On Hiatus

I’m off to house-, rabbit- and cat-sit for a fortnight, hoping to break the back of a couple of writing projects while I’m out of my routine.  The wifi and mobile access will, apparently, be “spotty”, so I’m also taking the opportunity to have a digital detox.  I shall be beyond the reach of pizza delivery, as well as newspaper delivery too – come find me if the world ends while i’m not looking!!!!

See you in August

Richard III

I went to see Martin Freeman’s Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios on Monday night.  I suppose I ought to write my review before I read anyone else’s (it was the press night last night) so here we go.  I should begin by explaining that I was sitting on the stage, in one of the rows of seats behind the performance area so I was both extraordinarily close to the actors but also looking at the backs of their heads for much of the time. 

Freeman gave a good performance: he comes with baggage, of course (Tim from the office, Arthur Dent, Bilbo, John Watson… ) but the performance I saw was relatively calm on the daffy-fan-behaviour spectrum and his trademark “can you believe this?” sideways look at the audience actually works well for Richard.

The conceit of the production is that the “Winter of Discontent” refers to the 1970s and that there was some kind of coup.  Broadly, imagine the unions (or at least the working class, or at least people with thick Yorkshire accents) were the defeated Lancastrians, and the ruling classes were the sons of York.  Which is neat; and the set – two face to face conference tables and some desks with 1970s typewriters, faxes and phones – looked as if it might be fun too.  And the opening scene worked with the concept, Richard holding a microphone and making “now is the winter…” as a formal speech, and then putting down the mike and making it clear we were hearing his private thoughts about his villainous intent.

But that was the extent of the cleverness: after that the seventies were wasted and what we had was just a bunch of guys in oddly cut suits and improbable sideboards, looking like your mad uncle from way back when…

There were some shocking moments.  Clarence, in particular, was drowned by dunking in a fish tank not six feet away from where I was sitting and I couldn’t see how the actor survived it except by holding his breath, so kudos for that effect (assuming it WAS an effect and not awesome lung power!) There was a truly horrific scene of domestic violence with Richard murdering Anne in a one armed strangling that turned into an epic fight for life and had me covering my eyes.  And I walked off backstage to find the floor literally spotted with stage blood from the gore-covered exits.

So it was good.  There were some good performances, particularly Martin Freeman’s Richard and Gina McKee’s queen.  But… but… but…

But it wasn’t clever.

It was set in the 1970s.  To me, the absurdity of the scene where Richard confronts Anne over her dead husband’s bleeding body and says, in effect, yes, I know I killed your father and your husband but it was *all your fault* for being so hot, so how about it babe? COULD actually be made to work.  How?  Sedation and roofies.  Hysterical female crying at a death?  Bring in a compliant doctor, stuff her full of drugs, and you have your obedient zombie bride.  If the director had read A Woman On The Edge Of Time at an impressionable age as I did, well, it might have worked.

And, slightly earlier than the actual Winter of Discontent, what about Nixon?  What more perfect way could there be to encapsulate the vainglory of someone keen to be understood by history and yet in no way to modify his behaviour than to have Richard “record” his soliloquies like the Nixon tapes?  

Where were the cameras?  Yes, there was an ancient TV camera wheeled on at the end for the triumphant Henry to make his final speech, but some seventies tech would have worked brilliantly with the concept – what was the scene with the citizens asking him to take the crown but a TV interview with a bunch of paps standing by?  When – I kept asking myself – were they going to use the bloody typewriters?  Employ half a dozen actresses who could type, to sit on the sidelines and type all these despatches, and faxes, and ticker tape messages going out to the various troops?  (And then they could have put on balaclavas and made the final battle scene a bit less one-on-one!)

So, yes, I enjoyed it, enormously.  But I enjoyed the production I was directing in my head a lot more.  Sorry and all that.




Middle Aged Blues

You know it’s not going to be a good day when it starts by bashing your head on the shower door, getting shampoo in your eye, and then having to stand and rinse your hair for ages because the new conditioner the hotel provides smells like drain cleaner.

But I ventured out of my hotel nevertheless, bright and early, and walked across Westminster Bridge for my first ever visit to the Houses of Parliament. I’ve been in Portcullis House before, but not the actual iconic building itself.

The invitation said allow “up to” half an hour to get through security. I thought that didn’t sound right – I thought I’d heard somewhere that you have to allow at least an hour? But anyway I was a prudent ten minutes earlier than the half hour mark, and joined the long, long, looooooong queue to get through security and go in.

I stood in the queue. I tweeted humorously about the “trial by ordeal” of queueing for a hundred yards on a walkway suspended over a lawn that was in the process of being cut – hay fever city! I took, and tweeted, a picture of the statue of Cromwell (caption: “for god’s sake, go!”) I waited, and waited, and the clock got nearer and nearer to ten o’clock when the debate was due to start…

I was heartened to see former colleagues from ARC a mere ten or twelve yards in front of me. I mean, they were hosting the event, so I couldn’t be THAT late, right?

They got through the security door and vanished. I shuffled the last, slow, few feet, and then found myself inside…

… where there was a whole OTHER queue, to go through airport security-style metal detector security.

So I put my handbag and my jacket in one tray and my mobile in another, and passed through the arch…

…which went off. So the man waved his wand over my arms and legs and wasn’t happy. I was racking my brains to think what was I wearing or carrying that might make the machines go beep. The attendant called a female attendant, who patted me down. Baffled but apparently reassured by this bit of theatre, they let me through….

… where, unsupervised, I wandered around to the ACTUAL visitor’s entrance, as opposed to the security theatre entrance which was a mere out building.

Which is fine of course, but at this point it was 10am and I was officially in danger of being Late, and I still had no idea where Committee Room 14 might be found. So I stood in the vast marbled hall and panicked, and then found a person with a photo id who indicated the vast staircase at the end of the hall.

A vast staircase without a handrail is… interesting. I wouldn’t have minded, but I then had to turn left and limp down a long corridor… to another staircase. And another. And another. I was so miffed I actually counted them on the way out. I’m sorry, but 88 steps requires advanced notice, or a lift. (I gather there was a lift. But no-one to point you toward it. And I was late anyway)

I was late. I wasn’t the last (the esteemed editor of Taxation magazine and various other luminaries arrived later). But I got a good old attack of “side eye” from A Certain Former Official Of My Former Union Who Were Organising The Event, Who Had Been Ahead Of Me In The Queue. Reader, if looks could kill he’d be a teeny tiny pile of ashes on the carpet!

And then they began. The chairwoman had a lovely audible voice. And a microphone. Directly in front of her.

The other speakers… had a mike between each pair. Now, this CAN work… if the speakers USE the mike. Either move the mike in front of you when you speak, or else simply move yourself TO the mike. But if you sit and politely do nothing, hoping the mike might pick up your voice through sympathetic magic, then the middle aged fat lady at the back of the room will be tweeting furiously that she can’t hear you and USE the mike and other people will be tweeting back to her that they don’t think the mikes are actually ON.

It’s a good thing it was an interesting debate, because I had the kind of day where you start by bashing your head on the shower door handle, and end it by picking a sandwich off the vegetarian platter and finding you’ve bitten into… a chicken wrap.

Still, at least I didn’t actually throw up on anyone’s shoes.

A sky full of stars

Uncle Vic and Auntie Rita were close friends of my mum and dad. So Uncle Vic was one of those uncles who get the courtesy title because what else are you going to call an adult when you’re a small child – Vic? Unthinkable. “Mr Spencer”? Too formal for someone you play cards and have tea and watch the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special with every Boxing Day, one year at their house, the next at ours.

But Uncle Vic was a teacher too, and had that unshakeable aura of command that all teachers had, in those days, so you had to mind your Ps and Qs a bit with him, too. He taught, and was either Deputy Head or Head, at Upperthorpe School, and a choirmaster, and organiser of a school football league. Talking to children and being obeyed was what he did.

It broke him, in the end, as it does to so many teachers: the job gets harder and the burden gets greater and the respect reduces, so I don’t think he exactly had a Goodbye Mr Chips retirement and some of the joy of the work was taken from him – but along the way he changed lives.

He changed mine. When I was a child I knew I wanted to be something (in the days when there was a real question whether a girl would want to have “a career” at all or would simply get married, as if that was an answer). And I was the first person in my family to go to grammar school (and, later, to university) so I didn’t have much idea of WHAT I wanted “to be”, so like generations of working class kids I said I wanted to be a teacher, because that was the only class of professional with whom I ever came into contact (except vicars, and that wasn’t an aspiration for a girl then, remember).

Before I went to university, Uncle Vic arranged for me to do some work experience at his school, at some kind of summer school. And yes, I went in all shiny-eyed and full of myself, and yes, I came out knowing that, whatever else I wanted to be, a teacher wasn’t it. Aunty Rita and Uncle Vic were the adults who treated me seriously when I was a child; spoke to me as you would speak to another adult and not in that “talking to children” voice people adopt, taught me that I could aspire, if I could think what I was aspiring to; taught me I could think, but I had to think about the process involved.

There are other family memories of him, of course. The one I remember most vividly is when his mother, Lily Spencer, who had been a stalwart at St Bartholomew’s all my life, died. Uncle Vic turned up on the doorstep, and even a child could see that he scarcely knew what to do with himself. And dad invited him in, and they stood in the lounge talking about the chimney breast dad was taking down and talking about the brickwork and plastering and anything but the reason he was there; the first time I saw that sometimes language isn’t all about the words at all.

Dad was best man at Vic and Rita’s wedding on St Bartholomew’s Day at St Bartholomew’s church 56 years ago. Mum remembers him as organist and choirmaster at St Barts – before my time – and one day when the choir was being particularly tentative a loud voice from the organ calling out “SING!!” Kim, my sister, remembers the Christmas card games and how Uncle Vic always reminded us of Eric Morecambe – something about his appearance, and of course the same wicked sense of humour.

I asked my nephew, wondering if the “speaker to children” role had impinged on his childhood, too, but he said he remembered “a positive aura but that’s it, I’m afraid”. But that’s it, I think. Just think how many lives a teacher touches. And a good teacher (and I have no doubt he was a good teacher) touches multitudes: Upperthorpe, the choir, the football. Like John Watson to Sherlock Holmes, a good teacher is a conductor of light. If that’s the case, Uncle Vic was a sky full of stars.