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Sunday, January 31, 2010

The best actors play the tunes we never get tired of hearing

To the National to see Alan Bennett's "The Habit Of Art". We had fifth row seats, close enough to see the spray of the actors spit. They were £10, in case you're wondering. The play's based on a theoretical meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten in later life at Oxford where they have an extensive kickaround on the theme of biography, the distinction between the artist and the art, pederasty, the old ladies of Aldeburgh, old age and the fact that many men come to resemble their scrotums. It's presented as an afternoon's rehearsal of the play with the actors coming in and out of character and also discussing their trade. Daughter two nudges me when the first player turns out to be Adrian Scarborough, the put-upon husband of "Gavin and Stacey". What she doesn't know is that he's alongside Uncle Monty from "Withnail And I", the vicar from "Cranford" and that the woman playing the stage manager was once Miss Jones to Leonard Rossiter's Rigsby. The stage, in fact, is seething with characters and types that we have lived with for quite a long time. Billy Wilder said that most actors had a couple of things they could show you but then their shelves were cleared. Blessed are those who have a narrow range of notes (we're not going to see Richard Griffiths playing a holy man, for instance) but can nonetheless stir us again and again.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

I know you're dying to hear what I think about the iPad

I Twittered asking for one reason why I would want an iPad. The answer returned most often, apart from the fact that it would be cool and I am clearly the kind of bloke who goes in for new gadgets, seemed to be that this was inevitably the way that newspapers and magazines would be delivered in the future.
This may be true. I repeat, this may be true. Once again, for the avoidance of doubt and in case anyone thinks I am a future denier, this may be true. However, it is not necessarily true even though it is a truth which the unholy trinity of Apple, panic-stricken media owners and the punditry seem to have decided is self-evident.
Through the thicket of self-generated hype of the last 24 hours I haven't yet picked out the one-sentence reason why anyone would feel they *had* to have one. Would you like to watch football in high definition? Would you like to make phone calls wherever you are? Would you like to have thousands of tunes in your pocket? Yes, yes and yes again. Revolutionary devices succeed when they answer what people feel to be their needs. I don't see what the need is here. I can see the supplier push but I don't see the equivalent consumer pull.
I don't think the readership of newspapers is ebbing away because people are waiting for them to be delivered via a device. They're ebbing away because people can get what they used to get in a paper for free via the web and they have lots of other things to occupy their time with. And I don't think they're waiting for enhancements like embedded video. These things are nice to have but they're not so compelling that people will pay for them.
The newspaper and magazine businesses were built, like the record business, on their control of manufacture and distribution. They could leverage their strength in these areas to set a cover price and sell advertising at a price that created, if everything went well, a profitable business. Every decision they made about production values, editorial policy and frequency was made in the light of how they would affect a particular package. The problem, as the record business has found, is that once there is no longer any need to manufacture and iTunes owns the distribution and sets the price, the package is quickly unbundled and it's very difficult to make any money.
The huge challenge of the web for media and entertainment is that it un-bundles everything and in so doing reduces rather than increases its perceived value.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

If they must have teenagers in Ambridge...

First it's the policemen who get younger, then it's the casts of soap operas. On the occasions I accidentally watch Coronation Street these days it looks like an episode of "Footballers' Wives" set in a terraced house, so short are the skirts and sticky is the gel. Meanwhile, over on the radio, The Archers has gone youth-crazy and Ambridge is now the only rural community in Britain's pastoral wasteland where there seems to be a net inflow of young people, all busily occupied making their own cheese, launching marketing campaigns for the local milkman and looking for jobs. I keep waiting for one of them to say 'sod this, I'm going to the big city to get a telesales job and blag my way into a reality series'.

The most problematical of this gaggle of texters and bottled beer drinkers is Pip Archer, the teenage daughter of David and Ruth, the current occupants of the series's central farm. Because Archers writers are stranded between their desire to equip her with the plausible characteristics of an adolescent and their equal need to say the right things about wimmin and youngpeopletoday, they have made her bright enough to go to Oxford but timid enough to want to stay at home and run the family farm into the ground by pursuing the sort of loony tree-hugging policies that would make even Al Gore take her for a walk and give her a stern talking-to. They have given her a boyfriend but made him the sort of unbearable prude who elbowed her because she shows too much leg. I'm sure we've all met loads of 17-year-old boys like that.

If the Archers really want to depict a plausible teenager they should add her to the category some cartoonist used to call "Unseen Of Ambridge". She should be, like Pru Forest and Mr Pullen, a character who is referred to but rarely seen. That, in my experience, is the true defining characteristic of a teenager.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bertie Who?

"Right now Bertie Carvel is my favourite actor in the world."
So says The Spectator's theatre critic Lloyd Evans of Carvel's performance as Rupert Cadell in the Almeida's revival of "Rope", Patrick Hamilton's hit play from the late 20s. I'd never heard of Carvel until Thursday night. Now I'm prepared to add my voice to Evans's.

It's not accurate to call "Rope" a murder mystery because we know whodunnit from the start. The tension comes from the question of whether Cadell will work out what's happened and, given his terrible war injuries, bring the culprits to book. Snob, aesthete, moralist, war hero and heroic drinker ("I wonder if I might have another spot"), Cadell as delivered by Bertie Carvel is a riot of physical tics and strangely mannered speech. When he speaks you lean forward, much as you would if you were in the room with him. I've never been in a room with anyone like Rupert Cadell but Carvel makes me believe that I have been. This is a very rare gift.

When he's got a knighthood and is wasting his talent playing Moses in some computer-generated nonsense based on a comic I'll be able to say I saw Bertie in his pomp.

Can the heavyweight press get a bit less heavy, please?

Simon Mayo messaged me to say he'd quoted me in his new column in the Telegraph. This led me to do something I stopped doing years ago, which is buy a newspaper at the weekends. I stopped wading through over-inflated weekend papers when I realised that they could only be read at the expense of things that were worth reading, like books. Anyway, vanity always gets the better of me and so a trip down the end of the road and and one pound and sixteen shillings later I am confronted by the sheer bulk of a contemporary Saturday paper, even in these straitened times. Never in the history of media has so much fluff been combined to manufacture so much mass. There's a newspaper. There's a review. There's a sport section. There's the family bit. There's the gardening bit. There's the travel bit. Then there's a magazine with, inevitably, Corrine Bailey Rae on the cover. There's a DVD of "The Odd Couple". That's the kind of thing they used to support with TV advertising. Not any more. Now they just chuck it in the lucky bag. Then there's lots of advertising supplements, a TV thing and no doubt plenty of other things that I'll never get around to locating, let alone reading. As the newspaper business careens towards hell in a handcart you'd think that somebody would bite the bullet on their central problem. They're giving people too much about not enough and charging too much for it.

Not that this applies to Simon's column which is required reading for all middle-aged Spurs supporting fathers who wake up in cold sweats worrying that their sons are being drawn to the Dark Side. There have been times, thankfully long past, when my own f & b almost fell victim to the blandishments of the Woolwich Wanderers but after a stern word pointing out that the supporting of the Lily Whites is a guarantee of iron in the soul and a steady moral compass, he came around. That did the trick. As did the sight of his possessions in a tidy pile at the bottom of the garden path.

Friday, January 22, 2010

I'm dreading the first Twitter election

When Abraham Lincoln was running for the American presidency in 1858 he had a series of debates with his Democratic opponent. He would speak for an hour, the opponent would respond for ninety minutes and then Lincoln would have another half an hour. Obviously the electors of those days hadn't had their attention-spans killed by television but there was more to it than that. The time they took to explore the issues facing the Union at the time was a token of the seriousness with which they took the issue's complexities. This may have been handed down to generations of schoolchildren as "all about the slaves" but that wasn't how the debate was framed at the time.

I've been thinking about this as the opening shots are fired in what is clearly going to be the first Twitter election, where any issue that can't be boiled down to 140 characters won't play. 140 characters is enough room for a slogan or a meretricious appeal; it's not enough to say anything more useful. In that sense Stalin would have loved it. Lincoln not so much.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kate McGarrigle

Kate McGarrigle died today. She wrote some great songs. Mark Ellen likes to say "Heart Like A Wheel" is the best love song ever. He may be right. My personal favourite is called "Matapedia" after a fast-flowing river in Quebec popular with those fishing for salmon. When she was a teenager Kate had an affair with a man. The song describes her and the young man trying to race the river back to its source, just like the salmon.

Many years later when her daughter Martha Wainwright was about the same age she went to the place where her mother had had the affair and met the same man. He was dumbstruck, convinced he was looking at her mother. I love what happens next.
He put his big middle-aged hands upon her shoulders
And he looked her in the eyes
Just like a boy of nineteen would do
I can't recommend the visual resolution of this clip but it's good enough to listen to.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

By my own hand

I had to write a thank-you just now. I'm very picky about pens and paper. The first has to have the right traction on the other, particularly since I'm increasingly convinced that all these years of keyboards and texting have robbed me of the ability to write with my hand, as I could when I was twelve. When I sit down with pen and paper I feel the strength drain from my hand when I get near the end of a line. If I grip tighter my writing becomes more cramped. If I try to loosen up I can't hold a straight line. Then I find myself trying to write familiar words without spelling them out a letter at a time. The natural, practised flow that used to form familiar words such as my own name has gone. This is exacerbated by the fact that the ink in rollerballs and biros either flows too freely or has to be coaxed out. I can no longer write in a relaxed way. To help get over the problem I dug out my fountain pen, replaced the cartridge and wrote the note with that. It's amazing how much more satisfying it makes the whole letter, both to write and probably to read. And this in the same week that I wrote a 600-word film review on my iPhone on the Tube journey home from the preview.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Oh, Miss Smith, you're brilliant!"

Reviewing the musical of "Legally Blonde" on Front Row tonight, the talk is of the plot twist where an airheaded blonde, in pursuit of her man, turns out to have a first-class legal mind.

I can't decide whether this kind of dramatic transformation is of a higher order than the transformations that used to take place in movies of the 50s where severe-looking lawyers in glasses were encouraged to release the airheaded blonde inside.

One seems pretty much as preposterous as the other.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Africa is a continent, not a country

The reaction to today's machine-gun attack on the Togolese team in Angola illustrates the extent to which Africa seems to be an abstract concept to many in the media. Presenting "Fighting Talk" on Five Live this morning (and in all other respects making a good job of it) Alan Davies made some comment about Didier Drogba being the first to claim to be hit by a bullet. This gag, which seemed to imply that he thought Drogba played for Togo and not the Ivory Coast, would have been considered tasteless if the victims of this outrage had been European or - imagine it - British.

Then there's tonight's press coverage which seems to be all about whether this will have an effect on the World Cup in South Africa, the implication being "well, it's all very well for African players to be risking life and limb in pursuit of their trade but this event involves *us*, for God's sake!" That's not to say that South Africa doesn't have its own security problems but to link those to what was going on in a war-disrupted region of Angola seems to betray a want of basic geography, let alone common decency.

Friday, January 08, 2010

At least somebody believes in the devil

Artie Lange, sidekick of the U.S. shock jock Howard Stern, has survived a suicide attempt. This consisted of six "hesitation wounds" and three deep plunges. Stern was quoted demanding that the press back off because "everyone has their demons, including myself, but he's wrestling with some serious stuff".

Apart from noting that The Hesitation Wounds is a great name for an indie band, I can't help musing about the phrase "wrestling with their demons". This seems to be exclusively applied to anyone going through a high-profile personal crisis despite being wealthier and more famous than the rest of us. When a father murdered his family on a housing estate over Christmas nobody said he was wrestling with his demons. Wrestling with demons, which seems an activity reserved for showbiz or sport, somehow dignifies all manner of outrages and carries the hint that demonic behaviour may be an inevitable side effect of genius.

It's odd that an expression like this, which derives from an era when demonic possession was a widely-held belief, should be pressed into use to explain excesses in such a Godless milieu.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Calm down. It's only: 1) some snow; 2) a comedy film and; 3) a songwriter

1. This morning the BBC news said that the snow was "creating havoc" all over the country.
2. Last night somebody said to me that the Will Ferrell movie "Anchorman" was "brilliant".
3. Last week on Desert Island Discs David Tennant said Elvis Costello was "one of the all-time great musicians".

Seems to me these are all examples of qualitative inflation. Now I'm sure with 1) there were a number of people who were badly inconvenienced, others who were caused real distress and then lots of people who carried on as usual, battling "the havoc" by changing their footwear.

As far as 2) is concerned, if you do think "Anchorman" is funny then it's unlikely to be by some distance your favourite funny film. If there are, say, twenty films that are funnier than "Anchorman", then the adjective "brilliant" is unlikely to be the appropriate one.

And then there's 3). I admire Elvis Costello, as do many people, but I think it's pushing it to call him "one of the all-time great musicians". Where do you put him in relation to Sydney Bechet, Burt Bacharach, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and the Beatles, to scratch only the surface of just one letter of the alphabet? And the first one to point out that such praise does him no favours whatsoever would be Elvis Costello.

In all three cases, the appropriate expressions - "causing problems", "really funny" and "very talented", respectively - wouldn't be enough to communicate what the speaker wanted to put over. Whose fault is that? All the over-claimers who went before. So remember, the expression of excessive approval doesn't just affect you. It also spoils it for the next person to come along.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Why I don't listen to demo tapes

I have a rule. I never listen to demos sent to me by would-be recording artists, allegedly for my opinion or just "to see if you can point me in the right direction". I follow this policy for the same reason that I do not judge Most Beautiful Baby competitions: because experience has taught me that if I say I like the demo people will then expect me to do something to make them successful; if I say I don't like it then I am an unfeeling, heartless bastard.

Unless you are the late John Peel with ten hours of airtime a week just itching to be filled up by bands nobody has heard of or you run your own record company for which you make all the major creative decisions, there's very little you can do for a band. The only way to deal with these requests is to develop some diplomatic form of rejection letter, pointing out that quite honestly I am not a talent spotter and my track record on identifying the next big things is not enviable.

But how do you deal with that when you get letters from the parents of a young adult seeking to make it as a performer in the music business who has the additional problem of a physical disability? Of course you sympathise but, really, you want to say, what difference does that make? The music business is a cruel mistress, of course, but nothing like as cruel as the general public, who are indifferent to 99% of musical performers and capricious enough to like Ian Dury despite his disability as much as they appear to like Susan Boyle *because* of hers. In a perverse way, the most honest response would be to write back suggesting that he make more of his disability, even going so far as to make it the central feature of his act. In support of this I could introduce the story of Jack Good, who had booked Gene Vincent on a comeback tour, standing in the wings as his charge performed, mouthing the words "Limp, you bugger. Limp!"

Friday, January 01, 2010

Amazing Grace

In the new edition of The New Yorker my favourite film writer, Anthony Lane, writes about my favourite film star, Grace Kelly. In the course of it he reflects on the ability of great movie stars to transfix us by doing everyday things with extraordinary grace. It was apparently his mother who pointed out how, in the course of one song in "High Society", Bing Crosby smokes, brushes his jacket, arranges his pocket handkerchief and, most amazingly for those who've tried it, manages to tie a bow tie - all of it without the assistance of a single cut. It's here.