Monday, 30 July 2018


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


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


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...

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Truck Fump

Another day of filming starts today. We’re avoiding filming on Fridays and Saturdays because I wouldn’t want any of our faces to feel uncomfortable about being asked to film on Shabbat. As it stands, we have a full house, but for someone born in 1924. I have leads in this regard, but I’ll confess to being slightly concerned.

Of course, the issue is that, the further into the filming we get, the more pressure we end up under if people pull out, so the last day (next Sunday) could well end up like some sort of fight to the death!

I was grateful to have a day away from filming on Friday because it gave me a chance to go into the office and sort out a load of admin. We have five days of filming on the trot now, so there were a lot of people to email and a lot of venues to double-confirm. As it strands, everything is in order. It needs to be because things are bound to go wrong!

I met up with Fiona after work on Friday and we went to the anti-Trump demonstration. Fiona had marched, but I hadn’t made it in time, so went to the rally in Trafalgar Square instead. I didn’t stay long. I just wanted to stand up and be counted really. It was only a gesture, because the man himself was in Windsor so couldn’t hear the booing and jeering. That’s why I was so grateful to the people in Scotland who thwarted his game of golf yesterday with catcalls and out of tune bagpipes.

The rally was incredibly good-natured with some wonderfully inventive placards being waved. I was also pleased to see it hadn’t become a gathering for anyone with radical beef about any old issue. I saw a few Palestinian flags but people were mostly sticking to the brief of letting America know why we don’t want him in this country. A psychopath, so wholly lacking in compassion for the under dog is not welcome here. With any luck, his draconian policies on immigration will prevent him from reentering the States!

I’m sure Theresa May had a ball entertaining him. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for her, but to quote the old man sitting at the bus stop in Finsbury Park just now: “that prime minster of ours. She’s an arsehole.”

Friday, 13 July 2018

Day three of filming

Yesterday started in a Travelodge, somewhere near Wakefield. Despite being on the M1 and entirely lacking in breakfast facilities (other than the dreaded “breakfast box”) the place itself was a rather nice example of an English motel. My room was large. It had a lovely deep bath in it. We got in so late, however, that I didn’t get to take advantage of it. There’s nothing better after a shoot than being able to relax with a hot bath and a bit of TV.

From Wakefield, we travelled to Northern Leeds, where we had breakfast outside a little cafe before heading off to film our 23rd face, the youngstest in the film, a one-year-old lad called Harry. It’s rather surreal to think that he might show our film to his great grandchildren in 90 years time. Here’s a lad with his whole life ahead of him. What will he witness? Will humanity get its act together or will a cataclysmic event occur, brought about by our recidivist inability to learn?

From Leeds, we drove to Salford to a hugely Jewish district which, I was surprised to discover, was jam-packed with Charedi people. Hats. Ringlets. Peddle pushers. The works. Obviously, we’re all very used to seeing members of this particular community in Stamford Hill, Brooklyn and, of course, Israel, but there was something about the sight of them in a leafy Northern City suburb which rather surprised and delighted me.

It was here that we filmed a wonderful woman called Rochelle who was perhaps even more of a contradiction than the neighbourhood she lives in. Rochelle is a plain-talking, highly-witty Scouse woman, who also wears a sheitel and is ultra-orthodox enough not to shake a man’s hand on meeting him. What’s wonderful about her is that she’s really open and happy to discuss anything. You also get the impression that she wouldn’t make anyone feel unconformable if they held out a hand. I assume she’d either take it, or explain with a joke why she hadn’t. I took to her enormously. She’d asked her rabbi what she should say about being Jewish and simply been told, “just speak from your heart.”

We also filmed Rochelle’s two-year-old granddaughter, Amelia, who was suitably charming, if not a touch flibbertigibbet. Getting her to stay still was a little like trying to herd butterflies!

We drove across to the fancy suburbs of Western Manchester for the second half of the day, and faces twenty-five to thirty, which included an Austrian Kinder-Transportee/former dentist who has dedicated his retirement to reminding the Jewish community what an important role the Quakers played in saving Jewish lives during World War Two, and Joy Wolf, an indomitable charity campaigner who encourages young people to find their voices.

The day ended in Cheadle, with the deeply charming Debbie Hilton, a very close friend of Nathan’s from drama school. The plan had been to film her and both of her children, but her son had a melt down and that was the end of his involvement in the film. I’ve said all the way along on that I only want people involved who are keen to take part. I’m not interested in anyone feeling scared, angry or like they’re doing me a favour by taking part. Someone else will step in, and enjoy doing so.

Debbie sang beautifully and looked utterly luminous on screen. She confessed herself that her voice has got a little rusty of late, but you could tell what a quality instrument lies just beneath the surface. I hope she dusts it off and starts loving that side of her life again. It doesn’t matter where you sing. The important thing is that you SING. As loudly, as often and with as much joy as you can muster.

The journey home seemed to last forever. I didn’t try to rush. Andrei is a great companion and I decided to bore him silly by playing him the Brass and the Em albums, which he seemed to enjoy.
I came home to discover that one of my faces, an old gent called Eric, whom we were meant to be filming on Tuesday, has died. I only met him once. He was quiet, but charming and he had a lovely singing voice which I was excited about featuring in the film. We knew he was poorly, so we’d already started looking for a replacement, which makes me feel slightly less mercenary about replacing him. But it’s very sad. I guess if it does nothing else, making a film about the process of ageing is going to make you acutely aware of your own mortality, and your position almost half the way along the timeline...

Shooting day two

Two more days of filming back-to-back and I’ve woken up this morning feeling like I entered a black hole during the night. I forget how exhausting filming can be. Actually, the older I get, the more I forget (or suddenly learn) how exhausting everything can be! I am very grateful to the two days off we now have. There is, of course, a bewildering amount of admin for me to do, but I’m hoping that Keith and Andrei (camera and sound) will get to relax and sleep and look back on a very successful start to our odyssey.

I couldn’t have asked for a better team around me. Both are incredibly laid back yet highly enthusiastic about what we’re doing. They’re truly investing in the project. Banter, as we travel about, is great. We laugh a lot. Keith and I say terribly inappropriate things and Andrei hasn’t yet tried to escape from a moving car! The nature of the people we’re filming - Holocaust survivors, Kinder Transportees, those whose lives were saved by the Quakers during the Second World War - means that our discussions can also get quite deep. Andrei is Romanian and I have become quite fascinated with his stories about the 1989 Revolution. All of this has made me realise quite how shrill, yet hollow, some of the yelling on social media has been of late. Sometimes I think it’s important to recognise how lucky we are to be living in 2018, in the UK, before telling the world what terrible victims we all are. We might do well by taking a deep breath and working out what the word victim actually means.

Anyway, two days ago, filming started at 10am, at the Holocaust survivors’ centre, where we met four wonderful individuals who have seen, first hand, the reason why it’s vital that people like Trump and Putin are kept in check, and furthermore why the UK and the US’s backward step into self-protectionism is so worrying. Brexit has played its part in destabilising the world, be under no illusion about that. But at least, I suppose, we get to measure our apples in pounds and shillings. Philip, Ivor, Miriam and Manfred are all wonderful characters whose faces will light up the film. Miriam had a heart attack just over two weeks ago and yet she breezed in, looking fabulously glamorous, keen to get on with life. That’s the spirit of a survivor.

Faces 16 and 17 were filmed at one of Jewish Care’s centres up in Hendon. Jewish Care have been wonderful help for us during this project. Lisa Wimborne, who works for the organisation, is one of the first people I contact when one of my faces drops out. She has saved the day on more than one occasion.

We filmed the lovely Matthew, a guy with a deeply infectious smile, who is confined to a wheelchair, and a five-year-old lass called Daniella, who calls everyone dude! 

Lunch was in a kosher bakery, which meant I got to shovel shedloads of vegetarian baked goods into my pie hole - Barekas with cheese, barekas with mushroom, vegetarian sausage rolls... I was utterly spoilt for choice, but must learn how to spell bareka.

The next five faces were filmed in the staggering surroundings of West London shul, which has to be one of the finest synagogues in London. Rabbi David was wonderfully welcoming. He is understandably, deeply proud of the building, and the more I hear about what goes on inside, from LGBT weddings to World AIDS day services, the more I feel in awe.

Rabbi David sings in the film, as does a glorious cabaret performer called Melinda Hughes, who kindly filled in for a last-minute drop out and, in the process, made herself one of the leading lights of the film! At the same location we also filmed suave actor, Henry Goodman, Brass family member, Zak Easthop (who plays flugelhorn in the film) and Tahlia Kaye, an Indian convert to Liberal Judaism.

As we exited the shul, London was gearing itself up for the World Cup Semi-Final. We could hear groups of people singing “football’s coming home” and there was a tangible sense of excitement in the air.

The M1 was empty as we drove north. By the time we’d arrived in Northampton, the match had started and England were a goal up. We were in my home town to film our oldest face so far: 97 year-old Sidney Teckman. I want to be like Sidney at the age of 97. Open. Honest. Dignified. Witty. Sharp. Proudly wearing his RAF badge.

We were there to talk to him about the Battle of Cable Street, which, in my view, is the single most important event in British Jewish history. We did a little interview with him about his memories. Not really for anything other than preserving his testimony. People don’t really know about Cable Street. Young Jewish people don’t even know about what happened on that day in 1936. And they should. And we should be very grateful to those like Sidney and Bernard Kops, who stood up to be counted when they were given the chance. Bravo Sidney Teckman. We owe our liberty to you.

It was as we left Sidney’s house to start a journey to Leeds that Keith the cameraman revealed that bites on his legs which he’d got whilst filming the fires on Saddleworth Moor, had got infected. His leg had swollen up and he was beginning to worry. So the evening ended in A and E in Barnsley Hospital, surrounded by pissed-up football fans nursing injuries inflicted on themselves after our disappointing exit from the World Cup, which we caught at Leicester Services.

It was, Keith informed me, exactly eight years to the day that we’d wrapped filming on A Symphony for Yorkshire. Where does the time go, please?

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The first day of shooting

Yesterday was gruelling, uplifting, hectic, moving, hysterical and occasionally, even restful.

At 10am, a small film crew arrived at Maureen Lipman’s house to film the first of our 100 Faces. She was a delight. An absolute charmer. Graceful. Warm. She’d written a wonderful mini-poem for her 7-second slot in the film, and delivered it, perfectly, in one take. She asked to have a quick look at what we’d filmed and when we played it back in the monitor, she said, “well, I think that’s a lovely shot... of my begonia!” She was right! We altered the shot and did another take!

The rest of the day sailed past in a whirl. I can’t help but think we’ve entered an episode of Challenge Anneka where the stakes see incredibly high and, instead of the ludicrous fake jeopardy you get with modern-day documentaries, we’ve got the toe-twitching, face-gnawing real deal! Already this week I’ve lost 3 of my faces. One went into hospital. One poor lass lost her uncle. One bloke told me he couldn’t be certain that he wasn’t going to be “recouperating”  on the filming day, so wasn’t prepared to commit to it, having committed to it. (Seriously!) We offered him another filming date (today) and, last night, he sent an email to say that “for personal reasons” he can’t now do that.

What was joyous about yesterday is that everyone we expected to film either turned up, or was in when we turned up, and, despite being already half an hour behind schedule before lunch, we caught up and finished the day ahead of time with a happy crew who’d even managed to sit down in a cafe for lunch.

Our second face was the incomparable “frum” comedian, Ashley Blaker, who schlepped down to Highgate to film his sequence in front of my mantelpiece. His response to the question “what does being Jewish mean to you?” was suitably witty and brilliantly delivered.

Faces three and four were in Highgate and Muswell Hill respectively. One sat on the balcony of his house and answered his question in Yiddish. The other’s response was political and delivered in front of a massive book case. He faltered a few times, 28 times to be exact, but we got there in the end. He has a wonderful face.

Next up was 80s club host and great friend, Philip Sallon and his sister Ruth. We filmed Ruth in her studio. She’d just finished work on a statue which she felt entirely summed up what she was saying, so we filmed them together! 

Philip was, as expected, utterly insane. To warm up for his six second cameo, he sang a song and made about ninety quick-witted quips. He opted to be filmed half naked wearing only a loin cloth with a Star of David attached!

Probably the most striking clash of worlds came in the form of Philip meeting the wonderfully dignified Steven, a Holocaust survivor and our seventh face, who, I’m quite sure had never encountered anyone like Philip before. Philip told Steven what to wear and told him to change what he was planning to say which made Steven incredibly tense. It came from the right place and because we weren’t running behind, it stayed amusing. I think it was only when Steven realised he could tell Philip to shut up that he found him anything other than terrifying!

Ruth gave us tea and biscuits before we headed off to Alexandra Palace for faces eight, nine, ten and eleven: a quirky, brilliant-minded school boy, a stunningly beautiful actress called Gabriella, Brass family member, and wonderful singer, Jack Reitman and the chairman of UK Jewish film, whose response to the question was particularly moving.

And that was that. Laura from Ally Pally looked after us incredibly well. I genuinely feel that our getting married there has made us part of the story of the building some how. When I first moved to London, I lived in a horrifying bedsit which had an incredible view up the hill to the palace. Back then I decided it was the most beautiful building in London. It’s certainly played a large part in my life.

I came home and had a bath because I couldn’t actually do anything else!

Monday, 9 July 2018

That flag

The UK seems almost as hot as Israel at the moment. I went down to Worthing in shorts and a T-shirt yesterday and still felt hot. Sadly, I wasn’t there to jump about on the beach in a carefree and jolly manner. Instead, I went down to work on the music for 100 Faces with our music producer, Paul. The task was to identify the best takes from the session with the Camerata in readiness for filming.

There comes a point at which being the director, composer and producer of a film collides - and that point has just arrived. Usually, I’ve been able to work on the constituent elements separately, or I’ve had a producer who’s been working full time with me to take care of the avalanche of ludicrous questions you get asked in the run up to a shoot like this, or take responsibility for all of those really important things like booking hotels for cameramen and sorting insurance, which get temporarily tossed aside when you’re trying to record an Israeli orchestra or create a shot list.

It, of course, entirely goes without saying that the train down to Worthing was badly delayed. We stopped in Littlehampton for an age. Quite why the train went to Worthing via Littlehampton and not Brighton, I’ve no idea, but there was talk of planned engineering at Three Bridges - none of which was mentioned on my Trainline App, which told me I could expect to arrive in Worthing half an hour before I actually did.

I don’t know how Brighton people deal with the dreadful Southern Rail service. Our woefully poorly transport infrastructure makes the UK begin to resemble a developing country. On the way back yesterday, the train was so overcrowded that I ended up sitting on the floor between the loo and the concertinered rubbery bit where the train carriages join. By the time I’d emerged at Victoria my back had gone into spasms. I’m surprised we weren’t given the option of sitting on the roof of the train!

Thank God for them England football lads, eh? They’re gonna show the rest of the world that we mean business. They’re gonna put the great in Great Britain again. Or England. Whatever. Who gives a shit? It’s all the same isn’t it?

I walked past a house in Worthing utterly bedecked in England flags and immediately felt uncomfortable. I wonder if there are citizens in any other country in the world who feel their own flag symbolises something other than pride in their homeland? I’m okay with the Union Jack, which, for me, represents unity. When I’m on my travels around the world, and I see a Union Jack, I’ll often feel a twinge of belonging. The England flag, on the other hand, feels like nothing but a flapping advert for racism, prejudice, and separation. I’d be interested to know if I’m alone in feeling this.

I genuinely envy the Welsh and the Scots, who, it seems, can wave their own flags with pride and great joy without feeling like there are sinister overtones in doing so.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

A trip to the Kibbutz

Our last day in Jerusalem started with a lovely vegetarian buffet breakfast. People are much safer serving vegetarian food in Israel, not just because of the manifold kosher and halal rules regarding meat being served with dairy, but also because anything made from a pig is fairly disastrous for Muslims and Jewish people alike. The mainstay of the UK fried breakfast is, of course, pig, so Israeli breakfasts have to go down a different route.

This morning’s offerings included a delicious potato and mushroom gratin and filo pastry parcels filled with something which tasted like feta. Heaven.

Our new friend, Asaf, the archaeologist we met last night, came to spend our last two hours with us, and very kindly offered to drive us to the airport, in the process saving us £100 in a private taxi, which is the ONLY method of transport available on a Saturday in Jerusalem! The ultra orthodox lobby is incredibly powerful in the city, and tends to rule the roost when it comes to making decisions with any sort of religious baring. If they decide that no one is to travel on Shabbat, then no one travels, whether they’re religious or not.

On route to the airport, Asaf took us into the mountains above Jerusalem to show us a number of Kibbutz and a wonderful vantage point with views across the whole of Israel. From the top of a somewhat peculiar, water-tower-esque, brutalist concrete viewing platform, you could very clearly see Israel’s border as it had been when the state was established in 1948. In order to protect the new country from Palestinian sniper attacks, the Israelis planted a wood of pine trees all the way along the edge of the land they’d been granted. These trees are now beautiful and fully mature, and they cut a very handsome swathe across the undulating yet often baron landscape.

Asaf is a deeply fascinating bloke. He could talk about history and ancient archeology until the cows come home. Wind him up, press play, and he’ll answer every question you have, in a deeply engaging manner. He is currently excavating King Herod’s Palace, near the Dead Sea, south east of Bethlehem. I learned more about the history of Israel in a few hours than I possibly have in the rest of my life.

It was also rather good to talk to him about politics. He’s a self-confessed left wing socialist, who struggles with the fact that most of the greatest archeological digs are in the West Bank. That said, his work in the West Bank means he spends a great deal of his time with Palestinians and Bedouin folk, and says that ordinary people on both sides are very open to conversation and compromise. It’s the leaders who are so much more black and white. He is conflicted about the presence of the wall, however, pointing out that, although it’s deeply incendiary, it has saved countless lives. His childhood was spent hearing countless chilling accounts of bus bombs and suicide attacks. No one in Israel is untouched by terrorism. And yet, since the wall went up, these attacks have largely stopped.

The flight back was with EasyJet, who’d entirely run out of vegetarian food. They were offering people - ON A FLIGHT FROM ISRAEL - either bacon or ham sandwiches! It’s this logic-defying (and culturally-insensitive) behaviour which tells you you’re flying budget! When I complained, the cabin lass told me that a veggie running out of vegetarian food was no different from a meat eater being told they’d run out of meat. “No” I said, incensed, “if a meat eater runs out of meat, he or she can still chow down on the veggie food.” The point about veggie food is that it’s an option for everyone (except, sometimes, vegans.)

As an outsider, I witness a lot of people fetishising meat. People seem to feel they have to offer consumers the choice of every sort of meat available and, to me, this feels rather distasteful. Meat comes at a high price and, in my view, it’s morally outrageous to waste it, or to charge too little for it.

As a non-drinker, I also see how the world has a tendency to fetishise alcohol. People start behaving so strangely and belligerently when they have the excuse of alcohol. It’s a little strange to me that some people can’t seem to have fun unless there’s a glass of something in their hand. They guilt trip others into drinking “just one more” and there seems to be a sort of machismo attached to being able to handle your drink. Many drinkers feel deeply self-conscious when there’s a non-drinker in their midst and try to claim that the evening isn’t going to be as fun because someone’s not drinking. Obviously, I’m not knocking anyone who likes a glass of wine of an evening, or a whiskey after dinner. But the older I get, the more weird and boring I think people get when they’ve had too much to drink. In vino veritas.

I was surrounded by children on the flight. The child behind me shat itself two hours in, and the stench of eggy shit wafted around my head. The mother had forgotten to bring nappies with her, which was absolutely bizarre. Even more bizarre was her refusal to accept the cabin crew’a offer to ask the other families on the flight if they had a spare one.

The little girl next to me decided to film the window of the plane (with me in the shot) for the whole taxiing and take off. As a fairly bad flier, I found the behaviour deeply unacceptable. I don’t need to feel self-conscious AND traumatised! I was even more horrified that the mother didn’t step in and tell her to stop.

We flew into Luton airport, which is an embarrassment, frankly. I feel ashamed when I think of anyone visiting this country and seeing that as their first impression. There’s a big sign which says welcome in many languages. The Hebrew is backwards. The whole airport is under tarpaulin for never-ending building work. They charge you to take the shuttle to the airport. The airport escalators are broken. The train station looks down-at-heel...

I could go on... but whinging would ruin my wonderful holiday.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Dead Sea

I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to come down to a buffet breakfast in a hotel and discover that everything is vegetarian. Well, alright, there was a bit of fish in one corner, but apart from that, everything was edible.

The plan today was to visit the Dead Sea, and we decided to go there by public transport, which turned out to be a rather silly idea. We ended up in a cab heading to the bus station with a somewhat unscrupulous driver, who did everything in his devious little power to make sure we missed our bus so that he could charge us 600 shekels to take us there direct. He used supreme stalling tactics: took us the longest route to the bus station, dropped us by a cash point which didn’t exist, and then, finally, when he’d got his way, he did everything he could to get more money out of us. It was really rather unpleasant, but at least I got to swim in the Dead Sea. I was last there in 1998, so it was a 20-year ambition to return.

The journey took us out of Jerusalem via the West Bank, which is always a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Our driver pointed out several of the Jewish settlements to us, and offered to take us to Jericho or Bethlehem (for extra money.) Of course, what people forget, in their rush to condemn Jewish people for wanting to live in the desert, is that it’s within the contested West Bank where many of the ancient and hugely important Biblical sites are... both Christian and Jewish.

The signposts along the motorway are a veritable lexicon of Biblical sites, including the spot where Lazarus was raised from the dead and the place where something happened with a Good Samaritan. I should imagine that fella Jesus has something to do with whatever that particular story is all about.

The Judean Desert is a bleak place. Pinkish, yellow and cream-coloured rocks have been sculpted into waves by the wind over thousands of years. The sky which hovers over the top of the rocks is a powder blue. Electricity pylons stretch far into the distance. The occasional settlement clings to a hilltop, mostly stark concrete buildings with small windows to stave off the deadly sun.

This is the land of the Bedouin, which our taxi driver took great delight in telling us were also being threatened by the Israeli government. The Bedouin don’t live in tents, which the romantic in me somehow expected. They live in semi-permanent corrugated tin shacks, surrounded by emaciated donkeys and horses. A woman with a flowing headscarf was using a hose to clean something.

The nearer the sea you get, the more below sea level you end up. The taxi driver told us that it’s the lowest point on earth. For some reason I thought that was Death Valley, but that might be the hottest place! What’s certainly the case is that you go from Jerusalem, which is high in the mountains, and drop many many feet down to the Dead Sea, which is 400 meters below sea level. Rather jolly plaques made from porcelain tiles tell you when you get to 100 below. 200 below. 300 below...

There are also a number of date farms close to the sea which are a striking sight in the middle of the desert. Date palms are rather tall, impressive trees. This time of the year they also have little bags hanging from their branches, I assume to catch the dates when they become ripe and fall.

Curious stalls line the sides of the road. Many sell pots and garden equipment. There’s a fashion in those parts for ceramic toadstools. Who’d have thought? There were also many camels by the side of the road. They don’t move very much and I thought the first ones I saw were made of fibre glass. I jokingly said this to Michael, but our keen-eared taxi driver was straight on it: “you want ride on camel? I organise ride on camel. Not expensive...” I hate it when I’m viewed as a breathing pot of money. Frankly, I’d feel very lucky if I could command 600 shekels a day. That’s about £120!

As we neared our beach on the Dead Sea, we passed through a ruined Jordanian army camp. The light concrete buildings are now just shells, but have become the most amazing canvasses for graffiti.

The beach we ended up at was the one our driver assured us was the best. Actually, it turned out simply to be the closest to Jerusalem. I didn’t mind. It was nice enough and probably a lot nicer than the one I went to in 1998, which I seem to recall being very muddy.

There’s a complex of buildings at the top of the cliff, all designed to get as much money out of tourists as possible. Shops selling minerals and mud harvested from the sea. Little stalls selling slushies at £5 a pop. Wildly expensive lockers for your valuables. Netta, this year’s Eurovision winner, was playing on a loop.

The beach itself was charming, and relatively empty (it being mid day in the height of summer.) I’m told you can fry eggs on the rocks there. I certainly burned the soles of my feet whilst walking across the sand. 

I’m painting all of this to be like some kind of Dantesque vision of hell, but genuinely, the moment you enter that water, something magical happens. You literally cannot do anything but float. It’s not one of those situations where you have to skull a bit to keep afloat. The water tips you onto your back, and takes your feet out from under you. It is impossible to swim. It’s very hard to roll onto your front. You literally lie on your back and float into oblivion. It would be an amazing way to meditate. Lie flat and your ears go under water to the extent that all you can hear is the odd glug of water and the sound of your heartbeat. It is one of those things which everyone needs to experience.

Word of advice, however; don’t get it in your eyes because it’ll sting like hell! And, if you have any little cuts and abrasions on your feet or legs, the highly salty water will sure as anything make you aware of them! Periodically you’d see someone being led by a friend over to the shower, eyes clamped shut in pain, “ooh, another casualty” someone would say.

The water feels like oil. Like brine. I guess it is a form of brine. The fun thing to do is to cover yourself from head to toe in mud. It’s meant to be very good for you. And my forehead has felt like a baby’s bottom all day as a result!

But we couldn’t stay long at the beach. It was too hot. We also had a taxi driver who told us it didn’t matter how long we stayed, but secretly we knew however long we stayed would be too long, and therefore potentially cost us more. We were right. We stayed on the beach for an hour and a quarter. He accused us of staying for two hours and wanted more money. He didn’t get it. By the time he dropped us back in Jerusalem we’d developed a deep hatred of the man.

We were stopped at a check-point on the way back into Israel, and that felt a little weird. We also saw the infamous wall, which, in the flesh, is possibly even more foreboding. The problem, of course, is that, though terribly divisive, it’s also kept Israeli’s a lot safer from terrorist attacks.

After lunch, I sat and watched hammy actors rehearsing in the park behind King David’s hotel. I wasn’t sure why they were rehearsing there. It smacked of some sort of American summer school. They were performing Shakespeare with physical theatre techniques. One man was pretending to be a lizard. Every time I moved benches, they followed. Every time I looked at them, I blushed.

We went back into the Old City in the afternoon. Fridays in Jerusalem are very quiet. Despite it not officially being sabbath until dusk, most places shut at lunch time - if indeed they’ve opened at all. The place is so frum that we may even struggle to get back to the airport tomorrow for our flight.

The Old City, as usual, was hugely chaotic. Lads collecting plastic bottles for recycling wander through the streets. Many of the stores have little singing birds in cages hanging from the ceilings. I’m told the birds in these cages sing because they’re so distressed.

We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was hanged and buried and all that stuff. It’s not a story I find personally affecting, but Abbie asked me to say hello to Jesus for her, and also there’s something fairly intoxicating about the religious fervour you get in that place. Regardless of whether you believe the old women are rubbing perfumes into the stone which covered Jesus’ tomb, what IS true is that they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years on the same piece of marble. And that, in itself, is remarkable.

We exited the old town at Damascus Gate, which is very firmly in Palestinian East Jerusalem. The call to prayer was happening and different pitched voices were echoing across the city. It was all rather eerie.

We found ourselves back in the Old City at dusk because we wanted to see the Shabbat service at the Western Wall. As we walked towards the Jewish quarter we found ourselves in a huge crocodile of people dressed in their finest, all heading to the same place. The atmosphere was utterly electric. There were many thousands there, most of whom were singing excitedly and jumping up and down in huge circles like only Jewish people seem to do.

We didn’t stay for long. There’s something about large numbers of people congregating in small places which makes me deeply uncomfortable. It only takes one person to get into a panic before everyone starts rushing about like headless chickens and there’s some sort of catastrophe.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped in a park and watched an amazing fountain. It was one of those fountains which keeps changing its settings so that children can run in and out of jets of water of different heights. It’s the best one of its sort I’ve ever seen and the kids were having an amazing time - despite it being dark. Children don’t go to bed when it’s dark here. You get them up at all times, playing in floodlit parks. It’s rather charming.

This evening we went to Jerusalem’s only gay bar, Videopub, where we met a charming archaeologist who told us all about the Dead Sea Scrolls, although, actually, he was obsessed with Boudicca which I rather liked.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Jerusalem the Gold

We had breakfast in a little cafe in Terence Aviv this morning. We had chocolate croissants and the sweetest, tangiest, most freshly squeezed orange that I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. 

We hopped on the bus to Jerusalem at about 10am. It’s always a bit of a motley crew who end up on the bus from Terence Aviv to Jerusalem: a mixture of old blokes in homburgs, funny middle-aged Americans in awful baseball caps and young Israelis in army uniforms. There were a lot of ultra orthodox women travelling as well. You can spot them a mile off from their silhouettes. They wear flat-heeled shoes and sack-like dresses which they prettify with little Laura Ashley-style lacy collars, and fascinators or bows pinned into their sheitals. The end result looks somewhat childish.

We reached Jerusalem and checked into the YMCA where we’re staying. When you think about YMCAs, you think about puritanical dormitories and singing red Indians, but, in Jerusalem, it’s a glorious Art Deco hotel with a huge tower which guests are allowed to climb for stunning sunset views across the city.
We walked into the old city in the searing afternoon heat. The humidity of Tel Aviv has now been replaced by a dry, dry heat; the sort of heat which can be quite shocking because it makes you wonder if you’re being baked alive.

The old city was its usual chaotic self with scores of Arabs in the Christian quarter hustling their wares. If I had a sense of smell, I’d be able to talk about the heady blend of spices, rotting meats and incense, but because I don’t, I’ll have to talk about the riot of visuals I encountered. Silk scarves and tallitot hang from the ceilings and crucifixes are tossed shambolically onto wooden tables with Magen Davids and menorahs. Catch the eye of a shop keeper and you’re instantly offered some sort of deal.

The Jewish quarter is filled with beggars who will remind you, quite aggressively, of your duty to give to charity. A bald-headed woman wearing a head scarf was busking on an accordion. She was singing along in a voice which sounded like she’d swallowed sandpaper. The noise of her singing was suddenly upstaged by the microtonal wails of the Muslim call to prayer echoing from the Arab quarter.

The entire old city is a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. We went shopping for a tallit. We obviously have to wear them whilst singing at shul and I’ve got quite bored of our synagogue-issued prayer shawls, which are a complete lottery. There’s one which sometimes gets put out for us to wear which the choir call the “dead man’s shroud” on account of it looking a little like a middle-aged woman’s stole from a night out in the 1960s dipped in death and then resurrected. The tallitot in the old city are all hand-woven and incredibly expensive, however. I absolutely fell in love with one which costed about £300! So we hastily took ourselves away from the tourist areas and headed to where the frums live and work.

We went to a district called Mea Shearim, which is full of winding little roads, crammed with wonderful bakeries, kosher grocery stores, clothing shops and bric-a-brac places. It is another world, filled with wonderful faces, and ultra orthodox Jewish people from all kinds of different sects, all of whom wear slightly different uniforms. Some wear black peddle pushers and waistcoats, others wear furry hats which are a cross between a homburg and a boater, some dress in stripy, grey over coats. The young lads wear their suit jackets over their shoulders like the Pink Ladies in Grease!

The walls of the area are lined with austere-looking black and white posters: a mix of death notices, public shamings and reminders of ones duty to live a modest and God-fearing life.

The guys that sold us our tallitot were rakish, witty and very naughty despite being dressed in Charedi garb. The first Tallit I spotted was fringed with a six-coloured rainbow. The concept of the pride flag was obviously lost on them and they described it merely as “multi-coloured.” It felt too much of a statement - even for me - so I opted instead for one fringed in blues and purples.

This evening we went to Emek Refaim, a somewhat trendy part of town where slightly more bohemian Jerusalemites come to eat and promenade. We sat outside a pizza restaurant, people watching. The most curious sight was almost certainly the lad wearing full football kit with a tallit underneath his football shirt and a kippah on his head. The pizza was delicious but I have never been served such a large one! It’s rare for me to walk away from any food, but that one had me beat!

We’ve walked about ten miles today. My feet feel like stumps.