Sunday, June 29, 2008

Over the past week I have caught up with three Channel 4 documentaries which left me wondering about the best way to present the form as they illustrated the different ways documentaries are now presented.

1) The "Nugget" Approach
I will happily watch any documentary about the Mitford sisters so I started watching a repeat of HITLER'S BRITISH GIRL last week with interest. After a while it dawned on me that it had been green lit because of a single nugget of information that the programme doggedly refused to drop. Martin Bright, political editor of the New Statesman attempted to get to the truth of a rumour that Unity Mitford had Hitler's baby in an Oxfordshire rest home. Despite the fact that all the books written by and
about the sisters has never raised this conjecture before, the programme makers persevered with the quest to get to the bottom of this non-existent story. Eventually Bright traced a woman whose sister worked at the home and she stated categorically that Mitford was only there because she was recovering from her suicide attempt at the declaration of war. So how did the programme end? "We will probably never know if Unity Mitford gave birth to Hitler's child...." YES WE DO! IT DIDN'T HAPPEN!! The stupid thing was the programme was so blinkered in it's determination to concentrate on this bogus story that there were two glaring omissions in the story:
1) how, while striving to show how close Unity Mitford was to Hitler, could there be no mention that Diana Mitford had married Oswald Mosley in Goebbels' living room where Hitler was a guest?
2) while attempting to suggest a conspiracy theory for Unity not being interrogated when she arrived home in January 1940 why didn't they bring up the fact that Diana was arrested and interned in Holloway 6 months afterwards until 1943?

2) The "Looky-likey" Approach

Next up was SNOWDEN & MARGARET: INSIDE A ROYAL MARRIAGE which lifted the lid on the first of the Windsor marriages to go upsy-dutch. Again it wasn't long before I realized what strand of docu I was watching - this was the kind that illustrated every anecdote from the interviewees with a soft-focus filmed insert with unnamed actors who never have any lines but who invariably dance, walk up and down stairs, walk into empty rooms, put lipstick on while staring into mirrors - usually with a tear running down their face etc. The annoying thing about this approach is:
1) why are they there at all? I can listen to what someone is saying without it being
acted out for me
2) if they must be there - why not cast people who actually LOOK like the subjects - it's not like we don't know what these people looked like! For all the acting ability these unknown performers need they might as well trawl the lookalike ads in the back of The Stage - at least we would be spared the guessing game of wondering who it is that has just walked into the room until the narrator informs us that it's not Valerie Singleton but Princess Margaret.

3) The "Celebrity" Approach

The third was actually by far the best: Rupert Everett exploring the life of Sir Richard Burton in THE VICTORIAN SEX EXPLORER. The 'celebrity on celebrity' approach can sometimes be a bit ropey as it is all dependent on the presenter and if in the process of the documentary they actually reveal themselves too. Luckily Rupert Everett was an excellent choice, camera-savvy and an excellent guide to Burton's life, from translating The Kama Sutra to his growing interest in the East and his distancing from the Victorian society he was allegedly serving. Everett was on board of course to probe Burton's possible and growing homosexual leanings which he did with humour and an obvious interest. His meetings with the people Burton would have met and wrote about were also handled with a genuine interest and empathy, from the sensual Nautch dancers to the hijra eunuchs who in Burton's day held privileged court positions but who are now reduced to prostitution. He met Indian prostitutes who have to give up their children for adoption and he led some Indian nuns in a ragged rendition of "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria". It was a great programme, beautifully shot and of course, winningly presented.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

This week has been fraught with anxiety as Owen had to rush up to Newcastle due to a family crisis. He is still up there and having to deal with the grinding ineptitude of the National Health Service.

It also meant we had to miss out on seeing Yazoo at their reunion gig at Hammersmith on Thursday - although by all accounts *the* gig to be at that night was Grace Jones at the Festival Hall as part of the Meltdown curated by Massive Attack. I have never seen her perform and would dearly love to if she tours with her new album later this year.

Luckily Owen had given me the tickets for Friday's Meltdown gig - a set by reformed post-punks Gang Of Four but much more
importantly the bill was shared by the mighty Tom Tom Club. It's a bit galling that Chris 'n' Tina have to be a support act but they always seem to be happy to be asked to appear over here. Andrew was free tonight so he nabbed the spare ticket and joined me, Dawn, Gareth and Ian at the Festival Hall as the excitement mounted.

This is the third time I have seen the funky funsters live and they never fail to have me smiling like The Joker and moving. Sadly the Festival Hall is hardly conducive to butt-shaking and so I wriggled in my seat impatiently among the firmly planted punters.
Chris 'n' Tina make a great backbone to the fun, their drum and bass lines lines locked down, an onstage partnership as strong as it is offstage. They were joined by their onstage singing buddies - Mystic Bowie bouncing all over the stage with dreads flying and Victoria Clamp prowling around with her sleek looks - and longtime musician colleague Bruce Martin on keyboards, so important to their sound. Also onstage was James San Giovanni. rocking a flat cap look and great guitar as well as a musician who has been with Chris and Tina all his life, their son and onstage DJ Kid Ginseng.

They delivered a fantastic set of distinctive funk/reggae/wacky hippidy-hop fusion:
"Suboceana", "Punk Lolita", "L'Elephant", "Time To Bounce", "The Man With The 4-Way Hips" (steamy with extra-added sultry), "She's Dangerous", "Genius of Love" (will never tire of this), "You Sexy Thing" (as glorious as ever), "Wordy Rappinghood" (as delirious as ever) and we even got "Take Me To The River" as an encore.
Come back soon Chris 'n' Tina... London loves you!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Oops. After it's no-show in the Tony Awards winner's circle CRY-BABY is finishing this Sunday on Broadway.

It was the biggest disappointment of the shows we saw earlier this year so I am really not surprised it's closing early. It managed 45 previews and 68 performances.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sad news this evening that Cyd Charisse the ballet dancer who became one of the great dancing stars of MGM Musicals has died aged 86.

Born Tula Finklea - now there's a name to change from - in Texas, she joined the Ballet Russes at 13 and eventually found her way to Hollywood appearing in featured dance numbers in the 1940s.

Contracted to MGM it was in 1952 that she first captured the public's attention with her appearance in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN during the climactic "Broadway Melody" number when a hapless Gene Kelly tangles with her in a steamy nightclub
pas-de-deux, she even cleans his glasses on her thigh!

Kelly enjoyed working with her so much they were later teamed together in the screen version of BRIGADOON and IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER where she also had a great number in a boxing club "Baby You Knock Me Out".

The year after SINGIN' IN THE RAIN brought her best showcase, opposite Fred
Astaire in Vincente Minnelli's THE BAND WAGON. She played a star ballerina hired to appear in a Broadway show with one-time star Astaire who is resentful of her classical background. Of course they fall in love and how...
the DANCING IN THE DARK number is one of the loveliest dance routines from the MGM musicals, a stroll in a nocturnal (sound-staged) Central Park slowly turning into a swooningly romantic duet.
Choreographer Michael Kidd then paired them in the climactic dance routine "The Girl Hunt Ballet" with Astaire as a 'Mickey Spillaine'-type pulp fiction private eye trying to find his would-be assassin while also tangling with Charisse as both a sweet and innocent blonde girl and a sexy brunette night-club dancer.

Now I had selected a few shots of her as the night-club dancer but none of them compare to the actual footage... just watch them make screen magic - with Minnelli's wonderful eye for colour - with this fiercely cool and thrilling routine.... I LOVE this!

Despite appearing again with Astaire in the screen musical SILK STOCKINGS her years of stardom coincided with the end of the golden years of the MGM Musical and she turned to appearing in dramas such as PARTY GIRL and TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN.

In her later years she often appeared in shows with her singer-husband Tony Martin and she even appeared singing and dancing at the Victoria Palace in the 1980s in a revival of CHARLIE GIRL - a brave move bearing in mind she was invariably dubbed in her screen musicals!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pah... bloody Tony Award voters!

XANADU and SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE were both overlooked at last night's ceremony, losing out in all the categories they were nominated in. Gulp... SUNDAY was up for nine!

The good news is that the three stars of GYPSY, Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines, all won for their performances.

Of the nine British actors nominated in the drama categories it was success for Mark Rylance for his performance in BOEING BOEING - which also won Best Revival - and Jim Norton in THE SEAFARER which had transferred from the National Theatre.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I have had fun revisiting two theatrical delights this weekend.

First was Vanessa Redgrave in an hour-long conversation with Al Senter at the National Theatre.

Now Vanessa has had about 50 years to perfect her interview style but whenever I have seen her being interviewed it always seems as if she's been doing it 50 minutes!

She is unable to toss off a few well-honed crowd-pleasing anecdotes at the drop of a hat and the questions put to her are answered with an honesty that can border sometimes on a simple yes or no without elaboration. It is always a peculiar experience when one is used to so many other soundbite-friendly performers.

I suspect most of it must come down to her being deliberately misquoted so often in interviews about her political views that have then been used against her that she is naturally cautious when it comes to answering any. At least she didn't bring her own tape recorder with her as she has been known to do with print interviews!

Anytime spent in Vanessa's presence is beneficial however and she spoke with a direct eloquence of her latest great stage role in Joan Didion's THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. It was also good to hear that the film role which most satisfied her was as ISADORA. Now if Universal would only release it on dvd...

On Saturday night Owen and I went to the Playhouse to see the transfer of THE HARDER THEY COME seen earlier this year at the Barbican Theatre.
Happily the show has transferred well to the auditorium and hopefully can settle down to a long run. The hard-working cast fully deserved the standing ovation at the end of the show which also served as a good skanking opportunity for a reprise of the title song.

The cast is still headed by the charismatic Rolan Bell as Ivan, the countryboi who seeks fame and fortune as a reggae singer in early 70s Kingston but finds corruption and hypocrisy blocking his way. Attempting to finance his own recordings by turning to exporting herb he runs up against the corrupt police chief Ray Pierre (Chris Tummings) and realises that you can indeed "Get It If You Really Want" but at the price of becoming Kingston's most wanted outlaw.

What makes this so great is that yes, there are still a couple of over-stated performances and yes, it still feels rough around the edges but that does not detract from a wonderfully vibrant production which engages you with it's energy, it's committed central performances and of course the fantastic songs of Jimmy Cliff, Toots Hibbert etc. Go deh!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Oh Christ... where am I going to spend money I don't have in New York now?

The Virgin Megastore in Times Square is going to close in 2009.

Reuters say "Vornado, the company that owns the property, is forcing out the struggling chain so that it can up the rents on a new tenant"

Virgin pays $54 a square foot in an area where rents can easily fetch $700, an executive vice president at Vornado told Reuters.

The chain's Union Square location should also vanish early next year.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

As you can see by the little widget on the right I am on the music network site, and good fun it is too.

I was poking about on there this afternoon and found a few good music questionnaires so here's one I am nicking off Janell from America:

"post your top fifteen bands/artists, the first song you heard of theirs, a song you love, and your current favourite"

1) Kirsty MacColl
First: They Don’t Know
Love: Soho Square
Currently: Caroline

2) Madonna
First: Material Girl
Love: Holiday
Currently: Give It To Me

3) Mary J. Blige
First: Real Love
Love: Baggage
Currently: Just Fine

4) Gladys Knight & the Pips
First: Midnight Train To Georgia
Love: No One Could Love You More
Currently: Bourgie Bourgie

5) Sugababes
First: Overload
Love: About You Now
Currently: Surprise

6) Prince
First: I Wanna Be Your Lover
Love: I Would Die 4 U
Currently: Chelsea Rogers

7) Lulu
First: Shout
Love: Only One

Currently: Dream Lover

8) Diana Ross & The Supremes
First: Baby Love
Love: Come See About Me
Currently: Falling In Love With Love

9) Aretha Franklin
First: I Say A Little Prayer
Love: Your Song
Currently: A Rose Is Still A Rose

10) Barbara Cook
First: The Ingenue
Love: Errol Flynn

Currently: Losing My Mind

11) Pet Shop Boys
First: West End Girls
Love: Being Boring

Currently: My Girl

12) Morrissey
First: This Charming Man
Love: The More You Ignore Me The Closer I Get

Currently: Hairdresser On Fire

12) Dusty Springfield
First: I Only Want To Be With You
Love: People Get Ready
Currently: Every Day I Have To Cry

14) Clydie King
First: The Thrill Is Gone
Love: Missin’ My Baby

Currently: Ready Willing & Able

14) Darts
First: Daddy Cool/The Girl Can’t Help It
Love: Get It
Currently: I Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love

14) Freda Payne
First: Band of Gold
Love: I Shall Not Be Moved

Currently: Bring The Boys Home

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Last night was a date with destiny.

I always wanted to see Mary J. Blige in
concert but was always wary as I was unsure what it would be like. I've bought all her albums so I should have seen her by now but I suspect her 1998 live cd gave me pause. Although she sounded great there is a rapper onstage hollering over her like a cheerleader with Tourettes "Mary in da fuckin' house... make some noise muthafuckaaas". Charmed.

I have also found some of her output to be a bit variable, usually down to the ubiquitous love of the meandering mid-tempo ballad by r&b divas. Although MY LIFE is singled out by critics as her best album I found it a frustrating listen as for each gem there were 2 anonymous mid-tempo ballads to aurally wade through to get to them. This inconsistency was evident as late as 2003 when the excellent NO MORE DRAMA was followed up with the lacklustre LOVE & LIFE. But with back-to-back great albums THE BREAKTHROUGH and GROWING PAINS I decided that I needed to see her.

But again I was concerned - was the O2 arena going to be the best place to see her? Surely she was going to be a bit stranded there. HA! She appeared at the top of a staircase in the middle of the stage in a flash of fire and launched into "Grown Woman" from GROWING PAINS and within a few minutes I was hooked. She was fantastic!
We had lighting cues, video projections, pyrotechnics, girl dancers, costume changes. But here is the key... we had *a* costume change, the dancers came on for a chorus or two towards the end of the show then melted away, the video projections were tastefully done and although the fireworks and flares were nice to see... they really weren't needed. Mary supplied all the real pyrotechnics!

She tore into her back catalogue singing short versions of several of her songs including the fabulous "Real Love" which really needed to be longer. But after a while we started to get the full length versions of key songs - one more jaw-dropping than the last.She asked for our assistance in helping sing her cover of "I'm Going Down" and I must say we sounded pretty fierce as we also did on "Not Gon' Cry". She also sang an amazing solo version of "One" her hit duet with U2, a lovely "Everything", a thrilling "Fade Away" from GROWING PAINS.

It made me wonder why she has never really had the chart success or popular respect she deserves in this country as opposed to the synthetic Barbie's who usually lay claim to the tarnished word 'diva' after one album and an overdose of Junior Disprin. Maybe the fact is Mary is too raw, she is not a polished pop/r&b crossover. She personifies Ghetto Fabulous but her doubts and struggles are never far from the surface. Her music is informed by it, her onstage words are exhortions to be yourself and not be held down by what others feel they can mold you into. All of this culminated in a white-hot "No More Drama". I think it might have been the most exciting vocal performance I have ever seen.

But Mary is in a happier frame-of-mind now so she left us with three great 'up' songs - "Work That" and "Just Fine" (cannot tell you how much I love this song!) and as an encore her urban dance classic "Family Affair".

I always thought the comparisons with Aretha were over-reaching. I know better now.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Yeah I know I've been a bit quiet... been getting on with the new job and very little else. I really can't bore you with the details.

But Sunday was a real diva fest! In the afternoon Owen and I went around the Victoria & Albert Museum's exhibition THE STORY OF THE SUPREMES.

Curated from Mary Wilson's collection of their stage outfits it was huge fun seeing so many of the dresses I have seen in photographs, album covers and TV footage.

There was the pink layered dress, so often seen in their early television appearance that would loosely sway as they did...
There was the riot of colour that was the heavily-sequinned 'butterfly wing' gowns as seen on the covers of the TCB and CREAM OF THE CROP albums...There were the pale pink diamante-studded tight-fitting dresses that they dazzled London at the Royal Variety Performance with - odd how it photographs white:
There was the funky outfit for LOVE CHILD when The Supremes went 'Urban'
Happily *my* Supremes - 1970-72 - was also represented with the Bob Mackie 'Peach' dresses
and there was also the glittery fuschia gowns seen on the front of the 1970s GREATEST HITS:
As you can see... I loved it!After that we headed over to the restrained surroundings of Cadogan Hall to see the eternal Petula Clark.

We saw her last year in the less restrained Croydon Fairfield Hall and she was damn fine... professional to her fingertips and of course still singing her classic pop songs from her golden period of the 1960s.

Although it was roughly the same show I must admit this time I was a little less engaged. It is phenomenal she is still out there, taking the show to her fans. I mean.. here is a woman who has been a household name for 65 years!!! I'll be generous and blame it on it being the first night of her tour but she seemed to have difficulty pitching her voice. I think the main problem is that the songs we all want to hear are presented exactly as they were in the 1960s so it forced her to sing them in an upper register that she doesn't seem to have the breath for anymore.

Maybe it's time to find a way of presenting them in a new style - believe it or not, she did a lovely ballad version of I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND accompanying herself on the piano so maybe this might be a solution. The over-emphatic brass section and drummer also gave her stiff competition as to who was the centre of attention.

Her energy level didn't seem to flag though and although it was not a sell-out she was loudly cheered.... and when you finish the evening belting out I COULDN'T LIVE WITHOUT YOUR LOVE it's impossible to say you didn't have a good time!