Skip to content

Mollie Moran lunch for two dozen and a best seller at 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.

Mollie as a young kitchen maid

Mollie when she was a young kitchen maid

Somehow she also managed to find time to write a first-hand account of life below stairs in England’s grand country houses back in the 1930s. For Mollie, who was born in 1916, the daughter of a country smallholder, worked at two vast stately piles near her  parents Norfolk home – Wood Hall at Hilgay and Wallington Hall at Runcton Holme.  Little did she know when as a 14-year-old she started working as a scullery maid – the lowest of the low – that she was entering a vanishing world. Gripping as her tales of the last bastions of Britain’s dying Empire were, to Mollie they were just everyday memories from her young life.

Last year, after Penguin books finally persuaded her to tell her story, she found herself – aged 96 – a best-selling author. There were appearances on Woman’s Hour, Steve Wright  in the Afternoon, This Morning  and features in national and regional newspapers and magazines. Her book, republished earlier this year in America under the title Minding the Manor, was an instant best-seller.  It didn’t just fuel the fascination of a readership obsessed with Downton Abbey, it served up a huge slice of social history, tracing the rapidly changing life of a girl who had grown up in the seemingly time-locked world of  rural Norfolk. Mollie was bemused by the attention. “Everyone seems so interested,” she told me. “But to me it’s just normal.” She loved being in the limelight nonetheless and soon got the hang of working the TV and radio studios. She rather mothered the print journalists, telling me with a mixture of amazement and glee that the man from The Mirror had three helpings of cottage pie and had eaten it while talking on his phone.

She particularly enjoyed telling interviewers where Downton Abbey gets it slightly wrong. “I laugh when I watch Downton,” she told me.  “When you were in the kitchen you didn’t see the people upstairs.  I was answerable to the butler and the cook who were far more obsessed with class and position than any of the gentry. Most servant girls could count the number of times they saw the boss on the fingers of one hand.”

This actually wasn’t the case with Mollie who at Wood Hall was tasked with preparing meals for the estate’s gun-dogs.  The master of the household, Mr Michael Stocks, used to come and collect the dogs’ food personally.

“He was a lovely old gentlemen but rather sad,” explained Mollie. “He was a widower and his son had been killed in the Great War. Everything had changed but he was determined to keep up tradition, living life the way it used to be. It seemed he lived for his shooting parties.”

The kindly boss Mr Stocks

The kindly boss Mr Stocks

Mr Stocks would dress for dinner even when dining alone but had little appetite and the food was often returned barely touched. “On Sundays he would have a great big joint of roast sirloin but only eat two tiny, thin slices,” remembered Mollie.  “The rest came back for the staff. Don’t let anyone tell you that servants didn’t eat well. I was a skinny little thing when I went to work there but I had a bit of weight problem by the time I left.”

Mollie knew all about the tragedy of the First World War. Born at the height of hostilities, she grew up helping her hard-working mother scrape by, keeping a few pigs and chickens and selling vegetables door to door. Her father had been gassed in the trenches and was often too sick to help.

At Wood Hall she was paid £1-a-month and got a day off and the use of a hip-bath once a week.  She was up at 6.30am, often scrubbing floors and shovelling coal. The day would finish around 8.30pm or 9.00pm. “There was a lot of hard work but I really didn’t mind. I was strong and fit and it was just the way of things were in those days,” Mollie told me. “I honestly believe they were some of the happiest times of my life. We got two hours off each afternoon and we’d cycle around the Norfolk countryside. On holidays we’d cycle to Hunstanton and back. It was 27 miles away but we never thought anything of it.”

Mollie (right), Sports Day, 1926 p27

A 10-year-old Mollie (right) gets a first prize at Sports Day

A particular chum was kitchen-maid Florence Wadlow. She worked with Mollie for just two years but the pair remained firm friends until Florence’s death at the age of 100 in 2012. “Me and Flo got up to all sorts.” Mollie recalled.  “We gave the cook and the butler so much cheek it’s a miracle we didn’t get thrown out.” In 2005 Florence published her own story of life below stairs Over A Hot Stove. It was this book that inspired Penguin to ask Mollie to write her own story.

In 1938 Mollie married dashing RAF officer Timothy Moran who she’d met at one of the local dances.  The couple who would go on to have two children (Tim and Ruth ) travelled extensively and soon Mollie found herself stationed in the Far East with servants of her own. But old habits die hard. “In Malaya I used to have staff and my husband had a batman but I really didn’t like people doing things for me. I’d much rather do them for myself.” she told me.

Mollie went on to run the Hay Tor Hotel Overlooking Boscombe Pier in Bournemouth while Tim retired from the RAF and became a teacher. In her final years Mollie, by now a widow, held court at her home in nearby Southbourne presiding with some authority over her beloved Scrabble sessions. She invited me along one day early last summer. I found myself in the company of a cast of characters who would perfectly populate a gently surreal drama. In addition to Mollie herself there were several other nonagenarians including a 92-year-old who told me her name was Amabel. She spelled it out carefully before explaining that her parents who already had five other children had got it out of the dictionary. How appropriate was that for a future Scrabble player? It’s a Latin name in case you’re wondering.  Younger players included a man who studies the theory of dark matter in the universes and another who was writing a sci-fi adventure inspired by his literary idol J.G. Ballard.

Mollie and her book Aprons and Silver Spoons. Picture Hattie Miles

Mollie with Aprons and Silver Spoons. Picture Hattie Miles

Mollie told me she’d been playing Scrabble ever since the board game  first hit the British shops. She was good too, regularly scoring more than 400, sometimes 500 plus points. Meanwhile her daughter Ruth Marsden kept score printing a full set of statistics in her own self-published magazine The Southern Counties Scrabble League News. With a circulation of just 19 the magazine was definitely a labour of love rather than a commercial enterprise.  “It used to have a circulation of 23.” Mollie told me ruefully, “but we lost four teams because so many people play Scrabble on-line these days.” Mollie added that she had started playing on-line too but eventually got rid of her computer. “It gave me backache so I gave it to my cleaning woman,” she explained.

Farewell Mollie. We will miss you.

 

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.

He even took four years to agree to Shaun Evans playing a young Morse in the spin-off series Endeavour. In a recent interview, the programme’s executive producer Michele Buck said she convinced Dexter that the clause in his will had nothing to do with someone playing Morse as a 27-year-old. It merely prevented anyone competing with John Thaw. Eventually the writer agreed, on the proviso that Evans would be the last actor to play Morse. The terms of his will are expected to be enforced by his estate and will be legally binding for 70 years after his death.

Talking to Colin Dexter himself it is clear that he was amazed and delighted with the way Thaw interpreted Morse for the screen. He admits that he was astounded at how Thaw had given life to this complex individual. After 13 Morse novels, he had finally come face to face with his protagonist . “My visual imagination is really rather poor,” he told me. “I knew what Morse was like in terms of temperament and character but I had no idea whatsoever what he looked like. When I was told that John Thaw was going to take the role I didn’t know him at all. I’d never seen the Sweeney or anything else that he’d done. Yet he was extraordinary. “If I imagine Morse now I see dear old John. He did such a wonderful job playing him on television.”

The chattering classes have got in quite a twitter over this. In some cases literally. So why is Dexter so protective of a character that by his own admission was never fully fleshed out in the first place? Perhaps it has a lot to do with the how close the characters of Morse and Dexter seem entwined. The author tends to be a little dismissive about such theories claiming that anyone who writes in the first person about one particular individual is inevitably going create a character who is semi-autobiographical.

“The only thing that was really important about Morse was that he was very sensitive and very vulnerable. People don’t realise that. The greatest things in his life were Houseman and Wagner. These were the things he would go home and talk about and listen to. That was me, but that was all.”

Really? Both read classics – Morse at Oxford, Dexter at Cambridge. Both love crosswords, and the aforementioned opera and poetry, and both have a taste for booze – though Dexter, who is diabetic, has long given up drink for health reasons. Don’t worry the beer he’s clutching above isn’t real. Interestingly when Dexter killed Morse off with a heart attack in the 1999 story The Remorseful Day, diabetes was the underlying health problem that helped take the detective to an early grave.

 

 

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.

It is classic Agatha Christie. A country house murder mystery produced at the height of the doyen of crime writer’s formidable powers. Unusually it started life not as a book, but as a half hour radio play. By 1952 Christie’s tale had become a full-scale West End theatrical drama.

The touring production arrived in Poole for a six night run on Monday and played to a packed house. Inevitably the audience was mature. Many coinsiderably older than the play itself. They loved it and I’m certain they’d have given it a standing ovation if they’d been a little more nimble on their pins. The reasons are obvious. With its tale of five rather strange guests finding themselves snowed into a creaky old guest house only to discover that the phone line has been cut and a killer is on the loose, it’s a compelling tale and a quintessential Christie thriller.

The tension mounts when intrepid detective Sergeant Trotter (Jonathan Woolf) battles his way through the blizzard on skis to warn of grave danger and fears that the murderer may be among their number. But who is it? Guesthouse proprietors Mollie and Giles Ralston (Joanna Croll and Henry Luxemburg) start seeing their residents in a different light – there’s the old soldier Major Metcalf (Chris Gilling); crabby elderly widow Mrs Boyle (Anne Kavanagh); aloof and difficult Miss Casewell (Ellie Jacob); the mysterious foreigner Mr Paravicini (Michael Fenner) and the crazy young architect who calls himself Christopher Wren (Ryan Saunders). They’re all…a bit odd. When one of them is found dead paranoia kicks in. The Ralstons even begin to suspect each other.

Set in immediate post-war Britain The Mousetrap may seem genteel by today’s standards but it deals with issues like child abuse and mental illness that were rarely aired in mainstream theatre in the early 1950s. A flurry of possible clues and false trails keep the audience guessing until the killer is finally unveiled. A strong cast, astute direction from Ian Watt-Smith, a classic set and judicious use of sound and light keeps the unquenchable spirit of this play alive. The Mousetrap, though unashamedly old fashioned, remains not only good solid entertainment but part of British theatre history.

For many the biggest mystery about The Mousetrap is how it has managed to run for 60 years when far more exciting productions regularly sink without trace. I suspect the die was cast when way back in 1958 it became the longest running West End show. From that moment on its record-breaking status became a selling point in itself. It has been a tourist attraction for years. I am of the generation that grew up with this kind of fare. As a child I was regularly taken to the local rep’. My dad appeared in many crusty, fusty melodramas. At school I was the only child in my class whose father had a make-up box. No, I didn’t get bullied. My classmates were in awe of the fact that in our house we had a source of false moustaches, wigs, sticks of greasepaint and pince-nez glasses. These things are important and one of the reasons why The Mousetrap – despite my love of modern and progressive theatre – still cuts the proverbial mustard. For me at least it exists within a very valid time-capsule.

Things get tense in The Moustrap

capsule.

*The Mousetrap plays Lighthouse at Poole until Saturday 29th March.

Jeremy Miles

Morrissey pays tribute to Alexandra Bastedo (1946 – 2014)

Morrissey isn’t noted for saying nice things about people but he made an exception for one time sixties sex symbol Alexandra Bastedo who died earlier this month. In a statement following Bastedo’s funeral near her home in West Sussex at the weekend, the singer paid fulsome tribute to an actress who never chased Hollywood and remained “genuine and dignified.”

Alexandra Bastedo in The Champions

Alexandra Bastedo in The Champions with William Gaunt (left) and Stuart Damon

He was, he said, “Sad beyond words” at her death from cancer at the age of 67. It had come, Morrissey explained “…as I still struggle with the passing of Lou Reed. In this age where only plasticity is welcome, we are losing too many social thinkers.”

Alexandra Bastedo would probably have been quite surprised to be mentioned in the same eulogistic breath as Lou Reed but she certainly knew that Morrissey was a long time admirer, particularly of her work in animal protection. It wasn’t by chance that The Smiths chose an image of her for the cover of their 1988 live album Rank.

She is best remembered  as secret agent Sharron McCready in the 1960s cult TV adventure series The Champions, part of an elite team strangely given superhuman powers by a remote Himalayan civilisation. Each week, alongside sidekicks Craig Stirling and Richard Barrett (played by Stuart Damon and William Gaunt), she would battle evil  rescuing the good people of Britain and its allies from a variety of dastardly threats to civilisation as we know it.

For years Bastedo continued to appear in films and on stage and TV, but only occasionally.  Her public profile diminished but behind the scenes she was still very much in the rescue business – a different kind of champion, battling to save animals from pain, cruelty and neglect. As a tireless campaigner for animal welfare she spent most of the last 30 years running her own ABC Animal Sanctuary, sharing a 10-acre estate near Chichester with her late husband, the actor and director Patrick Garland, and 150 cats, dogs, horses, pigs, sheep, poultry and sundry other creatures. It was a full-time job, but occasionally her “other life” as an actress and celebrity helped out. Whenever she appeared in a movie like Batman Begins or TV shows like Absolutely Fabulous, the money went straight to the sanctuary.

Morrissey

Morrissey

I met Bastedo a few times in recent years. She was a gentle, dignified woman and passionate about her work with animals. She was one of those intriguing characters who had once been at the centre of swinging London but had turned her back on the artifice of celebrity to deal with what she believed really mattered – like her sixties supermodel friend Celia Hammond who once graced the pages of Vogue but went on to devote her life to rescuing stray cats. Unlike Hammond who according two some of the more fanciful  tabloid  accounts is so driven that she often exists on “chocolate biscuits and adrenalin, Alexandra Bastedo was impressively organised. She had a team of more than 60 volunteers who helped run her ABC Sanctuary.

She told me she had always loved animals. “I wanted to be a vet before I wanted to be an actress but got side-tracked by being sent to Hollywood by Columbia Pictures when I was 16.” She admitted that she grew up as ignorant of the wider issues of animal welfare as most of her generation. “I was just an ordinary girl who thought that chickens were what you bought wrapped in plastic from the supermarket.” One of her earliest dreams was to join the circus. “I wanted to be Elephant Girl”, she told me, adding that she felt that this particular childhood fantasy was curiously prophetic. “The circus is about both animals and showbiz – the two parts of my life.”

Shetland ponies were a problem too. “People treat them as playthings. They seem to think that, because they’re small and cute, they’re just toys. They keep them for a couple of years and, when the novelty wears off, just shove them out.”

Her work was tough and never-ending but she relished the sense of achievement brought by restoring an animal back to health and happiness. With medical and surgical back up from local vets, she saved countless creatures from needless suffering. “My philosophy is to always try to do your little bit”, she told me.  “I’m limited by my 10 acres which is absolutely full but I’ll only allow an animal to be destroyed if it’s in terrible pain or there is absolutely no hope.”

She was committed to the fight to end the  cruelty of intensive poultry farming but was quick to point out that the issue was not as black and white as some might think. “I rescued a whole lot of free-range chickens that didn’t have a feather between them,” she told me. “It’s about more than free range or organic, it’s about the density of stock and a variety of other factors.” It’s a subject she felt strongly about and revealed that, if she were granted one secret wish, it would be that controversial turkey farmer Bernard Matthews (who died in 2010) would be reincarnated as one of his own birds. “That would really please me!” she chuckled.  Now that’s the kind of talk that Morrissey would admire her for.

More information about the ABC Animal Sanctuary can be found at www.abcanimlasanctuary.co.uk

Learning a reporter’s trade amid multiple shipping disasters

The Folkestone Herald editorial office in early 1970s on a day when no ships sank

The Folkestone Herald editorial office in early 1970s on a day when no ships sank

Exactly 43-years ago today I walked into my first newspaper office to start a long and eventful career in journalism. The bi-weekly Folkestone Herald and Gazette was a great place to learn the reporters trade. The paper had the advantage of being based in one of the most characterful towns on the south east coast. It had been on the front-line during the war. Hell-Fire Corner they called it when the bombs rained down. I grew up there during the 1950s and had an unquestioning understanding of the place. It was strange but I knew nothing else.

Back in those early post-war days Folkestone exuded an air of ruined elegance  – a throwback to more genteel days. My childhood memories are of a town full of wonderful eccentrics, an environment scarred by bomb-sites, strewn with rubble and inhabited by what seemed like a disproportionate number of war veterans who were minus a leg or an arm. You’d pass them in the street medals clanking, crutches creaking.

My parents were a little bohemian, heavily into theatre, art and occasional forays into the world of European cinema. Our house was a home from home for people from the local rep’ theatre. There were a lot of creative things going on.  It was a good place to grow-up. When I was about six-years-old rock ’n’ roll arrived in Folkestone with gusto.  A regular past-time over the next few years was to wander up the road and look with wonder at the Teddy Boys who frequented the local milk-bar. I’d watch them combing their quiffs and pushing sixpences into the Juke Box – Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everlys… magical sounds from America where everything was bigger – the cars, the buildings, the opportunities.

Within a few short years though such acquisitional desires were unthinkable. The counter-culture had arrived and talk of revolution was in the air. Anyone who was anyone would head for The Acropolis coffee bar in the Old High Street – Archie’s as it was almost universally known – to drink weak coffee, discuss ways of stopping the war in Vietnam and generally how to shift power across the western world from the bread-heads to the hippie collective. We even got Tariq Ali to come and give a talk on a local college playing field.

It was soon clear that the revolution was going nowhere so, in 1970, after a summer spent travelling and a few months trying to earn a crust from dead-end jobs, I pitched up at the Folkestone Herald for an interview. Like every interview I’ve ever attended it was really just a general chat, a bit of banter and then the offer of the job. I arrived on that first morning – Monday 11th January  - full of confidence and ready, I thought, for anything. What I’d neglected to notice as I walked across town to the office was that most of the shop windows were shattered.

I must have been one of the few people to sleep through a massive explosion in the early hours as two ships collided a few miles off shore in the English Channel. The blast as the 10,000 tonne Cypriot registered Paracas hit the 14,000 tonne Panamanian tanker the Texaco Caribbean was so loud it rattled windows 20 miles inland. Eight crew members died as the Panamanian ship exploded and broke in two. I had remained oblivious to it all and shamefully must have trudged uncomprehending through broken glass as I made my way to work.

I walked into an office full of journalists dealing with a major news story. It was about to become even bigger. The following morning I was dispatched, notebook in hand, to speak to local fishermen about the threat of pollution from the wrecked tanker. This was at least a step up from the first day’s task: “Go and ask the shopkeepers what they think about having their windows broken” I had however learnt two important lessons. Be observant and be careful how you phrase a question. It really can make all the difference between getting a constructive and insightful answer or simply being sworn at.

As I arrived at the waterfront on that second day, ambulances screamed past me onto the harbour. A 3,000 tonne German ship, the Brandenburg, had  smashed into the submerged wreck of the Texaco. The stricken ship capsized and sank with the loss of 21 crew members. By sheer chance I was first on the scene as they brought the bodies in. To say I hadn’t got a clue what to do would be an understatement. There were no mobiles in those days. I had to find a phone box and then realised I didn’t actually know the Folkestone Herald’s phone number.  Fortunately for me reinforcements were soon on the way.

Watching how a major news story comes together was a steep but invaluable learning curve. I even got a paragraph of my very own in the resulting coverage. My new employers were quick to stress that such stories hardly ever happen. Wrong! Some six weeks later, on 27th February, another ship, a 3,000 tonne  Greek registered vessel Niki,  hit the existing wrecks and sank. All 22 people on board were lost.

These terrible accidents led to decisive action on maritime safety from the Department of Trade who introduced new traffic control measures and state-of-the art radar surveillance of all shipping in the Dover Strait. It took 31 deaths, the loss of three ships and serious damage to a fourth for the maritime authorities to learn their lesson. It taught me that, journalistically, I really was ready for anything.  Until now that is. I am having a bit of trouble  getting my head around the fact that all this happened 43 long years ago and that as I write this I am  just two weeks shy of my 63rd birthday. Now how the hell did that happen?

Farewell to Phil Everly – one half of the perfect vocal duo

Phil (left) and Don Everly

Phil (left) and Don Everly

I was so sorry to hear of the death of Phil Everly earlier this week. He was just 74-years-old but suffered lung disease related to a lifetime of heavy smoking. Together with his brother Don he pioneered a sound that changed the course of musical history - stunning close-harmonies and songs that deftly drew from both country and R&B.  They were the perfect vocal duo. Without the Everlys could there ever have been Beatles, Beach Boys or Simon and Garfunkel? Not as we know them, I suspect.

I love the sound of Don and Phil. On one level it offers comfort and nostalgia and transports me back to another place and time when life was fresh and anything seemed possible. Yet it remains as thrilling today as it ever was. Of course the reality is that the Everlys – brilliant though they were – inevitably slowed down as the years went by. I saw them a few times in the 1980s and 1990s and they were superb. By the noughties though their concerts had lost the intensity of earlier shows and even though the magic never left them, the range and power of their beautiful voices was beginning to waver. Neither were in the best of health, possibly the legacy of a lengthy period of addiction to a variety of uppers.

A musician friend once described playing support on an Everly Brothers bill and looking on aghast as two “old geezers” were helped hobbling and shuffling into the dressing room where assistants were on hand to strap them up with surgical supports and corsets before dressing them in their finery and pointing them towards the stage. “It was amazing,” he recalled. “The years just fell away. One minute it seemed they could barely walk, the next it was. ‘Hey, it’s the Everly Brothers. One, two, three Wake Up Little Susie!” 

They could certainly be a handful. Don in particular. He had a much darker personality than his quieter and more polite brother.  One time back in the 90s he had Hattie, my wife and partner in photographic crime, thrown out of a concert after demanding to know why she was taking photographs of the band. The answer: that she had applied for and been issued with an official photo-pass fell on deaf ears. Don Everly stopped the concert and demanded that she be escorted from the theatre.” He walked to the apron of the stage and stabbed a finger at her. “We ain’t as pretty as we used to be,” he snarled. “We don’t mind the fans taking pictures (cue big round of applause) but we don’t want professionals pointing their cameras at us.”  The band looked at their feet. Hattie held her photo pass aloft in a vain attempt to stand her ground. But her fate was sealed. Her exit was of course accompanied by the 4,000 strong audience booing and slow hand-clapping. I sunk into my seat. Ironically before picking up the pass, Hattie had been contacted by the concert’s promotor and asked as the “official photographer” to try and get some new publicity pictures and perhaps a couple of live shots to use on a forthcoming album cover. “It’s really difficult getting new pictures of them,” he explained. He wasn’t wrong.

So I found myself in the odd position later that night of having to write a news story about Hattie being slung out of the concert because puffy, overweight Don Everly was too vain to have his picture taken and then write a review for the same edition of the paper saying what a superb concert it was. The Sun picked up on the photographer banned from concert story and ran a piece which contained the immortal words “Photographer Hattie Miles, 32, was asked to leave…” She loved that. They’d shaved almost a decade from her age. Sometime later we ran into the stringer who flogged the story. He said he’d opted for 32 because it was always best to “err on the side of caution.” She was flattered by the amount of erring employed.

None of this put me off the Everlys. Their music will always have a place in my heart. It was an essential part  of  the soundtrack of my childhood – a sound full of energy, hope and possibilities. When I was eleven my dad took me to buy a new bicycle. We went into a coffee bar next to the bike shop and Crying In The Rain was playing on the jukebox. To this day I remember the music better than the bike itself.  It was also of course the quintessential sound of the fairground. Think of the Everly’s and you are instantly riding a Waltzer with Cathy’s Clown booming in the background.

Jools Holland and his band accentuate the positive

Jools Hollands Rhythm & Blues Orchestra: Bournemouth International Centre

Heralded by a fanfare of trumpets, Britain’s favourite bandleader steamed onto the stage at the BIC on Friday and with his brilliant 17-piece band in tow and delivered a night of good-time blues, boogie-woogie and big-band bonhomie.

Jools Holland of course makes it all look effortless. An adept showman, who somehow manages to remain low-key while sporting flashy red spats, he seamlessly drives the concert on with astonishing virtuoso piano but also draws on the many strengths of his band.

Stalwart members include his old Squeeze bandmate Gilson Lavis, who’s drumming is so central to the Rhythm and Blues’ Orchestra’s sound,  Mark Flanagan on guitar and Dave Swift on bass. Jools’ brother Chris is on keyboards ( he was raised by wolves in Deptford Park or so a cheeky JH informed us) and then there’s the  stunning 12-piece horn section. It’s a compelling line-up. Though notable by his absence  this year was Rico Rodriguez.

Jools Holland

Jools Holland

And when you add to that the brilliant vocals of the Queen of boogie-woogie herself Ruby Turner, regular vocalist Louise Marshal and third singer, Jools’ daughter Mabel Ray, who has also joined the family firm, you have something very special happening indeed.

A brief opening set by American singer-songwriter Galia Arad got the evening off to a great start. It was good to hear someone with strong songs and the kind of personality that could transcend the indignity of playing to an audience who had in the main never heard of her and, initially at least, weren’t particularly interested. In fact I am sure that Arad, a one-time New York Hedge Fund employee (though as she was at pains to point out “only on the reception desk”), gained quite a few fans. Guest star for the evening was Mel C. The woman, who in a previous life was Sporty Spice, proved a powerful and impressive vocalist and another example of how Jools Holland can spot a pop singer with serious talent at a thousand yards. Mel strutted her funky stuff with style, particularly impressing with a rousing version of  Nina Simone’s Ain’t Got No/I Got Life. There was much, much more. Big band classics like Tuxedo Junction, singalong favourites like Enjoy Yourself and Accentuate the Positive. Even a boogie-woogie tribute to Richard Wagner to celebrate the great composer’s 200th birthday.

A lovely evening which, without resort to too much tinsel and tat, managed to encapsulate the spirit of Christmas and New Year. But then the concert came just a couple of days after Jools and the boys and girls suspended disbelief, walked into a TV studio and recorded the 2013/14 Hootenanny. It’ll be a classic I am told.

Jeremy Miles

 

EastEnders Jack and flying fingers of Super-Dame Bobby inspire Panto launch

What not to wear in the Queen Vic. EastEnders Scott Maslen as Abanazar. Picture by Hattie Miles

What not to wear in the Queen Vic. EastEnders Scott Maslen as Abanazar. Picture by Hattie Miles

Aladdin: Bournemouth Pavilion

With EastEnders tough guy Scott Maslen camping it up as Abanazar in a whirl of Arabian silks and posh accents, this is a pantomime that delivers the unexpected with considerable style. During his 600 plus outings as Albert Square’s Jack Branning, Maslen had a tendency to get into all sort sorts of bovver. If it wasn’t woman trouble he was getting beaten-up and shot. It must have been very trying. No wonder then that, let loose on Pantoland, he’s clearly enjoying trouble of a slightly gentler kind here. It works a treat too.

Bobby Crush as Widow Twankey  Picture: Hattie Miles

Bobby Crush as Widow Twankey Picture: Hattie Miles

Together with a larger-than-life Dame – Bobby Crush’s alarmingly orange-haired washer-woman Widow Twankey – he provides the main focus of this classic lamp-rubbing, ring-buffing, genie-bating adventure. Writer and director, CBeebies children’s entertainer Chris Jarvis, keeps the action moving as Twankey’s hapless son, Wishee Washee, while his brother Aladdin (Richard Vincent) chases a rags to riches dream in the hope of marrying beautiful Princess Jasmine (Jamie Lee Mason).

It’s a tough task. Evil Abanazar has his eye on world domination and unfortunately destroying Aladdin and taking possession of his dusty old magic lamp are crucial to his dastardly game-plan. Happily, good triumphs in the end. Along the way we are treated to loads of slapstick fun with crazy shenanigans in the laundry, ghosties and ghoulies, a whole bundle of knockabout nonsense from panto policeman PC Ping (Nicholas Khan) and some shockingly corny jokes.

There’s the inevitable and much-loved audience participation and plenty of song and dance plus a welter of local references for the Bournemouth Pavilion audience ranging from the late and decidedly unlamented iMax building to a magic cave that is apparently handily “tucked away in Tuckton”. With the excellent Bobby Crush on board it is only a matter of time before a piano appears, providing Twankey with the opportunity to set her fingers flying for an inspired rock ’n’ roll medley. It’s impressive stuff.

Aladdin plays The Bournemouth Pavilion until Sunday January 5th

From music hall to Jessie J – this panto Jack’s the business

Debra Stephenson as Jack tries to sell Daisy at the cattle market: Photo Hattie Miles

Debra Stephenson as Jack tries to sell Daisy at the cattle market: Photo Hattie Miles

Jack and The Beanstalk: Lighthouse, Poole

What a romp-along joy this show is! Bringing back Robin Cave as producer and Tom Bright as director was an inspired decision by Poole’s Lighthouse arts centre. They’re a couple of old school pros who know exactly what makes panto purr.

In their hands the headliners – actress and impressionist Debra Stephenson as principal boy Jack and Game of Thrones/The Borgias actor Patrick O’Cane as the baddie Fleshcreep – reach back to music hall and vaudeville as they battle good against evil. Yet they stay perfectly in tune with contemporary entertainment.

The audience of all ages were enthralled as Jack and his mum Dame Trott  – also played by the multi-talented  Tom Bright – fought to survive as the evil giant put the frighteners on. The enforcer in chief was O’Kane’s wonderfully creepy villain.

Dame Trott (Tom Bright) Photo: Hattie Miles

Dame Trott (Tom Bright) Photo: Hattie Miles

Faced with ruin unless they sold their cow, Daisy (quite a star turn in herself) Jack went temporarily soft in the head and flogged her for a bag of gold which of course turned out to be a mere handful of beans. A couple of years ago they’d have had a Gordon Brown joke in there but things have moved on.

Thanks to good Fairy Bow Bells (Joanne Derby) the beans sprout into a towering stalk which, with a spot of flying magic, gives Jack the means to climb to the gjant’s lair and lay waste to his evil intentions. Spurred on by his daft brother Simple Simon (Dan Looney) and their good but essentially useless King (Neil Smye) he  triumphs (of course) and wins the hand of the beautiful princess (Natalie Bush). All together now Ahhhhh!

So Poole has delivered a traditional panto that chimes with young and not-so-young minds. There’s swaggering hip-hop, smoochy love-songs and everything in between from a perfectly positioned version of Jessie J’s Price Tag to Daisy Daisy and Old MacDonald Had a Farm.

Patrick O'Kane as Fleshcreep. Photo: Hattie Miles

Patrick O’Kane as Fleshcreep.
Photo: Hattie Miles

Debra Stephenson is an assured star turn, switching seamlessly from the valiant Jack to celebrity impressionist with takes on Adele, Anne Robinson and a whole bunch of B-listers (and that’s being kind)  and of course her greatest hit, Davina. Dan Looney kept the mischief turned up to eleven and Patrick O’Kane’s Fleshcreep was a positively inspired villain heading for a fall.  There was great dancing too and for those who’ve been around the theatrical block a few times references to everything from Scrooge to Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough’s classic Cissy and Ada sketches.

A suberp family show!

*Jack and the Beanstalk plays Lighthouse in Poole until 6th January

“If a baby born to be King was like me, they’d kill him and get another one”

It was good to hear pioneering campaigner for equal recognition of disabled actors Mat Fraser on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row the other evening. As someone who was born with arms stunted in the womb by the effects of the infamous morning-sickness drug Thalidomide, Mat knows what he’s talking about.

Mat Fraser

Mat Fraser

His work in disability theatre has included the self-penned Thalidomide: The Musical and a one-man show called Sealboy Freak – a body of work that has upset a few people along the way. I admit I find it all a little uncomfortable myself but Mat is adamant that it’s better to be upfront than accept that you’re going to be marginalised. I first met this remarkable actor  when he was appearing as Puck in a radical re-reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sitting in on rehearsals I watched as the play – part physical theatre, part musical – plunged Shakespeare into a lurid urban underworld of strip clubs, pimps and pole dancers. It was a production guaranteed to drive purists to near apoplexy. It was designed to make waves. Mat proved both eloquent and wise in his defence of the production.

His Puck was a dope-dealing meddler determined to make sure the course of true love would never run smoothly. He loved it, explaining that his opportunities as a  Shakespearian actor were few. “I’m unlikely to be cast as Hamlet.” he told me. “I’d really screw up the sword-fight.” But then he pointed out there’s another reason he would never be cast as the King of Denmark.  He looked me in the eye:  “Be honest: it wouldn’t be realistic to have a short-armed gentleman like me playing Hamlet. If a baby born to be King was like this” – he waved a tiny arm to emphasise the point – “they’d kill him and get another one.” He burst into laughter.

It’s was an interesting and effective way to underline how the human race are fearful of those who are different and how the world of theatre, with its politically correct wittering, is not a lot better than anywhere else. Which is why Mat continues to be determined to make whatever difference he can.

Julie Atlas Muz

Julie Atlas Muz

Appearing on Front Row with his wife, the groundbreaking American burlesque performer Julie Atlas Muz, Mat was ostensibly promoting their new show Beauty and the Beast which is currently playing London’s Young Vic Theatre. He used the opportunity to explain his position as a campaigner and to discuss a few of the not-so-easy choices he has had to make. He spoke of critics in the disability arts community who saw Freak Shows as “the pornography of the disabled” but argued that, far from being exploitative, the genre offers an opportunity for disabled people to be treated as equals and be fiscally independent.

It also, he insists, provides a platform to talk about Thalidomide and the dangers of corporate pharmaceutical  crime. This is a mission of necessity.  Mat admits he sometimes gets fed up being associated only with disability theatre. “I’d love to play Dave the neighbour,” he says. Trouble is, as he points out, casting directors, writers and producers rarely see Dave as someone with short arms.

*Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz appear in Beauty and the Beast at the Young Vic until 21 December, Young Vic, London

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 431 other followers

%d bloggers like this: