Thursday, 16 August 2018

Me and My Drama

On Monday, we took ourselves down to Chichester to watch our very close friend, Matt playing the lead in Me and My Girl.

It’s a great production and Matt feels like he was born to play the role. I was particularly thrilled to see how well he was dancing. When we did Taboo together, he was a little remedial, shall we say, in that department. I’m tempted to say that if you’d told him walking was a dance step, he’d not have been able to do that! And yet there he was, in a pair or tap shoes, tripping the light fantastic on the stage. I was very proud. Matt actually did a month of daily one-on-one dance training to to get himself ready for the show. Now that’s commitment!

It’s not a show I particularly like. I was seeing it for the first time, so my knowledge of the piece is based entirely on what I was presented with. It’s quite light-weight, and the songs feel a little pointless and, in many cases, crow-barred in, but Gareth Valentine’s new orchestrations were sensational, and, much as they felt entirely irrelevant to the plot, it was wonderful to hear The Sun Has Got His Hat On and the Lambeth Walk. Particularly with all the bells and whistles.

Was everyone well-cast in the piece? Absolutely not. Some felt like they were in the wrong show stylistically. Others sounded like they had the wrong range for the role and had therefore popped their vocals clogs doing eight shows a week. One of the cast, who’s known in the industry as a singing legend, didn’t get to sing a note in the show. She barely got to say anything.

As it happened, the drama, for us, was also off the stage. As we were traveling down, Nathan used the button to open our electric windows. There was a large clatter and a bang, and the entire window dropped, like a stone, into the door casement. And that was that. We had to drive to Chichester without a passenger side window, the wind roaring, the rain spattering. Hopeless.

Upon reaching Chi, we called the AA (for the second time in a week) but all they could do was tape the gaping hole up with sticky polythene and suggest we book the car into a garage as quickly as possible.

After the show, we went back to Matt’s digs for half an hour, but as we left, Nathan realised he didn’t have his phone.

We hot-footed it back to the theatre and found the security man locking the building. We begged him to take pity on us and let us into the building. Nathan knew he’d left the phone under his seat, and pointed out that he was going to New Zealand at the end of the week, and obviously couldn’t be without his phone. The security guard told us that the ushers had done a sweep of the building and that nothing had been handed in, point blank refusing to let us look for ourselves, and then, actually walking away as we were talking to him, with a face which said, “we’re done here.” It was both humiliating and upsetting because we could only assume that the phone had been stolen.

We drove home in silence, but for the deafening sound of wind buffeting the plastic sheeting on the passenger side window!

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Cambrugge

It was part two of my birthday celebrations today, and we went to Cambridge for a spot of punting. It’s an annual tradition which goes back to my seventh birthday. There’s an ancient slide photograph of me on a punt, holding an old-fashioned packet of Walker’s Salt and Vinegar crisps, which I know to have been taken on the 8th August, 1981. We’d gone with my family and my little friend Ruth, whose mother, Liza, gave me string, sellotape and UHU super glue for a present, which made me surprisingly happy. I’d woken up that morning with a terrible stomach ache. I used to get them when I was excited. I think we were about to cancel the day because the pain was crippling, but it suddenly went away. It’s funny what you remember.

My companions for today’s trip were Abbie, Sam, Julie, Nathan and Brother Edward (who has been with me, I think, on pretty much every birthday punt over the last 35 years). We met at Kings Cross station to buy group tickets and the train seemed to take no time at all. Abbie gave me a mezuzah, which I found very touching.

We were joined by Little Michelle at the Old Ticket Office at Cambridge Train Station, where we had a lovely cup of tea and a cheese and tomato pasty. 

Julie insisted on taking a taxi from the station into the city centre. She doesn’t like walking. Bizarrely, taking a taxi with a big group works out cheaper per head than travelling on the bus. This should not be the case.

Cambridge is always filled to the brim with Chinese tourists. It’s a fairly astonishing sight. Without wishing to open up a can of racial stereotyping, there seems to be a tendency for them to not be hugely aware of what’s going on around them. Most seem intent on seeing life through the lens of their mobile phones. It can get a little frustrating when you’re trying to get from A to B at speed!

We were lucky enough to be able to hire a Kings College punt. Brother Edward is a former student there, thus giving him life-long privileges, which include hiring punts at ludicrously cheap rates. We decided to risk cramming all seven of us onto a single boat, which is against all the rules. Punts are really only designed for six, but the idea of splitting into a three and a four seemed both expensive and anti-social. The boat felt heavy, and somewhat cumbersome as a result. The weather was a bit rancy-pants today, and there was a fairly high wind, so it was difficult to steer the thing against the current.

I say that the weather wasn’t great. Actually, we were extremely lucky. The forecast predicted heavy rain and although sun wasn’t shining, we really only had a few spots whilst we were eating our lunch in a pub garden underneath a giant umbrella. Nathan calls me a weather witch, because I’m always pretty lucky in this respect when it comes to filming, birthdays and important events. We returned to Highgate this evening just as the heavens opened.

The joy about the threat of inclement weather was that we didn’t have to share the river with any other punters. We drifted upstream to Grantchester in a blissfully calm haze, singing songs in seven-part harmony, whilst being filmed by somewhat amused tourists sitting on the river banks.

Our finest hour was a rendition of Frère Jacques in a minor key, a la Mahler, which went on for days. Going underneath the bridges whilst singing is a magical experience. For about thirty, rather blissful seconds, you get the most perfect acoustic - an amazing reverb - which slowly disintegrates as the boat emerges into the open air again.

The day ended in a pub just off Kings Parade, where we were met by Ben Holder. We played a game with pens and paper and then, all too soon, it was time to go home.

I realised today that more day trips are needed in my life. It’s the only time I actually stop. We’ve had this glorious summer, and I’ve been stuck inside, almost every day, working on 100 Faces. It feels like I’ve sort of drained the year, and I’m not sure I like that feeling.

Nathan goes away for six weeks on a round-the-world tour next week, so I’ve decided to make the most of August and September by going on lots of day trips and mini-breaks. If anyone has any ideas in this respect, I’m all ears.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Skem

I spent Thursday and Friday in Skelmersdale near Liverpool. The most surreal thing was driving up to Stoke-On-Trent after my birthday jaunt on the Heath. My birthday had started with the car breaking down, so it was possibly not a huge surprise when it ended in a horrible road diversion somewhere near Coventry! I don't know why I bother to drive on the M6 late at night. They always seem to close sections of the motorway so that cars and massive lorries are sent on these wild goose chases along A and B roads, following confusing little yellow diversion signs. At one point I ended up following signs for another motorway's closure and had to double back on myself.

It was perhaps a little ambitious to think I could get as far as Stoke after a long day in the sun, but I eventually arrived at midnight, completely forgetting that it was, technically, still my birthday. The people who work at Travelodges late at night are always very charming and witty. I guess they're not stressed out by scores of people checking-in during peak hours and are pleased to have a little chat to someone. They're usually female - and often either middle-aged, practical Yorkshire folk, or Midlanders with curious hair dyes, funny piercings and tattoos.

I was in Skem to edit 100 Faces with cameraman, Keith. It's a long and boring saga which led to the edit being done by the cameraman, but, actually, and particularly for a piece like 100 Faces, it makes perfect sense. Keith IS an experienced editor, and, because he specifically shot the film to be in black and white, he can grade all the shots exactly as he wants them to look.  And, of course, it's always a complete pleasure to be with Keith, who now calls me Treacle.

So that was what we did for two days. My heart was often in my mouth as we realised that some clips were shorter than we needed them to be, but none were longer, which was a great relief. There are a couple of moments in the film we cut together where the camera perhaps lingers for slightly too long on a face - and, when you start to edit their spoken words onto a musical track, some of the contributors come across as a little flat. One actually seems a little like he'd like to take an axe to the audience! But this is a film about diversity - and it's all part of the rich tapestry of life.

I stayed Thursday night in St Helens in a Travelodge whose main claim to fame was that it was next to a 24 hour Asda. I was a little disappointed when I went out to buy myself a salad, that the fabled 24-hour shop was actually a tiny little thing attached to a garage. I ate cheese and onion sandwiches and a cheese and onion pastie.

Breakfast was in a local chain pub. Eat all you can for £3.99. It was vile, but, £3.99! Come on!

I got stuck in the MOTHER of all traffic jams on the M6 on my way home. I spent at least two hours in completely stationary traffic, swearing at the selfish drivers who were speeding along lanes that were closing further up the motorway, thereby causing much more awful tailbacks for those of us playing by the rules. It took me 7 1/2 hours to drive back to London, where I'd been invited for a delicious shabbat meal at Felicity's house.

Today was meant to be about a little birthday day trip just north of London, but it got cancelled, so, because I didn't sleep at all last night, I've sat on a sofa feeling very sorry for myself.


Heath picnic

Wednesday was utterly blissful. The weather was cooler than it’s been of late, but it was beautifully sunny and really, the perfect day to be wandering about on the heath, which, luckily, is what we were doing...

Nathan and I picked the parents up from Tottenham Hale at 10.30am, and we drove around the North Circ to Hangar Lane for picnic stuff. What would my birthday be without a lengthy trip to a supermarket to spend an inordinate amount of money on an obscene amount of picnic food which even a gannet couldn’t get through?!

Llio met us in Highgate and we jumped in the car and wended our merry way around the top of Hampstead Heath to the car park behind Jack Straw’s Castle. I probably shouldn’t have told people to arrive at “about” noon, or should have chosen a slightly nicer rendezvous location. I ended up playing tennis with Sally and Stuart’s girls on the gravel for at least twenty minutes whilst the stragglers arrived.

After Sally, Stuart and the girls came my oldest school friend Tammy, her husband, Chris and her two children Evie and Oscar, whom I’m ashamed to say I’d not met before. My only defence is that Tammy lives in Modena, Italy. She reminded me at some point yesterday that we’d known each other for thirty three years. I think that might be described as an enduring friendship! Her kids, it turns out, are delightful.

Next to arrive were Hilary and Mezza. Hilary has lost weight and is looking wonderful at the moment, like a sort of glorious Art Deco painting. Mezza always arrives with a gung ho smile and a demeanour which says “let’s eke everything we can out of today,” which is always appreciated.

Bringing up the rear were Brother Edward and Sascha, who, we were told, had got stuck in a lift at Hampstead tube. It must have been terrifying for them. I think it was at Hampstead where the lift once plummeted and a load of old ladies broke their legs. Maybe I’ve made that up.

We went to the pergola first off. That’s the wonderful Victorian, brick-and-wood built, mile-long, plant-bedecked walkway, which sits, inexplicably, on the edge of Golder’s Hill Park, watching over the area where the gay men go cruising at night time. I’ve never understood why the pergola exists. It must have been built as some sort of elaborate promenade for the large Victorian house behind it. Quite how it came into the possession of the Corporation of London, whilst the house remains privately owned, I’ve no idea. The joy about the place is that it’s off the tourist track. If that pergola were in Hyde Park, it would be rammed.

The pergola is best in the spring for a few glorious weeks when it’s covered in amazing wisteria. Actually, at this time of the year, it’s surprisingly bland in terms of flowers and things. It’s nevertheless an extraordinarily magical spot which features in the first film I ever made, Hampstead Heath: The Musical. I’m writing about it, but don’t rush out to watch it. It’s a fairly hopeless film. I had no idea what I was doing!

After the pergola, we headed to the tree with the hole in it. There were a lot of children with us, and I felt this would be the best place to picnic because the kids could have a bit of a climb whilst the adults stuffed their faces! I think we managed to get about six people into the tree at one point. One day I’m going to try and set a world record. Actually, no I’m not. The idea of being trapped like sardines inside the trunk of a tree isn’t worth thinking about.

From the tree with the hole, we went down to the mixed ponds where somewhat draconian rules prevented Tammy from bringing her kids into the compound on account of their being too young, despite not actually wanting to swim. I guess everyone’s a bit sensitive of late. The dry weather has meant the natural ponds on the heath have started to lose alarming amounts of water, and, last Sunday, someone was very badly wounded in the men’s pond by diving and hitting something sharp on the murky bed.

An ambulance was actually called whilst we were there, but no one could work out who was ill or injured.

There was a bit of a mad dash to get back to the cars. The car parks on the heath favour short visits, which I think is ludicrous. It’s expensive enough: something like £8 for 4 hours, but then £6 for every hour thereafter. So we had to put the cars in a different car park to take advantage of a new deal. 

The day ended in a pub at the bottom of Downshire Hill where we had a bit of food and slowly split up, our faces feeing tight from the sun and pond water!


Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Break down

Many thanks for all my birthday wishes! My birthday started in Mile End last night. I got into my car to head home after some food with Michael in an Italian, turned the engine over, and instantly realised that the battery was flat. At the same time I realised that I was surrounded by gangs of lads in hoodies hanging out in little clusters in doorways. I’m sure there are many people who claim that Mile End is “on the up,” but if you’re anywhere near the tube station, it’s a horrible, scary place at midnight.

I’m not going to be the ghastly liberal who says live and let live, reminding readers that these lads are in a spiral created by poverty, social deprivation, boredom and lack of father figures. All of that is true but I’m not sure it’s enough of an excuse for their deliberately intimidating behaviour. When they realised I was in trouble, they instantly started circling me, like vultures around a dying deer. It was wholly unacceptable. Not one of them offered to help. They just stared at me, one hand down their tracksuit trousers, the other smoking a cigarette.

None of the passers by offered to help either. Probably as a direct result of the gang’s presence, Mile End is one of those places where you put your head down and get as quickly as you can to your next location.

To make my situation worse, it was impossible for me to sit in the car because the inability to turn over the engine had affected the electrics, so, for some reason, whilst I was in the car, the alarm was permanently going off. So, there I was, standing on the street at midnight, surrounded by a gang, with lovely Facebook messages wishing me a happy birthday starting to ping into my phone. Sadly, it wasn’t just my car battery that was dying. My phone battery was on about 20%... and dropping rapidly.

So I called the AA. We have membership through our Lloyd’s joint account. I decided to tell them that I felt vulnerable. No, I wasn’t a woman on my own in a dark country lane, but, I had nowhere to go and I genuinely felt scared, for very good reason as it turned out because, by the time the AA finally arrived (mercifully only an hour later) the lads had started throwing bricks at some sort of metal grill. The noise the bricks were making was terrifyingly loud. I did wish for the days when some sort of matriarch would appear from a nearby flat to give them all a clip around the ear, but the trouble is, we all try to pretend this antisocial behaviour isn’t happening for fear of being stabbed, or, I worry, because we’re too busy finding excuses for it.

The AA man ascertained the car’s problem very speedily and jump-started it, telling me we had a healthy battery which I must have drained earlier on whilst listening to the new version of 100 Faces with Michael with all the blowers on because it was so hot and muggy outside. Grrr!

It took him seconds to sort the problem. As he closed the bonnet he said, “I’m gonna suggest you drive away from this place as quickly as possible. It’s really edgy round here.”

Thank God for the AA

Monday, 6 August 2018

Swiss adventures

It feels like a long time since I last wrote a blog. It’s actually only been a few days, but in that time I’ve been all the way to Zürich and back.

Actually, when you realise how quickly you can get to European cities, and how much you can pack in if you leave early in the morning and come back late the next day, it’s difficult to understand why we don’t do more mini-breaks like this.

It wasn’t really a holiday. I was there to sing at the wedding of two former members of New West End Synagogue, who moved to Switzerland last year. They’re a very interesting couple. She is from Malaysia and converted to orthodox Judaism in order to get married. It is not easy to convert, particularly to orthodoxy. It takes three years and involves gruelling tests and serious lifestyle changes. I’ve heard that some people who want to covert are actually forced to move to different areas so they can be amongst people who are Shomer Shabbos (ie people who eat kosher and take all the Shabbat rules seriously.) As a result, those who convert are often more observant than those who were born into the religion. You’ve got to really love someone to go through all of that!

There were seven of us in the choir and we had been engaged to sing at a Friday night meal and a Saturday morning Shabbat service. The Friday night was all about singing musical theatre songs, which is fairly infra dig for an all male, unaccompanied choir who specialise in ancient Jewish music, but, we’re game for a laugh.

We left London from City Airport at shit o’clock. I was staggered by quite how awful the airport is. By 7am, the loos were already blocked and the staff at the security gates were beyond rude. The whole airport comes across as rather tawdry, bordering on seedy. The only thing in its favour is the relatively small number of flights which leave from there, so you’re not left waiting about in long queues as you can be at Stansted. Luton, of course, will always be the worst airport in the UK.

It’s actually rather shameful when you arrive at an airport like Zürich, and see what an amazing impression a well-appointed airport can offer its tourists. When the UK leaves Europe, I look forward to sinking further into a sordid pile of our own excrement.

Zürich is an amazing city, which is built around a glorious lake. There’s not an ounce of rubbish or graffiti anywhere. I don’t think this is because hoards of people are paid large sums to clear the muck up, I simply think the Swiss respect their environment more. Yes, of course you could argue that they’re all so rich, they can afford to be obsessively tidy, or that there’s something unpleasantly clinical about the Swiss psyche, but it does make a rather pleasant change to hang out in a place like that.

The lake itself is the focal point of the city. It is deep, fresh and beautifully clean, and, as a result, everyone swims in it. Everyone. It’s a sort of fundamental part of most of the city’s residents daily regimes. There are official places to swim with jetties and pontoons, but there are also little public beaches where people wade into the water without having to pay an entrance fee. It’s all the same water, after all.

We arrived in the city and immediately took ourselves off for a swim in one of the official “baths”. It was boiling hot. The sun was glinting on the lake. And we swam about in the cool, clear water, looking out to the mountains behind the city, feeling wonderfully relaxed and wondering if life could get any better.

We rehearsed in the afternoon in searing heat which made everyone fractious. It’s one thing to be rehearsing well-written conventional choral repertoire but quite something else to learn (and improvise) harmonies for well-known musical theatre songs, especially when the groom rushes in and tells you that his mother only wants upbeat music. Les Mis was described as “emo” and rehearsing the gloriously uplifting Anthem from Chess triggered a warning to “keep things light.” Note to self: never rehearse within earshot of your client! 

The evening meal took place within the breathtaking surroundings of a women-only open air swimming pool which, I assume, was fed by water from the lake. It looked stunning as the sun set and all sorts of candles and twinkling lights started to dance. The food was exquisite: an appropriate blend of Asian and Jewish cuisine. We wondered about, singing, unaccompanied. Shabbos rules meant we couldn’t use backing tracks, mics or even a piano so, our voices drifted into the ether and vanished into the sky like the wonderful helium balloons that everyone (but me) was given to release on cue.

The only slight dampener on the night from our perspective was when we performed Love Changes Everything to the mother of the groom and she buried her head in her son’s shoulder as though to say “make it stop,” before disappearing as quickly as she could! At the end of each number we clacked off to the sound of our own heels!

On Saturday morning we accompanied the resident Chazan in the Löwenstraße Synagogue in a wonderful service filled with the families of both the bride and groom. There were a lot of somewhat confused-looking Chinese people in our midst, who smiled very politely, despite the service being in a mixture of German and Hebrew! We were back in our comfort zone as singers, and we sang beautifully. I felt immensely proud. Many of the regular congregants came up to us afterwards to tell us how professional we sounded. Obviously, it’s meant as a great compliment, but it’s hard not to say “well we ARE a professional choir”! Imagine going up to Alfie Boe and saying “you sounded really professional” or telling your surgeon that he made a really professional job of removing your tonsils!

After the service, we took ourselves back to the lake, where I ate a tomato and mozzarella salad which was, in a word, divine. It’s so easy to forget what terrible tomatoes we have to endure in the UK and, when ripened by sunshine and not filled with weird additives, how absolutely delicious a tomato can be.

We went back to the swimming place and swam from pontoon to pontoon, relaxing, drinking coffee sunbathing and gradually unwinding, allowing, for a few glorious hours, the stresses and strains of London to melt away from our minds and bodies. At one point Michael turned to me and said, “this is when I realise that London has it very wrong.” I knew what he meant. Everything in London feels like it’s geared towards people who need to move at a fast pace. We don’t have pedestrianised streets lined with coffee shops. That would slow us down. We don’t have drinking fountains on the corners of all the streets. That would stop us from doing work. We don’t have beaches down by the Thames anymore because the river is filthy. I suppose we have lovely parks and things but you have to fight through the tourists to use them. Apart from the Heath. Maybe I’m being silly. Maybe the grass is always greener. Maybe there are Swiss tourists coming to London and saying “the joy about London is that everyone’s so laid back!”

Would the cleanliness of Zürich bore me after a while? Probably. Could I live in Zürich? No. Would I go back for a holiday? In a heartbeat.

We sat on the terrace cafe in the airport. It’s on a sort of open air observation deck which reminded me of something from the glamorous days of air travel, where being an air hostess was one of the most glitzy and sophisticated jobs you could have.

An hour and a half later, we were touching down at Heathrow airport and the adventure was over. When can I go back?



Friday, 3 August 2018

Key West

I went to see “It Happened at Key West” at the Charing Cross Theatre last night. I went largely because the musical director I’ll be working with when I direct Brass at Mountview was MDing the piece and I wanted to show a bit of solidarity. It was only when I arrived that I realised my friends Shannon and Cam were actually working as Associate Director and Producer on the show. I was a little confused when Shannon came bounding over, largely because I thought she was in Spain. When she mentioned that she was working as an Associate Director, I asked what show she was on and she looked a little confused before pointing at the theatre we were standing outside! Note to self: keep your ear a little closer to the ground.

I went into the show without a programme or any knowledge of what I was going to see. From its title, I wondered if it was going to be a show about a clutch of retired Jewish women or a gaggle of gays. Despite going there in 2010, I really don’t know a great deal about Florida. I didn’t even know, for example, that Key West was an island.

Anyway, it’s difficult to know whether I can really talk about the plot line without revealing any spoilers. Suffice to say the piece is based on a true story, set in the 1930s, about an X-ray technician who finds the girl of his dreams, but is immediately forced to tell her that she has tuberculosis, a disease which she succumbs to at the end of Act One. So what happens in Act Two? Well, let’s just say he continues to look after her...

I personally think there’s a very fine show in there which a bit of spit and polish and an open-minded writer ought to be able to pull out. It has all the ingredients - love, loss, humour, desperate sadness - but it needs to decide what it wants it to be. Is it a farce? Is it a piece about mental illness? Is it a tragedy? It can, of course, be all of the aforementioned, but the audience needs to be guided. There were a group of cackling older women on the front row who found some of the most tender moments incredibly amusing because the subject matter is so dark and uncomfortable. That laughter told me that the piece wasn’t quite hitting its marks. An audience should never be confused. Take them on a roller coaster ride by all means and challenge their taste buds, but it’s important they always know where they are. When an audience it gives you a collective note like that - and tells you that they don’t know whether to laugh or cry - it’s important to listen.

The other thing which needs to be addressed is the writer’s almost compulsive inability to set words to music with natural inflections. Scantion was not her best friend. It is almost impossible for an actor to convey sense when the melody he is singing places emphasis on all the wrong syllables. It’s something most musical theatre writers get wrong from time to time. Nathan regularly picks me up on it. Made in Dagenham and Mrs Henderson Presents were both filled with countless, ghastly examples. Bad scantion jolts an audience out of appreciating a piece because they’re constantly thinking “that doesn’t sound quite right...” or “what was that line?”

Actually, as it happened the composer was also the lyricist - and she’s actually a really decent lyricist and a very lovely melodist. But you crap on all the good work if you can’t marry the two successfully.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Portraits of the 100

Whilst making 100 Faces, I took portrait photographs of all 100 contributors. Instead of writing today, I thought I'd share with you some of my favourite pictures...







Monday, 30 July 2018

Diverseknitty

Wandering about in a suit and tie is not much fun in this weather. Instead of raining all day on Saturday, as promised, it decided to go all windy and weird. The plain trees in Holland Park were spewing out little bits of grit, seemingly specially designed to get into the eyes and cause misery.

We did a morning singing in synagogue, which went well, from my perspective at least. The more singing I do, the more robust my voice gets, and, because I’m a bass, the later I stay out and the more I shout, the more fruity my voice begins to sound! Thank God I’m not a tenor. They’re a much more fragile bunch.

One of the things which I find a little distressing is the level of security we need at our shul. Imagine going into a church on a Sunday morning and having someone say “what are you here for? Who do you know?” I find it incredibly sad that this is the way of things in the Jewish community.

Nathan was in Leeds teaching. His conquest of the world via knitting needles continues. He’s recently started an initiative called “diversknitty” to encourage under-represented people in the knitting community to talk about what it is that makes them tick and what it is that makes them different. It’s really taken off. I think he’s particularly heartened by the fact that, by using the hash tag, knitters from BAME backgrounds particularly, are finding each other. What I’ve found somewhat pleasing is how people are also using the hashtag to celebrate the true meaning of diversity. Celebrating diversity, to me, means celebrating everything which is different from the norm (whatever that is) and potentially under-represented or overlooked in the general scheme of things, whether that’s being of colour, having a disability, being vegetarian, having facial disfigurements, being state school educated, having mental health issues, surviving cancer, being LGBT, talking with a stammer, being under-confident, following a religion... Nathan heard from three identical triplets who wanted to talk about how different each of them were, despite sharing identical DNA. Diversity shouldn’t be an exclusive club based on a very narrow definition and I’m worried that this is exactly what it’s become. I suppose I first became aware of this fact when Our Gay Wedding: The Musical, nominated for 14 national and International awards, was entirely overlooked and not even shortlisted for just one award that we were entered for: namely the National Diversity Awards. That always struck me as something of an irony.








Saturday, 28 July 2018

Party

A fact I forgot to mention in yesterday’s blog is that, of the nine people (conductor plus eight singers) who recorded The Blue Book yesterday, five were ‘cellists! And not just “I-used-to-play-at-primary-school” ‘cellists. I was probably the least capable of all five. Two had diplomas in the instrument. All five of us had our grade eight. They do say that the ‘cello is the closest instrument to the human voice - particularly the male voice - and I wonder if this has some bearing on things. Are ‘cellists marginally more likely to sing, I wonder? Were those of us who could sing well in early childhood offered the ‘cello to learn? Perhaps being a ‘cellist encourages a certain sort of mellifluousness in ones voice?

What’s certainly the case is that when I’m sight-singing, I often find myself doing ‘cello fingering with my left hand and, when I want to sing in tune, or when I’m deeply engrossed by choral music, I often move my arms about. I realised yesterday that I was air bowing!

The older I get, the more I learn that I pretty much owe everything that’s good in my life to having been a ‘cellist. It was the ‘cello which gave my young self extraordinary opportunities to travel and perform in exciting and life-changing locations. It made me want to compose. It introduced me to the people at the music school who gave me broader horizons. It allowed me to play in countless ensembles. It got me into York University. Selling my fancy ‘cello paid for my drama school...

I still remember the moment my junior school music teacher, Chris Twell, came to our class and said “who would like to learn the ‘cello?” I shot my hand up. It was the instrument that Julie off of Fame played (although, come to think of it, she was no singer!) I still remember Mrs Twell looking at me rather seriously and saying, “you want to learn it do you, Ben?” I like to think it was a look of the penny dropping. It was an important moment.

I spent the morning yesterday with the writer, Bernard Kops and his deeply charming wife, Erica. We are going to try and write a piece together about the Battle of Cable Street, which Bernard himself actually witnessed. It’s very wonderful to simply sit and hang out in their garden flat in Swiss Cottage. They remind me of so many of the Jewish intellectuals I’ve known over the years, all of whom have made me feel incredibly welcome and very much at home.

We talked a lot of about Soho in the 1950s. The two of them lived there during this time in an assortment of rooms, usually rented by Greek Cypriot women. They talked about the incredible energy generated by the melting pot of different cultures present in the district from Italian to Afro Caribbean. There was a sense that anything went in Soho. Bernard was drawn into the area by the sound of singing. Isn’t that amazing? He walked into some sort of bar-cum-cafe and knew he’d found his misfit tribe. He and Erica used to sell books from a giant barrow which they’d wheel to different central London pitches. They told me all about the characters from the time: what drew them to Soho. How they’d lived. And often how they’d died.

We talked for a while about one of their friends who was an early proponent of the Orgone Box, which he used in an attempt to cure himself of his homosexuality. If you don’t know about Orgone Boxes, I suggest you have a quick google. They’re fairly bizarre!

I went back home and sat, comatose on my sofa, as the rain pelted down outside. It was a relief to feel the rain, but I was sad it had come yesterday, because it meant I missed the sight of a blood moon in the evening. It also managed to still be raining when I left the house, so I got utterly soaked on my way down to the tube.

In the evening I met Llio in Covent Garden to go to Ian’s 50th birthday party. It was only as I took out my phone to find the number of the flat in the courtyard behind Upper St Martin’s Lane I’d confidently walked us to, that I realised the party was in a completely different part of town. I pretended we were simply going around the corner for the next half an hour, in an attempt to save face. By the time we’d reached the obscure corner of Bloomsbury where the party actually was, I think Llio was ready to punch my nose!

Fortunately the party was wonderful fun. It took place in a penthouse flat with commanding roof top views over London and a cooling breeze which eventually dried the shirt I was wearing!


Lli and I stationed ourselves by the food and met a multitude of fascinating people from an old Jewish American who talked obsessively about Angela Lansbury and a bloke who’d taken a few too many drugs, to a lovely actress and her paramedic husband who we simultaneously described as being wonderfully present - possibly in direct contrast to the person who’d been hammering the drugs who was definitely not present. Someone suggested I was wearing a waistcoat because of Gareth Southgate. The idea that I would do anything to copy someone else (lest still a football manager) is deeply insulting! At school, we used to call that “stacking” and I am no stacker!

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Blue Book Day 2

Today found us back in the recording studio for the second and final day working on The Blue Book.

I was up with the lark again, and met Michael at Elephant and Castle tube, some time after 9am.

I hate everything about Elephant and Castle. It’s basically impossible to get our of the tube. Follow any exit sign, and, after much to-ing and fro-ing underground, you invariably end up on another platform for a different tube line, following another exit sign which takes you back to where you started!

When you emerge from the station, you end up on a giant roundabout surrounded by ghastly blocks of concrete. I’d heard the whole area around the station had been gentrified, but saw no sign of this today - not that I have any interest in gentrification. Frankly, if you want to buy a wildly expensive hovel in a shit hole because some wide-boy estate agent has told you the area you’re moving into is on the up, then you only have yourself to blame. The rents in Elephant are probably more expensive than they are in Highgate. I jest not. Friends of mine in Hackney pay much more than I do. And we don’t tend to get drive-by shootings in Highgate!

The recording session went well: much better, in fact, than Monday’s session. It’s to be expected. We found our feet. We started blending as a choir. We started to realise what was required of us in terms of concentration and commitment to tuning. We worked incredibly hard.

It was a three-session day, the first two of which were spent physically recording, the last of which was spent in the control room, choosing takes, comping them and then finally adding the all important reverb which makes you suddenly relax and think “oh, we’re good!”

I would have loved to have the choir in the space for all three sessions. Recording is, of course, exhausting, but something very magical can happen during an evening session. I always used to make my favourite singer, Ian Knauer, record his vocals at the end of a heavy day. When his voice was trashed, he started to pour emotion into his performances. The solo for Pie Jesu in the London Requiem was recorded as a demo at the end of one such session. We were going to take the demo to Alfie Boe but when I played it to our producer, PK, he said “no one else should be allowed to sing this solo, and no other recording of Ian singing should he made.” And that was that. Ian became a featured soloist on the album.

We finished the actual recording session bang on time today, so I was a little surprised at the speed with which one of the singers skedaddled out of the studio. We were trying to take a congratulatory selfie of the choir, but he was so desperate to leave that he physically pushed us all out of the way to get to the door. Some people have no grace... and no sense! Play the game: thank the person who booked you and paid you to be in the studio and they will want to book you and pay you for future gigs. Make them feel like you’ve done them a favour and you’ll leave a very sour taste in their mouth. We no longer live in an era where diva-like behaviour is rewarded.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Pat Val

Yesterday offered me a much-needed day off to do a bit of admin, laze about, watch some telly, prep some music and generally try to relax. I’m pretty sure my body will punish me with some sort of cold. I have been fighting off low-level symptoms for weeks now and feel I can expect a short, sharp snap of something awful before it properly goes away. Healthy eating. Gym. All of that is required through August.

The hot weather continues and London is a nightmare, particularly on the tubes. Rush hour must be a living hell. Mind you, the terrible fires in Greece surely serve as a reminder of how much worse this stuff can get. The idea of fleeing in terror and your car suddenly going up in flames is just awful. I’m told people were trying to swim to safety. Some drowned. 26 people were found dead on a cliff top, “instinctively embracing” to protect themselves from the flames. A survivor has described it as being like Pompeii. I actually had to stop reading about it, I found it so distressing.

And yet Trump continues to dismiss the idea of climate change...?

This afternoon, we went into Central London to meet our dear friends, Ian and Jem, who are here from New York. As ever, seeing them was a hugely rewarding experience. We had lunch in the Mediterranean cafe on Berwick Street. It’s a really charming spot. The food isn’t expensive - you can get a two-course meal for £9 - but they really care about what they cook. Berwick Street is in the part of Northern Soho where all the fabric shops hang out. It’s where I went with Philippa to buy the material for the waistcoat I had made for my wedding. There’s a street market there, which used to be a salt-of-the-earth affair, full of typical barrow boys selling fruit and vegetables, but these days, to mark the gentrification of Soho, it’s full of chi-chi brownie stalls, pop-up sushi stands, super-food juice bars and vegetables I’ve never seen before.

After eating our two courses - which for me involved borek and moussaka - we headed for Old Compton Street for tea and a fancy cake in Pat Val. Ian and I had scones. Nathan had a lemon cheese cake. Jem had ice cream. We were served by a charming Portuguese woman called Isabel. I think she was a little confused when I congratulated her on her country’s win at Eurovision last year.

I’ve always been amused by Pat Val’s existence on Old Compton Street. It’s been there for years; certainly as long as I’ve known the street, and probably a good few decades before that. A fancy patisserie with waitress service was always a bit of an anomaly on a grubby old sex street like Old Compton. It’s bizarrely much better suited to the street it’s become of late. I always assumed it worked as a place where gay men could parade their beloved mothers. Certainly in the olden days, mothers had a very high value on the gay scene. You weren’t a proper homosexual if you couldn’t show your mother off to the world! During the time when HIV was a death sentence, you’d periodically see these emaciated, prematurely old men, covered in strange blotches, sitting bravely in the windows of the cafes with their mothers. I often wonder what was going through those poor women’s minds...

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Recording the Blue Book

They say there’s no rest for the wicked, and I must be a very bad person because, on Monday, the day after wrapping on 100 Faces, l was up with the lark and off to The Pool recording studio in Bermondsey. I say Bermondsey. It’s actually in the slightly grubby area between the Walworth Road, Elephant and Castle and a million council blocks. It is, however, my favourite London studio. We recorded vocals for the London Requiem there, Four Colours and Brass. It holds some very special memories, including the day that we recorded Barbara Windsor there. I recently read that Barbara has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, which is terribly sad. She remains one of the most gracious and kind celebrities I’ve ever met. Life can be terribly cruel.

Anyway, we were at The Pool to record The Blue Book, an album of songs based on a 19th Century book of liturgical Jewish music, with age-old, specific associations with the synagogue where I sing. It would be the equivalent of Hymns Ancient and Modern if Hymns Ancient and Modern hadn’t been updated for a hundred years. It’s the bane of our lives. In a quest to save paper, those canny Victorian printers filled every last inch of page with words, tonic-sol-fa notation, Hebrew transliterations and basically anything else they could cram in. The result is a glorious hot mess, which is almost impossible to sing because you simply can’t read anything!

The arrangements are pretty awful as well; filled to the brim with somewhat awkward harmonic shifts and clunky voicings. Nevertheless, the book stands as a unique collection of orthodox Jewish religious music and it feels important to immortalise some of the tunes by doing this project. Because recording equipment is banned on the sabbath in the very synagogues who still sing this repertoire, it’s actually unlikely that these compositions will ever be heard by a wider audience again without initiatives like this. Some of the melodies are both ancient and very moving.

On top of everything else, there’s actually a dearth of people equipped to perform this type of music. One must be either Jewish, Jew-ISH, or interested enough in Judaism to want to use music to facilitate worship and learn how to sing in Hebrew and Aramaic. Stylistically, it tends to suit choral scholars, whose traditions, of course, are usually Christian, so it’s a fairly exclusive club that I seem to have stumbled into!

The recording went well. There were eight singers in the choir, two per part, which is singularly exposing. One person per part, and you’ve only got to worry about tuning with everyone else, two people per part, and you’re forced to blend with the other person singing without having the security of ensemble that three or more on a part brings. 

Singers are funny. There are always these huge debates in the recording studio about the minutiae of music, but woe-betide anyone suggesting that people might be singing a passage out of tune! Say that, and you’re always asked to qualify exactly what you mean. Is it a timbre thing? Is it a harmonics thing? No, we just sometimes sing duff notes. Sometimes they’re sharp. Sometimes they’re flat. Sometimes we need to focus a little more and hang on to our hats! Somebody once told me that telling a trained singer they’re singing out of tune is tantamount to criticising their technique.

Recording sessions are always slow - and you always run out of time however carefully you plan. I don’t believe I’ve ever walked away from a session feeing 100 per cent happy. But we recorded some really beautiful music which I feel incredibly proud of. I’d insisted all day that we listen to what we’d recorded, dry, with no reverb, knowing that things improve hugely when the bells and whistles are added. And sure enough, when we added reverb and listened back at the end of the day, everything sounded really rather special. 

We finished at 9.30pm. Somewhat exhausted. What is with all this hot weather?

Final day

It was our last day of filming for 100 Faces yesterday and, from the early afternoon on Saturday, I’d started to believe, once again, that our ludicrous mission was possible. I ended up with not one, but two replacements for Fenella Fielding. One was a charming lady called Hedi, whom I’d met at the Holocaust Survivors Centre. Unusually, she’d been very keen to give me her number, and I was very grateful to have written it down. Because Fenella had signed up to the project about four months ago, I hadn’t placed a great deal of emphasis in finding anyone else for her year, and, in fact, when people said they were born in 1927, I’d often wrap the chat up as quickly as I could to avoid the disappointment of falling in love with a person I couldn’t feature. Hedi slipped through the net with her youthful lust for life and brilliantly coiffured barnet, which looked like a huge blob of candy floss.

When I phoned her to ask if she’d like to be in the film, she didn’t seem to be the perky, somewhat over-the-top character I’d met, and explained that she’d been rather ill. If I’ve learned nothing else on this project, it’s that 2 months is a long time for a person in their nineties.

Nevertheless, and perhaps even to prove my theory, by Saturday, she was feeling chipper again and agreed to do the filming. In the meantime, one of our other faces got in touch to say that her mother was also born in 1927, so, in a fit of pique, and in the interests of not being left in the lurch by a re-run of Thursday, I decided to film her as well.

Yesterday started with an email from Hedi to say she’d had another turn for for worse, so my belt and braces attitude looked like it was beginning to pay off.

I’d arranged to film Annabel’s Mum, Evelyn, at her house in Swiss Cottage at 10.30am. I was at the tube by 10 and had a rather lovely period of decompression sitting in a cafe outside the station. I was served by a handsome gentleman with a tattoo with something which looked like Hebrew on his arm. “What does the tattoo say?” I asked. “Benjamin... in Hebrew,” he said, before flushing red. “It’s upside down and back to front.” It turned out that he was technically Jewish but had never been brought into the fold, as it were. I told him my name was also Benjamin and his response was to shake my hand.
Evelyn, it turns out, is a remarkable woman. At 91, she’s still a practising architect and to say she didn’t look, or seem, a day over 70 is probably an understatement. Her hearing is remarkable. She is glamorous. Sharp as a tack. And she polished off her sequence in a few takes, her daughter’s dog, Bono, sitting at her feet.

I’d received another email from Hedi by the time we’d left Evelyn’s saying she really wasn’t feeling well at all. She didn’t want to let me down but it looked like the doctor might need to be called. I instantly replied to tell her she needed to focus on getting better, not on filming, and she seemed very relieved.

Without Hedi, there was a gap in the day which meant we could do a bit of lazing about in cafes. We headed for Holland Park in readiness for the next location and were joined for lunch by Michael.

It was at this point that I got a text from young Mitch telling me that one of our younger faces had just called to say she was pulling out because she needed to go to the “hospital for personal reasons.” There was, of course, no way that I was going to let that pass without some hard facts, so I immediately called her Mum whose number I’d asked for because the girl in question is 18. This decision to call the mum proved to be a good one and the situation was sorted in the blink of an eye. The Fenella situation has made me realise that I shouldn’t stand for ludicrous or self-centred behaviour on a shoot like this. I genuinely wish I’d told Fenella exactly what I thought of her behaviour and how out of our way we’d gone to film her, but then I wouldn’t have ended up with the wonderful Evelyn.

The post-lunch filming took place at the beautiful Notting Hill home of my mate Felicity, who is one of the stalwarts at New West End synagogue. Her teenaged son, Alex, is one of the 100 faces and she’s the sort of good egg you can rely on for a favour. I therefore asked if she’d mind a couple of other people being filmed at her house, and she graciously agreed. When we arrived, everyone was sitting around the dining room table and I wondered if I’d actually told Felicity how many people she was expecting and what their names were! Then I felt terrible...

The two other faces were a young A-level student called Maya, and Abi, who’s in the Royal Navy. I realise now that I don’t know which rank, and probably should have asked. Maya was singing - beautifully, Abi polished off her line in a matter of minutes and we filmed Alex in his bedroom surrounded by toy frogs and spring onions.

Unfortunately my crew is all-male, and we were filming two young women, so Felicity was dragged into every space, just so that no one felt uncomfortable, or, as Felicity put it: “I’m here, well, because of boobs!”

From Felicity’s house, we headed to Finchley, in a drive which seemed to take forever. Driving on a Sunday in London is usually okay and I don’t remember getting stuck in any traffic, so I think it may just have been a long way away.

We went to film a wonderful lass called Lily, who’s a mixed-race university student at Leeds with a strong sense of her dual heritage. She wants to be a performer, and she certainly has an aura of something very special about her. She has a very beautiful singing voice and I think she has every chance of making a splash.

The penultimate location was a quirky, somewhat bohemian cafe in Golders Green, called Headroom, which is run by a Jewish mental heath charity called Jami. Yesterday was a day of fasting in the Jewish calendar so the cafe was meant to be closed, but they opened it especially for us, which was incredibly generous. It made for a really interesting space, and yielded some fabulous shots. We’ve looked for as many non-religious Jewish locations as we could find because there are so many people who identify as Jewish without actually feeling religious in any way, shape or form.

At Headroom, we filmed the dream-boat opera singer, Anthony Flaum, who is currently playing Pinkerton in a production of Madam Butterfly, ambulance staff member, Nicole, a young lass called Darcy who’s mother is the first Scottish Jewish person I think I’ve met on this shoot, Phoebe, a student from North London and a young chap who is learning to lein for his bar mitzvah next year. Leining is essentially the somewhat mystical process of singing the Torah. It’s something all bar mitzvah boys must do (and people wonder why so many Jewish people are musical!)

The last location on our entire shoot was in Walthamstow at Gabriel’s house. Gabes sings with me in the shul choir and used to date Hilary back in the day, so I’ve known him for years. It felt rather appropriate therefore that we would film him last. It was ever likely to be momentous. As the day flashed past, I ticked off the names, one by one. 

And then, we were done. That was that. All faces were in the can... 100 brilliant, beautiful Jewish faces.

We did it! I don’t know how we did it, but it happened. The adventure is not over yet, of course. I continue to move forward with editors and sound engineers. But it was very sad to say goodbye to Andrei and Keith and continue along the path without them. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun on a shoot.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

London Zoo by night

It was my Dad’s birthday celebration on Friday. The 100 Faces project, therefore, couldn’t have chosen a less appropriate day to totally hit the skids!

I woke up to find that my social media appeals for a replacement for Fenella Fielding had yielded nothing. The search for someone born in 1927 was never going to be easy and could well have proved impossible. The most worrying thing was that all my contacts in rest homes were either not responding, or couldn’t help, so by the time I reached UK Jewish Film offices in the late morning, I was bouncing off the ceilings.

I tried to make myself a cup of tea to calm down, but the milk was off. And let me tell you: when this man is prevented from having his first cup of tea in the morning, life suddenly becomes a very distressing place! I took myself into the communal cafe space, tried to take some deep breaths, and, after googling a list of celebrities born in 1927, was trying to work out whether June Brown from Eastenders was Jewish enough to be in the film. Quite how I thought I was going to get in touch with her, I’ve no idea!

It was at that moment, the bottom dropped out of the project when I found out that cellist Natalie Clein, whom we were due to film on Sunday, was also unable to take part. She apparently needed to rest her fingers and arms and therefore wouldn’t be able to play. The big problem was that I’d written a large ‘cello solo in the middle of the piece, especially for Natalie, so had been left with a twenty second hole in my film. I can’t feel anger. Natalie was an absolute delight to deal with and I can only assume she didn’t realise the complicated nature of the project and quite how derailing her dropping out was going to be. I was so tragically excited when she said yes and poured a lot of love into what I wrote for her. I looked back at the first draft I’d written for her section and it says “Natalie’s sequence - yay!”

I did a bit of ranting and railing and then made Michael (who’s executive producing) rather angry by being defeatist and imagining a world where I could throw in the towel and blithely pull out of the project like Fenella and Natalie. Ultimately, of course, the great tragedy about being a writer is that whilst everyone else can run away from your babies, you, yourself, are stuck with them for life, so the only option is to doggedly continue.

So I hauled my sorry arse back into the office and spent the day, with Michael, putting out feelers and trying to remedy the situation.

I went down Oxford Street in the late afternoon to find my Dad a birthday present, and walked, in a mega-daze through John Lewis and various other department stores, realising I wasn’t actually looking at anything. I was, simultaneously, buried in my phone, repeatedly checking Facebook to see if anyone had offered me a lifeline. I got incredibly antsy with one of those women whose task it is to go up to people in department stores and ask if they need help. She could plainly see I was engrossed in my phone.

Everything got a little less stressful after I’d walked up to St James’ Park to meet my parents, Nathan, Brother Edward and Sascha.

The plan for my Dad’s birthday was to visit London Zoo by night. They only open up at night time for a few weeks a year, but they really go for it. Children aren’t allowed, which genuinely makes a big difference. The little stands are more likely to sell alcohol than ice cream and, as the sun sets, everything takes on a rather magical quality.

There were a few drops of rain. The first we’ve had for some time. At one point, our noses were filled with that glorious scent which only comes when rain falls on sun-baked, dusty earth. The smell, I learned from Brother Edward, has a name: petrichor.

It was rather lovely to walk around and see the animals either preparing for bed, or preparing to get busy. I was rather taken by the bush babies and the Australian water rats, and loved seeing the fruit bats. The lemurs stole the show, however. Visitors literally get to walk into their cage and they are quite happy to run around, swinging from the branches above. If you’re lucky, they’ll even come and sit down next to you.

Are all giraffes gay by the way?

I’d never been to London Zoo before and was a little disappointed that there weren’t any elephants. My Mother shared my dismay. Both she and my Dad had been to London Zoo once in their lives: my father in the early 50s and my mother, in 1948! She believes she may have visited just after it had reopened after the war. She also remembers seeing the penguins and thinking they were actually little men, and being utterly terrified! She maintains that no one relieved her of the notion.

Mind you, as a child I remember being in Hyde Park and seeing a group of women in niqabs wandering about in a playground and thinking they were a flock of black sheep.

A little bit of research on penguins reveals they are one of nature’s animals most likely to have homosexual relationships. Fact.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Fenella?!

It’s Friday. I have today and tomorrow off. We have a final filming day on Sunday. If my calculations are correct, I have 89 faces in the bag, and just 11 to film. Had everything gone to plan, I would be terribly relaxed this morning. It’s my Dad’s birthday. He’s come to London and we’re going to London Zoo tonight. As it happens I’m climbing the walls with panic.

The complications started on Thursday night with the unfortunate mix up at the London Jewish Museum. To their credit, the museum took full responsibility for the problem, and moved heaven and earth to remedy the problem, so, by the time I’d got to the venue, everything had been resolved. Very grateful to them.

The beautiful museum itself proved a somewhat difficult location to film in. There are a lot of audio visual displays which can’t be turned off, and I got the strong impression from the head of coms that he wasn’t hugely happy with the idea of a film crew interacting with the general public, which is totally fair enough. We ended up filming nine people in the education room, which wasn’t a bad space at all, but after about five set-ups we were running out of inspiration for back drops!

The joy about filming in black and white is that you don’t have to worry about colours clashing. The chairs in the space were every colour of the rainbow, but, in black and white, they were mostly the same shade of grey! Much more subtle.

One of the things I was most excited to include in 100 Faces were different members of the same families. We’d already filmed a grandmother and granddaughter, a grandmother and grandson, a mother and daughter, a mother, father and son, a brother and sister, and two twins, and at the Jewish Museum we filmed a mother and son, and a father and son to add to the list.

Father and son were my old mate Ben Caplan and his seven-year-old lad, Bertie, who delivered his line in two takes! Ben is an actor, best known for playing Miranda’s policeman boyfriend in Call The Midwife, but to me, he’s the guy I used to do autocue shifts with in the late 90s at BBC Parliament. Ben is born in 1974, and therefore represents my year of birth. He’s less than a month younger than me.

I feel a bit emotional when I write about the other pair, because the mother was my dear friend, Hannah Chissick who directed both Brass and Em, and has therefore held my hand through some of my most stressful and creatively-rewarding times. She talked about her grandmother. It moved me.


When I first met Han, she was heavily pregnant with Isaac, and he was a tiny baby when she directed Brass. He’s now a strapping (almost) 3-year old, who is the first person to speak in the film. I say strapping. What broke my heart was how tiny and brave he looked standing in front of the enormous camera.

Also being filmed at the museum were Abigail, the highly charming Chief Executive of the place, Francine, a gloriously leonine relationship councillor, and the incomparable, Rabbi Jackie Tabick, who became Britain’s first female Rabbi in 1975. It was a great honour to feature all three in the film.

The final two people through these particular doors were the highly-stylish Dahlia, who runs Keshet, an LGBT Jewish organisation, and Lawrence, a wonderful chap who lives in one of Norwood’s care homes. Lawrence is almost deaf and has some sort of disability which affects him both mentally and physically, but he is utterly charming and I hope everyone will fall in love with him on screen as much as we did in the flesh.

The next part of the day was when our project started to come off the rails. We had been booked in to film the ex-Carry-On actress, Fenella Fielding in Shepherds Bush. Her PA, Simon, had sorted all the arrangements. We knew what Fenella was going to say (which was a rather good quote) and, after much to-ing and fro-ing, we’d finally agreed on a date and place for her to film.

I was a little concerned when Simon suggested I phone him before we arrived at his house and then, when I did as asked, told me I should come up, alone, to “tell Fenella all about the project.”

I did as requested and left the crew in a cafe. Fenella is quite the film star. She has a definite aura about her. A Hollywood glamour. She was wearing a fairly obvious raven black wig and had huge eyelashes like giant spiders which somehow seem to meld into her eyebrows. I felt a little in awe.

She was deeply charming. I explained the project to her and she listened as though being told about it for the first time, which I found confusing. I talked about some of the other faces and she said things like “how lovely.” I mentioned the quote I understood that she was saying and she laughed and said “very good.” I asked if she’d be okay to film now, she said yes, and I said we’d bring the camera crew up.

I rushed down the stairs, elated and charmed, and helped Keith and Andrei to bring bags of equipment into the flat, telling them both how lovely Fenella had seemed.

By the time we’d returned, there was a change in atmosphere. Fenella and Simon were huddled on the sofa, whispering and sort of clucking at each other. We set the cameras up and she was looking at print outs of two quotes she’d apparently written which she was trying to decide between. Keith asked her if she wanted to be lit from a certain side. Simon reminded us that Fenella had a perfectly symmetrical face.



It was at that point that the mood went decidedly sour and Fenella started to freak out. She oscillated between aggressive child-like mini-tantrums and sudden flashes of charm. The three of us watched the scene in absolute disbelief. It was like a terrible sit com.




“I don’t want to do it. It’s a silly, horrible idea. Do I really have to do it? It’s utterly pointless. Do I have to? This really has turned into the worst day ever. I was going home. I wanted to go home. This is the worst day of my life, it really is.”




Simon indulged her with more clucking and little air kisses. It could have been an episode of Ab Fab. She called him something like Binky Boo.




And that was that. Simon gave us a look which said “I’m sorry, this isn’t going to happen” and, in absolute silence, we packed up the kit. I say in absolute silence. Fenella felt the need to talk throughout. “Oh this is so sad. You’ve come with your lovely work bags.”




At that point Simon said to her “shall I see if I can steel one for you?”




As Keith de-rigged his light stand, it made a clicking noise. Fenella spoke again, “oh how sad. Click click.” She said the words in a curiously coquettish way which would have been funny had it not seemed so brutal and rude.




I should have shouted at them, and told them how unreasonable they were being but instead, realising Fenella was plainly not well, I sucked it all up like a Vileda Super Mop, shook Fenella’s hand and told her how lovely it had been to meet her. Actually it was deeply traumatic, highly humiliating and it’s left our project in the absolute doldrums. I’m not sure I blame Fenella. Knowing how volatile she is, and the highly-complicated nature of the project, Simon should never have agreed for us to come.




And frankly, he should also have written an email of apology to us that afternoon. He didn’t.




Fortunately my terrible mood was lifted by Vanessa Feltz, who was next up, and, like the good egg she is, had agreed to sing her line. She was warm, welcoming, conscientious and gracious and her house is one of the most beautiful and eccentric spaces I’ve ever seen. I think there’s actually a really good voice inside her. She wrote the quote she was singing and I set it to music and she took the process very seriously and genuinely seemed to enjoy herself. She made us all feel incredibly welcome and I was so so grateful to her after the debacle we’d just been through.




The last two faces of the day were the charming, yet intense, Rabbi, Mendel Cohen, whom we filmed in front of a glorious indigo stained glass window at St John’s Wood shul, and the beautiful cookery writer, Anabelle Carmel who warmly welcomed us into her stunning North London home.




The day ended well, but I worry Fenella and Simon between them have come very close to derailing this project at this very late stage. As yet, I have not found a replacement for 1927.


Thursday, 19 July 2018

Penultimate day

Yesterday was like one of those ludicrous game shows where contestants have to rush through an obstacle course against the clock. We’d possibly bitten off a little more than we could chew by agreeing to film ten people (many singing) in my shul, New West End.

I have to confess to feeling more than a little proud when everyone who stepped into the building took one look at the place, with its spectacular, oriental, high-Victorian decor, and murmured deep purrs of approval.

First through the doors was Lord Howard, the former leader of the Conservative party. I believe he stood in the leadership contest against Cameron, whom I hold as chiefly responsible for the mess this country has found itself in, so, as he spoke to our camera with a steely look in his eye, I wondered how the story would have ended had the Tories opted for someone else.

It was my Rabbi’s turn next - and he was singing. Actually, I think I’d given him one of the most complicated lines in the whole piece, but he sailed through it, and sang with passion and great beauty. Michael Etherton, who leads the choir at New West End, was on hand to make sure everyone was on track with their vocals. It was rather lovely to not have to worry about that side of things, and, instead, disappear with Keith to plan shots like a proper director.

Our third “face” was 93 year-old, diamond dealer, Willie Nagel, whom I’m told once chatted up the queen! Willie arrived with his cousin, who essentially decided to take over the directing of the film! I think at one point Willie was so surrounded by people barking orders that he forgot what he was meant to be saying. It instantly made everyone feel stressed out. Keith lost his sense of humour and I think young Mitch might have got rather short shrift from me.

After Willie, we filmed Keith Harris - not, I’m relieved to say, of Orville The Duck fame. Imagine if I’d put Orville in as one of the faces? I don’t think Orville was Jewish. Hmmm.... Anyway, our Keith Harris comes from North London, is born in the early 70s and is now Keith Khan-Harris, as a result of getting married and because he got rather tired of having such a plain name. He told me yesterday he’d even been invited to join a society of people called Keith Harris!

Keith was followed by David Zachary who is a member of the extended Brass family, having worked as a chaperone for both NYMT productions of the show. In this capacity, he remains one of the few people who has actually told me off in my adult life, on account of my trying to do a face swap with a Barbie mug whilst he was trying to admonish a group of cast members for whom I was meant to be taking responsibility. The moral of that story is that you should never make me responsible for enforcing rules. The older I get, the more I realise I have a kind of compulsion to shun rules. Imagine me in an old people’s home?!

Anyway, David was brilliant on camera. Funny. Conscientious. He sang wonderfully. I was very impressed, as were the crew.

The last two people into the shul in the morning were Adam Music, a stunning mix-raced opera singer, whose surname really is Music, and David Freedman, who was also singing. The poor bloke is a bass, and I’d given him a baritone line, but he coped manfully. We filmed him right up in the organ loft at the synagogue, with a perilous, somewhat vertiginous drop behind him!

After lunch, we filmed four more faces at the shul, Flora Frank, a 76 year-old veteran of about 80 marathons (all of which she runs for charity), the stylish and beautifully-voiced Chazan from New West End, Yohel Heller, Yoav Oved, who sings tenor in the choir with me, and sang yesterday with mellifluous beauty, and Katherine Rodden, a red-headed siren-like actress who charmed many of the men in our crew!

We were out of New West End by about 3.15pm, and winging our way up to Hampstead to film my close friend, Vera. I have spent many happy hours at Vera’s house on Keats Grove. In the 1990s and early naughties, she was the epicentre of a group of Hampstead-based, bohemian artists, actors, writers and therapists including Billie Whitelaw and Arnold Wesker. Vera was a firebrand, a survivor of Stuthoff camp, who went to Israel at the end of the war, and was sent to Germany in the 1960s to make a documentary series about the lessons which had been learned from the Holocaust. Vera was a theatre critic for a German newspaper when I met her. She used to come and talk to me when I was a barman at the Royal Court Theatre. Her belief was always that the most interesting people in the theatre were the bar staff and ushers because they were destined to be the stars of the future... without (yet) any of the attitude.

Sadly, those heady days at Vera’s house have long since gone and Vera doesn’t really talk any more, which makes me feel incredibly sad. When I decided to make 100 Faces, the one person I knew I wanted to have in the film was Vera. I felt proud to film her.

From Hampstead, we travelled to Finchley to film a charming 98-year-old called Betty, with one of the most infectious smiles I’ve probably ever seen and, from there, we went to Wembley to film a lady, born in 1924, who was replacing Eric from Nightingale House who sadly died last week. Our new lady, Helen, was charming and heartbreaking. She talked about her family. “They’ve all gone” she said, “I miss them. I hope they’re all okay where they are.”

I went home on a high until I learned from young Mitch that the location we were meant to be filming in today weren’t expecting us and that the person who runs the venue - also one of our faces - was not planning to be there. They’d apparently asked someone to send an email to us telling us that filming needed to be moved to next week (when we’d have had no crew) but the email had not been sent. Some people just don’t get it! Fortunately, it was all sorted by this morning... Just!

100 Faces is certainly a roller-coaster ride and today has witnessed an even lower point... but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out about Fenella Fielding...

76 faces down. 24 to go


Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Filming in the Wild West


I woke up this morning feeling like I’d been thrown under a bus during the night. Note to self: filming days are like house guests - have them for too many days on the trot and they start to smell like rotten fish! A lovely little day off would’ve rejuvenated us all... but we plough onwards. It doesn’t help that yesterday was a bit, well, bitty. We had large gaps in our filming schedule, which meant there was a great deal of waiting about. When you fall out of the rhythm of filming people back-to-back in a state of high adrenaline, you can end up feeling a little deflated!

We were in the South of London, which everyone knows is the actual Wild West. We kicked things off in Clapham. It took poor Keith-the-cam considerably more than three hours to drive down from his hotel in North London. By contrast, he could have driven all the way home to Liverpool in less time. The broken transport infrastructure in our city is almost certainly why Londoners have a reputation for being grumpy and aloof.

We spent the first part of the morning filming at Nightingale House, which is a rest home for elderly Jewish people run by a very lovely bloke called Alastair. There’s always something going on there. We were filming in the big art room, which has a large kitchen attached where a group of residents were having a cookery class. Having to get them to be quiet for a couple of minutes at a time was not the easiest task in the world. “Okay, ladies, could we have about two minutes silence whilst we do this shot?” “What did he say, Ruth?” “He told you to shut up, Hannah!” “Well that was a bit rude wasn’t it? He could have asked nicely...”

We filmed four people at Nightingale, starting with Harold, whom everyone calls Tiger. When I first met Harold, his teeth kept falling out, so it was almost impossible to understand him. I was very concerned the same was going to happen today and had come up with a number of contingency plans about getting him to stare wistfully into the camera in the belief that some faces tell a story without words, but his teeth had been sorted, and it instantly became clear that we were filming a East End gent who had been devastatingly handsome in his younger years, and, even at 95, was still quite the catch.

After Harold came Alex, born in 1933, who was brought up in China by Russian parents. Alex appeared wearing a straw sun hat, which turned out to be two identical sun hats, one inside the other, which gave the illusion of a double brim. I assumed it was a quirky fashion statement, and duly filmed him, although I think he perhaps hadn’t realised! I think he looked fabulous.

After Alex, we filmed 97 year-old Evelyn, who talks like the queen and was brought up in Hyde Park (London, not Leeds!) Though proudly Jewish, she was the only Jewish girl in her class at school, and spent most of her adult life in Kent, so, I suspect, has always felt a little like an outsider looking in. She’s a hugely interesting character. She once worked at the Houses of Parliament.

Last up at Nightingale was 99 year-old Phylis Miranda, whose name is as beautiful as her face. Phylis grew up in Swansea, so I’ve finally managed to tick that all-important (to me) Welshie box! She was actually a volunteer at Nightingale House before becoming a resident there which must be a somewhat strange experience.

We drove from Clapham to Wimbledon, to film Hilary and her grandson, Noah, in one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen. It was a detached Victorian property, built in 1899, with tall ceilings and glorious light pouring in from the enormous windows. Hilary is an impossibly glamorous journalist, and represents, 1944, the year that both of my parents were born.

There was a long drive along the South Circular to Ladywell, where we had lunch, and then lazed in the park waiting to film Ali and George and their son, Kingsley, in another one of those houses which I look at and covet. At the end of their garden, there’s a garage, the top of which has been turned into a raised roof terrace. It’s a wonderful little secluded spot, surrounded by trees, where they’ve put a tiny summer house. It’s there where we filmed Kingsley.

Ali, who was in the same class at school as my ex, Stephen, was filmed in front of her piano in the sitting room and her husband George, a crisis counsellor, was filmed in the kitchen. George is a particularly interesting character. He has Scottish, Jamaican and Portuguese blood but feels intensely proud to be Jewish. He speaks of his first visit to Jerusalem and feeling as though he knew every street.

The last part of our day took us into the hood that is Peckham. It’s not a place which makes me feel hugely at ease, and Keith kept saying that he thought we were going to be stabbed. We filmed an artist there called Michelle in a fabulously bohemian pad in a low rise 1960s tower block. I showed Michelle’s photo to Nathan when I got home and he said, “now SHE’s fab!”

I asked her if Peckham had changed much in the thirty-or-so years she’d lived there. “Yes” she said, “but not always for the better. In the olden days you knew where the stabbings were going to happen. These days they might happen anywhere!”

We locked the doors on the car journey home!

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Shooting day five

I think it must be so difficult to be an international leader right now. There are so many nut-jobs around, that a semi-sensible Prime Minister is forced to suck up lunacy, simply to stop some sort of major crisis from kicking off. It’s all very well for the London Mayor and the leader of the Scottish National Party to front demonstrations against Trump, but to my mind, that’s one of the manifold benefits of being on the second tier of leadership: You can actually speak your mind instead of playing a game of diplomacy. Imagine having to talk to Trump or Putin like they’re sensible? Terrifying.

Yesterday’s filming started in the East End of London at 19 Princelet Street, which is a stunning Victorian synagogue situated within one of those grand Huguenot weavers’ cottages around Spitalfields. These days it’s rather run down and somewhat “shabby chic” like the theatre at Ally Pally where we got married. Chunks of plaster are falling off the walls, and the roof, which is entirely made of glass, has missing coloured panes where the rain surely comes in. They’re fundraising at the moment to secure the place and turn it into a museum of immigration and diversity. They certainly deserve the funding. This is a vitally important building. I was, however, a little underwhelmed by the way we were dealt with by the institution in the run up to the filming. I didn’t even know they were going to allow us to film there until Thursday last week. I guess I have become very used to people really getting behind 100 Faces and genuinely celebrating the vision of the piece, so it was a shock to find an institution which didn’t seem that bothered. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I ended up being made to feel that the only reason we were being allowed to film there was because we’d brought Steven Berkoff with us.

Nevertheless, the building yielded some rather lovely shots and had a stunning acoustic which we took advantage of to record three vocalists on the film: Ashley, Tim and Harry. Berkoff did his thing. Brilliantly. As did John Kleeman, whose charming wife, Julie, one of the Fleet Singers, came along to the shoot to offer moral support. It was so lovely to see her, although a little surprising out of context. It’s funny how we attach people so firmly to situations and locations that it becomes quite confusing when they’re in a different setting. Your brain starts putting two and two together and coming up with six! I knew her name. I knew I knew her but for a few seconds I’d decided she was a trustee at UK Jewish Film!

From the East End we travelled to Hampstead to film Dame Esther Rantzen. I was rather excited to be filming her. That’s Life played an important role in my childhood. We used to sit down as a family and watch the show on Sunday nights. It reminds me of having “homework tummy” - which is the sensation exclusive to a Sunday night when you realise you haven’t done enough prep for the working week! I realised as we filmed Esther, quite how many of the stories I’d remembered from the show. The badly stuffed cat. The piece they did on people who were able to roll their tongues in two places. The dog that jumped up to drink from a soda fountain. The dog that said “sausages”... People reading this who don’t know the show will think I’ve gone mad!

With Esther, you don’t really get to say what you want. Everything, from shot size, position and type of chair, even what she’s going to say, is pre-arranged and un-negotiable, which made me panic a little that I wasn’t going to be able to make her segment fit into the world of the film. But she’s a total pro and it was a delight to be in the presence of someone whose charity work alone would make most people feel entirely inadequate. She’s a legend.

Next up for filming was another Dame, Janet Suzman, who welcomed us into her beautiful house and gave us all a warm, fuzzy feeling inside! You can instantly tell what kind of a person someone is by the way they deal with film crews. Filming can be intrusive. It can be boring and repetitive. And some film crews will really test people’s limits. But ultimately, everyone is trying to make something good, and therefore, putting people at their ease is a really important thing. On both sides.

After Janet, we headed to the Finchley Road to film Bernard Kops, whom I have grown to adore in a very short period of time. I plan to work with him again after this. He’s 92 and still going strong. He has memories of Cable Street and the wartime Bethnal Green tube disaster, where hundreds were killed in a crush caused by a woman tripping on a flight of stairs, after an air raid siren created wide-scale panic.

Bernard was amazing on screen. Both Keith and Andrei immediately placed him at the top of their list of favourite faces. So much of the trick to getting older is maintaining ones own sense of being... and dignity. I appreciate that this doesn’t always happen through choice. But sometimes you get the impression that a person has simply given up. Kops keeps a steeliness, and a sense of style. He wanted to be filmed in his Greek Fisherman’s hat. “This is more “me” than my face” he said.

Next up was the biggie: Our 100 year old, Eva. Actually, though born in 1918, Eva is still 99 for a few months. She’s ferociously independent and still lives on her own. She’s kind, warm, witty and intelligent with a razor-sharp memory. She’d dressed up for the filming, and looked a million dollars.

There was something pretty special about passing the milestone of filming her. I suspect I’ve always thought if we could get our 100-year-old in the can, everything else would somehow slot into place. This is probably due to the amount of people who have seemed utterly incredulous at the idea that there might be a one hundred year-old Jewish person out there! In reality, of course, people are far more likely to know of the existence of a centenarian than they are of a 96 year old.

The day’s shooting ended, up in High Barnet, in the garden of a 17 year old A-level student. The house itself had been utterly gutted, and the garden was full of rubble and chairs piled high. The family were terribly apologetic, but it made for a very quirky shot. I actually like to arrive in a venue and work with what’s there visually, rather than trying to imagine what I want beforehand. If confronted with a building site, then the building site becomes the perfect location for our shot. It’s more truthful somehow.





Monday, 16 July 2018

Filming day four

It’s been a somewhat manic day today which started with us donning kippahs to film at Finsbury Park synagogue. I didn’t realise that this particular shul was the sight of a really hideous anti-Semitic attack just over ten years ago, which involved people breaking into the building, ripping books up, defecating everywhere and drawing Swastikas on the walls. It’s beyond ghastly, really.

Julian and his daughter Maytal are the proud custodians of the building and Julian was the first of our faces in front of the camera today. He has an old-school Jewish East End accent which I find incredibly charming, largely because you rarely get to hear it these days.

We had a hugely diverse selection of people coming through the doors during the morning, including a young Jewish girl who is half Indian and half Jamaican, someone who descends from the ancient Indian Jewish community of Cochin, and a pair of twins, who will represent, I think, 2009. The project is called 100 Faces - but there are actually 101 faces. I figured twins could be said to count as one. I hope this decision doesn’t confuse viewers too much. The twins are quite boisterous and Zionist, so, for many reasons, they could well end up being the most controversial aspect of the film!

We left the shul at just before 1pm, having filmed seven faces. I was very pleased with the shots we got. Finsbury Park shul has a fabulous atmosphere, but it’s not one of the show-offy synagogues, like New West End, or West London. Filming there meant we had to think a little more out of the box and carefully dress the shots by moving books and various religious objects about in the background.

The next face of the day belonged to the lovely Norman Bright, born in the mid 30s, who is a wonderful character with a great gift for comedy. He fed us Lucozade and tried a few jokes out on us as we set up the shot. He’s about to start running poetry and jazz nights in Stoke Newington and home publishes a monthly satirical newspaper which gets dropped through people’s doors, which I think is called “Born Before Biro.” I hope to have the same amount of energy when I’m in my eighties!

From Norman’s house in the Wild West of Clapton, we headed to the middle class, bohemian oasis of Stoke Newington, where we had lunch before filming two stonking sequences at Rachel’s house. Rachel is the education officer at UK Jewish film and lives in one of loveliest properties I’ve ever seen, with a glorious roof terrace over-looking London. Rachel will appear in the film frantically chopping cucumbers. The other sequence we shot at her house featured a young lass called Maya, whose father is one of the Cohen tribe and mother is a wonderful Malaysian lady, who converted from Catholicism. We’re certainly featuring Jewish people from a wide variety of backgrounds in our film.

Rachel recommended a bar on Church Street where they sell a wide variety of great beer, which appealed to Keith and Andrei on a hot afternoon. We found a lovely table in the yard outside but were a little disappointed to discover that the place only had one beer on draft. It was, nevertheless, a lovely place to sit whilst the world watched the World Cup final. As we left, we realised the beer place was actually next door!

We jumped back into the car and headed to Islington to meet Lubavitch Rabbi, Mendy Korer. We filmed him out on his balcony and he dusted off his line at top speed. He is obviously a man who is highly used to media work.

The last filming of the day took place back in Clapton with the deeply charming, quirky comedian, Penelope Solomon, who was our second singer of the day. Penelope likens being Jewish to sitting in a warm bath which needs to continually be topped up with lovey hot water. It’s an analogy which works rather beautifully.

The journey home took us back to Finsbury Park shul where Andrei had left a speaker. Fortunately Maytal was on hand to let us back in. She really has been an absolute brick throughout this process. When I was a child, someone called me a brick and I cried all day because I didn’t know it was a good thing. So Maytal, if you’re reading this, and don’t know what a brick is... Think Mensch and you won’t go far wrong!

38 Faces down. 62 to go...