We should be glad that they don't make 'em like that anymore. Gracie Fields' seventh film was an out-and-out star vehicle with
little to distract you from her working class persona and coloratura
Seamstress Grace works opposite a West End stage door where she can see her favourite actor Derek Cooper. He gets drunk one night and while trying to get an autograph, Grace ends up trapped in his car. She covers for him in an accident and drives him home, putting him to bed.
Returning his mended suit, Grace meets a chorus girl friend backstage and tries on her evening dress costume. Meanwhile the producer is waiting to meet a wealthy woman who he hopes will back his next show... can you guess what happens?
Gracie fails at pretending to be the rich woman but instead becomes the star of the show and wins Derek too.
Shelf or charity shop? I have changed my mind, it's going to the charity shop
Shaun's having a bad day: nagged by his stepfather not to forget his mum's birthday, ordered by his housemate to throw out their lazy mate Ed, and dumped by his exasperated girlfriend Liz for forgetting to book a table for their anniversary.
It could be worse... there might also be a zombie apocalypse. Oh...
Edgar Wright delivered an instant classic comedy-horror film which works on all levels; he whip-pans and crash-edits his way through it, but also finds time for quiet, sad moments which rewards repeated viewings.
Wright and co-writer Simon Pegg picked the perfect cast: Penelope Wilton as Shaun's mum Barbara and Bill Nighy as stepfather Philip, Kate Ashfield as long-suffering Liz, Nick Frost as the slobbish Ed, Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis as Liz's flatmates, and above all, Pegg is wonderful as Shaun.
A recognizable London and thumping soundtrack all contribute too.
Shelf or charity shop? Armed with cricket bats and and shovels, Shaun and co. are holed up on the shelf forever
The first Bergman film to win the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, he later disparaged it as a bad attempt at copying Kurosawa, however it remains intensely powerful.
Medieval farmer Töre lives with his pious wife Märeta and indulged daughter Karin. Töre asks Karin to take candles to a faraway church; dressed in her best clothes Karin leaves accompanied by surly, pregnant maid Ingeri. Pagan Ingeri dislikes Karin and offers prayers to Odon to make her suffer.
Ingeri is scared by an old man in the woods so Karin continues alone; she is stopped by two goatherds and their younger brother and she requests they share her food. She slowly realizes their intent but they rape her, killing her afterward.
That night the rapists ask for shelter at Töre's house which he allows while Märeta worries about Karin. But when they offer Karin's clothes as payment, Töre exacts revenge...
Shelf or charity shop? The Virgin Spring resides in my storage box of coverless DVDs. I will keep it for the power of Bergman's direction, Sven Nykvist's glorious b/w cinematography and the performances of Max von Sydow as Töre - only 31 years old when it was filmed - Gunnel Lindblom's earthy Ingeri and Birgitta Pettersson as doomed Karin. Amazingly, it was the inspiration for Wes Craven's notorious THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.
The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and,
as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast
recording of my life:
First performed: 1996, Ford Centre, Toronto
First seen by me: 2003, Piccadilly Theatre, London
Productions seen: two
Score: Stephen Flaherty / Lynn Ahrens Book: Terrence McNally
Plot: Three groups of people experience society's changes during the early 1900s in New York: the upper-class family of Father and Mother in leafy New Rochelle, the black musicians in Harlem including Coalhouse Walker Jr. embracing the new jazz of Ragtime, while the ships bringing East European migrants including Tateh from Latvia keep arriving at Ellis Island. Linking all the groups are those in the newspapers, the ones who have made it: businessmen like Henry Ford and JP Morgan, activists like Emma Goldman and Booker T Washington, and celebrities like illusionist Harry Houdini and notorious beauty Evelyn Nesbit.
Five memorable numbers: BACK TO BEFORE, PROLOGUE - RAGTIME, THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY, TILL WE REACH THAT DAY, MAKE THEM HEAR YOU
Back in the mid-90s, there were two Broadway musical scores that I adored from the minute I heard the cast recordings, one was Maury Yeston's TITANIC and the other was Flaherty and Ahren's RAGTIME. Both shows had striking similarities: both 'epic' shows which also honed in on the lives of individuals with both scores featuring memorable soaring ensemble numbers alongside character solos and duets, both integrated real-life and fictional characters and, most of all, both composers drew on early 20th Century musical styles so RAGTIME's score is awash with ragtime syncopation, Souza brass bands, Jewish klezmer music and vaudeville cakewalks as well as contemporary Broadway. EL Doctorow's 1975 novel had already been filmed in 1981 by Milos Forman and it seemed an unlikely candidate for a musical but Terrence McNally's book is successful in keeping most of the intricate plot's plates spinning, with maybe Jewish immigrant Tateh's story being the least integrated as the other two strands - Coalhouse Walker's increasingly violent search for justice at the manslaughter of his lover Sarah and the wrecking of his beloved Model T Ford by racists, and the impact his actions have on the privileged family of Father and Mother. But the score leads us from story and story and through the years, soaring above the book and giving specific character moments a universality. Despite the original Broadway production running for almost two years it failed to make money - indeed it's Canadian production company Livent filed for bankruptcy ten months after it's closure. This production received nine Tony Award nominations and won four including the Best Score and Best Book, but lost most of the others to the marauding LION KING. A 2009 Broadway revival was well received but only lasted 65 performances. I had to wait until 2003 to see it in London in a production which was an expanded version of a Welsh concert production which attempted to make a virtue of it's minimalism but just looked exposed on the Piccadilly Theatre stage, it lasted three months. However Thom Southerland's small-scale production at the Charing Cross Theatre was more successful artistically and showed the marvellous opportunities the musical holds for the performers playing the roles of Coalhouse, Sarah and Mother. The Broadway cast recording is one of my most-played... and stand back when I belt out BACK TO BEFORE! I still wonder what the Communist agitator Emma Goldman, who was exiled from America, would feel if she knew she featured in two Broadway musicals, RAGTIME and Sondheim's ASSASSINS?
Here the original Broadway cast - including the late Marin Mazzie as Mother, Mark Jacoby as Father, Audra McDonald as Sarah, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse and Peter Friedman as Tateh - deliver that wonderful opening number at the Tony Awards:
As rough as the gravel driven at breakneck speed down country lanes, HELL DRIVERS was the first film to bear Cy Endfield's name after working in the UK for four years under pseudonyms due to being blacklisted as a Communist in the USA.
Ex-con Tom heads for a job at a haulage firm that isn't too fussy about the men it employs. He discovers extra money is paid to the fastest driver each week but they must drive at dangerous speeds.
Grudgingly accepted by the others, Tom realizes that the topdog Red will never let anyone beat him. One night at a dance, the drivers start a brawl but Tom runs before the police arrive. Accused of cowardice by the drivers - and falling for his pal Gino's girlfriend Lucy - he decides to leave.
But when Gino is killed by Red while driving Tom's usual lorry, Tom seeks revenge...
Shelf or charity shop? One of my favourite British thrillers, it's worth keeping for the astonishing cast - the magnificent Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins, Sean Connery, Alfie Bass, Sid James, Gordon Jackson, William Hartnell, Wilfred Lawson, Marjorie Rhodes, Jill Ireland, Robin Bailey and David McCallum - who all make up for the hammy awfulness of Patrick McGoohan as the psychotic Red.
Four Austrian documentary filmmakers, while researching a project, found 105 year-old Brunhilde Pomsel living in an old people's home in Munich and decided they had to commit her memories to film. It is lucky they did as Pomsel died the following year. Their film A GERMAN LIFE, was well-received and Pomsel's memories have now been dramatized by Christopher Hampton and is now playing a sold out run at The Bridge Theatre. His play, a 100 minute monologue without interval, marks Maggie Smith's return to the London stage after 12 years under Jonathan Kent's direction; three theatrical greats combine to deliver an unforgettable experience.
Although the moral quagmire that ordinary Germans who lived under Hitler's Nazi regime had to face in later years has been explored in documentaries and books, it is a situation that never fails to intrigue us today - the implicit question asked by those in the spotlight, "What would you have done in our place?" hangs unanswered, and in a world where right-wing parties across the world are gaining power, it's a question that might be asked again.
Brunhilde sits alone at her table, and as her small flat darkens around her while night falls, she recalls her life in the first half of the 20th Century, all the time explaining that her memory is not what it was. Her earliest memories are of the lead-up to World War 1 and her authoritarian father's absence, his infrequent return visits usually resulting in another baby brother. After the war her father curtailed her education, not wanting to pay out for it, but thanks to her mother she learnt typing and shorthand so was able to get a job - again, against Father's wishes.
She remembers how much she loved her secretarial work: her first job with a Jewish fashion merchandiser ended when her father demanded she ask for more money, but she was soon employed again, working two jobs as at night she took dictation from a WWI pilot writing his memoirs. It was through him that she managed to secure work at the main Broadcasting Centre when he was offered a contract, he was soon dumped but Brunhilde thrived there, she happily remembers how exciting 1920s Berlin was, so many things to do and see although most of it was only really affordable to "rich Jews".
It is in those throwaway statements when Brunhilde refers, with emphasis, to Jews that her frequent disclaimers of knowing nothing really about what was going on around her politically hit you as disingenuous. Her work at Broadcasting House led to a new job offer in 1942: working at the Propaganda department under the Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels. Her experience in preparing scripts for radio was a natural fit for rewriting the news for the Propaganda department such as altering the numbers of fatalities, downplaying the Allied forces advances, etc.
There was one condition of her job: she had to be a member of the Nazi party. Showing a blindness to the situation, she went to register accompanied by her best friend, a Jewish musician called Eva whose life was becoming more prescribed which Brunhilde blithely ignored until it was too late and a weakening Eva was reduced to living in a single room with her family. By then, Brunhilde had become friendly with Magda Goebbels who gave her one of her own tailored outfits when Brunhilde's only smart clothes were ruined, and she remembers with joy when the Goebbels children would visit the office and she let them play on her typewriter.
Despite all of this, she was also expected to 'freshen up' Goebbels' penthouse apartment after yet another visit from one of his many actress mistresses. By then Brunhilde had attended the mass rally at Berlin's Sportpalast in 1943 to see her boss declare Total War on the Reich's enemies: his cry for every German to fight the enemy was seen as a warning that the war was being lost; but Brunhilde was so bored by it all, it was only after an officer warned her that she started to clap.
And so it continued until the end; any relief over Hitler and Goebbels' suicides quickly replaced by shock on hearing that Magda had killed herself after participating in the poisoning of their six children. Brunhilde was interviewed by the Red Army after the German surrender and told them everything she knew, expecting to be treated as a 'friendly witness'; she was jailed for five years, ironically in several of the concentration camps that were still standing, including Buchenwald. After her release, she returned to West Germany and anonymity, working again as a secretary for broadcasting companies - well, she had all that experience.
Not having seen the documentary it is hard to know where her actual words stop and Hampton's input begins but his play made for a riveting evening, aided by Kent's masterly direction, Anna Fleischle's utilitarian set and Jon Clark's slowly dying light.
But we were not there for Hampton's new play, Kent's new production, or Fleischle's set design; it was to see Maggie Smith, back where she shines best, on a stage with a live audience to hypnotize and delight. Solitary, testy, guarded, Maggie's Brunhilde constantly has you guessing; every pause, every backtracked comment, every evasive 'um...' could suggest either self-preservation or the weary toll of assumed guilt loaded on her by those who were not there.
Humorous, rueful, only occasionally emotional, it was Brunhilde Pomsel filtered through Maggie Smith - her trademark expressive hands and arms conducting our attention and always that voice... cracked but swooping still, she gave us a woman who asked for no sympathy but found it with her subdued response when, years after the event, she asks at the Holocaust education centre what happened to her best friend and learns she perished in Auschwitz. The play ends with her reminiscence of having an abortion by a Jewish lover who had escaped to Amsterdam as it would have physically endangered her life - one suspects that Brunhilde's life under the Nazis would have been endangered had she had it.
Maggie was quoted once as saying "I like the ephemeral thing about theatre, every performance is like a ghost – it’s there and then it’s gone". She will be haunting me with her performance in A GERMAN LIFE.
355 years after first appearing on stages, Molière's wily Tartuffe seems to be more popular now than ever: Molière's idea of a rich family almost being dismantled by a holy man who has been invited into their home only for him to be exposed as a fraud, seems to fit any number of rewrites and emphasis: the gullible rich who adopt new spiritual fads to cover their shallowness, or the Holy Fool who is punished for daring to break through society's glass ceiling.
First performed in 1664, the play was immediately banned by Louis XIV, not because he was personally offended, but because of outrage by the Catholic church in France over the idea that someone who purports to be a holy man is in fact a lecherous charlatan - the very idea! A few years later, Molière rewrote it but that too was banned so he tinkered around with it again and when finally performed in 1669 the play was a success.
John Donnelly has pitched his version right into the London of today - his Tartuffe could easily have wandered off from Waterloo Bridge's climate change protesters - and in his final denouncement of the rich fools he has infiltrated, Tartuffe made some very topical jabs at their eternal hatred of the other, the imposter, the foreigner. In a huge North London living room, overshadowed by a gold full-size replica of Michelangelo's 'David', former politico Orgon has turned his family upside down by inviting into their home a scruffy, soap-dodger called Tartuffe who claims to be the leader of a new religion that can lead believers to the New Dawn.
This modern-day Rasputin has totally won over both Orgon and his mother Pernelle but Orgon's trophy wife Elmire and his spoilt children Damis and Marianne are less convinced and suspect Tartuffe to be leaching off them. Soon Tartuffe's equally squalid supporters are making a nest for themselves in the living room and Orgon has in a moment of spiritual weakness, given Tartuffe incriminating evidence that he committed crimes against the state "in the last ill-advised war".
When Elmire finally convinces Orgon that Tartuffe has been wanting to have sex with her all along, Orgon orders him out of his house. But Tartuffe returns with a bailiff called Loyal who instead hands the shocked Orgon a writ informing him that it's the family who must leave because Orgon gave Tartuffe the deeds to the house. Tartuffe is triumphant... but is he?
Blanche McIntyre's production played more like a farce with people popping out of hiding places and flying over the furniture so the darker elements of the characters was lost; in Donnelly's script they all had the depth of a Comic Strip special - sexy wife, yuppy daughter, rich fool, wily imposter - but it was only in the last moments that Molière's savage satire made itself really known which over-tipped the play. However there were more than enough laugh-out-loud lines and the main principals took you along with the freewheeling antics.
The really annoying thing I found about the production was a bad case of inaudibility among quite a few of the supporting members of the cast who could not throw their lines out into the auditorium - it might be more realistic to speak your lines directly to whoever you are in the scene with but it made for a lot of the mumbled lines as they were not also including the audience in - now a new breed of actors from smaller venues are appearing on the large National stages, they really need to be told how to play to the bigger houses.
No such problems with the central pairing: Broadway veteran Denis O'Hare was hugely charismatic as the imposter Tartuffe although the idea to have his character speak in a bizarre mash-up of Brazilian and/or French strangled some laugh lines unnecessarily; we know he is 'other' to Orgon's family there was really no need to do it, better he just played it in his natural US accent. He was very well-partnered by Kevin Doyle's Orgon, a man hoist by his ostentatious petard thanks to his own gullibility.
Susan Engel was at her imperious best as Pernelle and Olivia Williams was a shrewish Elmire, driven to screeching distraction at her husband's blind stupidity. Kitty Archer was good fun as the whiny, entitled Marianne and her lover, the Socialist Marxist poet Valere was played well by Geoffrey Lumb. I also wanted to highlight Matthew Duckett as the wide-boy Loyal who made an impression in a relatively small scene.
Robert Jones' huge elaborate set made me want to explore the rest of Orgon's house to see it it was as ghastly as that room and Toby Park gets a shout-out for his physical comedy routines.
I am glad I have finally seen TARTUFFE onstage - as I said it's done often so it was only a matter of time before seeing it - and while I enjoyed a lot of it and the performances, I suspect a less comedy-driven production might show why it has remained such a mainstay of our stages.
Peter Hall and John Barton's conflating of Shakespeare's three HENRY VI plays with RICHARD III for the RSC in 1963 was not only a milestone in British theatre but also for television too when broadcast in 1965, filmed on the Stratford stage the year before.
Hall and Barton's trilogy - HENRY VI, EDWARD IV and RICHARD III - are a textbook adaptation, keeping the action flowing while retaining the poetry. The BBC's decision to film it was remarkable as their version of all the History plays, AN AGE OF KINGS, had been broadcast in 1960.
With two years experience of the roles, the actors deliver definitive performances: 23 year-old David Warner as Henry VI, Peggy Ashcroft as an unforgettable Margaret of Anjou; Donald Sinden's York, Brewster Mason's Warwick and Janet Suzman's Joan La Pucelle all shine.
John Normington is terrific as Young Clifford while Ian Holm is excellent as Richard III.
Shelf or charity shop? These three kings will rule the shelf for some time to come...
“O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon..." or your favourite dancers.
It is now four years since we discovered the Royal Ballet's wonderful repertoire and one of the first productions we saw was Kenneth MacMillan's classic Shakespeare adaptation ROMEO AND JULIET with Steven McRae dancing Romeo. Steven soon became our favourite male dancer, a performer with real star quality, and when it was announced he was dancing the role again this year, tickets were snapped up. However on his last day of filming CATS, McRae had a knee injury which required a surgical procedure. "Romeo, Romeo... wherefore art thou Romeo?" He's resting his knee that's where he is. This is sad as we also missed him last year in SWAN LAKE and MANON through being out injured. Anyway where were we? Oh yes, "Two households both alike in dignity..."
McMillan's production originated in 1965, his first full-length work for the Royal Ballet. He had expanded a pas-de-deux filmed for Canadian TV with the young pairing of Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable and was determined they would be his original star-crossed lovers. But the production was due to tour the USA after it's premiere and the American promoter wanted the star wattage of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and the Royal Ballet management gave in, so Gable and Seymour were demoted to the second cast and even had to teach the two more famous dancers some of the moves which must have been particularly galling. McMillan felt betrayed by the decision and left the Royal Ballet the next year to run the ballet company at the Deutsche Ballet in Berlin. He would return to Covent Garden as the Artistic Director in 1970 but resigned seven years later to be the company's principal choreographer.
I still find it remarkable that a production can remain for 54 years in a repertoire - no matter how hard you look you will not find Franco Zeffirelli's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING or Peter Wood's LOVE FOR LOVE at the National Theatre or Peter Hall's THE HOMECOMING at the Royal Shakespeare Company. But it's a minor quibble as ROMEO AND JULIET is still a glorious creation, involving from the start with a thrilling choreographed sword fight in the city square which ends with five dead bodies piled up centre-stage, McMillan's Verona is always a hair's breath away from danger.
John B Read's lighting and the original evocative set design by the late Nicholas Georgiadis combine to give you an immediate understanding of place while McMillan's truly thrilling choreography is realized by Julie Lincoln and Christopher Saunders. Sergei Prokofiev's score sounded excellent played by the Opera House orchestra under the baton of Paul Murphy.
Steven McRae's replacement was Ryoichi Hirano and Juliet was danced by Akane Takada - who always seems to be on when we visit. Hirano was technically fine but was dramatically colourless; Takada embodied the full arc of Juliet, delicate and joyful at the start, troubled and passionate in love and death at the end.
As usual, there was fine support from James Hay and Bennet Gartside as the deadly rivals Mercutio and Tybalt, Kristen McNally and Thomas Whitehead were fine as Juliet's controlling parents, and there was great scene-stealing from the vivacious strumpets led by Itziar Mendizabal.
Despite Steven McRae's absence, ROMEO AND JULIET was wonderful to see again and to relive Kenneth McMillan's creative genius.
The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and,
as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast
recording of my life:
First performed: 1980, Winter Garden, NY
First seen by me: 1984, Drury Lane, London
Productions seen: two
Score: Harry Warren / Al Dubin, Johnny Mercer Book: Michael Stewart, Mark Bramble
Plot: 1933: Broadway director Julian Marsh is hoping his new show 'Pretty Lady' will restore his fortunes after recent flops, although he is saddled with a temperamental leading lady Dorothy Brock whose sugar daddy is bankrolling the show. At an audition for the chorus, Peggy Sawyer, fresh from Pennsylvania, is the last to be cast. But when Dorothy breaks her ankle onstage during an out-of-town tryout, all looks lost...but then Julian remembers young Sawyer...
Five memorable numbers: DAMES, 42ND STREET, LULLABY OF BROADWAY, ABOUT A QUARTER TO NINE, WE'RE IN THE MONEY
Producer David Merrick,
trying to reclaim his King of Broadway crown, decided to produce 42nd
STREET, adapted from the film by Mark Bramble - his ex-office boy - and Michael Stewart.
Stewart had written the lacklustre book for MACK AND MABEL which
Merrick produced and Gower Champion directed. The show flopped and
Champion swore they would never work together again. But six years and two more flops later, Champion signed up for 42nd STREET but, again, he and Merrick clashed. Aware that word had reached the NY critics that 42nd STREET had problems in it's Washington tryout, the paranoid
Merrick cancelled all the Broadway previews to stop the press sneaking
in but insisted the actors still perform to the empty auditorium. One
of the cast suggested that they all bring in any cuddly toys they had
one night and played the show to them sitting in the front rows! These non-previews also covered up the sudden absence of Champion, but he
was in hospital having succumbed to a blood disease that he had been
fighting. Opening night arrived and Merrick *had* to let the
press and public in - but that morning, Gower Champion died. Merrick
only told the writers and asked Champion's family to keep silent. After acknowledging the rapturous ovation at the end of the show, Merrick announced to the stunned cast and
audience that Champion was dead. The next morning 42nd STREET was
front-page news and Merrick had his hit. There is still conjecture that
he made the announcement this way knowing it would make any bad reviews
redundant. The show transferred to London in 1984 and was an instant hit, giving London the sort of huge Broadway show it had not seen in years. I saw a preview and was swept away by
Champion's machine-gun tap choreography, Theoni V. Aldredge's lavish
costumes and the larger-than-life performances of Georgia Brown as Dorothy Brock, Clare Leach as Peggy Sawyer and Carol Ball as Anytime Annie. I knew Carol from Richard Eyre's company at the
National Theatre so eventually her dressing room became a second home.
Flash-forward 33 years and it was a very strange experience to see the show on the same stage when it was revived in a slightly revised version. I had not wanted to see it to be honest... but there I was at the end, clapping like a seal and beaming. Randy Skinner had filled out the choreography for some added numbers and the show was directed by Mark Bramble, who has since died. Bramble didn't revise his book so it remains as thin as ever - 42nd STREET is definitely the last musical to go
to if you want 3-dimensional characters; it literally jumps
from song to song like a tapping mountain goat. But the show knows it's strengths and the songs - and the thrilling
dance routines that accompany them - just keep on coming. The Harry
Warren and Al Dubin songs might not be the best songs of the 1930s but
boy, they have tunes. From the famous opening moments - when the curtain rises and pauses so
you can focus on the ensemble's furious tapping feet - the show just
picks you up and whirls you through it's classic backstage tale. Oddly enough, what stuck me during the revival is the desperation behind
it all: if PRETTY LADY fails Marsh faces a bleak future, Peggy has only her
no-hope existence in Pennsylvania to return to, and the dancers all face unemployment and the
breadline. It's odd that I never really noticed it in the
Most of the available video footage is of the revivals but 42nd STREET is here because of the impact that original 1984 production had on me so here is the wonderful Clare Leach as Peggy with Michael Howe as Billy in the climax of that production, singing and dancing the bitter title song; what better lasting tribute to Gower Champion's sensational choreography.