Sunday, 29 May 2011

Buck's Fuzz

Following the monarchistic merriment of the last few weeks, it seems like a good time to mention my own connection with the Royal family. Those of you who've known me since university days will have heard this story, as I told it a lot in my first weeks there - like everybody else, I was trying to make myself sound interesting, and there's not many people who can say that they've been arrested under suspicion of trying to break into Buckingham Palace.

One afternoon, in the autumn of 1982, I was walking from Hyde Park towards Victoria Station. On my left was a high. mossy wall, topped with a metal bar surrounded by spikes. For no particular reason, I developed an idle curiosity as to whether these spikes rotated round the central bar. Since I'm fairly tall, and was carrying a rolled-up magazine, it was a simple matter to jump up and hit at one of the spikes. Having established that they didn't move, I pocketed the magazine and carried on.

As I got to the end of the road, I noticed a police constable standing and looking in the face of every pedestrian, as if trying to find someone who fitted a description. His eyes met mine, and a little smile of triumph appeared on his face. He stopped me, and started asking me questions - where I was from, where I was going, where I lived and whether I could prove it. (The only evidence that I could produce to show I was a Londoner was a Borough of Wandsworth library book, which didn't seem to convince him.) Suddenly, five more policemen appeared from different directions, presumably summoned by walkie-talkie. The constable turned to a figure standing behind me.

'This him?'
The sergeant, a woman, nodded. 'That's the one.'

By now, the seven of us were starting to block the pavement, so we moved into a doorway, where the questioning passed into the hands of a second constable, a tall, slightly overweight man with an abrupt manner and a bushy moustache. He asked me all the same questions, then said 'Have you ever been in trouble with the police before?'

I smiled; this was obviously a joke. 'Am I in trouble now?'
'Of course,'
'Why? What am I supposed to have done?'
'You were hitting at that railing, weren't you?'
'I wasn't hitting at it, I hit at it; there is a difference. Anyway, is that a crime?'
'Course it is. That's trespassing.'

At this point, I began to wonder if I was dealing with a lunatic. 'That's a bit petty, isn't it? I mean, you're leaning on the wall. Is that trespassing?'
For some reason, he didn't seem too impressed with the brilliance of my logic.

'That's different. I'm employed here.'
'In what capacity? What is this place anyway?'
'You don't know?'
'You say you're a Londoner and you don't know?'
'No idea.'
'This' (and here the constable drew himself up to his full height) 'is the back wall of Buckingham Palace.'

Suddenly, everything was clear. This was just a few months after the Michael Fagan incident, in which a man had broken into the Queen's bedroom and borrowed a cigarette from her. I, nineteen with shoulder-length hair and a tatty raincoat, had obviously struck the sergeant as a copycat criminal, casing the joint before a break-in. A Black Maria arrived, and four of them ushered me in, presumably leaving the other two to guard the Palace on their collective tod.

When we arrived at the station, the sergeant informed me that, legally, she had to keep a hold on my upper arm on the way to the office. This meant that we couldn't get through doors without squeezing together in a rather undignified manner, with one or the other of us banging our ankles. We made it to the interrogation room, where I emptied my pockets, asked if I could hang on to my library book, and sat down to wait.

Altogether, they kept me waiting for two and a half hours. There were two policeman there - a sullen one who sat silently with his arms folded throughout, and a chatty one, who turned out to be a Physics graduate from Durham University, and who told me quite happily about how well the job paid with others open to a physicist.

Two other people passed through while I was there. One was a middle-aged, working-class woman with a flustered manner, whose son, as far as I could gather, had disappeared on his way back from school, and who gave disconnected answers to the sullen constable's questions, constantly referring to some unnamed adversary ('What time would he usually get back from school.' 'Well, they'd tell you different.'). After she'd gone, a younger, more well-spoken woman, apparently the first's social worker, dashed in. She had a brief, bad-tempered conversation with the physicist policeman, bristling with long-standing antagonism and cryptic references to official forms: 'You can't do it on a 647, it isn't legal.' 'Well, we haven't got time for an H58.' I carried on reading.

Eventually, the sergeant reappeared with her statement, and handed it to the sullen one. I tried to read it upside-down on the desk, but could only make out one sentence. It was, however, a sentence I shall never forget; I was described as 'taking an undue interest in a wall'.

They'd decided not to charge me with anything, so I was free to go. I signed off on the objects that had been in my pockets (I corrected their addition on my loose change, which didn't go down very well), and headed for the door. On my way, the sullen one stopped me.
'Just one thing.'
I turned. 'Yes?'
'Don't waste our time like this again.'

Postscript: Fifteen years after this, I discovered that Michael Fagan and I had a mutual acquaintance, the late Ken Campbell. Sadly, Ken died before he could introduce us, so I haven't had a chance to thank him for giving me this anecdote. If you walk past the back wall of the Palace now, you'll notice that, as well as the non-revolving spikes, it's topped with several layers of barbed wire. I'm unlikely ever to warrant a statue, so that fence is the closest thing I've got to a memorial.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Terence Rattigan and the Slasher Film

(Spoiler Alert: This piece includes plot details of the play Flare Path. If you're planning to see it - and if you can, I'd recommend it - read this afterwards.)

There's a fascinating moment towards the end of Flare Path, currently previewing at the Haymarket theatre in the West End. The play's set at an RAF airbase in 1942, and one of the principal characters, Doris, is married to a Polish airman who speaks little English. When his plane is shot down, she finds a letter that he'd left with her for such an eventuality. It's written in French, a language she doesn't speak, so she has to get another character to attempt a translation.

The effect of this scene, as we hear a dead man's words of love, haltingly paraphrased into English by a character who's having his own crisis, is extraordinarily moving (and, in this case, very well acted; from my front-row cheap seat, I could see the real tears shed by Sheridan Smith as Doris). The odd thing is this: we watch the scene for its emotional content, but part of our pleasure is purely technical - we enjoy and appreciate the skill with which the dramatist has set up the scene that allows that emotion to emerge.

This is all rather counter-intuitive - you would have thought that it would be impossible simultaneously to engage with a character and to be aware of that character's creator. In the case of Flare Path, the two things actually complement each other - we're more involved with the scene because of our admiration for the skill with which it's been contrived. This joy in the mechanics, in watching things slide into place, is one of the more surprising features of the well-made play.

Oddly enough, the most prominent examples of this kind of technical pleasure are found in the visceral genres of comedy and horror. (The critic Linda Williams has categorised them with pornography as 'body genres', aiming to produce a physical response in the viewer). A good joke is an act of misdirection, sending the brain down one path, then colliding it with a punchline from another - we laugh because we appreciate what's been done to us. Farce takes this to extremes - the best farces are like great, gleaming machines, with characters and sub-plots working together like so many pistons. It's not a coincidence that one of the first major French farceurs, Alfred Hennequin, originally trained as an engineer.

However, the real home of this kind of reaction, especially in the cinema, is the horror film, and the slasher film in particular. Look online, or in Fangoria, and you'll see detailed, sometimes jaded criticism of the many ways which screenwriters have found to kill people off - I first became aware of this reading a review in Shock Xpress which referred to penis amputation during fellatio as 'that old chestnut!'.

Jigsaw, the villain/hero of the Saw franchise, serves in this respect as a surrogate for both fan and screenwriter - like them, he's constantly trying to think up new, intriguing traps for his victims. As Rattigan sought to contrive the best emotional scene, the horror writer seeks inventive ways of killing - always looking for the well-made slay.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Running Wild

Film buffs sometimes like to discuss the original casting suggested for classic films - George Raft as Sam Spade, Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, half of Hollywood as Scarlett O'Hara. As with married couples who talk about how they nearly never met, the effect, paradoxically, is to make the actual outcome feel even more inevitable, as if the earlier suggestions were destiny's first drafts. The most famous example - Ronald Reagan as Rick Blaine in Casablanca - is actually an urban legend, invented by a Warner Brothers press agent, but it illustrates the principle well; an Edenic piece of casting, threatened by the serpent of a notoriously humdrum actor (and given an additional irony by his later career - Casablanca translates literally as 'white house').

Like Casblanca, Some Like It Hot is a film that's literally unimaginable with different casting, without Jack Lemmon's mad-aunt drag performance, Tony Curtis' Cary Grant impression (perfected during the war, when Curtis was stuck on a submarine where the only film was Gunga Din, shown over and over again) or, of course, Marilyn Monroe. It's actually thanks to Monroe's star power that we have the perfect casting of the male leads. Before she got involved, the studio wanted bigger names - Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye or Frank Sinatra. (One has to feel sorry for any agent given the job of asking Sinatra to wear a dress.)

One oddity about Monroe's performance is that it must be the only film in which she plays a Pole - Sugar Kane is actually Kowalcyzk, as she tells us in her first dialogue scene. In fact, one of the surprising things about the film is quite how multi-ethnic it is; the gangsters are clearly Italian, the cop Mulligan is Irish (and played by the gangster film veteran Pat O'Brien), Osgood the millionaire is an east coast WASP, Poliakoff the agent is Jewish. So, possibly, is Joe, the Tony Curtis character - he certainly speaks a bit of Yiddish, referring to himself, quite accurately, as a 'no-goodnik'. (Of course, the actor who played him was Jewish, but that doesn't prove anything - the same is true of Butch Cassidy, Sonny Corleone and Harry Potter.).

This understated multi-culturalism (and yes alright, it's a very white multi-culti; there is one black character - a railway porter - but it's very easy to miss him) is one reason why it's such a verbally lively film - everyone speaks sharp, witty dialogue, but all in slightly different idioms. It's been argued that part of the film's appeal lies in its sexual inclusiveness - the belief that even two skirt-chasing no-goodniks can become better people by wearing dresses. In a similar way, it seems to suggest that vitality (that heat that some of us like) comes from a mix of national energies.

In this, we have one of the great strengths of the American film, especially in its peak talking period - roughly, the half century between The Jazz Singer and Star Wars. Hollywood was built by emigres, mostly from Eastern Europe, and gained its cultural ascendancy partly because, more than anywhere else, it epitomised the values of the melting pot. Everyone brings something different to the party, and no one ethnicity, or gender, is sufficient by itself. Like the man said, nobody's perfect.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

See You Later, Alligator?

When I was growing up, histories of rock 'n' roll always started with (We're Gonna) 'Rock Around the Clock', by Bill Haley and his Comets, in the same way that accounts of the postwar British theatre always began with 'Look Back in Anger'. In both cases, the master narrative has been revised backwards, so that theatre historians now acknowledge the importance of Rattigan, Ackland and (lately) Emlyn Williams, and the default option for first rock 'n' roll record is now either Presley's 'That's Alright, Mama' or, if you want to be a real smartarse, 'Rocket 88', by Jackie Brenston and the Rhythm Cats (known to his friends, if he had any, as Ike Turner).

The analogy isn't exact - while 'Look Back in Anger' is still acknowledged, sometimes reluctantly, as a milestone, Bill Haley has disappeared from history, as surely as Paul Whiteman from histories of jazz. The teenagers I work with haven't heard of him, even his greatest hits cd refers to him, awkwardly, as 'the man who helped to bring rock 'n' roll into the mainstream', as qualified a compliment as I've heard since the time my father referred to Goering as the most likeable of the major Nazis.

'Rock Around the Clock' was recorded in two hurried takes on April 12 1954, as a b-side to 'Thirteen Women', a very strange song about the upside of a nuclear war (the song's narrator finds himself the last man alive, together with... well, you get the idea). It was a cover version, recorded by a 29 year-old hillbilly singer, already a little bit paunchy, with a spitcurl that failed to disguise a receding hairline. Like the samplers of a generation later, the band borrowed bits and pieces of other recordings - Haley sung the verse to the tune of Hank Williams' 'Move It On Over' while guitarist Danny Cedrone recycled his solo from 'Rock the Joint', recorded two years earlier.

The song became iconic when it was used over the opening credits of the juvenile delinquent film 'The Blackboard Jungle', and became the first smash hit of the rock 'n' roll era. It's often the case that the first major success of a new form comes with an example that's diluted or otherwise weakened - the same thing happened a quarter century later, when the first major hip-hop hit, Rapper's Delight', came not from the stars of the genre - Kool Herc or Afrika Bambaataa - but from a studio concoction called the Sugarhill Gang.

Like the Sugarhills, Haley saw his star fade quickly - in his case, eclipsed by the younger, more charismatic Elvis Presley. He carried on touring the old hits, becoming, in effect, his own tribute act, especially in Britain, where the aging teds welcomed him as the king of their personal Brigadoon. I remember him occasionally turning up on television in the 'seventies, still looking much the same - one fortunate side-effect of not being much of a sex symbol in the first place is that he never had a Presley-like decline - and being treated as one would an elderly, distant ancestor.

Haley died in 1981, four years after Presley, and too early to witness his Trotsky-like disappearance from history. It's probably just as well - after being hailed as the Messiah, it would be hard to be told that you're not even John the Baptist.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Keeping the cafe open.

Malcolm Muggeridge once described national culture as resembling a big, busy cafe. Most of the time, there are a number of different conversations going on at different tables, people travel between them, sometimes groups join together, every now and then we all focus on the same thing, a fight or singer in the corner. The important things are to keep the conversations going, and to maintain the connections between them.

It's a useful image, and especially relevant when you're discussing things like subsidy, and the extent to which one part of the cafe depends on another. I've been reminded of it sometimes by social media - the way that Facebook users will suddenly agree as one to replace their photos with doppelgangers or cartoon characters - but the first time I've ever seen the metaphor made flesh was last weekend, at Devoted and Disgruntled 6.

D and D, as the cool kids call it, is an annual event, and one that it's quite hard to put a name to - 'forum', 'talking shop'. 'Agenda-free conference' comes closest, but that doesn't really catch it. Basically, it's a two-day gathering for theatre folk (the title refers to how most of us feel about our chosen medium) , organised by Improbable Theatre, and run according to the principles of Open Space Technology.

This was the brainchild of an American named Harrison Owen, who kept noticing that every time he went to a conference, all the best discussions took place in the coffee breaks. So, turning background into foreground, he tried to find a way of making the coffee breaks into the main event.

The principles of OST are very simple - at the start of first day, anyone can get up and propose a session on anything at all. At D&D, these range from the general (loads of sessions about funding) to the particular ('I'm writing a play about archives. Can anybody help?'), from the theoretical ('Training Directors. Is it possible?') to the practical ('I'm a producer. Does anyone have any shows for me?'), from the serious ('How can we use theatre to make the world a better place?') to the trivial ('My friend Sally is hot and brilliant and really wants a boyfriend.'). One effect of this is that no one can complain that they didn't get what they came for - if no one's talking about your pet subject, call a session yourself.

Sessions are timetabled, about twenty at a time, and assigned spaces; people choose which ones they want to attend and go for it. There are four principles:

Whenever it starts is the right time.
Whoever arrives are the right people.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.
When it's over, it's over.

Added to this is the 'Law of Two Feet', or more inclusively, 'Law of Mobility'. If you're in a session, and feel that you're neither contributing nor learning, you just get up and go elsewhere. it's not ill-mannered to those you leave, it's a gift, taking away a millstone. Some people go from session to session, like bumblebees, some remain as beautiful still centres, like butterflies. If you call a session, it's your responsibility to get it written up - at the end of the weekend, everyone's given a phonebook-sized volume of the 120-odd conversations that have taken place.

There are also two other OST principles; free coffee (or tea, or juice) all day and - this is maybe the most important - no name badges. In other words, no one schmoozes.

So... over two and a half days, I convened a session on failure (it was, ironically enough, very successful), heard a lengthy and fascinating account of the Burning Man Festival, helped two people with their ideas for shows, had profound discussions about theatre's relationship with both science and religion (these sessions were at the same time, so I bumblebeed between them), saw a Philip K. Dick short story performed as a solo show with matches, made some new friends, rediscovered some old ones and (in a session called 'Tell me something I don't know'), found out about the subculture of people who walk around London with wineglasses on a Saturday night, trying to find parties that they can pretend to be locked out of.

By the Sunday evening, my head was so full that I found myself introducing two people, having completely forgotten that one had introduced me to the other the previous day. I'm wary of the word 'mind-blowing' but, if I'm honest, my mind was thoroughly blown.

Oh, and in case you've been wondering, Sally didn't find a boyfriend, but, according to her write-up, had some interesting conversations and 'a most excellent way to spend an hour and a half'. Hey, I didn't say we could solve everything.