Monthly Archives: January 2014

Film quotient recovery

January has been a slow one for films, in terms of my attendance. This week, after getting back into the saddle with Alan Bennett last Sunday, I arranged to rectify this. On Monday, I saw 12 Years A Slave. The cinema was nearly full, which is quite unusual. I suppose it was near the peak of publicity and reviews. I think it justifies much of the praise, bar the false note of Brad Pitt’s somewhat jarring intervention. He co-produced it, which may be sufficient explanation.

On Wednesday we saw a preview of Teenage, which is based on Jon Savage’s book, followed by a Q&A with him. Having first noticed him occasionally on The Other Side of Midnight, I bought the tickets as much to see him as the film. He was great, the film much less so. I don’t think the conceit of the four narrators worked, their script being banal and pedestrian at best. The final sequence covering the post-war decades was a triumph, out of step with the rest of the film.

Thursday night was comedy, the mechanics showing rather too obviously, I thought.

Last year I and a friend went to see a preview of A Liar’s Autobiography at the opening night of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival. This year, I booked four films, two of which were (very nearly) consecutive on Friday. First was a world premiere of Benny and Jolene. My companion had a great time spotting various famous celebrities and their families while waiting. The film was funny and warm, and it was interesting to hear that people are talking of Charlotte Ritchie as the English Diane Keaton. It was perhaps a victory of editing over structure-lessness, more or less admitted as such by the director. Not surprising when they shot it in 5 days, with a lot of improvisation. We just had time to attend to prosaic matters before the preview of We Are The Best!, a more upbeat film than many of Moodysson’s recent ones. This was hilarious and may have given more insight into teenage-hood than the film on Wednesday. I think there were two other people who’d rushed from one film to the next, which could be validation or confirmation. There was an afterparty for Benny and Jolene, which meant we had the chance (at last) to drink in the mysterious library bar at the BFI, where the bill arrives sandwiched in a book.

Saturday afternoon it was Somerset House for the Stanley Spencer chapel paintings. Sadly, very crowded, which is my own fault for not attending until the final weekend, but still very powerful. It was also the final two days of Julian Stair’s Quietus in the Lightwells & Deadhouse. The invigilator had to ask everyone not to touch the ceramics. One group asked if she “couldn’t just touch it a little?”. “Not really”, was the reply. I was interested to learn about the different types of container – cinerary, funerary etc.

Saturday evening we saw the fiftieth anniversary screening of Dr. Strangelove. The first time I saw that was at the school film society, a strong influence on me, so probably around 1984-5. Its impact is undiminished. There was a discussion afterwards with Kubrick’s widow Christiane, Jan Harlan (who worked with Kubrick later on) and Richard Daniels, who works on the Kubrick Archive. New to me was the ‘final pie fight’ scene, which took place in Ken Adam’s wonderful war room set but which (according to Christiane) didn’t rhyme with the funny and serious mood of the rest of the film. I would have preferred more discussion of other things, but I’m afraid questions kept returning to that topic. Christiane Kubrick also pointed out that he decided not to attempt a Holocaust film because it’s an untellable story. It looks like a festival worth supporting.

On Sunday, having been at the ICA for the Bloomberg New Contemporaries, I wondered about seeing Kiss The Water. Of course I disapprove of fishing, but if I only watched films concerning approved subjects, the available choice might be limited… It was quite unusual, with a mixture of interviews, location shots and animation, and I’m glad I did. The couple who went in just in front of me joked that “it will be just the three of us” because there was no-one else around. I replied that there might be a late rush and I think six more people arrived. Sad that more people weren’t there to enjoy it, as I’m sure they would have done.

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Chinese Comedy Soho Function

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:

Arthur Smith

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?

Hamlet performer

Table-tennis rehearser

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

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:

Arthur Smith performs

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

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:

Shiny statue

so of course he danced around again, pausing to deliver (rather well) more poetry,

Arthur Smith declaims

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:

Centrepoint at dusk

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.

Ticket enormity reconciled

The plan was to spend most of the Christmas period in Manchester, including an excursion to a party in North Wales, at the Church into Home residence. For once, instead of the safe (expensive) option of an off-peak return, I bought a much cheaper advance ticket, reasoning that now in numerical terms I must be a grown-up, surely I can board a specific train… Naturally, I missed the train. I did spend the extra day well, seeing various exhibitions across London and buying remaining present items. The result of this was that I bought an extra off-peak return, because it was only 30p more than a single, and I then had a spare return from Manchester to London, due to be used within a month.

This Saturday, I made use of that return, gambling even more recklessly that I could make the 0655 from Euston, which was the latest cheap ticket I could book. Reader, I did make that train, reaching Euston even before W H Smith had opened. It felt quite odd arriving in my estranged hometown this way. First destination was the Lowry, via the tram. One of the things I like about the tram is the earthy diction of the announcement lady, who curiously tells you the next stop when you arrive at the current one. In fact, I arrived before it had opened, in common with a few other people, so I wandered around the ever-curious Outlet Mall, always an eerie presence when walked through on the way to comedy, as I recall. When I did enter the building, two people said “good morning” to me, which never happens down here.

The first show I saw there was Defining me, illustrating Manchester’s musical history through the collections of various people, including the wonderful Bruce Mitchell of the Durutti Column, and Sarah Champion, who was a slightly notorious figure amongst my set at the time, for no good reason. A lot of the 1980s and later stuff I knew already, but it was very satisfying to read about clubs and venues from earlier decades. It was put on by the Manchester District Music Archive, one of few bodies trying to preserve this sort of cultural memory. It overlapped in my mind a lot with the last show I saw in that space at the Lowry, of early 1960s Top of the Pops. The larger show I saw there was curated by Alison Goldfrapp, part of their new Performer as Curator series. It’s certainly a good idea to bring in new ideas, I’m just not sure in this case that what was on display amounted to a very coherent experience. Maybe that’s okay. I hadn’t heard of most of the people she selected and it’s always good to find new things.

After a pleasing lunch with an ex-colleague, I went around the two current shows at the Manchester Gallery, to my mind still the City Art Gallery. The last time I was there, catching the end of the Do It show that had been part of the International Festival, Jeremy Deller was wandering around with an entourage. He looked like he was planning his own show in that space, and that is exactly what happened. The show is a touring one, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, inspired by the Industrial Revolution. In fact, I stood next to him briefly at the recent Facing the Modern show at the National Gallery. Anyway, I’ve always quite liked him, from Acid Brass and the Orgreave recreation, to the parade through Manchester as part of the inaugural Festival and the retrospective at the Hayward I saw in 2012. He seems to write his own blurbs, which makes them much more edifying and meaningful (and funnier). It’s recommended, and (for once), though it’s now finished in Manchester, it is touring around the country. As with Defining Me, I suppose there’s an extra cheap resonance for me when I see old photos of my places from my childhood, but I don’t believe that coloured my appreciation. The very recent photos from one of Amazon’s “fulfilment centres” were particularly chilling, albeit at perhaps less bodily risk than the miners and factory workers of the 1800s.

Downstairs in the same gallery is the touring set of tapestries made by Grayson Perry for his Channel 4 series on taste, from 2012. I found him much more engaging and appealing as a “pundit” than as an artist. The tapestry galleries were very crowded, much more so than the Deller upstairs, though there was less space. While I like the bright colours of the material, the tapestries themselves don’t really succeed as objects beyond their social commentary purposes. Whilst I was there I had a look at a one room collection of post-war British figurative painting, including Bacon, Freud and Hockney. New to me was Euan Uglow, whose somewhat abstract colouring I found quite appealing.

Because my ticket was a flexible return, I wasn’t tied to a specific train, though I did need to be back in London for comedy at the Union Chapel that night…

The numbers don’t count

One of the justifications for this rather lonely blog is as a spur to myself, hoping at least to avoid the feeling of regret when I read about something I would like to have experienced. I also wanted to read more. Providence ensured that I have the proverbial hour-long commute, meaning that with some optimisations I’m able (most days) to sit down for 35 minutes and read. Doing so when I go to bed remains mostly an aspiration. In 2013 I’ve completed 47 books, which is a little short of my arbitrary aim of 1 a week. However, even in real terms, that’s a significant increase.

In 2012, when I first started recording these things, I saw 72 films (or events at a cinema). In 2013, I saw 114, an average of 2 a week, suggesting I need to seek more diversity in my activities and that room for cinematic growth is limited.

2012 included only 2 plays, while in 2013 I saw 11.

As for ‘Art’, in 2012 I saw 28 exhibitions, in 2013 107.

Comedy events of various kinds – 2012 – 7, 2013 – 22.

Music – 2012 – 4, 2013 – 26, including a surprising leaning towards classical or pseudo-classical.

There are also other things that can’t be so broadly categorised, such as a ‘BookSlam’, open studios, ‘School of Life’ events (for the “anxious rich”, according to the Economist), looking around the Supreme Court and the Bank of England…

From these figures it should be clear why I didn’t have a foreign holiday. Now I’m wondering whether some of the seemingly extravagant membership packages (e.g. £300 ‘Rising Star’ for Curzon) would actually save me money. Working this out will be quite tedious, of course.

I do think that recording these activities has been useful, if only to myself. Now I have a much better awareness of where and when to investigate, of the possibilities. Yesterday I was challenged to take on something more ‘active’, such as guerrilla gardening. Hmm.

So far in 2014, 13 exhibitions…