Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Lady Killers

Nathan dropped me off at High Wycombe train station this morning so that he could continue to Marlowe in Buckinghamshire where he was doing a corporate gig. I needed to get back to London to visit Trinity Conservatoire where I'm mentoring a group of students through the process of putting on scenes from a new musical.

High Wycombe is a bit of a weird station. The London platform is miles away from the ticket office. To get there, you have to walk all the way down the West bound platform and over a little bridge. Fortunately, there's a lovely cafe waiting for you when you get there, where a Polish girl will compliment you on your moustache and show you a picture of her father wearing Medieval clothing and sporting a scraggly orange moustache which she'll tell you looks exactly like yours.

I pulled into Marylebone station, seemingly just a few minutes later. It's a very quick journey. Marylebone is a funny old place. I couldn't find the entrance to the tube and wandered around the station getting in everyone's way.

My mentoring sessions were in New Cross, which is in the South East of London, a million miles away from Marylebone, which is in the North West of the city. Left to my own devices, I would have taken a pathetically silly route across the city, but fortunately had the foresight to check in with Transport for London first who sent me down the Jubilee Line to Canada Water where I changed onto the old East London Line, which used to be yellow on the maps but is now orange. The total journey time was something like 30 minutes which seemed insanely fast. For London!

I'm not sure I'm a massive fan of New Cross. Everyone seems either too grumpy or too cool for school in those parts. I almost went into a charity shop, but the woman sitting behind the counter gave me such evil looks as I entered that I immediately walked out again.

Rehearsals, I discovered, via a process of elimination and several panicky messages, were happening in a building in a network of streets which seemed to belong almost exclusively to Goldsmiths University. Whole rows of terraced housing seemed to have been taken over and turned into offices and lecture spaces.

The show I'm mentoring is a musical adaptation of that charming Ealing Comedy, the Lady Killers, which, in my view, is a really lovely idea for a show! Each year, Trinity runs something called Co Lab, where huge swathes of students get the opportunity to do something creative where they can call the shots. The Lady Killers has been written by a couple of chaps called Em and Lawrence. The former seemed a little confused when I told him the name of my current musical!

Rehearsals for the project are going well. They're performing 3 songs from the show with a full band of musicians who are also acting in the piece, and getting involved with all sorts of elements of behind-the-scenes work from orchestrating, to directing and choreography. True team work.

I rushed back from rehearsals to make it home to spend an evening with Nathan, who is off on a knitting retreat for a few days at the end of the week. We made pancakes in honour of Pancake Day, but realised, as the first one slid out of the pan, that Shrove Tuesday is actually next Tuesday. #awkward. No wonder there hadn't been a run on Jiffy Lemon in the local corner shop!

Brass in Brum

Yesterday we travelled to Birmingham to watch Brass in Concert, the brain child of young Harrison who has been with the show since its very first production back in 2014. Harrison approached me about a year ago with a mad-cap idea: namely that he wanted to conduct a concert version of Brass for his final year project at the Birmingham Conservatoire. I made encouraging noises, but didn't think for a moment it would actually happen. That said, Harry has always had an air of steely confidence, and I've learned over the years that it's dangerous to dismiss any of his whims!

He pulled off the impossible. He fundraised, studied the score in depth, took conducting masterclasses, organised rehearsals, dealt with a veritable revolving door of people dropping out and being high-maintenance, booked a professional theatre and crew, rehearsed musicians and performers, cajoled, twisted arms, went to hell and back, and emerged last night like a glorious butterfly. I was immensely proud.

The band sounded wonderful. But for a couple of exposed moments when the nerves kicked in a little, you'd have thought they were a professional orchestra. Harrison had brought Zak, Josef and Jonny in from the original productions. Zak is a trumpet/ cornet/ flugelhorn whizz-kid whose enthusiasm for brass music and Brass has very-much helped to shape the show's music. In the process of performing the piece, he's developed a virtuosic, stamina-busting track for himself which I wonder if anyone else could actually play!

Brass has generated something of a family. A fabulous dysfunctional family which even includes all the parents of the cast members who I see at all the events. Once a Brasser, always a Brasser. We were able to welcome Emma Fraser back into the fold last night, who played the role of Grimsby in the original production.

The revelation of the evening was Lucy Carter, who was in the ensemble for the show at the Hackney Empire but stepped up to play the role of Peggy when Ruby pulled out. I'd managed to convince myself that Ruby was fairly irreplaceable, but Lucy's interpretation of the role was remarkable. Comedy dripped from her, and the singing was so convincing that she managed to make the coloratura soprano sequences sound like they weren't actually that stratospherically high! I was hugely impressed.

The cast looked amazing. The boys wore DJs and the girls wore black dresses. There had been technical issues during the day, which meant the cast were unable to see Harrison on a monitor and, more worryingly, had been forced to ditch their head mics: hastily re-staging the show to involve everyone, as much as they could, delivering all their lines into three stand mics at the front of the stage. A few more hours of rehearsal, and a couple of extra mics would have nailed the problem, but some of the singing, and a few of the sequences of underscored dialogue did her a little lost during the performance. It was a very small thing, however.

The cast gave it everything. Oscar, playing Tom, seemed to have fire in his belly and made brave choices. Laura as Eliza was luminous. Ben, playing Alf was self-assured and probably sang Brass better than I've ever heard him singing the song before. Everywhere I looked on the stage, someone else was giving it large. Even the newbies from the conservatoire that Harry had brought in to replace some of the original cast members were going hell for leather. Boy Robin played his third role in the show. He was our original Morrie (the 15 year-old lad who gets shot for desertion - spoiler, I know) but was too old to play the role at Hackney, so became the recruiting Sergeant Major, and last night stepped into the shoes of Bickerdyke, singing Bickerdyke's Speech possibly better than I've ever heard it sung before.

The audience were on their feet almost before the lights went down at the end of the show, but the largest cheer was rightly reserved for Harrison, who cried when he saw his standing ovation.

I was thrilled to see so many good friends and family members in the audience. Fiona's parents were there. My parents. Edward and Sascha and Silvia. My cousin Bridget and her crew. Ruth Wootton (who ate with us beforehand). Nathan's Mum and sister came with an enormous crowd. I was particularly touched to see Rachel Hazlewood there with her two kids, one of whom is only about two years younger than Rachel was when I met her at university. What's happened to time? Surely it's only a few months since Rachel and I were the age of the kids on stage last night, performing Jesus Christ Superstar at York University's Central Hall?

We went to the pub with some of the cast afterwards. A few of them were waylaid on route when they came across a homeless person who was having an epileptic fit on the street. It was, apparently, deeply traumatising.

We stayed the night in the Premier Inn, woke up, had breakfast with the parents, and here we are, hurtling down the M40 in the direction of London. A great day.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Stansted Schmansted

We've just dropped the parents off at Stansted Airport, which is actually their local train station. We're all heading to Birmingham today, but, because they'd already booked their tickets, they opted not to come in the car with us. It turns out that Stansted airport have a draconian, money-grabbing system which means that you can't enter any part of the airport without paying. It comes to something when your local train station isn't accessible. My parents thought their only option was to clamber out of the car on a busy road to try to avoid a parking fee. We pulled up by the side of the road and, of course, a parking enforcement officer immediately pulled up in a car behind us. They obviously photographed us and will no doubt be issuing a fine. Great.

I called Empark who deal with these issues and the man I spoke to got really shirty and then suggested that I speak to customer services. "Can you put me through?" I asked, "no, you'll have to call this number..." He proceeded to read a number out to me. I called it and a woman answered. I started telling her the story: "I'm going to stop you now," she said, "because I was listening in to the phone call you've just had with my colleague who is sitting right next to me." This is the "colleague" who told me he couldn't put me through to customer services. What kind of bizarre, sick game is that? I tried to continue talking to the woman in charge of customer services but she spoke over the top of me and refused to let me get a word in edgeways, and then when I told her that the practice of her listening into other people's phone calls seemed quite sinister, she instantly hung up on me.

Sometimes all you want from a customer services representative is sympathy rather than belligerence. In the end I spoke to the boss of customer services at Stansted, one John Wilson, who seemed incredibly genuine and concerned and has promised to look into the way I was treated. It's so dull.

It was our friend, Stuart's 40th birthday yesterday and my parents took us all out for a fabulous meal in a local pub in the somewhat bleak countryside on the outskirts of Thaxted. Upon arriving, we were made to feel a little like it was a local pub for local people, especially when they denied all knowledge of our booking and told us we "might be lucky" to receive food because the chef "might" have gone home. As it turns out, he hadn't left the premises and the food he cooked us was absolutely delicious.

For the entire time we were there, we were the only customers in the pub. There were no careworn farmers propping up the bar, no ancient crones telling ghost stories and no freakishly well-built children in shell suits smoking outside with their cigarettes twisted into the palms of their hands. There ought to have been. There's witchcraft in them there parts.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Reality TV

It's an evening of telly for us. Nathan's been at a yarn festival all day, so I stayed at home, had a little lie-in, and wrote. I've been working on the opening song from Em, which is super-fast and supremely upbeat. I have to say, I'm getting slightly itchy feet to finish this first round of composing on the show. I want to put everything Em-related away during March and do nothing but work on the Nene project. I can feel myself itching to write sadder, more contemplative material. I suppose I feel a little sad and contemplative right now. Might as well make the most of it. It worked for Sibelius!

There's so much reality TV on at the moment. The Voice, Let It Shine, Dance, Dance, Dance, the Big Painting Challenge, the Great Pottery Throw Down. I don't really know if we'll ever catch up on all the episodes we've not yet seen! We started watching the Big Painting Challenge tonight, which seems to be a veritable box -ticking exercise with painters, mentors, judges and presenters representing a fabulously broad range of ethnic backgrounds. There was even a deaf contestant. What, of course, was missing, was a first-language Welsh or Celtic speaker. In my opinion, there's always considerable less attempt made to represent the proud linguistic diversity of our Nations.

It's worth watching the show for its healthy dollops of bullshit, however. One of the mentors doesn't seem to actually be able to speak without nonsense dripping from her mouth! She's like someone from W1A. One of the contestants is a "concept" artist who was tasked with painting a still life. She ended up dumping a load of wishy-washy paint in totally unrelated shapes on the canvas. When the judges came over, they seemed utterly bemused. I think they wanted to laugh. I certainly did.

Bianca Del Rio

I discovered yesterday that Samuel French's theatre bookshop in Fitzrovia is closing after 187 years. I repeat, 187 years! Sometimes I think a shop which has been with us for so long ought to have protection order slapped on it, but the oldest business in the U.K., the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, is also closing this year. What's going on?! I went to Samuel French's bookshop every week when I was a drama student. It was my little treat. I read a play a day for an entire year, working my way through the alphabet of playwrights' surnames. I'd go into the shop, head to the plays written by playwrights with surnames beginning with that week's letter, and pour over the plays and anthologies until I'd found one which took my fancy. I almost managed to get all the way from A-Z, and stalled at Timberlake Wertenbaker in the Ws. Ironically, I hadn't got as far as Arnold Wesker by the time he came to watch my graduation showcase. The rest is history...

This evening, we travelled east, first, for dinner with Brother Edward and Sascha in a beautiful Swiss-Italian restaurant in Blackwall, and then, via DLR to Limehouse to see my favourite drag queen, Bianca Del Rio doing a stand-up set at the Troxy, a beautiful Art Deco cinema, which I'd never visited before. It's one of those ghastly places where people's sweets and drinks are taken away on the door, plainly in a deeply cynical way to make sure customers buy confectionary at their ludicrously inflated rates. I was told to dump my fruit pastels in a bin. "Perhaps I could collect them on my way out?" I asked. "They won't be here," said the doorman, grumpily. So I told them I was hypoglycaemic, the manager was called, and I was allowed to keep my sweeties!

The warm up act was a British comedy queen called Myra Dubois, whose set was beautifully offensive. "I did a gig recently at Hackney Downs" she said, "I thought it was a charity..."

Bianca Del Rio was, of course, wonderful. She sashayed onto the stage, bright orange hair piled high on her head, screeching, "hello London. How the f**k are you?" And the tone was set. "If you're fat, you're gonna go home crying. If you're a faggot, you're gonna be offended." She barked, shouted, swore like a true New Yorker and insulted everyone from the Chinese to disabled people and everyone and everything in between. The f**kometer exploded after reaching 100 in about five minutes. Not for the faint-hearted, but then, I've never had a faint heart.

Bianca is best known as the acerbic, iconic season six winner of Ru Paul's Drag Race and her star seems to have shone far more brightly than any of the other contestants or winners. She's made feature films and toured the world doing her unique form of stand up which focusses on well-crafted, machine-gun-like ranting. She is horrifyingly rude, but somehow manages to remain entirely likeable. Being rude with charm and grace is an art form in itself.

With Bianca Del Rio, you get the impression of someone who's paid her dues. Fame came for her in her late 30's. She was a New York theatre costumier, and, like Lily Savage, worked every dingy drag club on the circuit, honing her craft under the radar. I have nothing but admiration for her. It was a splendid night out and the auditorium was packed. A massive thank you to my brother and Sascha for thoughtfully taking us there as our Christmas present. We've looked forward to it ever since, and were not disappointed.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The death of my industry

My good friend Sam recently told me all about a new film which is due to open this year's LGBT film festival. The piece is called Against The Law and it's based on a best selling novel by Peter Wildeblood, a journalist who was imprisoned in the 1950s under the same anti-gay legislation which sent Oscar Wilde to jail in 1895. It was actually his case and similar cases of its type which led to the 1967 Decriminalisation of Homosexuality act, and it's the men who went to jail before this date who've very recently received official pardons. About bloody time! The film certainly looks very interesting, and I shall very much look forward to seeing it.

Here's an interesting thing, however: It seems that just one of the principal cast members in the film is actually an openly gay man, and he (Mark Gatiss) "gives a chilling performance as a prison doctor charged with administering therapeutic measures to homosexuals acquiescing to the idea that they can be ‘changed’." One assumes, therefore, that he's not actually playing gay.

It's a really complicated issue, and it's one upon which I haven't quite formulated an opinion. Here are my thoughts so far...

If you look at many of the most iconic gay films in cinematic history: Maurice, Brokeback Mountain, My Beautiful Laundrette, A Single Man, Milk, the lead roles are almost always played by straight men. To make matters slightly more unpleasant, these straight men often feel the need to assert their masculinity and heterosexuality in interviews associated with the film, and then, flippantly and for the sake of titivation, joke about how the snogging scenes were some of the best on screen kisses they've had in their career. There's a sort of metrosexual machismo which exists in the entertainment world which often involves camping it up for the sake of a cheap laugh.

So whilst countless straight men get to win Oscars for being "brave" enough to play gay, there are very few openly gay actors who get to play straight romantic leads. I once went to a very close female friend's house with a gaggle of other girls to watch films, and the subject of gay actors playing straight men came up, "it would ruin it for me" one said, and the others agreed, "if I knew he was gay in real life, it would take away the romance of the film." This is going back ten years, and society's views are slowly changing, but there, right there, is the reason why so many A lister Hollywood stars are still so firmly trapped in the closet.

I do have some sympathy for the argument, however. Growing up in the 1980s, when the first gay characters started appearing in telly and film, I was often devastated to discover that the actor playing a gay role wasn't actually part of my community. It almost felt as though I was gaining a role model and then instantly having it whipped away again, particularly when, as was inevitable, an interview appeared in the tabloid press where the actor literally wanted to "set the record straight" and make it clear that he'd simply been playing a role, he was happily heterosexual, and that, to boot, he'd been fairly uncomfortable with the gay content of the scenes he'd done. I remember an interview to this effect with Gary Hailes who played Barry Clark on Eastenders, around the time that he was involved in the show's first ever onscreen kiss. Millions of viewers complained. You can really believe it these days.

Now, it's not that I think gay characters should always be played by gay men or that gay men shouldn't play straight. Far from it. But what I would like acknowledged is that there's still a massive disparity in this respect in the movies. Straight actors play gay, and straight actors play straight. Gay actors get to play the best mate of the leading lady, or the comedy fag. How many openly gay men have won a best actor gong? I think none!

Many would argue, of course, that being gay is one of those things people don't really notice. There's a hideous phrase which gets trotted out, which suggests gay people "pass" in society, that someone passing a gay man in the street wouldn't know they were gay, so, as a result, we are unlikely to experience homophobia until we start rubbing our lifestyle choices in people's faces. The same people might argue that having a straight man playing a gay role is not as offensive as a white man pretending to be black. And, of course, this somewhat sweeping argument is largely true.

But actually, most of the straight portrayals of gay men I've seen in film and on telly don't feel hugely authentic.

Sometimes it's simply an aura. Take, for example, Colin Firth's performance in A Single Man, which I found generally unconvincing. In fact, there's a scene in the movie where he kisses a woman, and it felt a great deal more erotic than any of the scenes which involved his kissing men.

If you look at Modern Family, and the two gay characters Cameron and Mitchell, it's no surprise for a gay man to learn that the mincing parody role is played by a straight actor, whilst the altogether more subtle lawyer role is played by a gay actor. And yet my straight friends still love to say things like, "oh yes, so and so was very convincingly gay" and "you'd never guess he was gay by the way he acted..."

To me parallels can and should be drawn with race. Plainly not the blanket black/ white thing, but certainly akin to the sort of questions which are asked when Japanese people play Chinese, and Indians play Bangladeshis. To people living in the countries concerned, the blanket "oh they all look the same" statement is incredibly offensive.

So those are my thoughts on the issue. Feel free to shoot me down in flames!

An email came through today advertising a well-paid commission for a composer who would be required to write a "hip hop version" of Wind in the Willows. This, in the same year that two, separate, non hip-hop musical adaptations of the book have run at the Rose Theatre and in the West End. It's one of those ideas which feels a little like setting Shakespeare on the moon, namely, if you want an edgy, hip hop show, why wouldn't you commission an adaptation of a story with material better suited to that particular style? In the light of Hamilton, this new project simply feels like a band-wagon-jump and I think it's a terrible shame that we live in a world where we're forced to ascertain the genre of a new musical before we find the composer to write it!

The brief for the successful candidate stated that "you must have an in-depth knowledge and passion for hip hop and electronic music as well as a background in melody writing for songs. A knowledge of musical theatre form is desirable but not necessary."

And with that final sentence, my beloved industry gets flushed down the toilet. Imagine a job spec for writers on the Guardian newspaper, which stated "a background in journalism is desirable but not necessary," or a post for a teaching job which claimed the ability to actually teach was secondary to being a cool dude! The continued vilification of musical theatre writers in the U.K. just doesn't make sense to me.

Lead poisoning?

Well, what a foul and murky day it's been! It's rained a lot. The skies have been horribly grey and I've heard nothing but the sibilant roar of car wheels on wet tarmac. As I walked back from the cafe this evening it suddenly struck me how much effort Londoners' brains must put into filtering out the sounds of traffic. It's a constant part of our lives, which also, of course, means that pollution is a very real problem. We live on the A1, and our windows are permanently covered in schmutz. There probably isn't a window cleaner who'd be able to reach our windows up on the third floor, but if there were, his handiwork wouldn't last long. 

Nathan heard a programme on Radio 4 the other day which involved the presenter wandering through central London, wearing one of those special back packs which monitors pollution. The levels were, as you'd expect, worryingly high, to the extent that the advice has become to stick to back alleys and side streets as much as possible to avoid drinking in too many exhaust fumes. Interestingly, by far the highest spike in the readings came when the presenter took a taxi back to base at the end of his walk. The air conditioning in a vehicle effectively pumps the exhaust fumes from the car in front straight into the respiratory systems of the driver and passengers. This effect is worsened in slow moving traffic, which, of course, sums London up, particularly now that most borough operate 20 mph speed limits.

I wonder if I'm slowly dying from lead poisoning?

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The trouble with my industry

A young actress friend of mine went to see an industry figure yesterday whom, she hoped, would be able to give her some advice, and possibly some assistance with her career. He'd invited her in for a chat and she was excited about meeting him. As soon as she'd sat down, he laid into her, delivering a lengthy diatribe which involved viscously and entirely unnecessarily pulling her apart. He told her not to put songs up on YouTube until she could "sing them properly" or had "played the roles" and not to have a website until she was "famous enough to merit having one." It's not just bad advice, it's incredibly mean-spirited.

Plainly the comments reflected far more on himself. He's obviously deeply jaded, feels like he hasn't achieved his full potential and saw my young friend's openness and optimism and thought "I'll have a pop at that." I wish I could say that his actions weren't typical of my industry, but sadly they are. Just after leaving drama school, I went to see a rather elderly old-school agent. He took one look at my CV, rolled his eyes and said "I'm not sure I know what an assistant director does. Make the tea, I should imagine?" The confidence drained from my body.

My industry is fit to bust with people who are either puffing themselves up and spouting bull shit to convince themselves that they're more important than they are, or jealously attempting to pull the rug out from under people whom they consider to be more successful. These people prey on those who are green or those who have hope, and it makes me very angry. It's the oddest foundation for an industry. I'd personally like to wheedle them all out. They're not making a difference to anyone or anything.

I sat in Costa today, writing, whilst a couple of elderly gentlemen on a nearby table had a gloriously erudite conversation about Betjeman, C.S Lewis and St Pancras Station. I looked across and was stunned to notice that one of them looked just like Arnold Wesker. It made me feel very sad, mostly because I'd just been thinking about all the unpleasant encounters I've had (and continue to have) with self-important or self-obsessed industry figures. Arnold, of course, was far from being any of these things. In fact, he took it upon himself to rail against those who were. Loyalty and integrity were everything to him, and seeing that old gentleman across the cafe made me miss him terribly.

As I went up Southwood Lane to the gym this afternoon I bumped into our neighbours, Rich and Little Welsh Nat. Nat's hair was soaking wet and the whites of her eyes were pink. It turns out that a bird had managed to crap an astonishingly large turd directly into her eye, which is both astounding and very typically Nat!

It's Valentine's Day today. Nathan tells me it's our fifteenth Valentine'a Day as a couple which doesn't seem possible. We don't tend to celebrate it. I'm not actually sure who Valentine's Day is aimed at. Probably the insecure! Nevertheless we dragged ourselves out of the house this evening and took ourselves for dinner and a movie. We ate at a lovely new burger joint in Crouch End called the Rusty Bike Cafe, where the outrageously delicious veggie burgers come with rashes of halloumi.

We watched the Batman Lego Movie afterwards. It was the only thing on as Nathan refuses to watch the Train Spotting sequel with me. I went to see Batman under great sufferance - I genuinely couldn't think of any better waste of my time - but exited the cinema having had a really very lovely time. It's a feel-good film, which has an incredibly witty script. It got a bit "meta" when we realised the butler in the film was being voiced by Ralph Feinnes despite one of the "big bads" in the film being a Lego version of Voldemort, which was, of course, the character Feinnes played in the Harry Potter movies. The Lego Voldemort was actually voiced by Eddie Izzard! Anyway, it's a really lovely family film, which comes highly recommended by this blogger.

The cinema we went to is new - I think - and called the Crouch End Picture House. It's a big industrial chic barn of a building with chrome fittings and all sorts of metal pipe work and heating ducts on display. It's incredibly comfortable. The chairs recline and the leg room is immense. Heaven knows how the little art house cinema just ten or so doors down the road must feel to have it there all of a sudden. One hopes the new cinema's arrival will simply mean that more people think of Crouch End as a destination for cinema going, and will routinely check what's on in both establishments.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Headache

I have a headache, so shan't write too much. I think I've worked too late into the night on my lap top.

We caught up on reality TV this evening. There's loads on at the moment and a fabulous new Bake Off-style show for painters has just started which I shall plainly be watching. The judges for Let It Shine, a search for actors to "star" in a new "musical" featuring the "songs" of Take That, continue to bemuse me with their apparent lack of knowledge about the West End. The rules of the competition are more complicated than Only Connect. The boys have all been split into bands of five members, and, after the public vote, the two bottom-placed bands are amalgamated, with the weakest five singers being sent home. I've no idea what's going on. What I do know is that there's an NYMT actor who's still in with a shot for a role. This is obviously very exciting.

Right. That's your lot. I'm seeing double!

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Nice niece party

We're presently motoring down the M1 from Cheshire where we've spent the day with in-laws celebrating Nathan's niece's 23rd birthday. She was a little dot when I first met her. I genuinely can't work out where the years go. I need to start living my days more. Life has started to feel a little like it's running through my fingers.

I am utterly exhausted. I was a little distressed last night, so spent the night tossing and turning. I got up at 4am and did some work at the kitchen table, went back to bed for about ten minutes, trying to listen to Vaughan Williams in an attempt to sleep, before deciding it was all hopeless and going up into the loft to compose. It wasn't an entirely unpleasurable experience. I could hear the sounds of birds announcing dawn drifting in from the outside.

I finally went back to bed at just before 7am, so probably managed about 3 1/2 hours' sleep before Nathan woke me up to say it was time to go to Cheshire.

The day was lovely and the house was full of people: a full compliment of relatives including both Nathan's parents and their prospective partners. Nathan's Mum and Step-mum have both lost a huge amount of weight and they look fabulous.

The journey home was relatively stress-free. There were some dreadfully frustrating speed limits on the motorways, which made it seem like we were crawling along. We returned to London via St Albans where Nathan's niece Jenny's boyfriend is currently stranded because she went up to Chester with his car keys by mistake.

I've been doing some research on the Labour MP, Clive Lewis, who recently became about the 200th shadow cabinet member to resign. His reasons for going were honourable. He was protesting against Jeremy Corbyn's ludicrous decision to "whip" his MPs into voting to trigger Article 50. He's quite an interesting chap; a proud socialist who was both a journalist and a military man before standing for Parliament. Rumour has it that he's considering standing against Corbyn as a prospective leader of the party. Based on what I've read, I think he could be one to watch.

Gilmore Girls plus ten

It was snowing again this morning and trying very hard to settle, but failing miserably. We've been at Craft and Cake all day. Good food. Interesting conversation. It's the last one I'm able to attend for a while, so it was good to see everyone.

Abbie came home with us this evening to watch the first two episodes of the new season of The Gilmore Girls. We ate pizza and pop tarts in the sitting room with two of our sofas pulled right up in front of the telly whilst Nathan and Abbie knitted things. All very lovely and cozy, but bang goes the diet after the shed load of brownies I consumed this afternoon!

It was weird watching the Gilmore Girls ten years on. It took an episode to get used to how much older everyone looked. The actor who plays Luke appeared to be wearing a wig. The worst wig I've ever seen on telly since Ru Paul's Drag Race!

I learned today that Wikipedia have stopped accepting the Daily Mail as a source because it's considered to be so unreliable with a "reputation for poor fact checking, sensationalism, and flat-out fabrication." This is obviously a fact that the majority of sensible and intelligent people in the UK already knew, but it's fabulous to have it corroborated by a site with as much legitimacy as Wikipedia! Obviously Wikipedia is not including my mate Ted in their ban. He writes for the Mail. He is a fine figure of a journalist with impeccable standards and morals!

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Bubbly black girl

Ooh, she's cold! It's been snowing half-heartedly through much of the day, in an irritating "get your act together" sort of non-settling way. We haven't really had snow this year. In fact, I don't think we've had proper snow in London for some years. I live in hope. I love snow. What I don't love is this wet, cold, mizzley nonsense.

I took the overground to Stratford this evening. I always forget that the North London line exists. It goes to Gospel Oak, which is right next to our gym, so I don't know why I don't kill two birds with one stone more regularly. That said, Stratford is a supremely horrible place. The Westfield Shopping centre looms over the place like a shiny concrete carbuncle, and everywhere you turn there are gangs of youths or gaggles of policemen with sniffer dogs. It's very rare for me to feel uncomfortable walking on the streets of London, but I'm always on edge in those parts. Maybe it's lack of familiarity, but you don't get many riot police in Highgate!

I sat in the charming "Gerry's Bar and Kitchen" in front of Stratford East Theatre Royal. The bar, I assume, is named after luminary Gerry Raffles, who is as synonymous with the theatre as the incomparable Joan Littlewood. I had a halloumi wrap for my tea which has to be one of the most disgusting things I've ever eaten. The wrap had lettuce, cucumber, tomato and halloumi in it. Nothing else. No hummus. Nothing to melt and make everything deliciously gooey. But it had been heated up to the extent that the lettuce and cucumber were like magma. There is something hugely disconcerting about eating boiling hot cucumber and to make matters worse, the halloumi was undercooked and dry. It was just awful but I was too shy to take it back so doused it in vinegar and tried to pretend it wasn't happening!

My co-conspirator for the evening was the lovely Rosie from Brass, who was the perfect companion. It was her first trip to the theatre, so it was an honour to be able to point out some of the photos of previous iconic shows which had started their lives there. There's a shot from Fings Aint What They Used to Be of a young Barbara Windsor sitting on the floor of the stage, taken through the fish-net-stockinged legs of another actress, probably Avis Bunnage or Toni Palmer. It's just such a stunning picture.

I was at the theatre watching a new musical called The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Skin. It's an American show, and I'm afraid it has very little merit. Broadly speaking, the piece tells the story of a young black girl growing up in California, who takes herself off to New York to seek fame and fortune, but, in the process, discovers herself. The first scenes take place in the early '60s and the show follows the character all the way through to 1990.

My big issue, I suppose, was that I didn't know what the show was trying to tell me. It wasn't funny enough to be as lightweight as it seemed, and I didn't end up with any great insight about how it must have felt to be black, American and a woman in any of the decades covered. Any promise the first half had in this respect was utterly destroyed in the second act by what can only be described as silliness. The 60s, 70s and 80s were some of the most iconic and well-defined decades of the 20th Century and the show entirely lacked atmosphere and authenticity, which felt like a massively missed opportunity.

It was poorly researched: we had flower-power protest scenes in 1971 instead of 1968, and a sequence set in 1982 had lyrics about what a wonderful dancer Patrick Swayze was (a full five years before Dirty Dancing was released.)

Song after song swept past on a tide of mediocrity. None of them advanced the plot. Most of them were fairly tuneless and dramatically unsatisfying. Nearly all of them felt like they'd been written before the plot was discovered, so there was a sense of everything standing still whilst we heard, for example, the song about how one guy's grandmother (apparently with terrible vocal health issues) taught him not to respect women, or the song about 1960s peace protests which didn't tell me anything new about Vietnam. All felt generic and impressionistic. I could have written them without doing any extra research about the era and locations.

The show wasn't helped by a change of actor playing the lead role just before the interval. If I'm honest, the two actors looked about the same age. In fact, the girl who ended up playing the central role had played the central role's best friends in the sequences set during their childhood, so the decision to swap actors and then have the original girl wafting about in a gingham school uniform at the back of the stage, felt even more surreal.

There was a moment when the audience came alive because one of the actors was goofing about doing very well-observed 1980s sleazy Lothario dancing. It was really well executed, but the fact that the audience responded better to this than anything else in the show, told me all I needed to know about the all-round poor quality of the writing. As I stood in the foyer afterwards, this particular dancing was the only subject of conversation amongst the audience leaving.

The end number is all about the central character basically saying "f**k you, I am who I am" in a dance audition reminiscent of, but nothing like as good as A Chorus Line. The medium chosen to portray this key plot moment was obviously dance, but what should have been desperately exciting and virtuosic was really just a little bit underwhelming.

If this were an English new musical I wouldn't be anything like as tough on it. Actually if Stratford had commissioned a show about the British black community in those decades, I think they might have had something exciting on their hands. There are tremendous black British writers who could have delivered something spine-tingling and informative. I furthermore hate the fact that something which was essentially substandard was farmed from over the pond, largely because I know there are countless brilliant American shows which have yet to be seen over here. It just wasn't good enough, and I left feeling bitterly disappointed.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Germany's Eurovision

We're at Brother Edward and Sascha's house in Canary Wharf watching the selections for this year's German Eurovision Entry. The TV show is called "Unser Song" (Our Song) and it's one of the most complicated voting systems I've ever witnessed. It started with five singers who were whittled down to three, each of whom sang a very different version of two songs which had been written specially. Sadly, the writers chosen were big American song-writing names, who were never going to donate their best material for lowly Eurovision. Three artists became two, and two became one, a girl called Isabella, whose voice slowly packed up on her as the evening unfolded. The winning song was bland. I predict last place for Germany this year. Or a vocal haemorrhage for Isabella. Whichever comes first, basically.

I did like the fact that the Germans, knowing they've done badly in the contest recently, are taking the selection a lot more seriously. Sadly, until the big five countries get to perform in the semi-finals there's almost no point in them forwarding songs.

It was an absolute treat to hear former winners Conchita, Nicole and Ruslana doing the interval entertainment. Conchita was performing as a man, interestingly, with his hairy chest out for the world to see. He looked fabulous.

I was horrified to learn today that the MP for Poplar and Limehouse, Jim Fitzpatrick, voted in favour of the Brexit Bill, despite almost 80% of his constituents voting to remain. Time for that turncoat to go. I hope he loses his seat at the next general election. It's probably time for the Labour Party to shuffle off into obscurity as well. They've handled Brexit appallingly. I'm ashamed ever to have canvassed for them.

On a positive note, the song which will be representing Finland in the contest this year is one of the most moving Eurovision songs I've ever heard. It's called Blackbird and is sung by an Adele look-a-like. It's simple and deeply beautiful. Actually, all of the songs which have been selected so far (apart from Germany's) are really quite interesting.















The greatest singers of all time

I stumbled upon one of those top 100 lists today. This one had been published in Rolling Stone magazine and was a list of the top 100 pop and rock singers of all time. It irritated me. I was pretty sure that this particular publication would be way too cool for school to include the girls from ABBA on the list, but to omit Kate Bush? Please!

Of course all the cool dudes were there. Morrissey appears to have a range of no more than a major sixth, but he was there. And both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were included despite them being, in my controversial opinion, brilliant song writers but not really very good vocalists. Annie Lennox and Karen Carpenter scraped in in the mid 90s. The top ten was almost exclusively RnB and Motown - and very male-heavy, despite Aretha Franklin winning, possibly justifiably, although I would have personally chosen Nina Simone or Dusty. But no Kate Bush? Mary J Blige was there for heaven's sake, and she's vocally damaged up the wazoo. And who the heck are Darleen Love and Merle Haggard?

Have a read of the list yourself and see if you agree...

Here's my personal top ten

1. Nina Simone

2. Kate Bush

3. Frida/ Agnetha (take your pick)

4. Freddie Mercury

5. Justin Heywood (Moody Blues)

6. Tori Amos

7. Dusty Springfield

8. Whitney Houston

9. Cleo Laine

10. Karen Carpenter

(My list seems very women-heavy, but I only really listen to female vocalists.) 

What would your top ten be?

http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-singers-of-all-time-19691231

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Parental ban

I heard on the news today the somewhat astounding story that, in a school in Glasgow, parents have been banned from talking to teachers. Apparently teachers were being subjected to aggression which made them extremely stressed. Parents have therefore been provided with areas in the school playground to congregate in whilst waiting for their children to emerge. Whichever way you look at this particular story, there's a problem. It's either an issue that parents have such a sense of entitlement that they feel they can go into a school and give teachers mouthfuls of abuse based on, one assumes, a fairy limited grasp of what goes on inside said school, or it's an issue that the teachers themselves are so lily-livered that they can't deal with a bit of whinging at the end of the day without going off sick with stress because they work in an industry which is mollycoddling its employees. Are these teachers genuinely feeling physically threatened or are they just unable or unwilling to stop themselves from taking these things too personally?

The word stress gets bandied about all the time these days. All jobs are stressful. Life is hideously stressful, but perhaps people's ability to deal with stress at work is directly disproportionate to how indulgent a company is when it comes to dealing with the well-being of its staff. Is it fair to suggest that more employees will claim to be stressed if stress is a legitimate way of getting signed off work?

Sometimes I wonder whether stress is used as an excuse by people who simply think their job is too mind-numbingly boring to continue. Or perhaps by people who are aware that they're simply not very good at their jobs. I'm being unfair. Genuine stress is awful. God knows I went through enough of it whilst working on Beyond the Fence.


The truth of the matter in the case of this school is probably that there's so little morale in teaching at the moment that the head teacher simply said "sod this for a game of soldiers, we're not paid enough to deal with this crap." There comes a point when someone just gets bored of a sort of low-grade abuse. Who knows? It's certainly a rather surprising story!

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The little tramp

We're watching the new series of The Jump at the moment. Bradley Wiggins has already sworn live on TV. I've no doubt that someone will have a terrible accident before the episode is over. Quite how Channel 4 managed to insure this show, I'm not sure. Obviously I'm supporting Gareth Thomas. He's Welsh and gay!

I worked very hard today on a song from Em before heading back to the gym for the first time since getting ill. I have to say, one of the best sensations in the world is showering after working out for the first time in an age. I don't run on the treadmills any more. I've done cross training ever since realising that all the back problems I was having were down to jogging. It's pretty scary to think I did two years of osteopathy before realising what was causing the issue. Getting fit made me poorly!

We went to Brent Cross after the gym and I finally bought a couple of pairs of trousers. I only had two pairs when I woke up this morning and neither had any form of fastenings! I'm such a tramp. It's very much in the blood. Did I mention that Charlie Chaplin was my great grandfather's cousin? Or so the story goes...

We did a shop at the 24 hour Tesco store on Colney Hatch Lane. This week is all about healthy eating. I have bought scores and scores of vegetables and shall be existing on a diet of stew and soup for the foreseeable future.

I wish I had something more interesting to write about. I don't.






Monday, 6 February 2017

Chandelier

I've had a bit of a lonely day today. Nathan was out at rehearsals and I was stuck at home, watching telly and convincing myself I was writing music.

We've been watching Dance Dance Dance on the telly, which is the show where celebrities and their real-life friends and partners learn incredibly complicated and iconic dance routines from the world of pop. I've been waiting for Wuthering Heights to appear, but sadly, they're keeping things a little more up to date! There's a contestant on the show called Chrissy Brooke whose partner, Jonny Labey, I think, was on Eastenders. Both are extraordinary dancers, who seem to be running away with the competition. Anyway, on today's show, Chrissy was given the task of dancing Chandelier by Sia, which has to be one of the most stunning songs coupled with one of the most extraordinary videos of recent years. The original promo, which has been seen by 1.5 billion people on YouTube, features a young girl, Maddie Ziegler, who is a truly compelling performer. The choreography, by Ryan Herrington, is typically quirky and unnerving.

Performed by an adult, however, the dance maintained its quirkiness, but gains a sadder, clown-like quality, which I found utterly devastating. Brooke is as wonderful an actress as she is a dancer. I am often excited by dance, but rarely moved by the art form, yet this performance made Nathan and me cry like babies.

If you're one of the very few people not to have seen the original video for Chandelier on YouTube, I suggest you do so when you next have a few minutes spare with a cup of tea!

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2vjPBrBU-TM

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Good old Ken Clarke

I woke up this morning to read an article about Kenneth Clarke, who was the only Tory to vote against the Brexit bill in Parliament. He's a good man. A legend, in fact, who also happens to have a fairly good track record when it comes to voting on LGBT issues. He's one of the only MPs who actually remembers Enoch Powell and the damage done by his River of Blood speech, so when he references that dark period of British history in relation to Brexit, we'd be fools not to listen. But fools we are...

What struck me most about what he was saying is quite how undemocratic this whole process has been. The 16 million people who voted to remain no longer have a voice in Parliament. How can this be? Only 100 or so MPs are actually arguing our corner. Theresa May's constituents voted to remain. Jeremy Corbyn's similarly voted to remain. And yet there they are, skipping hand-in-hand through the Brexit channel. Jeremy Corbyn's decision to place the whip on his MPs and not make the vote a matter of conscience further convinces me that he will be the death of the Labour Party. A constituency MP's role is to represent his constituents, not to do what he thinks he needs to do to remain in power. Furthermore an MP's duty is to protect the common man from making stupid mistakes born out of ignorance. An opposition party's role is to provide opposition to the government. Because Labour no longer seem to want to provide opposition, I no longer have a party I can vote for, which is an almost astonishing form of disenfranchisement.

I helped out on another quiz this evening, which I was thrilled to discover was taking place in Highgate Village. Not since I lived in the flat above the flat I worked in with Shaheen Baig have I ever had such a blissfully short commute to work!

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Twelve hour kip

I'm both proud and slightly embarrassed to admit that I slept until mid day today! My plan was simply to sleep until I woke up after getting the very strong impression yesterday that the cold was returning. I obviously needed the sleep, but the whole day has felt incredibly short as a result. I can count on the fingers of one hand what I've actually achieved.

I managed to get into Muswell Hill to visit Barclays Bank, where, incidentally, all the employees smelt really nice! I had some forms to fill in regarding the recent fraud on my account, and I was advised to have them faxed from a branch to make sure they didn't go walkabouts in the post. I'm astounded that anywhere still faxes. Faxing is so old fashioned that my iPhone is routinely changing the word to "facing." I remember the days when you'd often get confused and end up phoning the fax number by mistake. You'd hear a weird bleeping, whistling noise down the phone. To my knowledge, I'm not sure I've personally ever sent a fax.

I came back to Highgate and wrote the first draft of a song for Em. This particular song has been a bit of a stumbling block for me because I haven't yet got to grips with what it is or what it needs to be. I've sort of always glided over it when working on the script, but this has always made me uncomfortable - almost as though what I've written beyond that point is somehow invalid because I haven't allowed the song to change anything dramatically.

The song is actually an argument which, in musical theatre terms, is dangerous ground. Sung arguments can be toe-curlingly dreadful and make the audience just want to giggle. The other danger zone in musical theatre writing, for different reasons, is the love duet. It's very difficult to find any way beyond the cringingly obvious to draft lyrics which express love, but furthermore, these songs universally run the risk of becoming what Nathan describes as "the crisp packet moment." This is the point at which all the children in a pantomime audience become bored and get their sweets out because they have no interest in Jack and Jill telling each other how much they're in love. In more adult shows, audiences reserve the love duet for the moment to get their programmes out to see whether the leading man has been in Eastenders.

I've been watching Season One of "The Jump" on the Channel 4 catch up service to see whether I might enjoy watching Season Two when it starts on Sunday. The programme features a series of celebrities learning how to do winter Olympic sports. It's high-jeopardy; people are enduring bone-shattering accidents, but ultimately no one is any good at any of the sports they're trying out. It's all a little underwhelming, but my capacity to watch these sorts of shows knows no bounds. I like my telly vacuous. Sadly, in their ultimate wisdom, C4 have suddenly taken the series down, so I'll never know who wins. Why would they take the old series down on the eve of the new series? It just doesn't make sense to me.

Friday, 3 February 2017

I can feel it coming in the air tonight

I was out and about all day today, which was plainly not the best idea because, frustratingly, my cold feels a little like it's returning. Boo!

The day started in Greenwich with a search for Extra Strong Mints. You'd have thought there might have been a little newsagent somewhere near Cutty Sark, but it seems Greenwich is rather too posh for that! What do people buy their Guardians? The best it could offer was a fancy "ye olde sweetie shoppe" establishment. I went in and asked the lady behind the counter if she had a packet of Extra Strong Mints. She looked across the jars keenly. "I've got Everton Mints!" She said, proudly, "and Mint Imperials... and Humbugs... and Glacé Mints and Toffee Mints... And chocolate-coated Peppermint creams." Poor woman. I could see the hopelessness of the situation reflected in her dark, doe-like eyes. I walked away feeling a little sad for us both.

The purpose of my visit to Greenwich was to mentor a young music student at Trinity College who has written a musical. He seems a hugely capable young man, but I guess I've collected a few pearls of wisdom over the years, which it will be a privilege to pass on. I actually think it speaks incredibly well of the college that they would think to pair up one of their composers with a working professional. So many music departments (including my own) refuse to acknowledge musical theatre and there are very few composition lecturers who know their Steins from their Sondheims.

I took the DLR back to Bank and sat in a cafe writing for a few hours. I had a very strange sense of foreboding at about 4pm, which was quite overwhelming. I can't pinpoint its cause, but I felt deeply vulnerable, somehow. Perhaps it had its roots in the Brexit vote in Parliament which I didn't realise had happened until slightly later. I'm embarrassed to say that my ex-partner, the hitherto-deeply-Europhile, Stephen Twigg voted for triggering article 50, but proud of my own MP Catherine West for being brave enough to stand against the Labour Party whip.

It's quite interesting. Obviously one of the theories as to the cause of Brexit is the fact that there's a great hatred of London within the rest of the country. It's a very tangible thing. People think Londoners are snobby, brusque and aloof and they think that news organisations favour stories about the capital. But I heard a really interesting (and accurate) analogy today. Voting for Brexit is a little like living on a farm where you know one of the chickens lays golden eggs, but instead of selling the golden eggs and making the farm even more profitable, you kill the golden chicken and hope the other eggs will prove to be as valuable. London will be utterly shafted by Brexit. And if you're reading this, and you voted Brexit, I hope you're never able to afford to go on holiday to Europe again.

The very fact that the white paper which has been so hastily thrown out includes a ludicrous typo suggesting that British people should have fourteen weeks holiday a year, demonstrates just how ill-conceived and shambolic the whole situation is. There's probably a lot of Brexit voters who think we could run a county on fourteen weeks of holiday a year. Let the immigrants do all the hard work whilst we relax. Oh, no, wait...

I worked on a quiz in the City of London this evening - or what we might need to start calling the former City of London post Brexit. Don't expect any loyalty from any of those companies. They're already opening offices in Dublin. The Irish are rubbing their hands together with glee. It was a fun, but enormous quiz, with 32 teams. Marking the papers was an immense adrenaline rush.

I had a charming email today from the good folk at Alexandra Palace who were offering me and Nathan a tour of the old theatre where we got married, which is currently being done up. I was incredibly touched to learn that our wedding is considered an important part of the "eclectic and wonderful history of the building." When I first moved to London, I lived in a Crouch End bedsit which had a view of Ali Pali. I used to sit and watch the busses driving along the top of the hill in front of it. I have always felt that it was the most beautiful building in London and to be told I will always be known as part of its history - which includes the invention of television - is one of the biggest honours anyone could ever bestow on me. Such a thrilling email to receive.

Good night friends. Something's in the air.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Hype

Am I the only person in the world with no interest in seeing Hamilton? I just can't believe that any show is worth that much hype. No show is that good, and I'm pretty convinced I'd simply be disappointed. Actually, to tell you the truth, I often hear people singing songs from the piece and am always bitterly disappointed. I realise this is no particular mark of whether a show is good or not. The songs I've heard have always been being performed out of context with just a piano accompaniment. But my worry is that, if I pay loads of money to see a show - particularly that show - I'll constantly be asking myself whether it was good value for money. I hate how much theatre shows cost at the moment. I was going to see Dreamgirls with Mez, but the cheapest tickets are £40, which I simply can't afford. There's something rather tragic about an industry whose own people can't afford to attend the shows they make! In my view much cheaper tickets should always be available for members of Equity and MU.

There are still some tickets left for "Brass in Concert", which happens in Birmingham at the Old Rep Theatre on Monday 20th February. The performance is being conducted by Harrison Williams, who played flugelhorn in the original production and acted in this summer's version. That lad wants to know how the show feels from every angle. He'll no doubt choreograph the next incarnation! Tickets are incredibly reasonably-priced at £8 and £10, and this is a fabulous opportunity to hear the score again - probably your only chance to hear it this year. I'm very excited to be there.

I finished another song from Em today. It's mad and incredibly fast, but Nathan thinks it can be faster and madder still! Jeez! I'll put it away for a bit and see how it feels when I get it out of the bottom drawer in a few weeks.