Thursday, 30 August 2018

A nocturnal visitor

I have not been sleeping at all well recently, but last night, after watching Bake Off, I was in bed by 12.30, and, asleep soon after. 

What I wasn’t expecting was to be awoken in the night by the sound of tapping. Initially, I thought it was the open bedroom window rattling in the breeze, but I immediately established that it was a calm night and that the noises were coming from the other side of the room.

I lay awake, for some time, trying to work out whether I would be able to hear our next door neighbours that clearly, if, in the middle of the night, they started rattling about in close proximity to our common wall.

But the sound got louder - and more scratchy - and then it was definitely in the room, just behind my cello, which sits in the corner, in front of the wardrobe.

I got up, switched the light on, waited for a moment, and then saw the thing I was dreading the most: a grey female rat scuttling, at high speed, along the skirting board. Now, obviously, I am a great lover of rats, but even I draw the line at sharing a bedroom with a wild one. There was no way I was going to be able to get back to sleep again - particularly as she was now behind the piano, which meant every movement she made was amplified by the instrument’s inbuilt mechanisms. Wildly depressing.

So, I went into the sitting room and slept, very uncomfortably, folded up on the sofa like a broken accordion...

This morning, as I was eating breakfast, hoping the rat had become bored of my bedroom and gone back to wherever she’d come from, she wandered in, bold as brass, and stood staring up at me, for long enough for me to ascertain that she was indeed a pretty rat, definitely on the grey spectrum, rather than a more sinister black or brown, and not dissimilar to some of the rats that we used to keep as pets. “You shouldn’t be here!” I shouted, thinking, as I did so, what ludicrous things we tend to say when we’re stressed. As I stood up, she bolted, back into the bedroom, and behind the piano. 

And then it was time for me to leave the house to visit Bernard Kops...

What with the water pouring through the sitting room roof again, the damp walls and the broken draws and cupboards in the kitchen, sometimes I just want to close a door on my flat and run away as fast as I can. Being poor just isn’t fun any more!

A few days of summer

It’s back to the grind stone today after a pair of highly relaxing days. The grindstone seems to involve getting the car MOT’d and going into UK Jewish Film to officially deliver 100 Faces. Of course these things are always much more stressful than they ought to be. I’ve shelled out money for a device to copy all the various formatted films onto, but, despite clearly saying on the packet it’s large enough, every time I try to transfer materiel onto it, I’m told there’s not enough space. It is deeply frustrating. I am somewhat resigned to the fact that part of my mission in life is to make peace with the fact that I am simultaneously addicted to technology, yet destined to always be its slave rather than it, mine.

I had two away days on Monday and Tuesday after a very wonderful Saturday where I went walking on Hampstead Heath with Llio and Silvia, and then up to Thaxted for an evening of games with the family, Helen, Sally and Stuart.

It is always a treat to spend time with Llio and her mum, Silvia. They exude warmth, enthusiasm and openness. I took them to the pergola, and then on to Sandy Heath, that little triangle of land which no one tends to visit on account of it being sandwiched between the two roads which cut through Hampstead Heath. Sandy Heath, as the name suggests, is where they used to quarry for sand. It’s also the site of a pair of oak trees which are way over 300 years old and were probably saplings when Pepys was still alive.

There are a series of black ponds in the area which, due to the drought, were both bright green with chick weed and frighteningly low on water. Still, we enjoyed watching the ducks skimming the surface of the ponds, their bills wide open, chowing down on the surface vegetation.

We had tea in Highgate before I toddled off to Thaxted. The games night was being hosted by Sally and Stuart, a delightful couple of my age, who are almost certainly my parents’ closest friends in the village. They adopted two very charming girls about seven years ago and my parents have become their surrogate grandparents. Brother Edward and Sascha were also there. Sach and Helen brought delicious cakes.

We ate amazing food and played board games, including one where you have to guess the years when certain historical events took place. It obviously plays into the hands of those who have a “historical spine” - a rough sense of when certain things happened and how one event in history triggered another. Even with a fairly good sense of these sorts of things, it’s still possible to end up guessing a year which is hundreds of years out!
I drove home, watching a giant full moon in the sky.

Sunday was a wash-out both weather-wise and work-wise. My computer is very much on its last legs. Buttons keep freezing. Its inbuilt mouse stopped functioning. The good folk at the Apple Store were next to useless. I’m in a catch 22 as I can’t not have a computer, even for the 7-9 days it’s going to take to repair, but I equally can’t carry on with a computer which doesn’t function. A new computer will cost £1250. I can’t afford that. Even the Mac-approved “work arounds” - ie a slave keyboard and a tracking mouse pad - would cost £200.

To cut a long, and stressful story short, I’ve got myself a cheap mouse, and I think I can manage for a bit longer. Dull, dull, Mcdull.

On Monday, I went out for the day with Michael. We decided to head up the M40 to Warwickshire for a bit of country air, although I never need an excuse to be in Warwickshire. It was particularly lovely to have a chance to head to Stoneleigh and visit my grandmother’s grave. I was a little irritated when I got there to see that someone had had a tidy-up and removed all the stones I’d carefully placed there to say I’d visited in the past.

We walked up across the hill above Stoneleigh, and looked down at the little houses in the village in a scene somehow reminiscent of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle. Standing up there on the ridge, I often wonder if it would be possible to throw a stone and have it drop down the chimney of one of the houses. Preferably my Grandmother’s old house. It’s still very odd to walk past “High Beams” and realise it no longer belongs to her. It’s a stunningly beautiful house. I miss it greatly.

We walked back down the little tree-lined causeway which snakes up the side of the hill, and went along the river, pleased to note how well the oak tree was doing that we planted in memory of my grandparents. I was also rather pleased to see that they’d planted a community orchard in the water meadow down by the road bridge, next to the old shack where my Grannie used to go for her WI meetings.

We’d had lunch in a rather nice pub opposite Kenilworth Castle, where the staff were utterly charming, and after visiting Stoneleigh, we drove to Leamington for late afternoon tea. Most of the places were shut - it being a bank holiday and all that - but we found a tea shop, just behind the parade, where a family of Chinese people had created the quintessential English experience with a hotch-potch of mis-matched

crockery, chintzy decor and piles of home-baked cakes, scones and pastries. I had a cream tea. Michael had been craving a toasted tea cake with melted butter all day, but I know he was secretly envious of my scone.

Yesterday found us in East Sussex visiting Mezza, Hils and Jago with Sam Becker, whom I picked up in South London on my way down.

The journey down was easy enough. It’s not usually so effortless. There’s no easy journey from Highgate to Lewes. You essentially have three choices: East of London, West of London or through the centre of London, which, in fairness, is the shortest journey in terms of numbers of miles, but absolutely hopeless unless it’s the middle of the night, and even then, with these new 20 mph speed limits, everything takes forever.

We reached Lewes and pottered about the shops for a while, focusing on antiques. Sam was looking for a sewing box. Meriel was looking for a filing cabinet which was wooden rather than metal, but had a lock on it. As a therapist, she is apparently obliged to keep her clients’ records under lock and key.

The basement of one of the antique shops was almost certainly haunted. On walking down the steps, Sam and I were both somewhat knocked back by the heaviness of the atmosphere. My logical head suggests the heeby-jeeby vibes must have been something to do with the dampness in the air down there, but I’ve seldom felt such a curiously soupy air. It was, however, in that very basement where Sam found his sewing box, so perhaps the spirits were guiding us there!

We went back to Hilary’s to drink banana and raspberry smoothies whilst watching 100 Faces. I wanted to play the film to them all and I was very touched and heartened by their responses as they’ve given me a sense that I’ve created a more universally moving film than perhaps I’d initially thought.

It’s funny: the friends of creative types, those who are amongst the first to see our work, carry such a weight of responsibility. A mis-timed, or heavy-handed remark can absolutely destroy the crucial self-belief and confidence an artist needs to offer his work to a wider world.

The day ended in Tide Mills - a wonderful spot on the coast which bears the ruins of an old village and hospital.

We sat on the shingle beach, eating an ad hoc picnic of hummus and tomato sandwiches with chips, as the sun slowly sank in the sky.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Sleepy Hollow

I wasn’t feeling particularly chipper yesterday. I haven’t been sleeping very well: a combination of not having Nathan around, and the fact that we have builders in at the moment, who have a key to our flat. It’s most disconcerting to wake up to the sound of a bunch of men climbing up the ladder into the attic! As Fiona pointed out - who often sleeps up there - it would have been a little more disconcerting for her! 

I had a massage first thing as well, which may well have brought a few toxins to the surface. And then, of course, yesterday was also the day the rains finally came. There was a moment when it felt like some sort of monsoon was sweeping through central London. People were running for their lives! I nestled, for a time, under an awning in China Town, watching umbrellas being turned inside out, whilst great sheets of rain water surged along the tarmac.

I was in town to try to have my laptop fixed. My “genius” at the Apple Store was a charming Armenian girl called Maren. The news wasn’t good. My keyboard is screwed. It can be replaced - for £200 - but even if I had the money right now, I can’t be without a computer for the 5-7 days it will take to be mended as I have a whopping commission on the go in the shape of re-orchestrating Brass for the Mountview performances. So, I went away, hoping I’d be able to muddle through until such time as I can afford the time (and money) needed to remedy the situation. Ho hum. 

I did a lot of darting from location to location to avoid the rain. There’s a curious sense of camaraderie which comes from sheltering from inclement weather in a somewhat bizarre location. At one point I found myself in a doorway with a homeless person, a family of bizarrely tall Japanese tourists and a circus performer wearing nothing but a bunch of sequins and carrying a hoola-hoop!

Tonight was all about watching this year’s NYMT new commission. It was a long time ago that I passed on that particular baton on to Jake and Pippa, but I am always keen to support the other members of our ever-growing, highly-exclusive club.

The show was written by my mate Eamonn O’Dwyer who is a lovely writer. If you can imagine a blend of Sondheim and Vaughan Williams you probably won’t be far off the mark. The show was an atmospheric, brooding, ghostly retelling of the Sleepy Hollow myth, beautifully directed by another friend, Alex Sutton. As we’ve all come to expect from NYMT, the standard of musicianship and performance on stage was exquisite. What NYMT does brilliantly is these epic, large cast pieces where the commitment and energy of the entire cast becomes the star of the show. That said, I have to give mention to two individuals; Jade Oswald, playing a sort of Kate-Bush-esque weird woman of the woods character, whom I expect great things from in the future, and young Sophie Walker, who played double bass in the band. And yes, I am singling out a pit musician. My blog. My rules. People should do it more often in reviews. Bravo Sophie.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

To be a writer

Monday was day two of knitting widowity, and, in a continuation of my plan to see lots of people whilst Nathan achieves world domination, one stitch at a time, I met up with young Josh for a walk, a swim and a picnic on the Heath.

It has become my ambition to visit the men’s pond as often as I can whilst summer is still with us, and I found a pair of Nathan’s trunks which I lent to Josh, so that I could introduce him to the joys of that particular spot. For a Northerner, he didn’t half make a fuss about getting into the cold water, which was actually relatively warm.

He calmed down once he was actually in, and was soon saying how pleased he was to be there. That’s the spirit. I’m not sure he quite knew what to make of the naked sunbathing area, but part of the joy of Hampstead Heath is its anything-goes, somewhat-subversive vibe. Obviously its nocturnal gaybo activities are well-documented, but it also attracts fairly large number of pagans, naked dog walkers and people taking magic mushrooms! People swim in the ponds every day. In the winter, they break the ice and dive in. Soft Southerners? My foot!

After swimming, Josh and I walked across the Heath and had a mini-picnic sitting by the Victorian viaduct near the tree with the hole in it. Herons nest on strange orange floats in the little pond there. A pair of them flew right over our heads, no more than five meters above us. It was a glorious sight. Heaven knows what keeps those giant, gawky creatures in the air. Flying looks like a great deal of effort!

We walked back to the car, talking about everything and anything, but a great deal of the chatter was dedicated to attempting to work out why it is that writers these days are so often expected to work merely for the privilege of having our productions staged. Almost as if the gratitude we inevitably feel is payment enough. One of the reasons I’ve chosen to start directing theatre again is that a director is far far more likely to be paid in this industry than a writer. It seems bizarre, but them’s the facts.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The glorious men’s pond

On Sunday morning, I got up at shite o’clock to drive Nathan and his sister, Sam to Heathrow Airport. The two of them are off on an antipodean adventure, which starts in New Zealand. Nathan is essentially on a knitting tour of the world, teaching and making special guest appearances at craft shops and yarn festivals down under and in San Francisco. He’ll be away for six weeks, which will be amazing for him, but distinctly odd from my perspective. 

I have a local friend, a Lib Dem activist called Matt, who suggested, some weeks ago, that I might like to join him one Sunday morning for a swim at the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath. It’s curious: I think most people would describe me as a proper “Heath Person”, but, apart from a quick dip on my birthday this year at the mixed ponds, it’s been about fifteen years since I last swam there. I don’t really think you can call yourself a Heath Person unless you regularly take full advantage of all of its natural joys.

I think, perhaps, my problem was always the fact that I’ve never been a big fan of gender segregation. If I can’t share an experience with my female friends, it seems somehow less appealing. The unfortunate fact is that the Mixed Ponds is by far the least pleasant of the three natural swimming ponds. It’s also much more policed as a result of children and women being there. Woe-betide anyone trying to take a photograph there, for example...

It’s strange, one of the major societal shifts I’ve noticed in the last thirty years is the way that children are dealt with. When I was a lad, there were places children just weren’t allowed to visit (including all pubs) because they were considered inappropriate for young people. These days, the emphasis is on all of us to modify our behaviour IN CASE children are present. Hence a teacher, taking a group of school children for a wildlife walk on the Heath a year ago, feeling she had the right to come up to me, whilst I was having my photo taken as part of a professional shoot, to say “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask why you’re taking photographs.” “Because I’m in a public place, you silly woman, and it’s my absolute right to take photographs of whatever I chose to take photographs of - and I’m afraid that includes the children you’ve brought into this public space, who, by the way, are wrecking my photos, so could you take the little shits away?”

Anyway, this, and some of the ghastly shrill noises on the fringes of the #MeToo movement, have steadily started to make me realise that it’s sometimes rather nice to be in the company of just men. For a man who has routinely surrounded himself with women, this is a fairly seismic realisation, but as I’m so often told, everything which is going on at the moment is a pendulum which needs to swing in the other direction before it finds equilibrium, so, until it does, it’s rather nice to spend the odd hour here and there in an all-male environment, if not just to remind myself that we’re not all bad eggs.

I was certainly hugely pleased with the decision to go to the men’s pond with Matt. On a Sunday morning the place is stunningly calm and it is an absolute treat to bob up and down in the cooling, soft water, with 360 degree views of nothing but trees, hillsides and nature around you. Curious birds with long beaks share the water with you, and seem quite happy to swim right up to you as you make your way around the water. Parakeets squawk and fly over head in flashes of bright green. The water levels are obviously incredibly low at the moment. Little railings attached to the jetties, which are there to give respite to a tired swimmer, are plainly meant to be just above the water level, but these days, you have to stretch out of the water to grab one. It was at these ponds, and as a result of the drought, where the terrible accident happened two weeks ago, which everyone there was still discussing on Sunday. I mentioned it in my blog on my birthday. The fact seems to be that a bloke dived off the jetty, in a certain type of dive, which takes you deep and flat. Because of the level of the water, he went low enough to hit the bottom of the pond, and, in the process scraped against a pile of masonry rubble, which, one assumes, was left there when they built, or rebuilt the jetty. He managed to cut his entire stomach open, and was rushed to hospital for major surgery. The good news is that he has now been sent home, no doubt very relieved to be alive.

As a result of the accident, there are now signs up everywhere telling people how to safely dive. Fortunately, I’m not a diver!

I left the ponds wondering how on Earth it could be that I’ve not been there for so long, feeling massively grateful to Matt for reminding me what a stunning place it is.

In Nathan’s absence, I have realised that part of my task is to make sure I see lots of people. I am a fairly natural hermit who will quite happily go underground for days on end. That’s okay when you live with someone because, at the end of the day, they can jolt you back into the land of the living. So, I’ve decided, whilst Nathan is away, that no day must pass without some form of facial contact with someone I know.

Later in the day, I took myself off for lunch with Michael in Soho. We went to my favourite Mediterranean cafe on Berwick Street, which, judging by the sudden price hike, is everyone else’s favourite Mediterranean cafe. Or no-one’s... and is making a last-ditched attempt to make ends meet. It’s a lovely spot. You can sit outside and watch the good folk of Soho parading. Twenty years ago, everyone who passed by would have been a freak, an eccentric, a drug addict, a sex worker or some sort of fabulous club kid. These days they’re mostly tourists. 

From Soho, we went to Jermyn Street, the home of high-end Gentlemen’s fashion. It’s one of those places where you mostly only window shop. Everything is beautiful. Most things are desperately expensive. It’s where you’d go to buy all the things I aspire to wear. Beautiful, felt, button-down braces and bow ties in every colour of the rainbow. Glorious suits. Fabulous Loake shoes. Proper hats. Classic cufflinks. Smoking gowns. Brocade waistcoats. I mean, it’s probably rather good that I don’t have the money to shop there, because I’d end up looking like a tragic extra from a Merchant Ivory film! We can but dream. And what is life, then, but a dream?

Sunday, 19 August 2018


At about noon on Friday, we finally finished the edit on 100 Faces, which means I’m done and dusted and the film is ready for delivery. I feel a palpable sense of both pride and relief. I’ve worked pretty much full time on the project since February. As readers of this blog will know, it’s been a true labour of love. At times, it’s been incredibly hard work, and it certainly hasn’t been without its stresses, but the process has been rewarding from beginning to end. I feel truly immersed now in the UK Jewish community and feel, all the way through, that I have been wholeheartedly supported. Almost everyone who’s heard about the project feels like they’ve seen it as a very precious thing. It has been a great joy to describe it to people and see the lights coming on in their eyes as they get a sense of what we’ve been trying to achieve.

The last two days of the edit were something of a breeze. We finished at 3pm on Thursday and spent Friday morning making a few tweaks before exporting the film.

The ease was largely generated by Keith’s decision to grade the film - and convert it into black and white - in the week since we did the first round of editing. At the same time, PK was working on the spoken word element in the film, adding subtle and artistic sonic effects, so that it balanced the singing side of things. His work was, as always, remarkable. I’ve often said that the joy about PK is his ability to invent a special reverb effect which has the power to instantly bring a person to tears. I don’t even know if he does it deliberately. There may well be an element of serendipity, but I think a great deal of it is the instinct which comes from a forty-year career working in recording studios. He engineered Depeche Mode and Erasure albums. The man is a legend. 

On Wednesday night the track was digitally sent up to the Isle of Skye to be mastered by Denis Blackham, who is another complete legend in his field. There’s something rather magical about the idea that the music could be recorded in Tel Aviv, mixed in Worthing and mastered in the Inner Hebrides before being laid onto visuals in Skelmersdale, Lancashire.

Keith has done a staggeringly good job of filming, editing and grading the film. I feel genuinely enriched as a result of having that man in my life. He never complains (except about traffic), I’ve never once had the feeling that he isn’t thrilled to be a part of the film we’re working on, and the quality of his craftsmanship is second to none. 

Add Andrei into the equation, who Keith and I have both agreed is the best Soundman either of us have worked with, and you’ve got a winning team.

Mitch and Max did a lot of administrative grunt-work in the office and Michael exec produced the film as well as conducting the orchestra and working with some of the vocalists on the shoots, but that’s it for the team. Budget necessities and common sense forced us all to multi-task, but I genuinely don’t think people will believe that a film as complicated and ambitious as 100 Faces was essentially created by eight men: four Jewish, four not.

The film is lovely. Whether it stands a chance of finding an audience outside the Jewish community is another matter. It IS very Jewish. I didn’t want to use subtitles for the Hebrew and Yiddish, or make people temper their language for those outside of the community who might not know words like “shul” “frum” “Shabbat” “hamentashen” and “kneidlach.” Perhaps it loses a bit of universality as a result. I don’t know. I hope not, in fact I’d be devastated if this were the case. I want non-Jewish people to watch this film and see a diverse, yet utterly accessible and familiar set of people.

Friday, 17 August 2018

St Helens

I’m in St Helens, which I think is in Lancashire. It might be in Cheshire. It’s a fairly grim, unremarkable sort of place, which could be any number of Midlands or Northern towns. When I see a place like this, I start to truly understand what it feels to be invisible. So much is being said and written about representation at the moment. I watched a bit of BBC Breakfast with interviews with Emma Thompson talking about being a woman and a young, deaf rapper talking about his work. A gospel choir (quite rightly) sang the show out with a tribute to Aretha Franklin (although I do feel it showed laziness on the BBC’s part to feature the choir from the recent royal wedding as though there were only one gospel choir in the world.) Diversity is one thing - but if you keep offering up the same faces, you’re hardly creating opportunities.

Anyway, I started to wonder when I’d last seen a Midlands, middle-aged, working class person being interviewed about their life, except as a quiz show contestant, or as part of a vox pop about Brexit or a grisly murder, where the task of the white, working class Midlands woman seems to be to say how worried she is about the children. Northampton county council has recently gone bust. It’s a big Midlands story. But on the day the council announced massive cuts, the BBC took itself to a town in the South West, where, apparently, another council was in trouble...

Get a rapper in from the Midlands and allow him or her to speak openly and honestly about their life, listen without prejudice (without accusing him of transphobia, homophobia or racism) and you might truly understand what a different form of invisibility feels like. Listen, I have deep sympathy for ANY community who feels undervalued or under-represented, but there are some communities whom I genuinely feel are demonised in this country and told to shut up every time they speak. And let me tell you something: right now, their lives aren’t a barrel of laughs. They’re angry, and they have the power to elect the first charismatic, right wing despot who sticks his head above the parapet and gives them a reason to believe that they matter. Which is, let’s face it, a basic human right.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Me and My Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 August 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 11 August 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heath picnic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Break down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank God for the AA

Monday, 6 August 2018

Swiss adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 August 2018

Key West

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Portraits of the 100

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