Dancing Ledge

When the going gets tough the tough start blogging

If you paid as much attention to your homework….

Simon and wife Lolly Gallup with his Emmy in Los Angeles last night.

Simon and wife Lolly Gallup with his Emmy in Los Angeles last night.

Woke up this morning and… No, don’t worry, it’s not going to be a blues lyric. My woman was safely at my side, my crops (well the runner beans at least) were just fine and my livestock (the cat) was happy, healthy and eating a hearty breakfast.

I woke up his morning to find that social media was alive with the fact that my brilliant, talented brother, Simon, has just won an Emmy for his lighting design work on the American TV programme Dancing With The Stars. The award is well deserved and it’s been a long time coming. Simon, an excellent lighting designer with 40 years experience of theatre, music, stage and TV work, has been nominated every year for more than a decade. Until now though the coveted Emmy has always gone to someone else. A few weeks ago he told me that his “loser’s smile” (perfected to avoid awkward TV footage) was as perfect as it was possible to be. Well let’s hope his winner’s grin came even more naturally.

Simon (right)  and me 44 years ago

Simon (right) and me 44 years ago

The fact that Simon became a lighting designer came as no surprise to anyone at all. As children ( Simon  is three years younger than me) we were often taken to the theatre.  From an early age he invariably looked, not at the stage, but over the back of his seat at the people operating the lights. He got some early hands-on experience with school productions and also at the Hong Kong Stage Club where our dad was a leading light.

The day he left school, formal exams finally over, he wrote the words “education begins” in his diary and headed straight for London where he was soon working in the West End helping to build sets for plays, operating a dry-ice gun for the Royal Ballet, taking any jobs going. Watching and learning. Next came years on the road with rock bands. Touring Europe with everyone from Caravan and Barclay James Harvest to Iggy Pop and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. He worked with Blondie, Madness, Wire, Simple Minds, Lene Lovich, Status Quo – a curious slew of musical styles but they all needed lights.

In 1981 Simon moved to Los Angeles and started establishing the well-deserved reputation that he currently enjoys. Over the past three decades he has toured extensively and produced a wealth of LA based work that encompasses live theatre as well as lighting for TV and video. He has worked with Sinatra, Streisand, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli and countless others. There have been many one-off shows, TV specials, awards ceremonies and long-running series like Dancing With the Stars too.

It’s funny that we both remember an occasion back in the 1960s when we were avidly listening to Pick of the Pops on the radio and our mother – still going strong at the age of 88 by the way – told us that if we paid as much attention to our homework as we did to the charts we just might stand a chance of getting decent jobs when we finally left school.

Having watched one son earn a living lighting countless shows for musicians and the other pay the bills by writing about them, she admits this advice may have been misguided. Not that it matters. It was ignored.

Simon, our mum and me.

Simon, our mum and me.

Simon and I don’t see each other as often as we’d like to these days and when we do our encounters can be in unusual places. I remember catching him for dinner in Las Vegas once and saying our farewells in a vast hall full of glass cages where half-naked men were frolicking with lions. Then there was a long midnight conversation held on a traffic Island on the Upper Westside in New York and the last time I saw him was in a pub car park in Surrey.

But however long we are apart, as soon as our paths cross again, we seem to instantly take-up where we left off. I’m looking foreword to the next time so I can congratulate him on his Emmy face to face.

Kenneth Clark patron and champion of the artist

 

Kenneth Clark - Looking for civilisation

Kenneth Clark – Looking for civilisation

I really enjoyed Tate Britain’s recent examination of the enormous influence exerted on the 20th century’s understanding of art history by one man – curator, collector and museum director Kenneth Clark.

The exhibition explored Clark through the works of art that he loved. Called simply Kenneth Clark: Looking For Civilisation – a reference to his groundbreaking 1960s TV series – it showed him to be a man at one with works ranging from medieval manuscripts, old masters and Greco-Roman sculptures to contemporary artists.

Clark – known simply as K to his upper-crust chums – was the product of the last gasp of Empire. Born in 1903, he was extremely wealthy and supremely well-connected. He was by his own admission a product of the idle rich.

His father, Kenneth McKenzie Clark, already rich and heir to a textile fortune, was reputed to be the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo. He retired in his early 40s and enjoyed a lifestyle that led the young K to observe that while some may have been richer than his papa it was doubtful that any could have been idler.

Friends of the family, whose fortune had been secured by the invention of the cotton-spool, included the great art critics Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson. Kenneth junior soon developed a deep love and understanding of modern French painting and the Italian Renaissance. It was the perfect grounding for a career that, after Winchester and Oxford, would find Clark bestriding the art world.

He was director of the National Gallery by the time he was 30 and did much to modernise that fusty, crusty old institution. In addition to bringing in works by Cezanne, Manet and Degas he insisted that the gloomy old building should be introduced to the illuminating possibilities of electric light.

Clark’s taste as a collector and connoisseur was not infallible. He made some mistakes along the way, buying some duds alongside the magnificent paintings he acquired. He had his detractors. There were those who thought him aloof and patronising. But he did much to popularise art and was a skilled communicator who during the 1940s proved a highly effective chairman of the War Artist’s Advisory Committee and later a powerful and natural broadcaster.

He championed artists like Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper, Victor Pasmore  and Graham Sutherland and even helped support them with his own money. He took his patronage seriously. In an article in The Listener in 1940 he stated: “…ideally it needs two people to make a picture: one to commission it and the other to carry it out.” He added that a patron should not simply pay an artist for his work, he should possess “enough critical understanding to see the direction in which the artist ought to go.”

Really? There is no evidence to suggest that Clark exerted undue pressure on those whose talents he supported. In Civilsation he said: “Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.”

Maybe Clark simply lavished attention, and money, on those he believed already fitted this description. Controversially, he believed that war artists should be exempt from doing their bit as say a stretcher-bearer or night watchman. Clark put it like this: As a firemen he will be of very little use to his country, but if he is a good artist he may bring it international renown.”

I met Clark a few times when I was a young newspaper reporter working in South East Kent. He had a patrician air but was not unfriendly and we had two or three interesting discussions about art and the direction it was taking. this was the 1970s.

Some years later my mother-in-law moved into a house next door to the Clark estate at Saltwood Castle. By then it was occupied by his throughly disagreeable son, the Conservative MP Alan Clark, best known for his indiscreet diaries, his womanising and his professed lust for Margaret Thatcher’s ankles.  K, long elevated to the peerage, had moved into a modern house in the grounds. He invited me for coffee one day. I couldn’t help noticing there was a Rodin on the window sill. The media had made much of Clark being a man of the people. The fact was that though his heart was in the right place, he came from a completely different world from those he now sought to communicate with. He was socially, economically and historically removed from his audience and I think that made him just a little bit unhappy. Kenneth Clark died in 1983.

Suzanne Vega: still left of centre and still on label-defying form

 

 

Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega

 

Suzanne Vega: Lighthouse, Poole

I first saw Suzanne Vega 25 years ago when she was flying high on the reputation of breakthrough hits like Luka, Tom’s Diner and Marlena on the Wall.  The media, expecting just another New York coffee house folkie, were stunned by her capacity for producing intelligent, emotionally charged lyrics.

They fumbled around for a suitable label to pin on her. Which is why for a couple of years Ms Vega was routinely described as ‘a Joni Mitchell for the Filofax generation’ Until that is her simple, wistful acappella recording of Tom’s Diner was remixed by the dance producers DNA, became a club hit and was used as an early experiment in music file compression. Hey presto, Vega was now ‘The Mother of the MP3’.

She shook off those horribly dated sobriquets long ago but not before absorbing some of the musical influences that had been visited upon her work. Quietly plugging away she has been producing material of depth and quality ever since. A quarter of a century after Luka so effectively explored the difficult subject of child abuse, she is still out there, left of centre, creating cutting-edge material with an experimental lyrical and musical slant –  intelligent, searching songs that still tend to defy glib journalistic description.

At Lighthouse in Poole last night (Thursday July 3) – one of handful of UK dates following her triumphant appearance at Glastonbury last weekend – she played a set that was both sophisticated and fun. Backed by longtime musical cohorts, drummer Doug Yowell and the brilliant guitar of David Bowie’s sometime musical director Gerry Leonard, it was poetry in sound. A collection of songs that found Vega’s distinctive and pure vocals juxtaposed against a magnificently mindful backing that chugged and chimed, swooped and simmered its way into your consciousness. Although the addition of bass and keyboards would have undoubtedly made the sound bigger and beefier,  this ambient approach worked remarkably well

When the old hits were dutifully performed – Luka in particular remains timelessly touching – they were gently but effectively re-worked. They gelled beautifully with the real purpose of the concert – to showcase a fine selection of songs taken from her new album Tales From The Realm Of the Queen of Pentacles. An impressive body of work,  it was produced and co-written by Leonard – a self-confessed super-geek. So who better to enhance it with a mind-blowing box of technical tricks? What an extraordinary guitarist!

Just a week shy of her 55th birthday Vega looked great. Dressed all in black – a point underlined in her song I Never Wear White – she chatted cheerily to the audience between numbers. An anecdote here, a telling aside there. Tales of lost loves and her occasional quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Stand out tracks included Fool’s Complaint,  Jacob and the Angel, Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain and a selection of oldies that remain definite goodies like Gypsy, Small Blue Thing, Ironbound/Fancy Poultry, Left of Centre and Blood Makes Noise, the latter delivered as the result of a surprise encore request.

Although this was a great concert it really wasn’t much of a ‘show’. Production values were clearly pretty low on the priority list. This was an occasion to let Vega’s remarkable songs speak for themselves. As such it might have worked better in a jazz club  or at least a more intimate space than the big, wide concert hall at Poole. But that’s nit-picking. This was a great night listening to a singer-songwriter who is always at her best when performing live. She didn’t disappoint.

Mention should go too to excellent support act from Brighton, singer-songwriter Chris Simmons. He could have come over as little more than a warm-up busker but the quality of his material, and voice, shone through.

Jeremy Miles

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now for something completely the same

Monty Python's Palin, Idle, Jones, Gilliam and Cleese 361 years old and coining it

Monty Python’s Palin, Idle, Jones, Gilliam and Cleese. 361 years old and coining it

With their pensions now well and truly enhanced, the Pythons can hopefully fade cheerfully into comedy history. Not that I have any problem with the five surviving members’ solo careers you understand.

I just happen to think that 45-year-old comedy shows tend not to mature very well and believe that Monty Python’s Flying Circus is best viewed as something that happened a very long time ago. It was astonishingly innovative back then and, occasionally, utterly brilliant.

However I also remember how distressingly dire some of the sketches were. People forget that one of the reasons Python worked was that the BBC gave the team an extraordinary amount of space to experiment. This wasn’t as generous and enlightened as it sounds.

The simple fact is that the stuffed shirts who ran the corporation at the time hadn’t got a clue what this bunch of Oxbridge jokers were playing at. What they did know though was that change was in the air.  So as somehow the Pythons seemed connected to the leading players in the satire boom and what’s more had been to the right schools, they just let them get on with it. The result was a pile of dross but also a superb collection of comedy sketches. The brilliant young humorists had caught the spirit of the times perfectly, attracting a cult following that endures to this day.

Flyingcircus_2

The Pythons in 1969

When news broke that they would be staging their first live shows together for more than 30 years, the media were quick to point that the five surviving members were now in their seventies. Indeed they have a combined age of 361. That inevitably led to questions being asked about the wisdom of playing a 10 night residency at London’s O2 Arena. Were they only in it for the money? Could they still hack it?

Predictably the opening night at the O2 Arena last night was greeted with mixed reviews.  To the diehard fans – and even our cynical national press has a few of those – the show was a triumph, a joyous romp down memory lane. Comedy gold revisited.

To those with a slightly more critical take on the proceedings it was a clever but lazy exercise in milking old material for capital gain. A bunch of old men dishing up re-runs of sketches that made them cult favourites in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

What everyone agreed was that a 2014 Monty Python audience contains significant numbers of people desperate to re-live their own youths and bathe in the reflected glory of their comedy idols. For them the chance to watch Cleese, Palin, Jones, Idle and Gilliam perform on the same stage together is a pretty big deal in itself. To see them deliver classics like the Dead Parrot Sketch and The Lumberjack Song is utterly irresistible. Sadly The Ministry of Silly Walks was literally a stretch too far for the old boys and was wisely omitted.

It’s a little ironic perhaps that today first-generation Python fans, once so proud of their anarchic and radical taste in humour, are not remotely interested in ‘something completely different’. They want a word-for-word re-run of everything they loved and held dear four decades. At the O2 they were not disappointed although one or two minor adjustments had been made to tone down some of the lines produced in the less enlightened 70s.

The devotees appeared not to notice. They didn’t bat an eyelid either at the eye-watering ticket prices or even at stumping up twenty quid for a programme. All they cared about was the joy of seeing their comedy Gods in the flesh and greeting their favourite routines like the return of long-lost friends that were once edgy and dangerous but are now comfortable and familiar. On that basis, Monty Python’s Flying Circus 2014 appears to have worked a treat.

Even the shows detractors admitted that the audience gave a pretty conclusive impression of having loved every second of it, even though a disproportionate amount of time was devoted to old TV footage.

There was also some concerns that younger members of the audience – and there were a few – might have had difficulty understanding the various references to pound notes, Bertram Mills and Timothy Whites, though I doubt this was a significant problem.

I’m sure the Pythons will sail through their 10 day run with adoring audiences hanging on their every word and if there’s anything the besotted crowd don’t like they’ll just pretend it was funnier than it actually was. Just like we all did with the original TV series!

 

Avoiding the dark side or why I hate churnalism

Jonathan Miller: Photograph by Hattie Miles

Jonathan Miller: Photograph by Hattie Miles

As yet another ludicrous press release – a gushing piece of mindless spin – drops into my in-box I find myself yet again lamenting the way in which journalists are routinely taken for fools who can be manipulated for political or commercial ends. Of course as the media in general and the regional print press in particular is gradually reduced to a shadow of its former self by cost-cutting proprietors more interested in driving up profits than championing fair and balanced reporting, it is increasingly open-season for public relations departments. Read the rest of this entry »

BBC killjoys try to clamp down on smutty jokes

Tim Brooke-Taylor.     Photograph by Hattie Miles

Tim Brooke-Taylor. Photograph by Hattie Miles

It was good to hear Tim Brooke-Taylor ridiculing the “pathetic” BBC  killjoys who reportedly told I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue chairman Jack Dee to tone-down the BBC Radio 4 show’s famously innuendo-laden jokes.

In a recent interview with that well-know purveyor of scandal and gossip, Cotswold Life magazine, Tim revealed that the BBC had suffered a sense of humour failure after a listener complained about the smutty jokes made at the expense of the show’s fictional score-keeper  and record researcher Samantha. As a result Jack Dee had threatened to quit. Cue a flurry of national newspaper stories.

Cotswold Life, name-checked in every article, must be delighted. You can’t buy that sort of publicity. Tim Brooke-Taylor meanwhile will be shaking his head in bemusement. Me too. With my publicists hat on I set that particular interview up.  It seemed about as mundane as possible. Tim would give the magazine a half hour or so interview in advance of his appearance in his An Audience With Tim Brooke-Taylor stage show at the Stratford Upon Avon Literary Festival. Read the rest of this entry »

Genial giant Neil Fingleton would love to play a Bond villain

 

Neil Fingleton and Jenny Platt  preparing for panto in Dec 2009. Picture: Hattie Miles

Neil Fingleton and Jenny Platt ready for panto  in December  2009. Photograph: Hattie Miles

It must be difficult being physically different. People who don’t conform to generally accepted expectations of how one should look tend to have a rough ride through this uncompromising world of ours.

There are exceptions of course and one of them is a genial Geordie called Neil Fingleton. Officially recognised as  Britain’s tallest man, this cheery 33-year-old is seven foot seven and a half inches tall and weighs 25 stone and takes size 15 shoes. Read the rest of this entry »

Mollie Moran cooking lunch for two dozen and writing a best seller at the age of 96

Mollie Moran photographed at her Dorset home by Hattie Miles

Mollie Moran photographed at her Dorset home in 2013 by Hattie Miles

It was Mollie Moran’s funeral today. She died just two-and-a-half years short of her 100th birthday. A good innings by anyone’s reckoning but somehow for this former kitchen maid who found literary fame in her nineties it just didn’t seem right. At least she died peacefully in her own bed just a few months after a cancer diagnosis.

I first met Mollie a year ago when I interviewed her about her best-selling upstairs downstairs memoir Aprons and Silver Spoons. Razor sharp and impossibly energetic, she seemed strong and well.  She walked her dog daily, entertained visitors at her Dorset cliff top home, hosted weekly scrabble sessions and each month would invite 25 players from across the southern region to take part in a mini-tournament. Single handedly she would cook for them all, producing a selection that included cottage pie, chicken curry and a variety of puddings. I asked how she managed it. She shrugged and told me: “Oh it’s nothing. After all I don’t do the washing up. I get someone to help with that.” She seemed indestructible. Read the rest of this entry »

Morse code – Colin Dexter bans new actors playing Inspector Morse

Colin Dexter Photograph by Hattie Miles

Colin Dexter Photograph by Hattie Miles

News that crime writer Colin Dexter has changed his will to ensure that his famous Oxford detective Inspector Morse will always be remembered exactly as he is now, has been greeted as though it were a revelation.

Which is a little odd as Dexter, 83, has been telling people for years that he has put a clause in his will banning new actors from playing the role epitomised on TV by his good friend the late John Thaw. For Dexter, Thaw was absolutely perfect as the opera-loving, real-ale quaffing, crossword-solving, classic car driving, curmudgeon of a sleuth. He fears, not without good reason, that the role (and his much-loved stories) could be dumbed down, spivved-up or otherwise messed about by future actors. Read the rest of this entry »

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap – sixty years and still going strong

Things get tense in The Moustrap

Things get tense in The Moustrap

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap: Lighthouse, Poole

It’s the longest running whodunnit in the history of British Theatre. Now after more than 60-years in the West End, The Mousetrap is making its first ever national UK tour.

Despite being unfashionable for years – during the 50s and 60s it was eclipsed in turn by angry young men, kitchen sink drama and the rise of cutting edge theatre on TV – The Mousetrap just kept on keeping on. There have been more than 25,000 performances so far. Read the rest of this entry »

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