Monday, 28 November 2011

A Golden Age of Live Theatre

We are living in a golden age of live theatre. For the price of a dvd you can see an entire company produce magic in front of your very eyes. They are doing it in village halls, school halls, regional theatres , stately homes, cricket pavilions and pub courtyards. The Internet has helped enormously; the tiniest venues still rely on local papers and selling tickets through local shops, but any theatre which has an on-line booking system is immediately in a better position to fill the seats.

One of the reasons I don't bother with TV soaps is that it is painfully obvious that many of our so-called professionals are nothing of the sort. They could no more deliver a line than I can sing opera and the clunky direction gives them the fluidity of a call centre slave in India trying to scam you. evening Mam, am I speakin' to Mrs Raft? No, sorry, you are not.

You will experience more in a single evening spent watching a local company, which will show performances ranging from the competent to the breath-taking, than you will in a month of Shouty Cockerneys. There's something for everyone; companies are refusing to stick to the tried-and-tested popular productions and tackling new works written by company members. Obviously, that's going to be a mixed bag; there is always an element of lucky dip about a new work but who knows, one might see a little slice of theatre history being made. You hadda be there.

Beloved of all is a farce: these work best where the audience can see the actors sweating to bring the staging to the correct point to make the joke. Farce is the theatre magic where you have to see most of what the conjurer is doing because the audience is in cahoots with the company. The ignorant character, the one who is going to get the surprise, is on the stage, which reverses the traditional expectation that it is the audience who will receive the revelation when a secret escapes. Doing it on telly is cheating; we all know they can cut away and come back tomorrow - where's the panic in that?

Down in Paignton the Bijou Theatre Company is performing a pre-Christmas farce of impeccable pedigree "The Happiest Days of your Life" by John Dighton, which hinges around school inspections, disapproving parents and people's careers hanging by a thread. That should bring a groan of recognition to the throats of teachers everywhere, but it is still very funny (unlike real life).

Previewed by The Jolly Lion - who is in it - the production is at the Palace Theatre, Paignton and runs from
Wednesday 30th November - Saturday 3rd December 2011 - 7.30pm
Tickets cost £11 but concessions are available
Telephone Palace Theatre Box Office on
01803 665800

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Train Stupid - Please Phone First

British Transport Police have issued a report and photos of the crash caused when farmer John Henry Watkyn James could not be bothered to ring the signal box as required - using the phone supplied for the very purpose - nor to drive his tractor's trailer properly over the line.

Had he done so, the accident would not have happened. Rex Features have collated the photos.

Sergeant Steve Dawkins, officer in charge at BTP Swansea, said:

“The trailer was made of plate steel but due to the speed of the train and the force of impact, the trailer’s debris was spread over a large area.

“It is astounding that no one was seriously injured or killed in this incident. James’ actions not only put rail staff and passengers’ lives at risk but also caused extensive damage to the train, which could easily have resulted in derailment.

“Crossings are designed to keep people safe – and, when used correctly, that is exactly what they do.

Mr James pleaded guilty to a charge of endangering users of the railway but has been unwisely maundering on about 'bad luck', which suggests he was in the habit of doing this and regards it as jolly unfair that he has been held responsible this time.

Arriva Trains has given him an enormous bill for the damage to the train and the consequent loss. He thinks £167k is over-stating it. No, it's very modest and doesn't reflect all the consequent loss for people whose journeys were then disrupted. Whether his professional insurance - if he has any - will cover it is not stated.

He has no idea of how lucky he has been that the damage has been purely economic, that he isn't in prison, and that the court saw fit to give him only a suspended sentence and 200 hours worth of voluntary work.

The court appeared to accept his cock-and-bull story about the second gate swinging shut, trapping the trailer on the line, which sounds plausible until you see the video. Rather more likely is that he opened the first gate, drove over, knowingly parking the trailer on the line, then got out to open the second gate. This version of events is given in some accounts.

The words "delivering hay" do not properly convey the solidity of three circular bales of the stuff at that speed of impact.

H/T Ambush Predator

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Basket Case

To Cambridge for Basket Case , the new rom com by Nick Fisher. A kitchen-sink comedy of middle class folk. Guy and Miranda are divorced, not on very good terms and now the family dog is ill. Miranda feels obliged to call Guy to let him know. It is, after all, Guy's dog.

The audience was unsettled to find that studded between the jokes Nick Fisher had left his trade-mark needle-sharp observations. Fisher has a wicked ear for the cadences of the John Lewis catalogue classes - to whom he sells cookery books - and Liz Ashcroft, the designer, realizes their vision on the stage. Yes, we all laughed but there is an unnerving thread of criticism. For example, Fisher allows the characters to use bad language and graphic sexual imagery. The audience came out muttering about it being "close to the knuckle" but it's not so much the f-word which bothers them but the way the conflicted children - whom we never meet - have turned out.

All the performances are competent - which is no less than you'd expect - and Nigel Havers is allowed to give throat to the frustrations of the successful white male. Because he is expected to put bums on seats, Havers has to soften the character slightly, which is a pity because Fisher has written it with the capacity to be a glittering monster instead of chap who gets things muddled.

It's a hard call for director Robin Lefevre; make this play as hard-hitting as it could be and it would be up there with the flinty social realism gang and the critics would love it. Unfortunately, the audience would hate it and throw boots at the stage; they like the John Lewis adverts and aren't paying good money to see themselves reflected unflatteringly.

Besides, Nick Fisher is no stranger to middle-England fatwahs and doesn't want another one - he once wrote a sex education guide for teenagers which nearly got him lynched. So a compromise is reached; you can read it as a light comedy or much more if you care to look at the references, such a Miranda being surrounded by thirty grand's-worth of kitchen in which she bakes two quid's worth of muffins and even then doesn't have the blueberries or pecans to make the cakes properly. Beautiful set dressing btw - right down to this-year's must-have, fluted, jug-handled mixing bowl.

Guy's costume is the one formulated by Paul Weller a million years ago and worn by Jeremy Clarkson ever since; denims and suit jacket with tassel loafers. He also delivers trade-mark motor-mouth tirades. Yes, Guy is popular and successful but if I were Jeremy Clarkson I'd be squirming in my seat; of course it isn't Clarkson, but as a portrait of a man skidding towards being old enough to be a grandad whilst having made a lot of money but arsed-up in key areas of life.....well, any resemblance is purely coincidental.

Although old smoothie-chops is there to provide male glamour, the one we've all really come to see is Graham Seed, late of Lower Loxley Hall in the county of Borsetshire. Wisely, Fisher doesn't move Seed, playing Martin the vet, too far from the audience's expectations and puts in a couple of pointed in-jokes. Fresh from being the nicest man in the world to be pushed off a stately home roof, he's now the nicest vet in the world who has to deal with the tantrums of the clients while being obviously much more attuned to the patients.

Although we are explicitly supposed to see Martin as in love with Miranda from a distance, this line isn't picked up and Martin is left with a hint of sexual ambiguity, an awkwardness. Because the play doesn't have much in the way of a plot - it's more of a character study - the supporting characters are there for contrast and to elaborate themes rather than do anything which twists the story round. He is therefore entrusted with illuminating what Fisher really wanted to portray; the enduring relationship of people and animals.

It turns out that there was a reason why Seed was able to make a clottish toff a favourite character for thirty years; He Can Act. Here he slides down the social scale a little, cautiously knocking some of the patrician accent off his most famous role but he's absolutely serious that there will be a vet on that stage. Seed's show reel gives a respectable selection from a certain type of character actor but it can't show what has happened to him in the past year; there is the potential for greater depth and conviction just waiting for a role.

Seed could play Richard III now and project all that rage, frustration and attraction which the historical character undoubtedly had - along with the ruthless determination to wear a crown. As the 2-i-c to Edward IV, Richard had spent a lifetime playing second fiddle to his brother, fighting wars on his behalf, administering the country and doing Edward's dirty work. Did anyone seriously expect him to do all that then hand it on to his brother's whelps, acting as the trustee for their estate? C'mon.

Let's hope someone gives Seed the chance to tackle the classical roles and get his name up there with Jacobi - they were both in I Claudius two thousand years ago - and the heavyweight actors of his generation.

In the meantime, catch the remainder of the run at:

Monday 21 – Saturday 26 November
CARDIFF New Theatre
Box Office 029 2087 8889

Monday 28 November – Saturday 3 December
CHICHESTER Festival Theatre
Box Office 01243 781312

Thursday, 17 November 2011

TeleVision for the Environment - information

Biased BBC are looking at tve - Television for the Environment - which has removed its website.

This looks iffy, as if it or the BBC is trying to hide something but may be due to the fact that tve says in its annual report that it was looking for a new website provider as it wasn't satisfied with the old one. It could just be a coincidence. The issue is live due to it becoming apparent that some BBC output was produced free by the interest group and handed direct to the Corporation.

There is much to be said for the arguments put forward by Television for the Environment but if these are going out under the BBC brand name we need to know that the programmes have been produced by a campaigning film-maker, not presented as if it were neutrally investigated. Looking at the programme output - some of which I've seen in passing - the standards are high and the programmes were interesting.

I don't mind partisan features - I just want it shown clearly in both the opening and closing credits that the BBC is getting the material at negligible cost and that it has a particular viewpoint. After all, tobacco companies might want air-time on an equal basis if they pay for their own material.
tve is a collective name for:
Television for the Environment
Television Trust for the Environment.

Television for the Environment is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales, registered office:
21 Elizabeth Street, London SW1W 9RP,
company number 1811236
and a registered charity number 326585.

Television Trust for the Environment is a registered charity number 326539.
(My formatting).

There are three key pieces of information available now:

The company number, 1811236 can be used via the WebCHeck service at Companies House to get basic information and an index of the filings available for £1 each.

Because the search is dynamic, copy the company number 1811236 and go to the front page, then click on WebCHeck and put it in to the search box. (Can't be linked direct as it will time-out). This will bring up the basic information.

Clicking on the 'order information' box will take you to an index of the filings which can be ordered for £1 per document. Since the tve project began in 1984 there are many records to be bought but helpfully, some of the names involved are available on the order screen. I haven't looked at the commercial accounts.

The purpose of the registered charity number 326585, Television for the Environment lists in its summary of 20 September 2011 :
4. To enhance and develop the capacity to make an impact via the WorldWide Web
Which is going to be difficult without a website. It's a modest outfit with 10 employees and funding of £1.4, which doesn't go far these days. They've managed to produce a great deal of broadcast material for that, which makes you wonder why the BBC is so expensive. (OK, hanging around for months to get the fabulous footage for The Frozen Planet is worth it - I don't mind spending my licence fee on that).

The overview page for the charity Television for the Environment is here and if you click on the options on the left side-bar you can go through the information - including the accounts - in both summary and detail. This is a free search. The annual report summarizes the material it has produced in the year.

Turning then to the second charity, The Television Trust for the Environment, 326539, it is more or less the same again but potentially its costs outstrip its income, which can't go on for very long if there is no new source of income.

These sets of accounts are small compared to many international special interest groups, but it isn't clear why one film maker can describe themselves as a charity when others may not be allowed to. That's a secondary issue.

The primary issue here is that the BBC gave air-time to its favoured groups without warning the audience and without extending that possibility to organizations whose views the BBC does not endorse.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday 2011

We do not remember for Their sake alone
Although that would be enough.

Forgetfulness is the opiate justified for the immediately suffering
But not for us.

Remembrance is for our own sake.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Armistice 2011

This year I was privileged to visit the churchyard of St Just in Roseland, Cornwall.

The churchyard is famous for its graves on a steep hill where the church lies in the cup of the surrounding paths in a sub-tropical garden with a tidal pool at the bottom. The sea coming and going and the exotic planting make the spot simultaneously unearthly but eccentrically English.

The high tide coincided with sunrise, so I was there to watch the church emerge from darkness. Because the natural form of the bay is a deep amphitheatre, the light produces extraordinary effects such as the church tower not having a top but carrying on up to heaven.

Looking around the graves there were several elegant War Grave headstones, particularly fine black ones which take a sharp cut and don't easily wear away. It was pleasing to find that volunteers have been photographing them and indexing them.

There are several searches one can do. This one was for war graves in St Just in Roseland.Link
Clicking on any of the returned names goes to a photograph of the individual gravestone with details which are known about the person.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Dick Turpin's Last Ride

A story that has been 306 years in the making.

No true blogger can resist this illumination of myth creation, that of the Dandy Highwayman. The writer (Daniel O'Brien) brings together three real figures to debate their approaches to Dick Turpin.

The three are contemporary historian Thomas Kyll, who was at the York assizes when Turpin was sentenced, the 18th century catch-penny biographer Richard Bayes who either knows rather a lot or is making it up, and the romantic novelist William Harrison Ainsworth who came along in the 19th century and filleted out the saleable story of the fabulous ride from London to York.

The beef which Kyll and Bayes have with imagineer Ainsworth is that his fiction is so good that it has swamped the real story and, moreover, his commercial success was based on leaving out the crucial relevant facts about Turpin: he was a thug with no redeeming features whatsoever, and there was no heroic ride.

When I told Nana Raft I was going to see a story about Dick Turpin, she said
"We've seen Black Bess's grave".
"Nana, I hate to tell you this, but there wasn't really a Black Bess"
"No? So you tell me what's down the hole, then - it's a huge gravestone" in that tone of voice when people use when they've got a knock-down argument. Ainsworth is correct - people want Black Bess to exist.

The disputants then re-animate Turpin to show the story from each viewpoint and to argue about the details and what this means for posterity. Is Ainsworth right when he says that Turpin paid for his crime at the end of a rope and that the story is an entirely separate issue? He is, after all, a romantic novelist, although he has certain views about his source material.

Director Abigail Anderson skilfully handles Jack Lord's performance as Turpin as he has to swing between graphic nastiness and the romantic highwayman of the story. Perhaps best of all, they invoke the real Turpin, the butcher-turned-thief who was not dramatic at all.

Richard Pepper as Kyll strikes the most sympathetic note with conscientious bloggers; that need to get the facts down at the time as far as possible, knowing that somebody else is going to spin them later. Julian Harries as Ainsworth portrays literary glamour, Morgan Philpott as Bayes is the everyman, the rough sort, and credibly claims to know what he is talking about. He is closer to either a tabloid journalist or someone who has had help with writing a memoir. Ainsworth speculates that there may be an explanation for how he got his information, and it's not the official explanation Bayes offers. Astute writing, that is, considering the current questions in the papers. How else do people suppose stories are verified if not by bending the law round corners?

All the performances are absorbing. However, if you are going to appear on a stage with the stunningly beautiful Loren O'Dair, who plays her fiddle, dances, sings, is an acrobat and portrays a mythical horse, then you have to accept that she's going to run away with the show.

The cast of five canter the story through a scaffold set, playing multiple parts and instruments, punctuating the story with music drawn by Pat Whymark from English folk songs - no, it's alright, not the ear-achy nasal ones - proper songs which are complex and melodious. The skill in the stage craft keeps the story moving; there are no disconcerting blackouts. The scenes are conjured by acting, minimal props and subtle lighting which helps keep the accounts separated.

There's just time to catch performances at Ipswich and Eastbourne.

Book: Dick Turpin - The myth of the English Highwayman
James Sharp, Profile Books, 2004
ISBN 1 861197 418 3

Update 1 Jan 2012:  An old story turned up in a search about e-fits. York Castle Museum used descriptions issued at the time by the Government and the London Gazette to create a modern e-fit of Turpin.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Church News

David Cameron, the Prime Minister who doesn't have a parliamentary majority with his own party, thinks that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaks for the whole country.

Rowan Williams doesn't even speak for the whole Anglican communion in England, let alone the world. Please don't mention the g-word.

Mr Raft nails it:

"He isn't even the best drummer in the Beatles."



Church of England Accounts 2010

The Church Commissioners manage an investment fund of
£5.3 billion, held mainly in property and shares.

They have particular responsibility for generating a return sufficient to pay the pensions of the clergy. From page 7:-
"In addition, the banks, burnt by the very crisis they themselves caused, have restricted their lending."
No sense there of any understanding that at no time did the church suggest that people should not be borrowing money; indeed, they are very happy to process credit card payments at their gift shops and the shopping centres they invest in.

"The Church Commissioners' commercial property portfolio consists of a diverse range of Retail (including High Street, Shopping Centre and Warehouse Parks), Industrial, and Office properties, located throughout the UK and is currently valued at £321 million.

Notable investments in the portfolio include the MetroCentre, Europe's largest (and recently voted Britain's Best) shopping centre. The Centre is managed by Capital Shopping Centres but the Commissioners receive 10% of the net rents."

The congregation will rise and sing hymn number 666