Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Turing Test

Bletchley is an unremarkable place; so much so that, if it hadn't been chosen to house the wartime codebreakers, it'd be best known as a suburb of Milton Keynes. Actually, its nondescript nature was one of the reasons they were there. (Another was that it's roughly halfway between Oxford and Cambridge - a lot were mathematics dons). Part of the beauty of the story is the disjunction between the location and what was achieved there. Winston Churchill - who, let's face it, was in a good position to judge - said that the work done at Bletchley Park, and especially the cracking of the Enigma code, probably took two years off the war.

I have two favourite Bletchley Park stories. One was of a rounders match played between the British codebreakers and the Americans who'd joined them after Pearl Harbour. Rules were agreed, the game was played, and at the end, both sides thought they'd won. This seems to me to say something quite profound about this country's relationship with the United States.

The other concerns Alan Turing, the most brilliant of them all, who committed suicide in 1954, two years after he'd been arrested for homosexuality - as the film director Michael Powell said, Britain doesn't treat its heroes very well. A codebreaker interviewed years after the war observed that talking to Turing made him realise the difference between intelligence and genius. Talking to a very intelligent person, you hear ideas that you (possibly) could have come up with yourself, if you'd only had the time. Talking to a genius, like Turing, you hear ideas that you know you never would have had in a million years.

Since hearing that, I've used it as a personal shorthand for a genuinely astonishing idea - one that I know I could never have come up with myself. I'm not a scientist, so my Turing moments are mostly to do with writing - lines, ideas or images that come from a place I've never been, and never will. Offhand, I can think of a few; the description of the fog at the start of Bleak House, the last line of Some Like It Hot (written, according to I.A.L. Diamond, at the end of an exceptionally heavy day, and intended as a placeholder until they could come up with something better), and Smokey Robinson's realisation that, in large enough quantities, the salt water of tears can leave a track.

Inevitably enough, the writer who's passed my personal Turing test most often has been William Shakespeare, the person for whom, according to Jonathan Bate, the concept of genius was invented. His very familiarity sometimes makes this hard to spot- so many of his phrases are stuck in the language that we forget how genuinely bizarre they are. A trivial example will do; Cleopatra's 'my salad days, when I was green in judgement'. How many of us, if we'd never heard it before, can honestly say that we would have come up a woman who describes her youth by comparing herself to a lettuce?

Friday, 24 September 2010

Up On the Roof

Open House Weekend is for me what the end of the Season is for Tatler-readers; the last gasp of summer, the year's final outdoor event, before we all head back to our burrows and turn into hobbits. Looked at another way, it's a London-wide party, a housewarming when we all get to nose around the hidden rooms before the people who work there take them back. On the weekend, and for a few days afterwards, I always catch myself looking at the city with new eyes, temporarily transformed into an architectural trainspotter.

My highlight this year was the Kensington Roof Gardens, built in 1936 by Ralph Hancock above what used to be the Derry and Toms department store. It was a bit of an icon of my childhood - whenever my grandmother came to London, part of her routine was a cream tea atop D and T. The roof garden survives as a private members' club, run by Virgin, which means that the weekend was one of the few opportunities I'd have to visit without adding to the wealth of Richard Branson.

The garden is seven storeys up, and hosts a cafe and champagne bar of almost parodic luxury -the toilets have a tropical fish tank between the Ladies and Gents, the first time I've seen that outside a film. The garden itself has three sections - one designed to resemble an English woodland, including a lake with four flamingoes (the younger pair are called Splosh and Pecks), one mock-Elizabethan and formal, and one Spanish, based on the Alhambra in Granada. This, with its palm trees, quasi-Moorish architecture and pink walls, is the first thing that you see on coming out of the lift, and I have to admit that my immediate reaction was to burst out laughing. The audacity of building a pseudo-Mediterranean garden above a department store in soggy, crowded London is so extreme - idiotic in some ways, admirable in others - that the only reasonable response is to giggle.

A fellow visitor said 'It's like Portmerion.', and that's not a bad analogy - if you can build an Italian village in North Wales, why not a Spanish garden above West London? Both places are a bit like three-dimensional scrapbooks, full of oddments of statuary, bit and pieces that their architects had picked up abroad and needed a home for. They're eclectic, made up of ideas from elsewhere, and necessarily incomplete, always allowing for another item.

This magpie impulse isn't quite the same as the colonialist urge of a Lord Elgin or William Randolph Hearst, looting the art treasures of the world, or the Las Vegas desire to reproduce everything bigger and better. It's a more modest wish, to take a little bit from everywhere, and it's very British (I nearly said 'English', but Hancock was from Wales.). In its refusal of an overarching aesthetic, it's connected to what Keats called 'negative capability' - the capacity to remain undecided, without striving after certainty. Possibly one reason for the national love of gardening is its unperfectability - you're never finished.

Speaking a language that cherry-picks the best bits of Latin and German, with a national culture that's based on waves of invasion (up to 1066) and immigration (after that), British people are natural collagists, picking up symbols, icons and ideas where we can find them, but rarely buying anything in its entirety. When the Pope talked about 'picking and choosing' morality, he thought he was describing the country's atheists - in fact, it's just how we are, the religious as well. The Kensington Roof Garden is like the national mindset; eclectic, eccentric, and up in the air.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

That's Not Bad, Mama

Okay, here's where I put my critical credibility on the line. I've recently, thanks to a charity shop bulk buy, been watching Elvis Presley's post-army films. And some of them aren't bad.

The standard critical line is fairly simple; after a promising start (Love Me Tender, Loving You), Elvis' screen career peaked with Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. Then he went into the army and, on emergence, turned into a pod person. With a couple of odd exceptions (Flaming Star, Wild in the Country), the films from G.I. Blues on are cheaply-made travelogues, as he somnabulated through a series of forgettable plots, interchangeable leading ladies, and awful songs, all masterminded by Col. Tom Parker, whose 'Technical Advisor' credit sits on the screen like a mildewed ear.

There's a lot of truth in this narrative, and it'd be a braver man than me who attempted to defend the likes of Fun in Acapulco, featuring Ursula Andress as a female bullfighter, and the song 'The Bullfighter was a Lady', a number which has proved to have surprisingly little currency outside its immediate context.

Presley was never the world's most expressive actor and the first few post-army films play to his strengths, casting him as a laconic, Brando-ish outsider, often with some surprisingly sharp one-liners. Even a monstrosity like Girls, Girls, Girls! has a couple of nice moments - Elvis, in a club where a woman is being troubled by her drunk, boorish boyfriend, turns to her and says 'Who's the intellectual?'.

Viva Las Vegas, a film I remember being on television all the time when I was growing up, still holds up well - it has a terrific theme song, and Ann-Margret as an unusually ballsy heroine. According to Peter Guralnick's biography, the two of them were having an affair during filming, and they certainly have a remarkable screen chemistry. In an impressive piece of directorial generosity, the final freeze-frame shows the two of them singing together, with her in a slightly better screen position.

I can't make great claims for Blue Hawaii, which kicked off the unfortunate wave of musical travelogues, focusing on bikinis and wildlife - as the man himself said, 'I got sick of singing to turtles.'. Even so, it's got Angela Lansbury as Elvis' Southern Belle mother, one great song - the incandescent 'Can't Help Falling In Love' - and more of those one-liners (Young Girl - 'This Hawaiian moonlight is very intoxicating, isn't it?' Elvis - 'Yes, ma'am. That's why I never touch the stuff.') . It also gets props as one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to end with an inter-racial marriage - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is still seven years in the future.

The one that really surprised me was Roustabout. Elvis plays a cafe singer who gets assaulted by a group of college boys offended by his song 'Poison Ivy League'. Don't be fooled by the leathers and quiff - this Elvis is clearly a beatnik rather than a greaser - Dylan rather than Brando - and his one-liners have an oddly existential ring - 'You're all alone.' 'Isn't everybody?'.

The first line in that exchange is delivered by Barbara Stanwyck, playing the owner of the carnival that Elvis joins as a all-round helper. Probably the best actor ever to appear in an Presley film (with the possible exception of Walter Matthau in King Creole), she's wonderfully sparky in her scenes with him and still - it has to be said - stunningly glamourous at 57. Indeed, one of the film's problems is that you wonder why Elvis is bothering with the insipid Joan Freeman rather than her far more interesting and attractive mother. (Admittedly, she's married, but that didn't stop Fred MacMurray.)

Like Freaks and Carny (which features the Band's Robbie Robertson - what is it about rock stars and carny films?), Roustabout has an incidental anthropological interest, showcasing a few real carnival and freakshow turns, including a Wall of Death on which Presley (or his stunt double) takes a ride. The music is one of the film's less interesting features, though the milieu does allow Elvis to cover the Coasters 'Little Egypt', reuniting him briefly with his best songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

So, maybe it's time to reassess a couple of those films. At the very least, I've had a surprisingly good time watching them, and queried my own knee-jerk dismissal. To quote a singer who's made nearly as many bad films as Elvis (though nothing like as many good ones); 'Beauty's where you find it.'.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Frank Kermode, and what makes you tick.

Like a lot of great critics, the late Frank Kermode was at his best when writing about the apparently trivial. In The Sense of an Ending, he discusses the fact that, while most clocks repeat the same noise - 'tick-tick-tick-tick' - we can't help hearing it as 'tick-tock, tick-tock'.

Kermode's explanation is that it's to do with the human love of narrative, and our desire for that eponymous sense of an ending . Tick is a beginning, tock an end. "The fact that we call the second of the two related sounds 'tock' is evidence that we use fictions to enable the end to confer organization and form on the temporal structure." (The Sense of an Ending, p. 45)

(Indeed, if you wanted to get really clever, you could argue that 'tick' contains the idea of life - as in 'what makes you tick' or calling the heart a 'ticker' - and 'tock', with its echoes of both 'stock' - as in 'stock still' - and the German 'tod', that of death. That's my observation, not Kermode's, so don't blame him if you think I'm overdoing it.)

Like I said, it's a trivial thing, but it's a nice illustration of the way in which narrative does seem to be hard-wired into the species, a product of our awareness of mortality. I'm a relativist in most things, willing to accept that much of what we call 'human nature' is actually is a construct, specific to culture and circumstances, so it's always striking to come across something that appears to be genuinely essential.

This applies especially to artistic conventions, which arise for any number of reasons, some apparently universal, some very particular. I've heard a feminist comedian argue that jokes with punchlines are inherently male, aiming at a single explosion of laughter rather than a gradual build-up - I don't think I need to explain the analogy. The generally macho world of comedy (and stand-up in particular) has enabled a gender-specific pattern to pass itself off as a universal.

By contrast, some conventions do seem to be built in to our biology. The iambic verse line owes at least some of its power to the fact that it echoes the 'de-dum' of our heartbeat, rectangular paintings are satisfying because they correspond to the binocular field of vision. The three-act narrative structure, whether in Commedia dell'Arte, Noh Theatre or Hollywood cinema, appears to have a similar universality, although I'd argue that's more to do with mathematics than biology - stories need a situation, a change and a resolution, which makes three acts a convenient minimum.

'Tick-tock', of course, is a two-part narrative, going straight from birth to death, with just silence between. Kermode describes it as "a model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it a form... Tick' is a humble genesis, 'tock' a feeble apocalypse." (Ibid, p.45) Your ear may be telling you 'tick-tick-tick', but the brain, with its love of story, has ways of making you tock.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010


(If you're not a cat lover, you might want to skip this one. If you're a sentimental cat lover, you might also want to, for different reasons.)

At the risk of depriving many stand-up comedians of their routines, the difference between cat and dog people is a simple one. Dogs are low-status and adoring, for people whose central need is to receive affection; cats are high-status and aloof, for those whose need is to give it.

I've always been a cat person; my family acquired the first pair when I was five and have had a regular overlapping parade of them since then, some adopted from friends, some just wandering in.

A couple of months ago, Skittles, our cat for the last ten years, died. A few weeks later, my housemate heard of a work colleague who'd developed an allergy and was therefore looking for a good home for Matilda, tabby, long-haired, four years old, and beautiful.

We installed her initially in the back room. Used to living in a flat, she tended to stay indoors most of the time, only exploring the back garden when chivvied out. She quickly found a preferred place to sleep, lying at the top of the stairs, one paw languidly outstretched. When stroked or tickled, she'd stretch across the floor, lashing her tail like a dog.

Last week, my housemate came downstairs in the morning to discover Matilda lying in her habitual place, warm and dead. She'd lived under our roof for a little less than a month.

The vet told us that she died from a rush of fluid into her lungs, consistent with either an undetected heart condition or a sudden infection - in other words, it wasn't our fault. My housemate had ordered some cat treats by mail order. They arrived the day after her death.

Increasingly, I find that the things that cut me up are less to do with man's inhumanity to man (that's just depressing), and more with the occasions when people mean well but still get nowhere - couples who love each other but can't make their marriages work, projects that fail despite the commitment of all concerned. I remember as a teenager being very affected by the chapter in 'Far From the Madding Crowd' where, after Boldwood's death, his wardrobe is found full of clothes meant for his intended wife, and labelled 'Bathsheba Boldwood'. The combination of love and pointlessness still upsets me.

I do realise that there are many events more tragic than the death of a cat, even a beautiful long-haired tabby. But still, I feel a sadness, and it'd be dishonest to deny it. In an era of obsessive positive thinking, it's worth remembering that, sometimes, things go wrong, and there's nothing we can do about it. Sometimes, in small things as much as great, life's a bitch.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Little Shop of Horrors - a tale of two endings.

Courtesy of YouTube, I recently watched the original ending to the 1986 film Little Shop of Horrors. This follows the stage musical in killing off all the main characters, and showing a world taken over by mean, green, people eating plants. This ending played badly with test audiences, and got replaced with Rick Moranis, as our hero, discovering a way of defeating the plants, thus becoming an unlikely cinematic cousin of Howard Keel in The Day of the Triffids.

It's always tempting to get on a high horse when Hollywood changes an ending, and plenty of the YouTube posters do just that. Personally, I think the producers were completely right to alter the stage conclusion for a film, in a way that says something quite interesting about the two media.

A little bit of history here - Little Shop of Horrors was originally a 1960 horror/comedy, shot in two days by legendary schlockmeister and cheapskate Roger Corman to take advantage of some sets he had left over from another film. Scripted by Charles B. Griffith (who had used more or less the same plot for A Bucket of Blood the previous year), it's a Faust-variant, about a downtrodden florist's assistant, Seymour Krelbourn, who discovers fame and fortune thanks to an unusual plant in his basement, which after a time, starts to demand human blood.

Seymour becomes one of the cinema's few sympathetic mass murderers. Like David Warner in From Beyond the Grave or Claire Higgins in Hellraiser, he kills to keep another character alive - on one level, he's a symbol of everyone who's ever done a job they hate for the sake of a mortgage, a child, a spouse, or - given the film's Jewish milieu - a nagging momma.

When Howard Ashman and Alan Menken adapted the film as a stage musical in 1980 they played down the Jewishness, but raised the racial stakes in other areas, adding a girl group-style chorus (called Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette) and giving the plant musical and speech patterns ('No shit, Sherlock!') that make it clear that, in this case, green is the new black.

Located in a 1960 that had become a period setting, the musical shows an Eisenhower-era America that's just about to be blown apart, not just by carnivorous plants, but also by MLK, Malcolm X and Motown. The film version makes the connection explicit by having the plant voiced by Levi Stubbs, of the Four Tops.

On stage, the plant is unquestionably the star, whether played by a multiple-operator puppet or - as in a superb production I saw in Edinburgh in the late '90s - by the whole cast as a green-clad chorus, gradually adding members as new victims get eaten. When Seymour sacrifices Audrey (the heroine) to the plant, it's an epiphany, accompanied by apocalyptic Phil Collins-ish drums.

Frank Oz, director of the 1986 version, argued that the stage ending works because the audience knows that Audrey and Seymour are going to be back for the curtain call, which isn't the case on film. I think there's a more profound difference, to do with the way that we participate in the two media. As a theatre audience, we take on a collective identity, sharing time and space with the performers; in the cinema, we remain a group of individuals alone in the dark. (There are exceptions - when I saw The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the audience emerged from the cinema like a group of people who'd been through a war together.)

In the cinema, we tend to favour the individual, even if he's a murderer, over the group; in the theatre, it's the other way round. In the film version, we want to see Seymour and Audrey survive and get together; on stage, it's the plants that we're (ahem) rooting for.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Measurement Shop, at Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre

The credit crunch, whatever else it ends up doing to the the arts, has been great for pop-up theatre - all those boarded-up shops provide ready-made performance spaces, with a set of associations that are, if not exactly better than those of a purpose-built theatre, certainly different.

So far this year, I've seen a tribute to Hoagy's Nest an imaginary '70s children's TV show, in Brixton Market, and debbie tucker green's Random in the Royal Court's Theatre Local at the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Currently running next door to the Court's temporary space (if you're reading this before 6pm on Thursday 5th August) is The Measurement Shop, an installation/performance by the Tangled Feet Theatre Company.

The project explores different aspects of the idea of measurement - in the shopfront, you deal with the more literal side, getting measured and weighed, totting up the hours of sleep you had, the time you spent on a mobile phone and the number of times you've been in love. We were asked to think of two things we measure every day - I came up with money on my Oyster card and coffee into a mug.

At regular intervals, visitors are ushered into the back of the store for a performance, where the ideas get more abstract. We see the life of an imaginary character told entirely in terms of weights and measures, from being weighed at birth to being measured for a coffin. A dance piece deals with the measurement of recovery, we're taken into a darkened room and hear a talk on the criteria by which we measure progress, and finally, in the last room, asked to give our own idea of the hardest measurement of all, that of happiness.

It was a thought-provoking show, especially the last part, and started me wondering about the whole concept of measurement, and evaluation. When coming up with the two things I measure every day, I started with things for which there is an objective, or at least agreed, standard - money (on my Oyster or in my wallet), time (the minutes before I have to get up) and food (the number of eggs into a saucepan). But it's true that, like most people, I often try to measure things that aren't so easy to quantify - happiness, success, my own worth (and, like most people, I'm generally unsatisfied with the measurement, certainly of those three).

In some ways, I'm envious of people who judge themselves in terms of money or social status - at least they know what game they're playing. The rest of us have to make up our own rules - deciding whether we're leading a worthwhile life by standards that we have to set for ourselves - a fellow director once told me that the two criteria by which he judged his success in the world were 'standing ovations and female orgasms'.

One of the stranger responses to Vince Cable's recent proposals for a Graduate Tax was a letter in the Standard protesting that this would penalise people who opted for courses that led to a larger income. The writer's assumption seemed to be that making money is not just expedient, but actually virtuous. I find myself wondering mischievously if part of the appeal of monetarism is that it eliminates existential angst - if earning money is the central virtue, you're saved the trouble of wondering whether you're living a worthwhile life. It's like the more authoritarian kind of religion, only with solvency occupying the place that obedience does for the devout. The rest of us have to work out how to measure our own lives - a bit trickier, but, in the end, a little more adult.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Something in the Air

As a theatre professional who loves films, I'm often caught up in discussions about the two media, and what they each do best. Film folk can have a bit of Electra complex about the mother medium, arguing that the younger art has replaced the older, in the same way that the car replaced the horse, or the invention of writing meant that no one had to speak ever again.

There's no denying that the two have very different strengths and weaknesses - one of the recurring conversations at ScriptTank, my writers' group, relates to the need for a story to find the medium to which it's best suited, be that theatre, film, television, radio or prose. So, in the interests of sparking debate, I'd like to propose a formulation. The difference between the two major dramatic media is, at root, elemental: film is fire and water, theatre is earth and air.

Still reading? Let me elaborate...

Film is defined by a changing pattern of light projected onto a wall. Once upon a time, it used to flicker, conveying a sense of stories by the fireside, but digital projection has lessened that, more's the pity. On this light, we witness a constantly shifting, fluid image, the human brain finding causality and connection between discrete shots. Film-makers have picked up on these elements since the medium's birth. The Life of an American Fireman (1903) was one of the first narrative films, and fire, in the form of explosions, is still the defining feature of the summer blockbuster. Major movies have been set on ships from Potemkin to Titanic. The most iconic film of them all starts with liquid in a snow-globe, and ends with a sledge being consigned to a furnace.

The theatre, by contrast, is defined by shared space and physical reality. Whatever you see on stage is there, in real time and one take. It's why, for instance, the steam train in The Railway Children is far more impressive than its cinematic equivalent - it's actually there, not just 3-D but in Einsteinian terms, 4. Added to that, there's the knowledge that everyone present is sharing the same experience, breathing the same air. One of its greatest pleasures is that moment of realising that everyone in the room is holding their breath at the same time, producing what Shelley Winters described as 'the best sound a player can get... the sound of a wonderful, deep silence that means you've hit them where they live'. (Indeed, my own job - directing - can be described as the art of getting an audience to synchronise their breathing - it's harder than it sounds).

So there you go - light and fluidity equals fire and water, solidity and sharing equals earth and air. Two media, each with their own defining elements. Logically, you'd have thought that both would be at their best when playing to their strengths, and that's often the case. But sometimes the greatest joy comes from work that plays against its medium, and triumphs. Many of my own best experiences in the theatre have had a fluidity of image that I only call 'cinematic' - funnily enough, these tend to be either extremely high-tech - the work, for instance, of Robert Lepage - or very low-tech, like Trevor Nunn's bare-stage Macbeth.

Conversely, a film like Hunger (2008), about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, directed by the artist Steve McQueen and written by the playwright Enda Walsh, uses its long takes and loving, very corporeal close-ups (often of things that aren't normally considered beautiful - starvation-racked bodies and shit-stained walls) to create an experience that was much closer to a live event. Looking round me in the cinema, I realised that I was hearing that silence described above - a silence that is, in the best sense of the word, theatrical.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Popping Daddies

'Straight From the Fridge, Dad' is a new edition of Max Decharne's book on jazz and hipster slang, the kind of thing epitomised in its title, which is from the 1959 film 'Beat Girl' and means, logically enough, 'cool'. Last week, I saw Decharne talking about the book at Westminster Reference Library, or, as he suggested we call it, 'Wordsville'.

The book's about a kind of hip speech that started off in the 1920s, born of an alliance of jazz musicians, white bohemians, and gangsters, thrown together by Prohibition. It drew on foreign languages- 'hepcat' and 'honky' are from the West African Wolof, 'drag' is a literal translation of the Yiddish 'schlep' - and playful, elaborate terms from crime and music - a 'Chicago piano' was a Tommy gun, while playing a non-metaphorical piano was 'battering the elephant's teeth'.

This lingo was popularised by musicians such as Cab Calloway, and, a bit later, comedians like Lord Buckley, who translated Mark Antony's oration over Caesar into hep-talk; 'Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Popping Daddies, Knock me your lobes...'. Crime novelists picked it up and added to it - Dashiell Hammett managed to slip a hidden subtext into 'The Maltese Falcon' by referring to Kasper Gutman's young companion Wilmer as a 'gunsel' - which sounds like another word for a gunman (which Wilmer also is) but actually, to those in the know, means a young boy kept by (and for) an older homosexual.

Decharne argues that hipster talk died out (as living slang) in the mid '60s, killed off by psychedelia, and the rift between black and white America that followed the death of Martin Luther King. Today, what's striking is the fact that it remained basically unchanged for so long.

Part of the point of slang is to act as a shibboleth, to mark out the in-crowd from everyone else, whether for reasons of race, youth, or just generalised hipness. Calloway could call a song 'Reefer Man' precisely because he knew that most radio programmers wouldn't have a clue what it meant, and wouldn't be able to find out.

Nowadays, of course, even white middle-aged academics like myself can stay down with da kidz, courtesy of websites such as I'm not stupid enough to think that knowing what 'nang' means makes me, well, nang - my students probably regard that one as quite archaic. Nick Hornby has argued (in '31 Songs', p. 166) that one reason for the popularity of gangsta rap and death metal is the increasing difficulty for teenagers of finding a life-soundtrack that their parents won't appropriate, and I'd guess that a similar process is going on with slang, as terms become unfashionable at an ever greater rate. As Andy Warhol nearly said 'In the future, everybody will be hip for fifteen minutes.'

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

On Scene and Heard, and the Power of Transposition

If you'd been in the Hope and Anchor, near Mornington Crescent, last Friday, you'd have encountered a group of theatre directors, writers and actors, who'd just been at Theatro Technis for the latest show produced by Scene and Heard. Most of these people were volunteers for the company, and most could have told you roughly the same anecdote. This would involve being told about a company that staged short plays by nine and ten year-old playwrights, going along expecting something dull and worthy, and realising, a little way in, that this was one of the best evenings of theatre one had ever seen.

My own Damascene moment, for instance, came during a piece where the principal character, a pencil, was feeling inferior because she was being replaced by a felt-tip pen. The resolution was brought about by the appearance of the Queen of the Pencils, who assured the protagonist that 'Felt-tip pens run out. Pencils just get shorter.'

It was at this point, eight years ago, that I decided I had to become a Scene and Heard volunteer, and I've been one ever since - by some margin, the most worthwhile thing I do. The company is based in Somers Town (fittingly enough, the only part of London named after an entertainer - Will Somers was Henry VIII's court jester) and works with children with local schools. Typically, a show will involve nine or ten short plays, each lasting about eight minutes and involving two or three professional actors, a director and - hardest job of the lot - a dramaturg, who helps the child write the play, dragging it out of him or her, often line by line, over an intensive writing weekend. Add in workshop volunteers, and you've got a small army of theatre professionals, working for nothing more than the fun and fulfillment of it. As a colleague said to me once 'What we're doing is telling the children that what they have to say is worth listening to - and I wish someone had said that to me when I was ten.'.

The company was founded in 1999 by Sophie Boyack and Kate Coleman, and is modelled on the work of the 52nd Street Company in New York City. Part of this involves the child playwrights creating characters that aren't necessarily human, so that my own most recent dramaturging was of a three-hander between a Sumo wrestler, a credit card and a cupcake. The latter was also a serial killer, prompting the line 'You look like a sweet cupcake, but you have a jam filling of stone.'.

One effect of this is that the children, deprived of documentary realism, end up writing plays with oddly revealing subtexts - one girl wrote a duologue between a computer mouse (played by ex-Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis) and a superannuated '70s Disco Ball, that was clearly, on one level, about growing old - I discovered later that the author's father ran a mobile disco.

In a culture obsessed with keeping it real, it's easy to confuse honesty with literalness, whereas some things are too complex to be dealt with except as metaphor. My sister, who lives near Paris, frequently does corporate workshops where tensions within a company are dealt with by putting them within an apparently absurd context, such as that of a horror film. In French, this is called (assume heavy accent here) 'transposition', and in a wider sense, it's seen as central to what theatre does. As always, Oscar Wilde put it best: 'Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.'.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Geek Chic.

One of the most unexpected consequences of the internet - to me, at any rate - has been the normalisation of geek culture. When I was a teenage comics fan, in the seventies, the only way to communicate with other socially awkward pop culture obsessives was through conventions or poorly-mimeographed fanzines. Nowadays, we're all over the pace; dominating that part of the net that isn't pornography, bickering in chatrooms and generally running the show, to the extent that Roz Kaveney can write 'it seems to me impossible fully to understand much current popular culture without acquaintance with fan sub-cultures'. (Teen Dreams, p.8).

Running parallel with this has been the rise of what I'd call the 'uber-geek' - a media-savvy figure, maybe a little smoother and better-dressed than his peers, who nonetheless wasn't ashamed to wear his anorak on his sleeve. In the nineties and noughties, uber-geeks were everywhere; in the cinema (Quentin Tarantino - note to younger readers; Tarantino was once highly regarded - the Coen Brothers), in music (Jarvis Cocker - who never seemed entirely at ease with the laddishness of Britpop - Neil Tennant), in the press (Kim Newman, Mark Kermode, Caitlin Moran - hey, fellows, a girl!), in bookshops (Nick Hornby) and on television (Jonathan Ross, Matt Groening, Joss Whedon, the League of Gentlemen, Russell T. Davies).

It's not a coincidence that the above list includes a disproportionate number of gay men; pre-internet geek culture was a lot like a less sexualised version of the pre-Woolfenden gay scene - homosocial, secretive, unnoticed by most outsiders, self-ironising, bitchy and given to communication through a set of iconic signifiers. Hornby catches it nicely in High Fidelity, where being a fan of Richard Thompson is as defining as being a Friend of Dorothy.

Quite how much the world has changed was brought home to me last Sunday, when Matt Smith appeared onstage with Orbital at Glastonbury, the same day that England crashed out of the World Cup.

What was striking about England's apparently woeful performance (I didn't see any of the games) was the way in which it was reported in terms of a class war - the working-class heroes of 1966 (and, to a lesser extent, 1990) have become viewed the same way we do bankers - pampered riders of the Premiere League gravy-train. The nation's love affair with football may not be over, but we're certainly having a trial separation.

By contrast, Dr. Who appears at Glasto, and the crowd goes wild. As one Twitterer observed, can you imagine Patrick Troughton guesting with Hendrix? Jon Pertwee with Pink Floyd? Tom Baker with the Clash? Okay, maybe the last one, but you take my point.

This is why it wouldn't be entirely facetious to say that 27 June 2010 may be remembered as a cultural watershed, like the first night of Look Back in Anger or the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the first time ever, Dr. Who is cooler than football. To put it in John Hughes-speak, the war between geeks and jocks is over. And we won.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

On College Productions, and the Purpose of Education

Last week, I went to see a college production featuring a seventeen year-old I worked with a few years ago. He's clever but not academic, working-class, personable, and from a roughish area of North London. He's currently doing a B. Tech. at a local FE college; this was his end-of-year production.

It was - let's not mess around here - bloody awful, a series of poorly-staged, semi-audible scenes, performed by self-conscious teenagers in regulation black t-shirts and jeans to an audience of unengaged mums and chums. Nominally based on a nineteenth century novel - which I'm willing to bet no one involved had actually read - it had no relation to the students' own lives, and their only possible approach was parody or camp anachronism. For a school production, it would have been shoddy - for something produced by students supposedly studying drama, it was shameful.

There were two moments of worthwhile theatricality - a bit of body-popping, clearly there to showcase a cast member's skill, and, at the end, a tango, danced by the whole cast. Out of period, dramatically irrelevant, and unsuited to the age group, it nonetheless stood at as the only time in the show where you got a sense of performers trying to master something outside their own immediate experience.

At the curtain call, the group's tutor came on to student cheers and congratulated the group on the quality of their work. They departed, with exaggerated luvvie-ish bows.

In the pub afterwards, my companion and I tried out to work out what the students, and our friend in particular, were getting from the experience. Neither expressing their own situation, not (tango apart) dealing with anything beyond it, they seemed to be working for nothing more than a few laughs, and an entirely unrealistic idea of what it's like to be a performer.

Until comparatively recently, the philosophy of schooling was fairly simple; the rich were taught to expand their minds, the poor to learn a trade - it's sometimes defined as the difference between education and training. The Butler Education Act changed all that - thank god - but now we seem to be caught in a mix of Blairite and Thatcherite ideas - the belief that everyone should get a further education, even those unsuited to it, but also that it should be defined entirely in terms of the jobs it leads to. The whole thing is summed up in the name of the department where I saw the show - 'Creative Industries'.

No one can wish for a return for the days when people like my friend would have gone straight into an apprenticeship, or his father's trade, and no one believes more than me in the value of schooling as a good in itself - I've occasionally told first-year students that, approached properly, a university education should leave them less employable, not more (confuses the hell out of them). But I have to worry about those B. Tech. students - if education neither expands the mind nor focuses it, what is it good for?

Thursday, 17 June 2010

'The Dramatist' by Frederick Reynolds in the RADA Bar, 16/6/10

The Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds, built in 1819, is one of the few remaining Regency theatres in the country. With its thrust stage and horseshoe-shaped auditorium, it's the missing link between the Elizabethan playhouse and the Victorian proscenium arch.

Since 2005, the theatre's been running the 'Restoring the Repertoire' project, to rediscover and, where possible, perform, the plays from the period around its own construction, doing for the Georgian repertoire what the Globe does for the Elizabethan and Jacobean. On Wednesday, I went to a rehearsed reading of Frederick Reynold's 1789 play The Dramatist in the RADA bar, directed by the theatre's Associate Director, Abigail Anderson.

Like a lot of Georgian plays, The Dramatist is a comedy of intrigue, focussing on young people who want to get married and old people who want to stop them. What lifts it above the pack is the title character, Vapid, a budding playwright who both takes part in the intrigues and comments on them, analysing them in theatrical terms, and criticising other characters for their poor dramatic construction of their love affairs. His presence gives the play a giddy, self-reflective quality that makes it (to steal a line from Steve Coogan) 'post-modern before there was a modern to be post'.

In the post-show discussion, both actors - mostly RADA students - and audience wondered why plays from this period don't get revived more often. The director argued that one reason is that they depend on a close connection between actor and audience, and so don't work well in proscenium arch theatres.

It's easy to forget that, for most of its history, the theatre made no attempt to pretend that cast and audience were in different spaces. It was only the nineteenth century that split them up, under the twin influences of fourth-wall naturalism and opera, which divided stage and auditorium so as to have somewhere to put the orchestra . Later on, the coming of electricity made it much easier to light the stage while putting the audience in darkness. Rather worryingly, one of the first people to do this was Richard Wagner.

In my career as an academic, I've sometimes said that the proscenium arch is the theatrical equivalent of the missionary position - it's a bit dull, it doesn't really allow for the best contact, it involves some dubious ideological assumptions (about gender relations in one case, actor/audience in the other) but, for various reasons, it's ended up being the default option, almost the norm. It's sometimes worth questioning whether, as theatre-makers taking that option, we're fully allowing ourselves the best circumstances in which to - ahem - perform.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

On Calendar Customs, the Knollys Rose ceremony and 'Posh'

I've always been a sucker for calendar customs, especially in London. Whether it's a hot cross bun preserved for a widow's son lost at sea, or a blessing of sore throats near Holborn, if it happens once a year and has a bit of history, I'm there.

Which is why, last Monday, I found myself outside the church of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, waiting for the Master of the Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames to emerge, cut a rose from the garden in Seething Lane, and take it on a velvet cushion to Mansion House, with an official escort of Thames boatmen, and an unofficial one of American tourists and people like me.

The Knollys Rose ceremony goes back originally to 1381, and owes its existence to Lady Constance Knollys, who owned houses on both sides of Seething Lane and built a footbridge between them. Because she hadn't obtained any kind of official permission, the Lord Mayor imposed a fine of a single red rose, payable once a year on the feast of St. John the Baptist.

These days, the ceremony's an excuse for a dinner and a photo-opportunity. The suited and behatted congregation make their way from the church to the garden, where the Master cuts the rose, assuring us that he has permission from the City Gardener to do so. The rose is then pinned on a velvet cushion and taken to an official dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor. The whole public part is over in about fifteen minutes and, on a nice day, it's quite pleasant.

(This, by the way, was not my first encounter with a Lord Mayor. In 1981, one of his predecessors presented the books at my school prize day. I'd selected a volume on 'Who Played Who in the Movies' with a cover picture of Theda Bara as Cleopatra. When it came to my turn, the Lord Mayor picked up the book, pointed to Bara's cleavage and said 'Well, what about that, then?' I'm still not sure what he expected me to say.)

The Master also made a small joke about Lady Knollys' punishment 'for failing to get the equivalent of planning permission - how times have changed!', which elicted an appreciative, Littlejohnesque murmur from the well-heeled guests. Of course, an annual rose is hardly punitive - it's barely a slap on the wrist. The story is less one of punishment, more of complicity between old pals. Lady Knollys is a medieval equivalent of those who complain because 'Elf and Safety' won't let them build an extension on their houses, or the dining-club boor of Laura Wade's Posh who tells a prostitute 'One would assume we pay you and you do whatever's required.'.

In this connection, a little history is instructive. Like most British traditions, the ceremony's a lot younger than it appears - it stopped in the seventeenth century, and was only re-established in 1924, soon after the First World War and the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which first brought in universal adult suffrage (for men, at any rate - most women still had to wait another ten years).

I begrudge no one their customs, and, lord knows, there are more important things to worry about, but you do at least have to wonder why, at that point in history, someone elected to revive a ceremony that is, when you get right down to it, about the entitlement of the rich and powerful to do whatever they damn well want.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

On Arts Subsidy, the Beatles and Brian Eno's 'Scenius'.

A few months back, I was reading Jonathan Holmes' article 'Why We Must Fund the Arts' (Guardian, 27/2/10) and the online comments. Many of these were predictable anti-subsidy rants, deploying the classic Daily Mail argument - 'I-don't-like-it-therefore-it-shouldn't-exist' - and a curious preoccupation with Tracy Emin's Bed - a work produced, by the way, entirely without government aid.

One comment, a bit more interesting, came from a poster who called him/herself 'liveanddangerous' and read, in its entirety: 'The Beatles never received an Arts Council Grant. Why should anyone else?'

It's a worthwhile question, because it highlights a problem in the whole way we talk about great achievers in the arts and, by implication, in any other field.

The achievement of the Beatles lay in their fusion of diverse, almost contradictory influences - American rhythm and blues, skiffle-inflected folk and country, music hall, Lennon's art-school surrealism - into something entirely original. Once they settled in London, their tastes got, if anything, even more eclectic - Ian MacDonald's brilliant Revolution in the Head chronicles their visits to theatres, galleries, classical concerts, alternative bookshops, all of them, ultimately, informing the work.

Surprisingly, it was Paul McCartney, rather than the more obviously intellectual Lennon, who was the band's real explorer of the avant garde. MacDonald, describing the genesis of 'Paperback Writer' in the Indica bookshop, makes the connection explicit:

'English culture of the period benefited immensely from the patronage of Jenny Lee, Harold Wilson's Minister for the Arts. Under her direction, theatres, concert halls, galleries and libraries received vital funding while the Arts Council, chaired by Lord Goodman, gained new grant-giving powers and expanded financial resources. In this atmosphere, creativity flourished in every walk of cultural life.' (Revolution in the Head, p.174)

There's a broader point here - we tend to consume (and study) art through a number of Great Men (mostly) and their Masterpieces - a Hamlet, a Citizen Kane, a Sergeant Pepper - and to ignore the soil in which they grew. Brian Eno has a useful concept here - 'scenius', which he defines as 'the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene' (A Year With Swollen Appendices, p.354), as opposed to the individual 'genius', and gives a few examples of particularly productive ones - Russia 1905-1915, the Dadists in France, the punk era in London.

To create a strong scenius, you need a few things - communication and co-operation, a receptive audience, committed critics, and, yes, enough money (from whatever source) to ensure that the financially unsuccessful - who might be the most creative - aren't forced out.

Did the Beatles ever receive an Arts Council grant? Not directly, no, though they played in venues that did, and recorded sessions for the BBC. Was their work enhanced by contact with people who did? Unquestionably.

P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel I should mention that I have myself been the recipient of arts subsidy. In 1987, I got £500 to tour The Tempest round parks and other open-air venues in Norfolk. Just making it clear.