Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Crowd surge

I feel like I’ve been run over by a bus! We’ve just done a quiz in a school which featured some of the biggest crowd surges I’ve ever witnessed! Note to self: run for the hills if anyone tells a group of children that the prizes for winning are a) boxes of chocolate and b) at the front of the room (where your computer and a shed load of expensive equipment are between you and them!) A stampede will almost certainly occur which will involve an almost bewildering number of 13 year olds, all of whom will tell you they were on the winning team! The capacity young people have to think adults were born yesterday knows no bounds.

I have rarely been handed such a random set of answer sheets in such a collectively awful state of repair. Several young people arrived holding pieces of paper by the corners which were literally dripping with sticky fizzy pop, covered in great blobs of pizza oil and smeared in chocolate. At least I hope it was chocolate...

Sometimes, when running a quiz, you have to understand your function. In this instance, we were definitely there to facilitate the youngsters having a good time. Many simply wanted to eat crisps and Haribo sweeties, flirt and chat. The quiz for them was just background noise. Some of them wanted to quiz, however, and those who did, on the whole, did very well. One team, right in front of me, took everything incredibly seriously and eventually won, which was gratifying. The team which wrote “I’ve just peed my pants” for every answer in the last round, I’m pleased to say, lost!

I’m back to writing Nene again. The version of the composition which is being performed in Peterborough and Northampton in early 2018 is twice the length. It feels like an old friend, but it’s a little difficult to crack into. The piece rattles through scores of different keys, and inserting sections is proving to be a little tricky from a technical perspective. I’ll get there.


Monday, 20 November 2017

hitting the ground

I need to stop! I was forced to hit the ground running today, admin and a lengthy Skype call in the morning followed by an afternoon of preparation for a quiz I was working on in the city tonight. I feel I’ve done nothing but race around. To make matters worse, I keep thumping my damaged elbows on things. It’s amazing how often we bash our elbows without really noticing. I’m pretty sure that the accident last Tuesday hasn’t done any lasting damage, but the bruising is spectacular. I’m not sure I’ve had anything this impressive since I was run over by a car at the age of 10. I’d just come out of a fair, and was holding a goldfish in a bag. I’ve no idea what subsequently happened to the goldfish. I’m sure it got royally flattened by the next passing car. I still have a little scar on the back of my leg from the incident. I remember flying through the air in slow motion and Brother Edward, who witnessed the event, being very upset. I also remember how embarrassed I felt because I knew it was my fault and didn’t want the teachers at school to know what I’d done because thought they’d be disappointed in me. I also remember sleeping in the television room that night. Quite why I was set up with a zed bed in that room, I’m not sure. Perhaps I couldn’t climb the stairs.

The quiz went well. As quiz master I was also asked to auction off a football boot signed by someone called Zlatan Ibrahimović. It’s difficult to think of anyone less well equipped to auction off a football boot than me. I know nothing about football. I didn’t even know how to pronounce his name, and, after Googling him didn’t feel particularly drawn to the man. He’s apparently had his first name trademarked, talks about himself in the third person and seems to have a penchant for violence. Not cool. No one in the room seemed that bothered about buying his boot either. It was like getting blood out of a stone. The point about charity auctions is that they should never be about trying to get a bargain. They should always be about giving money and getting something nice in return... I was hugely grateful to the guy who bought it in the the end who plainly understood this fact. I don’t think he wanted the boot but he plainly wanted to donate something to the wonderful hospice we were raising funds for. One very brave woman stood up and talked about the death of her son in a heartbreakingly honest speech. It was very difficult to stand up afterwards and get everyone excited about quizzing! I just wanted to go home and have a little cry.


Sunday, 19 November 2017

Filming the hills

It’s 9pm. 12 hours ago I arrived in Coventry to film two promotional videos for our Em album. I have spent the day with cameraman Keith, Abbie (who was today’s assistant director) and Ben Mabberley, who was acting in the first of the two films we shot.

The day started at the old Coventry Evening Telegraph building opposite the iconic Belgrade Theatre, where both of my parents were young stagers.

The guy in charge of the CET is a live wire called Alan, who has set himself the mission of getting the powers that be in Cov to understand the architectural significance of their city. Coventry is unique as a result of the high number of top quality 1950s buildings which still exist in the city. Obviously this was a result of the city being literally flattened in the blitz of November 14th, 1940, but until recently the beauty of this particular style of architecture was very easy to overlook, largely because it’s often been papered over with inappropriate cladding, wrong-coloured paint jobs, and signage which doesn’t suit the clean-ness of the lines. Strip all of this nonsense away, as Alan has at CET, and you’re left with dignified and classic design statements. Coventry, in short, is a potential tourism gold mine.

Filming was slow this morning. There was a huge amount of set dressing to do to make every corner pop with 1960s authenticity. We spent a lot of time laughing as well. Ben broke the teapot mid shot, which, for some reason was more hysterical than worrying, and then I got the nozzle stuck on my little haze-creating aerosol can. We were in the middle of a take, and all Ben, Abbie and Keith could see was me running up and down the corridor followed by enormous plumes of smoke. I think at one stage I was trying to hit the can against a door frame to make it stop omitting haze. Everything ground to a halt as we all dissolved into fits of giggles. It was some time before we regained our collective composure!

Time ticked by rapidly, and we broke for lunch forty minutes later than we should have, which meant a mad dash to the next location via a smash-and-grab in a roadside M and S for sandwiches.

The afternoon was spent in the glorious Burton Dassett Hills which truly are a jewel in Warwickshire’s already rather spectacular crown. It’s such a wonderful place to walk, and be. Whilst we were filming, I watched a woman sitting on a bench, facing a wonderful view, drinking tea from a thermos whilst reading The Guardian.

It was Ruby Ablett’s turn to be filmed, singing the song, Warwickshire, which is my ode to a county which holds an incredibly special place in my heart.

I hired an ancient Morris Minor for the shoot and Ruby sat in the front seat and performed the song exquisitely as the winter sun melted into a glorious sunset formed from banks of lavender, lemon and tangerine.

There were giggles galore this afternoon as well. Ben, Abbie and Ruby froze almost solid to the extent that their hands stopped functioning! I doubt I shall ever forget the sight of Ben and me with two cans of fake snow coating Keith and his camera in a thick layer of foam! He looked like the Stay-Puft Marsh Mallow Man!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Echolalia

I was in a bit of a panic through most of yesterday. I was singing at Shul this morning but I hadn’t really had the chance to look through the music or practice as much as I would have liked. It’s actually really very lovely to flex my bassy singing muscles again. I can feel my voice responding really well to being given a regular work out. As it happened, everything went very well and I needn’t have worried. I still stumble over the odd Hebrew word, but everything else was pretty much spot on. 

Yesterday was spent rushing about buying and making props and then working on a quiz where all three of our computers simultaneously crashed. Through extremely quick thinking and a whole heap of team work, we narrowly avoided the entire evening grinding to a halt, but I walked away feeling like I’d been hit by a bus as the adrenaline spike slowly seeped out of my body. It’s funny how no catastrophe can ever be attributed to a single event. During last night’s quiz, Sara, who was inputting scores, ran out of battery on her laptop but realised with horror that she’d forgotten her charger. Abbie then handed her a flash drive so we could quickly save the scoreboard and transfer it to my Mac, but it was corrupt. It wouldn’t open on my computer, it destroyed the original document on Sara’s computer and then caused Quiz Master Abbie’s computer to completely crash, which meant she had to make up questions on the fly whilst Sara and I desperately tried to remedy the scoring situation. We got there...

I traveled home on a late night bus from Dulwich to the tube at Brixton. I hate the south of London. I don’t understand it at all. It seems to be a network of wide, house-lined streets with no discernible village centres. Those who know me well will know that I suffer from a condition called echolalia, which is similar to Tourette’s and involves me randomly mimicking phrases I hear which surprise me in the way that they’re delivered. It maybe occurs once a week, and it tends to happen with shop keepers and waitresses, particularly people with very high speaking voices or Eastern European accents. Anyway, I subjected Abbie to priceless example of my infliction on the bus last night as some poor girl got off and thanked the driver. I was mortified.

The tubes at midnight on Friday are always full of eccentric revellers. A massive number of people, perhaps as many as a hundred, were singing and dancing along with a busker performing Aretha Franklin’s Freedom.

The funniest sight I witnessed was an extremely depressed-looking woman, folded up in her seat like an old jumper, wearing a hat made out of a balloon flower. A tragic juxtaposition!

Friday, 17 November 2017

Anchovy hell

Camden Town is a horrible place these days. It’s jam-packed with thousands of tourists who seem to have no purpose in life other than to get in the way! I found myself repeatedly careering into the backs of people stopping dead in the middle of the pavement simply to take a picture. The amount of times I look into someone’s view finder and want to say “that is an awful picture which you’ll probably never look at again. Anyone you show it to will be bored and wonder why you took it.”

Photography has become so disposable.

I also had to negotiate school trips whose teachers seemed obsessed with the safety of the children over and above the safety of themselves. They were stepping out into the traffic left, right and centre seemingly just to keep the children on the pavement!

I was at Camden Market to buy some props for Sunday’s shoot. I left feeling really disappointed. It used to be really cool. You could go there, rummage about in rails of vintage clothing and racks of Bric-a-Brac but these days it’s all tat. And expensive tat at that! It’s been swallowed up by its own success. Just like Soho. And Shoreditch. And all that’s now left is a little husk of nothingness.

I went to see a really wonderful Hungarian film at the Jewish film festival last night. It’s called 1945, and it’s exquisitely shot in black and white. It’s not a film to watch if you like your films fast-paced, but I found myself utterly entranced by its fleetingness. It was like a long dream. A series of trance-like impressions of a bygone simple world. The piece is set in the immediate aftermath of World War Two in a tiny rural village in Hungary. Properties in the village which had belonged to Jewish people before the war had been “officially” handed over to non-Jewish people and there was a strong sense that the villagers didn’t want the Jewish people back. This is a village filled with guilty secrets and corruption which some are almost desperate to hide. When two Jewish people turn up, the entire place combusts. Is this the much-feared homecoming? Are the Jewish people here to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs?

We ate at the Groucho Club afterwards and, as usual, bumped into Philip Sallon. He must live there. As we sat down, the waiter plonked a bowl of olives on the table which looked very inviting. I ate one. It tasted rank. When the waiter returned, I asked if the olives were stuffed with anything. “Yes” he said, “anchovies.” I instantly felt sick. I’m not altogether sure in which world it’s appropriate to add fish by stealth to a product which gets plonked on a table without anyone saying “these are stuffed with something a vegetarian can’t eat and probably won’t be aware of the taste of.” Yeah yeah, really funny. A veggie ate fish. And no, I won’t die. But I have been a vegetarian for 35 years, it’s an important part of my identity and I don’t feel it’s appropriate to shove something on a communal table which doesn’t look like flesh, but is.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Roller coaster

Life is a funny old roller coaster. This evening I worked on a quiz. I don’t need to say where it was or who was doing it, but I will say that it’s vitally important to treat everyone you have dealings with in life with respect and courtesy. People can be heartbreakingly dismissive. As an indication of what we were putting up with today, I’ll give just one example. One of my colleagues went up to a table to collect their answer sheet and said “can I collect your answers please?” The man she spoke to said “no, but you can go and get me a slice of cake.”

Charming.

I spent the day in Soho. We were pitching this morning for BEAM, a wonderful festival for new musical theatre which happens every two years. It’s quite an intimidating process. Llio, Laura and I sat in the bar at the Soho Theatre drinking tea and waiting to be called. Llio made me laugh. “I want to sing this song really well for you” she said, before chowing down on a bar of chocolate, which is considered to be one of the worst things a singer can do before singing! We laughed like drains. Our moment finally came, and we were greeted by the lovely Rosie Archer, who, these days, works for the company who organise the festival. It must have been a little surreal for her. We were pitching to do a performance of Em, and Rosie recently sang on the recording.

She led us down a dark staircase into the studio theatre in the basement of the complex, opened a door and ushered us in. We were greeted by a panel of six people, all sitting at a table, beautifully lit and looking rather terrifying.

We were introduced to the panel one by one. A million things were floating through my head regarding practicalities. Where was I going to plug in my iPod? Were there mics for the singers? Where would I stand? I was too busy panicking to actually listen to the introductions. They went in one ear and out of the other, but I gathered that they were all incredibly influential people.

Laura and Llio couldn’t have performed the songs any better. They acted their socks off and sang like true divas. I felt incredibly proud and grateful. It struck me that we couldn’t have done any better, and, actually, you only ever want to leave a pitch feeling that way.

Llio and I sat outside a cafe on Old Compton Street afterwards. It all felt rather Parisian and bohemian. We then went for dinner in Bistro Number One, which is round the back of the Palace Theatre. Lli wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of Mediterranean cuisine, but completely changed her mind when she saw the scores of beautiful lamps hanging in great twinkling clumps from the ceiling. They’re very souk-like in their deep oranges, purples and greens. It’s a lovely place to sit and while away the hours and they do a 2-course lunch menu for a tenner. There’s never a sense of being hurried along like they used to do in Stock Pot with such comic alacrity!

I did an hour’s work on Nene in a cafe on Wardour Street where a twenty something lad made a somewhat clumsy attempt at chatting me up. I was quite flattered. It’s been a while since someone had the hutzpah (or desire) to chat me up so blatantly! I answered all his questions politely whilst keeping eye contact to a minimum. I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea but I also didn’t want him to feel ashamed. God knows it’s hard enough to be a bloke at the moment treading the fine line between appropriate behaviour and sleaziness.

Albert Hall Premiere

I had a fall this morning. I was at Central School trying to take a bag full of costumes down a flight of concrete stairs. My shoe slipped and I went down about eight steps. Because I was holding things in both hands, it was my elbows which took the hit. I smashed them into the ground with such force that it took me a few minutes to work out if I was okay. After the adrenaline had cleared from my body I realised I was in considerable pain. I knew this because I started giggling like a lunatic. I always giggle when I’m in pain. It’s a thing. I don’t think anything is broken or chipped, but I do think I can expect some cracking bruises. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something in this Nene composition which is trying to kill me!

I needed to collect a prop from Wimbledon this afternoon and, coming down another flight of stairs at the train station, managed to bash my injured elbow on a bannister. It hurt like hell. I could hear a women shouting across at me, asking if I was okay. I laughed manically and explained that I’d already injured myself in the very same spot. “I do things like that” she said, cackling with laughter. She was sitting in a wheel chair and only had one arm. I deduced that she probably wasn’t joking! She then told me how nice I looked, which was nice because I was in my glad rags, wearing the scarf that one of Nathan’s knitting ladies had sent me through the post. Lesley, if you’re reading this. Many many thanks.

This evening was a very special evening. It saw the premiere of my Nene composition at the Albert Hall. I was very nervous and it all went by in a bit of a flash, so my memories are fleeting and impressionistic. I remember falling over (again) in the box I was sitting in in the Albert Hall in a rush to get to the loo. I remember my mate Tash sending all sorts of crazy close-up pictures of the orchestra from the promenading pit where she was standing. I remember the presenter asking everyone to cheer if they were from the Midlands and the entire room erupting into cheers, and feeling a sense of deep belonging and pride. I remember the presenter mentioning Higham Ferrers and the kids from Higham Junior School going nuts. I remember the sense of deep injustice and anger I felt when the presenter said the ensemble came from North-Hampshire. I remember the sound of the junior oboe players in the roof representing the sound of geese and getting a strong sense that the audience really liked what they were hearing. I remember feeling proud that all 700 musicians were being conducted by a woman and then feeling sad that so few of the string players in the whole evening were lads. I remember thinking the strings needed to give it more welly.

...And then it was all over. And I was surrounded by people saying kind things about the piece. I went down to the floor of the Albert Hall and congratulated the choir on a job brilliantly done. Then I was interviewed by the BBC. And then we went to a pub. I felt touched that so many of my friends were there to support me. Abbie, Ian, Ben, Little Michelle, Brother Edward and Sascha, Nathan, Julie, Michael, Philippa, Tina, M and Pa, Kate, Sam, Tash... I felt very loved. And very proud. I go to bed with big bruises on my arms but joy in my heart!

And to cap it all, I’ve just learned that Australia have voted overwhelmingly to support gay marriage.

Good on you, Australia. And bloody good on you, Northamptonshire, Rutland and Peterborough. You’ve done me, the Nene and our little corner of the world proud.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Two soups and a cornflakes packet

I made props for the films I’m shooting at the weekend today. I had previously thought I was going to hire some, but was given the right royal runaround by a series of specialist prop hire companies, none of whom seemed that fussed about making any money out of me. I went on one company’s website and pored over all of their pictures of items in stock only to be told all five of the items I eventually selected had been thrown away! Another company said they would only be able to hire things to me if I could provide them with headed note paper with my company’s name attached. I told them I was an independent film maker. “Oh, then we can’t help you.”

So I printed out lots of 1960s food wrappers and dutifully glued them to various boxes. Close up they look a bit crude, but I think they’ll look quite good on film. I don’t have a great deal more to say about the day. I spent way too long attempting to find a vintage car for the shoot. It seems people are only interested in the wedding market, so finding a 1965 Beetle or Mini is nigh on impossible. Especially in the Midlands.

I went to Philip Sallon’s birthday party tonight, which was a surreal occasion. It was full of larger-than-life characters, all in fancy dress. It was a themed party, but the theme was too complicated for my tiny brain to deal with. The invitation was worded like this: “My hideous Birthday's on Monday November 13th, so I'll have a few degenerates around at my flat from 7.30pm. Well, talking of themes, despite leaving Europe, I'm all for a United World, so please wear something that has the disturbing feel of any country, even your Transylvanian homeland. Hatefully. Philipx”

Philip has taste in music which can only be described as wacky, bordering on tasteless. Every second track, we were treated to a rendition of the Magic Roundabout theme tune and, on one occasion, a highly familiar song rang out. “Your letter is only the start of it. One letter and then you’re a part of it.” Yes. It was the Jim’ll Fix It theme tune!

The highlight of the party was almost certainly an ancient Irish woman who Philip had hired for the evening as a waitress. She was reminiscent of Julie Walters in the Two Soups sketch. She even wore a little pinny. She moved at the speed of a tortoise but was dead set on making sure everyone had their drinks topped up and were well fed with smoked salmon bagels! Brilliant!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Agatha Quiztie

I went to a quiz in Thaxted yesterday with Abbie, Helen, the parents, Brother Edward and Sascha. It is official. I have never scored so badly on a single round in a quiz before. We scored 2/10. The reason? The first round was on motor racing! I ask you. I think we all thought motor racing was going to be a metaphor for something more entertaining. Surely no quiz in the world would have a round so specific? It would be like me running a round on Sondheim musicals. Unless you’re really into it, you don’t have a hope in hell of being able to answer a single question. We just sat and laughed as question after question rolled by about TT racing, Formula One and Motorcross. At one point I found myself flicking elastic bands at the ceiling, I was so bored.

The rest of the quiz was a bit ludicrous as well. Lewis Hamilton was the answer to two questions, as was Belinda Carlisle! It was all incredibly surreal.

Our table of seven created a bit of confusion when we went up for food and asked for five vegetarian meals. The woman looked at me as though I’d just announced I was taking her hostage. They’d made the assumption that there would be a maximum of one veggie per team, so each table was presented with a huge vat of meaty chilli and a tiny little individual portion of the veggie sort. So basically I returned to the table with a sky high stack of vegetarian portions and a massive bowl of the meaty stuff for just Sascha and my Dad to share! The veggie stuff tasted very bland. Incredibly hot, yet bland. It tasted okay with a heap of ketchup, but I do wonder why people mistake hot spices for flavour. Everyone’s too scared to use salt these days.

We picked it up a bit in the second half, although the history round was a wipe out. We were asked to name the longest serving UK Prime Minister. The official answer is Walpole, who was also the first, but there’s so much doubt around whether you’d call him a prime minister or not, so the question felt almost irrelevant.

We were so disconsolate by the end that the news we’d come third barely registered. Sascha won some cup cakes in the raffle. That was a highlight. Helen, Abbie and I discovered a mutual obsession with Agatha Christie. That was also a highlight. As was the open fire and tea and cake at my parents’ beforehand. Ah! The smell of an open fire.

Abbie and I drove Helen back to Cambridge along the dark Northern Essex country lanes which, we all agreed, seemed particularly scary. They were all wrapped in a sort of haze and we kept seeing curious lights sweeping across the fields to the sides of the roads. It was certainly a night of curious optical illusions. I’ve no idea what they were caused by, but they made us feel incredibly uneasy.

We got home late. Very late. I think I slept instantly!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Spinney Hill and the CET

Nathan and I went up to Northampton yesterday to see the first massed rehearsal for the Nene composition. It took place at Northampton School for Girls in the Spinney Hill concert hall, which turned out to be a massive blast from the past. The first time I visited that particular theatre was at the age of 8. We went to watch some sort of TIE play there. I think I must have got over-excited about going because I had a terrible tummy ache throughout the trip. After the show, we returned to my school for lunch and I managed to vomit inside my friend Emma Dicks' lunchbox. I still remember watching the dinner ladies trying to wash her crisp packet, which was the only thing she would have been able to eat after the incident. I was sent home and when I came back to school the following day, all the kids said I had the lurgy. I didn't know what that meant, but I knew it wasn't good!

Later still, the concert hall became a regular haunt for music school students. I played many a concert there. It was also the location of the first rock concert I ever attended. I say rock. It was a Fairport Convention gig which means it was actually folk music. I went with my parents, which isn't obviously as cool as wagging school to see Inspiral Carpets or whatever the cool kids were into at the time.

Anyway, we arrived at the theatre just as the whole school fell deathly silent for their armistice commemoration. I was very grateful to Peter Smalley who saw our car pulling into the car park and rushed out to tell me what was going on. Otherwise it might have felt like something from 28 Weeks Later!

After the silence, we entered the theatre and were introduced to the 600 school children who are going to be singing composition. It was an astonishing moment, particularly when they all burst into song. I found myself feeling incredibly moved. We were almost knocked backwards by the wall of sound and enthusiasm and I was suddenly struck by how lucky I felt that all these people had worked so hard on something I'd written. This piece of music, which had sat in my head and then in a computer, had suddenly been uncaged. The kids all knew all the words off by heart. I was really very impressed, particularly the sequence when they have to sing backwards to represent the Nene flowing inland with the tide.

The kids were delightful and made me feel like a rock star. I must have high-fived at least 100 of them. Most of the schools whose choirs are performing were selected as a result their proximity to the river. My old junior school, Denfield Park, was also chosen to take part, but withdrew with a very disappointing reason. I was very pleased, however, that the junior school in Higham Ferrers was talking part. I used to look out of my bedroom window as a child and watch the kids playing in the playground. One of the young people's aunts had known me at school. In fact scores of people came over who knew people who knew me. It was wonderful.

The highlight of the morning was almost certainly meeting Christine Jones, my old 'cello teacher. She taught me from the age of 7 to 17, and was hugely influential in my decision to become a composer.

The orchestra arrived after lunch, and I made a hasty exit. I really only want to hear the work sounding as good as it can and am aware that young performers have a habit of really raising their games when the adrenaline starts to flow!

I dropped Nathan off at Watford Gap. He was heading up to Nottingham for a knitting fair and was being picked up by a yarn dyer in a white van!

In the meantime I continued driving north to Coventry where I was location hunting. I ended up in the old Coventry Evening Telegraph building, a stunning example of brutalist architecture right next to the Belgrade Theatre, which has recently been re-opened for tours. It's a fascinating and deeply atmospheric place. Some of the rooms I walked through had a really bizarre and very spooky vibe. You can wander through the old print rooms and see all the state of art 1960s fixtures and fittings. The place has been handed over to artists and artisans for a year, and then the whole place will be converted into a hotel.

I went to Michael's in the evening to watch a very charming film which had been directed by someone we're hoping to work with. A jam-packed day.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Jewish film festival

Yesterday was a long old day which started in the recording studio with Julian. We're putting final touches to the mixes of songs from Em. 7 down. 7 to go. And they're starting to pop rather wonderfully. I'm beginning to feel very proud. I made the decision yesterday to use the ensemble from Edge Hill alongside the London ensemble in The Pool. Their chorus vocals really bring something to the song. 

I dashed from Crouch End back home and then drove into Central London to attend the opening gala of the wonderful UK Jewish film festival. I was surprised by how many people there that I knew. Natalie Walter and Amy Rosenthal, Uncle Archie, Carol Russell, Paul Morrison... the little film that I helped to cast, which featured Natalie and Ben Caplan, went down really well.

The opening film was An Act of Defiance, a rather beautiful film which told the story of Bram Fischer, a charismatic Afrikaans lawyer who made it his business to openly defy the Apartheid regime in 1960s South Africa. It was a very sad story. Nelson Mandela (who features in the film) has rather monopolised our perception of the struggle against apartheid, but there were countless other hugely brave individuals, white, black, Indian, Jewish, Cape Coloured, who suffered enormously and proudly went to jail for their beliefs. Fischer died in jail. The state refused to treat his cancer.

After the film, we went to Groucho club with the film's director and lead actor, a more charming pair of Dutch fellas it would be hard to find. As usual, Philip Sallon appeared like a panto witch in a puff of green sparkling dust. Either he lives in the club, or he has a sixth sense for my whereabouts at all times!

Bad interview technique

Perhaps unsurprisingly I didn't get through to the next round of the job I went for two days ago. It was to work as a guide for the ABBA exhibit at the Royal Festival Hall. It wasn't a full-time post and it was only for a few months, so with my expertise and love for the group, I did think I might have been a shoe-in. I await feedback to see what the official issue was. I suspect the woman who interviewed me, who'd told the group beforehand that she had nothing to do with the exhibition itself, took one look at me, thought "why does this old man want to do a job which is meant for pretty young people?" and instantly decided to give me short shrift. This may explain why she blanket circled the number 2 as a score on my form, called me Mr Benjamin and couldn't wait to get rid of me. I think the interview might have got off to a less humiliating start if she'd thought to apologise for calling me by the wrong name, or laughed with me when I bumblingly tried to make light of her blunder. Actually what she did was make me feel ashamed for pointing out her error. "So your surname's not Benjamin?" Her eyes rolled, her voice bristled with boredom. She made me feel utterly insignificant.

When I'm auditioning people, I take great care to write in code or make sure that people can't see what I'm writing about them. Of course, we're all capable of getting it wrong. We all have powerful instincts, and I'm definitely a man who places great emphasis on mine. I have, in the past, almost certainly written-off people because of the way they look and when I was young, I think I would have been a bit confused at the notion of an old git like me wanting to do a part-time, zero hours contract. I'd probably I have thought I was a bit tragic. But there was something about the way she marked me so blatantly and pointedly that implied her actions were company policy. Almost as though someone had said "we've got to rush these bastards through. There's way too many of them, so if they're not right, get them out of the door as quickly as you can. Don't get embarrassed about marking them. We need the scores, and they need the job, so just do it in front of them. It's their own fault if they look down at what you're writing..."

So, if you're reading this and you are about to do a set of interviews, here are some suggestions based on my experience. Feel free to add your own pearls of wisdom. 

1. People's names are really important to them. If someone tells you you've pronounced their name wrong, or used their first name as a surname, be apologetic. If they don't look offended, use the mistake as a way of putting the candidate at his or her ease. Offer candidates a box in their application form which says "how do you like to be known?" This means that those of us who use our middle names, or a nickname, or have a first name which is hard to pronounce, can aid an interviewer considerably. 
 
2. Never de-humanise a person. If you're instinct tells you you need to find young people, re-programme it to say "I need to find energetic, engaging people, regardless of age." 

3. If someone is only giving average answers, give him or her a little steer, so he has a chance to go from a 2 to a 3. 
 
4. Don't ask questions which are only easy to answer after someone has been hired and trained. Asking, for example, what a potential tour guide would do if someone was taken sick in a space/ exhibition he has never seen before is a fairly pointless question. There will be a company protocol which is based on a detailed health and safety assessment of the venue. 
 
5. If asked to score an individual, think about taking a few minutes at the end of the interview to do so, or using a code which he won't understand. 
 
6. Never make an assumption that someone who comes for an interview doesn't "need" the job as much as another person. There are many reasons why, for example, an older person might want or need a post you think they're either over-qualified for or you think would suit a younger person.
7. Smile. If an interview is going badly, it's as much the responsibility of the interviewer to turn things around.

So that's about it from me. I'm rushing up to Northampton...





Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Fear of stickers

I had a job interview today. It was a curious experience which didn't start altogether well. I arrived at the desk and was immediately freaked out by being asked to wear a sticker with my name on it. I have a slight phobia about stickers. It's not so much that I'm scared of them, more that, for the whole of my life, stickers have made me feel sick. I particularly hate them on fruit or cans of coke and was especially freaked out by them as a child. The irony, of course, is that children in particular, are often offered stickers as rewards. Dentists love handing them out. Charities offer them in return for donations. I hate the way that they curl and then attach themselves to other things. When I'm doing NYMT auditions, they can be useful to know names, but during the dance call they all fall off, get attached to people's hair, or end up stuck to the floor. It turns my stomach.

So, when I was handed a sticker today, I immediately attached it to the book I was holding so that it was out of harm's way. I once met a girl who had a similar problem with buttons. She used to replace all of her buttons with safety pins. Being repulsed by buttons is probably more problematic than my issue with stickers. It's really hard to get away from buttons.

When it came to the actual interview, I was a little disconcerted to be referred to as "Mr Benjamin." The fact that I use my middle name almost invariably causes issues. My first name is actually David, but I don't think anyone other than doctors and dentists have ever called me that. Often, when filling out a form, I feel obliged to be honest and write "David Benjamin." It always causes an element of confusion but it's rare to be called "Mr Benjamin."

The other disconcerting thing about the interview was that the woman asking me questions was blatantly giving me marks out of three every time I answered. It was deeply off-putting. I now know that I blanket scored 2 out of 3 for every answer I gave. Middle for diddle. Average all the way. It's not particularly nice to feel like that in an interview. There are surely better ways of getting the best out of people other than crushing them with scores? Perhaps take time to mark the candidate at the end of their interview?

Anyway, perhaps I'm just being a little grand. I may well have had so few job interviews in my time that I don't realise that this is the way that everyone recruits these days.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Pounds of flesh

I woke up this morning with a message from Meriel which informed me that, on this day, forty years ago, ABBA's The Name of the Game climbed to Number One. It stayed at the top of the charts for four weeks, and one of my first childhood memories is watching Top of The Pops and the presenter talking about the song "STILL" being at number one, like it was some sort of astonishing feat, which it really wasn't when we consider it was replaced at the top by Wings' Mull of Kintyre, which stayed there for nine weeks and became the first ever single to sell over 2 million copies. At the time, of course, I was horrified at the injustice of a song as great as The Name of the Game being knocked off the top by something so slushy and mawkish. I'm not sure I'd have used those words to describe the Wings song at the time. I'd probably have simply moaned that it wasn't by ABBA...

I find myself incensed by the increasingly over-the-top reporting of Westminster sex scandals. It strikes me that a lot of people are crowing and a lot more are pretending to be a great deal more outraged than they actually are. I'm afraid I've become utterly bored of people talking about the issue as though it's something which only affects women. Create an independent body which people can go to if they feel victimised. Put checks and systems in place which make it clear how people are expected to behave in the work place and how they'll be punished if they break this code of conduct. Inform the police about people who have genuinely broken the law. Move on...

I'm afraid I'm particularly cynical about the queue of journalists who are presently coming forward to cut of their piece of flesh, particularly ones from the Daily Mail, whose guttersnipe reporters have brutally and systematically attacked minority groups over the years. You live by the sword. You die by it.

Journalists can be incredibly underhand and morally highly dubious in their quest to eke out stories. Quite why any journalist would be having a boozy lunch with an MP is beyond me.

For three years, from the start of 1997 to the end of 1999, I was the partner of a male MP. He was, and still is, a kind, honourable and honest man who cares about people. I was his partner when he was elected to Parliament in the Labour landslide, and his result was THE result of the night. The surprise win opened the two of us up to a huge amount of media scrutiny. I was 22 at the time, and highly vulnerable. No one at the Labour Party press office offered me help or guidance, and it felt as though I'd been dropped into the sea without a life vest.

A week after the election, something I'd written and directed, was performed at the London Pleasance and, during the technical rehearsal, I was besieged by phone calls from press people pretending to be reviewers and theatre correspondents. Within minutes, all the calls turned into dirt-digging missions with the journalists asking me how my relationship was going. I couldn't get them off the phone. One even asked me if there was anything I'd like to tell them before they found it out. It was terrifying and I had no idea how to answer the questions.

We used to go out to political events, and journalists, often female ones, would ply me with alcohol, pretend to be my pal, and get me to open up about my partner, asking me hugely leading questions but couching them with a sense that they were really keen to be my friend and what I was saying was entirely off-the-record. On a couple of occasions, what I said miraculously found its way into print. What those journalists did was really shady and underhand and I was often left feeling entirely abused. I remember a horrid meal once where my partner took that dreaded call from his press office telling him that such and such a paper were threatening to run a story about him, which I'd inadvertently triggered by speaking to a female journalist who'd taken advantage of my naïveté and openness. I felt sick and incredibly upset and guilty. I'd genuinely really liked her and thought she was a new friend.

Vulnerability manifests itself in myriad ways and people from both genders are capable of taking advantage. Men and women are both able to use sex as a tool and we mustn't fall into the trap of chanting "all men bad, all women good" in some sort of Orwellian catastrophe.

When I worked in the corporate sphere, I was more aware of sexual politics than any other time in my career. I saw some dreadful things. Men patronising women in an almost systematic way, but equally, women playing along in a way which often made me feel highly uncomfortable. Straight men in the office would often tell me I had to learn not to treat our female colleagues the way I treated men because, women "needed to be protected." On one occasion I was forced into buying flowers for a bank worker who'd threatened to go to her union because I'd inferred that she was lazy. The fact that I was asked to buy her flowers and, worse still, that she was appeased by them, shocked me beyond words.

So in summing up, I think, regardless of our gender or the role we play in an organisation or institution, we ALL need to take this opportunity to take a good, hard look at the way we behave. Let he who is without sin and all that...









Filming in Liverpool

I'm presently sitting in a Mcdonald's at Stafford services at the end of a long, but hugely rewarding day. We've been in Liverpool with the Edge Hill students on the final day of what's turned out to be an incredibly special project. Today was the day we did the filming.

It was raining at 7am when I left the Premier Inn: punishing, brutal, freezing cold rain which had turned to hail and snow by the time I'd reached Skem to meet Keith the Cam. Keith and I have been working together for almost ten years, and I adore him. I think we bring out the best in each other. He shot my Hattersley film, which I think is head and shoulders better than anything else I've made. He's been working as a cameraman in news for a long time, so doesn't get enough opportunity to flex his creative muscles. He comes to shoots with a huge amount of energy and an endless supply of ideas, which I adore.

We reached Liverpool in some sort of howling gale and got royally soaked filming cutaway shots of the iconic Liver building.

Speaking of iconic, the first proper shoot of the day was at the Cavern Club. It's not the actual Cavern Club, which was knocked down in the mid 70s for unfathomable reasons, but this version has been rebuilt, brick for brick, a few doors down Matthew Street. It's still a real treat to be there. Adele played a set there just after releasing 19.

We shot our end sequence in the club and the students, whom I've come to adore over the last few days, gave it everything they had. They all looked spectacular in their 60s costumes. A lovely lady from the university's costume department came along to make sure they all looked brilliant. There were beehives, brilliant fake eyelashes and more polyester shirts than you could shake a stick at. Not that I've ever shaken a stick at anything or anyone. What is that phrase all about?

What I wasn't prepared for at the Cavern were the tourists, many of whom were Japanese, none of whom seemed to have any sense of what we were trying to achieve. Several walked straight through the dance floor whilst we were doing our routine. Another came up to me whilst I was delivering a pep talk to the cast, tapped me repeatedly before asking where the loo was!

From Matthew Street, we went to Princes Street, a grimy little lane in Central Liverpool where we filmed the opening sequence. Trying to film something which is set in the 1960s is always going to be a challenge on a next-to-nothing budget. It's not to hard to find a street which looks vaguely right, but modern cars and buses stream past almost constantly. I can't imagine how we'd have coped if we were recording sound as well. We spent much of the day sending people round corners to stop traffic by activating pedestrian crossings.

That said, Keith the Cam just sent a little clip from that particular setup and it looks fabulous.

After lunch, we travelled to the area around Stanley Dock, which is incredibly filmic and interesting on account of it being full of fabulously grotty Victorian buildings which have not yet been gentrified.

We did a lot of cheeky on-street filming, occasionally sending some of the cast further down the road to encourage cars to stop so that we could finish the take without interruption.

A highlight was definitely creating the illusion of smoke with one of the students vaping and blowing the vapours across the front of the lens!

We wrapped at 5pm, an hour earlier than expected, as the temperatures plummeted and the fireworks started to bang and crackle across the city. I have seldom seen a larger moon than the one which rose in the sky as I drove away from Keith's house this evening. The air smelt of dynamite and wood smoke. Everything seemed to be wrapped in a mysterious, timeless haze which felt somewhat appropriate after the day we'd had.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The so-called

Why do all newsreaders call IS "The so-called Islamic State?" Surely if that's what they're called, we just need to call them by their name? I assume it's something to do with them not actually being a legitimate state, but there was an interview on BBC breakfast this morning which turned into a bit of a joke as the two people talking almost fell over themselves saying "the so-called." They were refereeing to something else as a "so-called" something as well, but I had no idea what the word they were using meant and no one felt the need to translate.

We did an afternoon of reccying in Liverpool yesterday. I don't really know how to spell that word. Reccying, not Liverpool. I'm not even sure what reccying is short for... reconnaissance? For those who don't work in telly or film, you reccy locations before going on a shoot to discover exactly which shots you want to use and the perils/ logistics of doing so. Of course, I would normally have a chance to reccy exactly a week before the shoot, which offers the most realistic sense of what the location will actually be like in terms of light, busy-ness of traffic and numbers of people milling around. As it turned out, we reccied in darkness. #guerilla

Just as a little aside, I watch, with horror, the news emerging every day about sex crimes in Parliament and the media. Obviously I have no knowledge whatsoever about the individual cases, but will say that they seem to have been incredibly fast to condemn Kevin Spacey. Netflix has already announced that they won't screen a film he produced and that he can pretty much forget about playing his role in House of Cards. I'm not going to get into the ins and outs of the allegations, but do wonder why a 14-year old lad was at a Hollywood party unchaperoned and why this same person opted to go to the media with his allegations instead of the police. In respect to Parliament, I think it's important that we start to differentiate between sexual morality and actual crimes. If we want to create a code of conduct, we can't retrospectively punish people for breaking it. It is not yet a crime to touch someone's knee. We may yet decide that it needs to become one, but talking about knee-touching in the same breath as rape seems crazy to me. They're simply not the same crime, and it seems incredibly insensitive to victims of violent sex crime if we decide to throw everything in together like this.

It also seems quite a knee-jerk reaction to refuse to screen a film that someone who may or may not have committed a crime has produced. I wonder how the writer, director and actors would feel to hear the news that their hard work has been for nothing. Scratch the surface in this industry and you'll find someone shady working on every film and TV show that exists.

I suppose I just hope for a little less sensationalism and a bit more rationality. There's plainly a problem here which needs to be addressed but I'm just not sure a witch hunt is the best way to wheedle it out.

Any thoughts?


Friday, 3 November 2017

Back ache

Yesterday was a fairly brutal day which started early and finished late. I was recording vocals for the Em video project in the studios at Edge Hill with a wonderfully patient engineer called Gary. The students weren't all what you might call "studio ready." I hope the experience will prove to be a really important learning curve for them. There is a massive difference between thinking you know a piece of music and actually being able to perform it properly. Similarly, there's a massive difference between what you can get away with in live performance and what works in a recording where everything has to be perfect. Sing a note out of tune in a live performance and it's gone in a flash. Sing out of tune on a recording and you're destined to wince every time you hear it. People can find the environment of a recording studio very alienating. The acoustic is dry and all the sound is coming at you through a little pair of headphones.

I was very proud of some of the students whom I thought were brining their A games. Some of the others disappointed me a little if I'm brutally honest. I think some of the lads were coasting and thinking that someone else would take the flack for the work they hadn't done. At this age, young male actors will often get their pick of roles without ever experiencing competition, whereas the girls will have been fighting for roles all their lives. The statistics in this industry are all in a man's favour. There are fewer roles for women and many more women who want to act. At NYMT, the girls have a 1 in 9 chance of getting cast in a show, whilst the boys have a 1 in 9 chance of NOT being cast.

So there were some gruelling moments and by the time I'd left the building at 8.30, I was ready to drop. I realise I have a much shorter attention span as I get older and much less ability to be charismatic when I get tired. I throw in the towel more quickly and am much less likely to try to flog a dead horse. Maybe I'm just being more practical these days.

I have changed rooms in my Premier Inn. I have to say, the staff there are all deeply charming and really very lovely to talk to, and have bent over backwards to help me. My new room has a funny bed-like sofa in it with a long sausage-shaped pillow along the side to lean against. Unfortunately, if you put your weight on the pillow, as I did last night, it disappears into a massive chasm and your back is catapulted into the window. At the same time the sofa, which is on wheels, flies forward. It's really rather dangerous and my back took a massive thump against the window. It was actually rather terrifying. Aside from having quite a sore back as a result, I also suffered a massive adrenaline spike as I flew backwards. It took me a few moments to recover!

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Premier sin

I'm presently wandering, somewhat aimlessly, around a 24 hour Tesco store. The lighting is clinical and insanely bright. I don't really know what I'm buying. I'm feeling a little lonely. I feel like someone in an art house film. It's the sort of film where they don't play incidental music to ease the brutality of the shots. I might buy a little pastry. I might not. Very little else will happen in the sequence but I'll act it beautifully. The harsh lighting will make the wrinkles on my forehead look like tram lines. This will make me act better.

I'm somewhere between Ormskirk and Southport. I've been working with the fabulous students at Edge Hill University today. We've been working on a very exciting Em-based project. They're essentially re-recording one of the ensemble album tracks, and we're going to film them, singing and dancing, in full costume, on the streets of Liverpool.

I was up at some ungodly hour this morning, steaming up the M1 and M6 in the car I've borrowed from my parents for the occasion. I stopped at Watford Gap and drank tea surrounded by men in cheap suits. My tea was too expensive but the queue for Macdonald's, where tea is cheaper, was insane.

I reached the students just before lunch. I didn't know where they were rehearsing, but could hear my music drifting down from an upstairs window. It's always surreal when that happens. Clare Chandler was putting a group of lads through their paces when I walked in. I'm not sure the students are hugely fast when it comes to picking up harmonies but they have great energy and life and many are true Scousers which somehow makes the song seem more legitimate!

What seems clear to me is that the university is incredibly lucky to have Claire. She keeps her ear permanently to the ground, is a great supporter of British musical theatre and brings in really interesting practitioners to work with the students.

During the afternoon we did more note-bashing and I'm hoping the cast will go away and do their homework before the studio sessions tomorrow. If they do, we're on course for something fabulous.

I'm staying in a Premier Inn. It's expensive. I don't understand why it's expensive because I'm hardly in a tourist trap. I understood that Premier Inn rooms all had baths. Sadly I've been dumped in the disabled access room which means instead of a bath, I've got some kind of drive-through shower. I'd imagined a long, hot soak. I don't have phone reception either, so I've already missed a call from the film office in Liverpool. There's also an internal door leading to the next door room. I can hear everything they're saying. I'm a little sad. What is this place?