager who sat doodling the initials of people he was in love with in a dusty area of soil underneath a bench down there. It all seems very distant now. There's a little plaque down there which talks about the nature reserve they created after my time. The plaque shows a photograph of an old, high-humped Victorian bridge, which I remember very clearly. There was a picture of it being pulled down in 1987. I'm sure the kids who walk past it now think 1987 was a million years ago.

I came home via Toddington Services on the M1, which are, without question the nastiest Services in this country. Every time I go there there's something awful happening in the loos. Yesterday it was floods. Pissy floods. Broken doors. A general lack of interest in making the place nice.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Friends Fest

Yesterday was a long old day. My dear friend Tanya is staying with us at the moment and we spent last night chewing the fat and putting the world to rights. By the time we were done, I was too knackered to write a blog. Yesterday afternoon found me with Llio, in darkest Essex, in the grounds of a country house somewhere near Chelmsford, laughing.

One of the benefits of being an impoverished freelancer is that I can say yes when a very close friend asks me to accompany her to the "Friends Fest" on a random midweek day in September. "Friends Fest?" You ask. "Absolutely!" I reply, "a celebration of that American sitcom which has managed to enter every single British person's brain by a process of osmosis brought about by being played on an almost constant loop on British television."

I'll confess to loving a bit of Friends. I think if you did a bit of digging, most people would say the same thing. Nathan and I watched the entire box set, beginning to end, about ten years ago. I think we all wish we were part of a mutually exclusive group of six perfectly beautiful, deeply witty mates who live in an impossibly cool set of flats on Bleecker Street. Fortunately Friends never made it into the 2010s, or else we'd have had "the one where Monica gets chucked out of her rent-controlled West Village flat to make way for a Hotel Chocolat."

So, we arrived at Hylands House just after lunch and immediately found ourselves in a world which resembled a tatty summer festival. I think I was expecting everything to take place inside the house itself, but instead we were ushered to patch of scrubby grass in a far corner of the estate, where a series of marquees had been erected. It looked a bit pathetic. The Friends theme tune played on a loop. It must have been almost mind-numbing for the event's staff, most of whom seemed to be Welsh. A smattering of carts were selling Friends-themed food. One marquee had been set up to look like "Central Perk", the cafe which features so prominently in the show, but you couldn't buy anything to eat or drink there. What you could do was queue for twenty minutes to look at it, and then queue for another ten minutes to have your picture taken on something resembling the famous orange sofa and then stand on a little platform by the window holding a guitar whilst pretending to be Phoebe playing Smelly Cat. On an hourly basis, a staff member, would grab the guitar and do a mini concert of Phoebe's greatest hits.

You could queue to put on a ghastly prom dress to look like Rachel, or queue to have your picture taken in a Vegas wedding chapel to look like... actually I don't know. Elsewhere, there was a queue to be photographed in a New York-style yellow cab. People seemed content to queue.

A giant screen in the middle played episodes of the show on a loop, whilst people sat watching on deckchairs. An abnormally high number of the people there were fat. Many wore T-shirts which said things like "Joey doesn't share his food" and "Regina Phalange."



Llio and I queued up to have our photo taken on the opening credits set, with the fountain, the random Tiffany lamp and the sofa. I can't remember the fountain being made of polystyrene in the show, or any of the cast dancing on badly-fitted pieces of AstroTurf, but, as we reached the front of the queue, we were duly handed a couple of ghastly branded umbrellas and a member of staff grabbed Llio's iPhone telling us we could do two poses. Generous. The staff member proceeded to take about a million shots of us without once saying "ready?" or "smile." It actually made me feel rather anxious. There's definitely an etiquette to the art of taking a good photograph which most people don't seem to understand. Photographing by stealth never gets the most brilliant results! I watched a bloke later on taking photos of his wife holding Phoebe's guitar on the Central Perk set, and he kept pressing the button even as the poor woman was stepping down from the stage. I was standing behind him so could see what he was photographing. The final picture was a close-up of the poor woman's rather well-proportioned midriff, which will no doubt wreck her day!

The big draw of the fest was a "tour of the Friends' set" which you had to individually book for. Our allotted slot was 6.10 so there was slight panic in Llio's voice as she looked around the somewhat tawdry selection of attractions and said, "we'll have to look at every blade of grass."

After drinking some hot chocolate in the cafe tent next to Central Perk, and watching people shuffling around in semi comas, we realised it was going to be preferable to go away and come back for our set tour. We decided to go into Chelmsford, which threatened to take us from the proverbial frying pan into a pile of dung... As we left Friends Fest we asked the man on the door if we'd be able to come back. He looked confused before acquiescing, rushing to his table and grabbing a Sharpie. He then proceeded to draw a rather detailed little star shape on my hand which instantly looked like a blob as the blue ink sank into my pours like a badly done tattoo. It's still there now. Of course it is. It was drawn with a Sharpie!

We parked up in Chelmsford's Chelmer car park, which, for the record, is as badly signposted as it is impossible to pay for. Llio and I spent some time searching for payment stations and then minutes more trying to work out where to scan our ticket as we left the building. I tweeted Chelmsford Council to tell them how difficult we'd found the experience. It's difficult to know how they could have given less of a shite!

After drifting around the indoor market, which, according to publicity photographs on the outside, is full of smiling elderly people holding hands and buying cheese, we went to Queenie's, a highly charming little cafe, where Llio ate gluten free toast and I had poached eggs, because we know how to live.

We took ourselves for a post prandial walk around the city. Llio made the somewhat bizarre, yet accurate, observation that all the buildings in the centre looked a tiny bit smaller than you might expect them to look elsewhere. I don't know why this should be. Perhaps we've just got used to London where everything is maybe a little bigger?

Top of the list of things to do, in a city not blessed with a great list of things to do, is a visit to the suitably compact and bijou cathedral, which is a very calming place to be. Both of us were rather impressed by the pulpit. Is that what you call the place where old people mumble readings at carol services? Whatever it's called, it's a rather beautifully sculptured object made from organic ripples of leather-lined brass in the arts and crafts style.

We were lucky enough to be accompanied on our visit by an organist who played a wonderful Bach fugue which seemed to start when we entered the space and end as we walked out. The organist was highly skilled and played with great panache. It was a real treat. After the shallow impermanence of Friends Fest, it felt like a proper ascension from the ridiculous to the sublime, but, as Llio sagely pointed out, how lucky we are to know the difference.

We went back to the mayhem of the Friends event for our set tour, which, in fairness, was a huge improvement on everything else that was being served up, all of which had seemed somewhat shonky. We entered a marquee and immediately found ourselves greeted by glass cabinets filled with costumes worn by the central characters in the show, and various key props which had featured prominently, including Joey's huge cream dog. It was fascinating stuff but I got a bit irritated by the member of staff who showed us around, "have you had a good time so far?" She shrieked, to deafening silence which suggested everyone had had a rather similar experience to us. "Well I do hope you fans enjoy this part." And I realised at that point how much of an issue I have with the word "fan." It's a deeply dehumanising term which somehow turns a person into cattle. Fans behave in a weird way. They go to extremes. They make nuisances of themselves. Maybe you desire not to be a fan is the product of twenty years work in the entertainment industry!

From the room filled with props and things, we were ushered into the big draw of the fest, in the shape of a full-scale replica of the two main apartments featured in the show. I have to confess to being impressed. There are so many iconic aspects including that big sloping glass window in Monica's house and the little frame around the peephole in the door. Llio was in her element and it was a true pleasure to see her excitement and take her photograph in every corner. "I want to live in that world" she said, like a little child, as we left, "everyone's nice to each other and money never seems to be a problem." 

And as we pulled out of the Estate's grounds, a sparrow hawk landed on the grass next to the road. It was no more than three meters away from us. What a lovely end to a brilliant day out.