Prior to the Mancunian Interlude, I’d shown unusual prescience in buying tickets for Friday evening, to see Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the V&A, two days before it finished. Past experience suggested that it would be impossible to do so during the weekend itself, besides which, I was already busy, at least according to my calendar. Through the long-honed hustling skills of my companion, we actually entered long before our scheduled time of 7.30pm, which proved to be quite advantageous. It turned out that a few other people had the same idea of seeing this show during the V&A Friday late opening, so it was horribly crowded. (Given I work about 7 minutes’ walk away, I really shouldn’t let this happen…) Some of my favourites were the mountainous landscapes in the blue-green style and the 19th century works building on masters from previous centuries. I vaguely remembered from reviews I’d heard that there was a particularly good piece and didn’t think I’d seen it, when I came to the last room. The scrolls on display had been unrolled and were in very long cases. The nearest side of the final case was fairly free of people, who were moving along briskly, until a queue started at the far end to see the last scroll, Prosperous Suzhou, the length of which was completely filled with slowly shuffling gazers. Because the wait was so long, there was plenty of language output with which to draw conclusions about people, including the sage in front of us, with his two young female acolytes, and the older couple in front who had difficulty conversing because they still had on their guided tour headphones. Behind us was a man who’d been before but had come again, with a magnifying glass, especially for this final, very long scroll. It was such an English situation, with tutting about queue-jumping and old ladies emerging from their place to berate those who were taking too long.In spite of this, it really was a magnificent panorama and I wouldn’t have had time to see it all if we hadn’t come in 45 minutes early…
Having returned from Manchester to Euston (
On leaving the train, make sure you have all your phone chargers, umbrellas. Any bags you may have,
said the “train service manager”) it was only two stops to the Union Chapel, for one of the Live at the Chapel series of comedy nights, promoted by the Invisible Dot, my regular comedy source (long before it was mentioned in the Guardian). We took seats upstairs, avoiding the downstairs chairs riven with those who must drink so they splay their coats all over the place. Kevin Eldon had a bladder infection, so Tony Law took his slot. I hadn’t seen him before and quite liked his space-naivete plus sheep explanations, as I did another comic with a notepad, whose name I can’t remember. It was a single word.
[Spoilers – I describe in detail what happens during Arthur Smith’s Walk around Soho, which I very strongly recommend, so please don’t read if you intend to go yourself, though I expect each time it’s rather different, if indeed it happens again, which it should]
The next day, the first cultural excursion was to Soho Square, for a Walk (again via the Invisible Dot), led by Arthur Smith. To me, he’s always half of Arthur and Phil go Off on Channel 4. My ticket printout was checked by the lady with the Fearless Investigator tabard and we waited for his arrival. He did so by dancing across the grass, wearing a yellow furry jacket and a sort-of silvery sequinned top, with a dangling medallion:
Admiring the Hamlet rehearser
What followed was, fundamentally, Smith having a great time, with a crowd in attendance. He repeatedly bothered people and asked if they’d dance for our pleasure, and described them as the Coolest in London. He challenged an orange man (from Crossrail), who turned out to be an Orangeman. Standing by a statue, he challenged someone to recreate the pose. Someone did, while singing Yesterday in the Donald Duck style. This was the first of his drama student accomplices. He delivered some wayward but entertaining history facts, then referred to the table-tennis tables of the Square, especially the one with a man sitting on it, preventing the playing of the game. This was an actor rehearsing for his audition. Smith demanded that he perform some of what he was learning, which was Hamlet. So he did, for who could refuse?
Smith then did some Hamlet of his own, followed by a geographically-bowdlerized version. Leaving the Square, he was heckled by Paul Merton, who said that he was a fake, because
the real Arthur Smith died ten years ago.
They walked along together for a while, before Merton went off, not wishing to detract. I admit that I recognised his voice before his face.
At various points, perched on a building site or in an alleyway, two more students snogged with some vigour as we passed. Then, in another passage by the Nadler hotel, Ivo Graham perched on a ledge and spoke comedy for his 7 minutes:
Ivo Graham on a ledge
We’d seen him before in Notting Hill. Promising, I think. He accompanied us, as we passed Ronnie Scott’s, whom Smith said he met in New York, when his teeth had fallen out, which meant he couldn’t play the saxophone anymore, a tragedy for him. He tried to barge his way into the Groucho Club for us, but was put off by the stern staff inside.
You look like Jimmy Saville
said one of the bench-bound, when challenged and the claim wasn’t outrageous:
A street person asked if we could all give him £50, which he said would have been “nice”. A banana-suit wearing man was collecting for charity and was able to pitch to our group. For some reason, he singled me out:
that person with the beard, where are you from?
and when informed I was from Manchester, he turned away in disgust. Tsk. Arthur Smith said after this incident that it didn’t seem fair to label those with beards from Manchester as denied the chance of being cool, so I felt vindicated and defended. We made it to a rendezvous with Happy Days cast members, for a quick song performance:
Happy Days dancers
At our leader’s instigation we hurried to a downstairs room in a bar, music began and we danced for a while. The second song, to serenade us out, was by the Ramones. Sara Pascoe had already joined us and she performed in yet another passageway, incorporating the torn advert from a 19-year old French babysitter that Ivo Graham had found. The snogging couple had been lying spent, with cigarettes, at the entrance to the passageway. They then bickered and the man sought Smith’s favours instead, having to dodge a sock thrown by his earlier consort. I did hear the Invisible Dot lady explaining to a curious passer-by that it was a “comedy walk”. We finished back at Soho Square, where Smith stripped off to reveal that the shiny material formed a full body suit:
so of course he danced around again, pausing to deliver (rather well) more poetry,
before strutting off. He expressed some surprise that in these times people would pay to go on a walk, but we thought it was wonderful.
In the afterglow, even Centrepoint looked quite appealing:
After that I tried to buy shoes and ended up with a new coat instead, my companion was foiled in her attempt to buy a drink by customers’ exhaustive queries about smoothie contents and we headed to the Tricycle for a benefit showing of A Private Function. Jim Carter gave a short introduction and the film itself, which I think I saw at the school Film Soc., was hilarious. I couldn’t remember much about it, other than Maggie Smith‘s character’s discomfiture and I think it was quite enlightening about the curious inversions of post-war Britain. Afterwards, Carter (who for me will always be the cuckolded father in The Singing Detective) returned, joined by Alan Bennett, Michael Palin, Malcolm Mowbray (the director) and Bill Paterson. We were a bit worried that Bennett had a comfort blanket with him, but it turned out to be a scarf. He conveyed such incredible joy when laughing at the others’ anecdotes and memorably described Palin as being ineffectual, forgetting to distinguish between actor and character. For once, I just took it all in, not sneaking a photo, and was glad I did so. There were lots of questions, including one from someone on the front row, whose first comment was that
It’s my dream to come true to sit this close to Alan Bennett.
Jim Carter wondered if that was the extent of her enquiry… The event was intended to raise funds for the Tricycle, which is clearly well loved, judging by the full room and the quality of the guests. I hope to go to more in the series.
That’s enough for one weekend.