Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Basingstoke – Suburban Arcadia

Basingstoke & Deane Council (civic motto “We Go Round and Round”) is currently enmeshed in European Court proceedings with one of its citizens a Mr Ricky Purvis of Ken Barlow Crescent. Mr Purvis has claimed the full cost of a new set (not remoulds) of Michelin GX 555 tyres for his Peugot 504 to compensate him for the unequal wear imposed on his tyres by Basingstoke’s roundabouts or “Traffic Management Schemes” as the Council’s Chief Executive Paul Poltroon cannily calls them. The Council have never in the course of the lengthy proceedings (Mr Purvis was the proud owner of a Morris Minor when the case first went to court) explicitly admitted that there are any roundabouts in Basingstoke at all. Small beer as litigation goes you may think but if the European Court’s decision goes against the council all of us who live within the Basingstoke Ring Road will be able to put in for a new set of tyres. The sadly misguided people of Milton Keynes, who claim to have more roundabouts than Basingstoke, are watching the case with interest.

Alert readers will have noticed that Mr Purvis lives in Ken Barlow Crescent which is part of the ‘UK Gold’ estate to the east of the town centre. The naming of streets in an area of explosive development like Basingstoke must be a problem for the local authority. Some poor soul in a dingy office deep in the Town Hall has to come up with an unending list of uncontroversial street names. We have our fair share of ‘Oakdene Ways’, Myrtle Closes’ and so on. Presumably after years churning out anodyne dross like this the unfortunate council officers responsible finally crack and are discreetly removed to the Judith Chalmers Home for Bewildered Civic Officers on the Aldershot Road. In the 19th and early 20th centuries British military triumphs were the thing, Alma Gardens, Inkerman Terrace, and Omdurman Avenue were very acceptable despite the fact that they celebrated the slaughter of countless foreigners. The works of Charles Dickens have proved fruitful for London planners. The East End boasts a Podsnap Tower, a Jarndyce Court and a Uriah Heep Business Centre. But sadly history is history and no one in Basingstoke gives a fig for Dickens or the Empire. So the naming of new developments and streets after soap characters, pop groups, TV chefs and the like makes perfect sense. Nothing too contemporary in case the personality/character concerned turns out to have feet of clay, but surely our council were safe in their selection of ‘Ken Barlow’ for Mr Purvis’s crescent, whereas Britney Spears Close would be as rash as Jeffrey Archer Way.

I rather misled readers when I said that no one in Basingstoke gave a fig for the Empire because in Little Tebbit, a bungalow a few doors down the hill from my house, there lives a Mr Herbert Oswald, who certainly does give a great deal more than a fig for the Empire. In fact Mr Oswald, who is a sprightly 80 year old has cheerfully admitted that in his youth he was a member of the League of Empire Loyalists. In pre-Monty Python ‘Silly Party’ days this far right party used to make up the numbers at By-Elections normally represented by wild blimpish figures with foam flecked lips or demure twinset ladies with genocidal tendencies. Herbert has happy memories of heckling ‘lefties’ like Harold Macmillan and Selwyn Lloyd at Conservative Party Conferences which certainly sound more lively than the heavily stage managed affairs that we have today. Herbert’s main obsession, that the world would be a better place if Britain were to recolonise the areas of the globe that were once pink in the atlas, is unshakeable but I have tried to reason with him on the subject of the metric system which he firmly believes has been imposed on us by a group of French speaking Devil worshippers in Brussels. I am not as old as Herbert but I too was brought up at a time when the radii of railway curves were calculated in chains and I too had a red exercise book which carried on its back cover conversion tables showing the relationship (or lack of it) between all those rods, poles, perches ounces, gills etc. By the time I left school not a mention had been made of the metric system but I, in my professional life, just got on with it as it slowly filtered into our lives. And what a great system it is, where units of length, capacity and weight are all linked. 1 litre of water weighs 1 Kg, a cubic metre of water weighs a 1000kg or a metric ton etc etc. Herbert however is beyond reason on this but does have some suggestions for the “blimmin’ half-wits that name the roads after homos and socialists” When I asked him for his suggestions for the new estates blooming to the north of us he came up with Dyer Rd. I was about to say that I didn’t realise that he was a Newcastle supporter and that while Kieran Dyer was good I didn’t think that he had done enough in an England shirt to justify the naming of even a cul-de-sac after him when I realised that Herbert was thinking of General Dyer the Butcher of Amritsar. Ian Smith Avenue and Mosley Drive quickly followed and I left hastily before my nomination of a Mandelson Giratory drove him to apoplexy.

Monday, 18 February 2008

How to Put on a Musical – Part 1 ‘The Concept’

This is the first part of an occasional series of as yet undetermined length that will, if you collect all the parts, give you the information you need to mount a top-notch, long running and above all profitable musical.

A question that many men and women ask themselves as they shave in the morning is “what is a musical?” For the answer we have to go back to the very roots of music itself. Archaeologists now believe that the cave paintings at Lascaux in France are in fact costume designs for an early musical entitled “Hunt!” The Roman ‘Toga’ musicals of the Justinian period are well known but then came the Dark Ages, a time, unimaginably, without a single musical. The Goths, Visigoths, Franks and Huns apparently didn’t have a show tune between them. Luckily Christianity made a comeback and while most musical works of these times were strictly religious, it is known that St Bede started work on his musical masterpiece 'Historia Ecclestiastica Gentis Anglorum' (later retitled ‘Venerable!’) but sadly died having only just finished illuminating the title page. Through the Middle Ages we have the Mummers though no one is quite sure what they did, but they seem to be the direct ancestors of today’s Morris dancers and therefore should be cursed through all eternity.
Music theatre, as we know it today, starts with opera and in any chronologically arranged opera guide first up is Claudio Monteverdi and if you haven’t listened to any Monteverdi you certainly ought to, it’s excellent.
Opera in it’s origins was not quite the upmarket, merchant bank sponsored, bean feast that it is today. Operas were popular entertainment, put on by commercial producers, the musicals of their day, true the aristocracy had their boxes where they gossiped, played cards and had sex, but the lower classes, who might well have brought their dogs with them, filled the rest of the house eating parsnips and betting on the length of the overture. By the eighteenth century we have arrived at the theatrical format that we now recognise, an audience in the house, an orchestra in the pit and the performers on the stage. This set up has survived for several hundred years because it works, it gives optimum conditions for the audience to see and hear the story being told. From opera we progress through operetta, a bizarre Austrian art form which involves men in tail coats improbably not realising that the woman that they are dancing with at the ball is their kitchen maid, and the English form of operetta, Gilbert & Sullivan. Like all right minded people, I have an unshakeable contempt for G&S which has only survived for a hundred years as an excuse for the English middle classes to have extra-marital sex under the pretext of attending rehearsals for ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. Thus we arrive at the 20th century and the West End’s first major hit, Chu Chin Chow, a musical comedy, that opened in 1916 and ran for more than 5 years, holding the longest run record for 40 years until Salad Days came along. (There is an organisation committed to the revival of this old warhorse: The Campaign for the Revival of Chu Chin Chow c/o Col Oswald Dutt-Parker, Little Simla, Vicarage Rd, Godalming GU21 8TZ, which deserves all our support). So, fully formed, the ‘Musical’ bestrides 20th century entertainment like a Colossus, a popular and classless form which sends the audience out into the night reassured that life is good and that the combined cost of the baby sitter, parking, interval drinks, souvenir brochure/mug/T shirt and dinner on top of the ticket price has been worthwhile.

We should give some thought as to why we are bothering to do this. The answer must firstly be money, secondly money and thirdly to get to work with a lot of good looking women in sequins and not much else. Occasionally I ask producers why they are doing a production and often I get “Ted, we are going to redefine the Modern Musical” or “People are ready for a new look at Titus Andronicus” or some such guff. One of my favourite comments came from the producer of the execrable ‘Winnie’ , the Churchill musical, after its early closure. As the broker’s men were removing his office furniture he said “Ted, the British public aren’t ready for a show about greatness”. This from the producer of a musical the high point of which was the entrance of the ensemble ladies clad in Union Jack knickers sitting astride the gun barrel of a Sherman tank. So let’s cut the crap and face the fact that putting on musicals is a business and we do it for money.

So we know what a musical is and why we are doing it, but what about the subject matter? The overwhelming global success of musical theatre in recent times has meant that the people who have thought “What is a musical?” while shaving will later in the day will have the further thought “Blimey that would make a great idea for a musical”. This can happen while they are writing a shopping list, queuing at the building society or putting air in their tyres at the petrol station. The US National Security Agency have proved that on average, worldwide, no less than 8,597 “great ideas for a musical” are had per hour by members of the public. Reassuringly the NSA estimate that less than 3% of these constitute “a real and present danger” to the USA. These concepts based on the biographies of much loved pets, DIY projects, camping holidays in the Dordogne and so on are generally too wacky to attract the interest of commercial producers. More conventionally the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens and other classics have all been mercilessly plundered. I have done musicals based on ‘Jane Eyre’:
The name is plain
Etc etc”
‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’
“Keep on travellin’
Life unravellin’
Etc etc”
and I also worked on ‘Which Witch’ which has it’s origin in a 1487 guide for witchfinders (and do you know what? I still have the CD and very occasionally I play it). The comedy jailers scene in this piece is particularly rewarding and the executioner’s song ‘I Can Make You Burn’ as performed by Jan “Null Point” Teigen would stop any show. I personally believe that as long as a show has a strong emotional core and that as long as it can be contrived to include scenes with ladies in sequins and not much else, any subject will do.

Project Model
The purpose of this section will be to illustrate in a very practical way how a hypothetical musical might be put together. This will be a nuts & bolts guide. Follow these easy steps and success can almost be guaranteed.
In order to illustrate the theory that anything can be turned into a musical I propose to loosely base our hypothetical production on the Haynes Owners Workshop Manual for the 1989 Skoda Favorit. The working title for the production will be “Maintenance!”

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Andrei Tarkovsky, Boris Godunov & Me (or Why there are No Jokes in Solaris)

The Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, responsible for Andrei Rublev and the original Solaris, came to Covent Garden to direct Modest Mussorgsky’s mighty Boris Godunov in the mid-eighties. Being an admirer of the great man’s films I was delighted to be given the technical manager’s job on the production.

Tarkovsky was a short man with a pinched disgruntled expression, who habitually sat huddled in an old sheepskin coat at the back of the auditorium. The system in those days was that each new production had 3 ‘Technical Sundays’ in which to set up and light the production prior to the start of the piano/stage rehearsals. So on three consecutive Sundays we put the set up, hung around while Tarkovsky sat morosely at the production desk. We made changes, we made changes to the changes, but by 4.00 on the final Sunday afternoon we had not plotted a single lighting Q. I turned to Bob Bryan, the production’s lighting designer, who had sat for three weeks twiddling his thumbs, and said “Do you think it’s worth asking him if we could just put a few Q’s in the board for tomorrow’s rehearsal”? “It’s worth a try Ted” replied Bob cheerfully. So I slipped easily into Uriah Heep mode and went to Tarkovsky. “Andrei”, I said “perhaps we should try and put a few lighting Q’s in the board before we go home tonight so we have something to work with at tomorrow’s rehearsal”. I was subjected to a 5 minute tirade in Russian which our interpreter sweetly translated as “Andrei says that it is very difficult to work under these conditions”.
Some of his dissatisfaction with things at Covent Garden stemmed from his relationship with the designer, a London based Russian fine artist called Nicholas Dvigoubsky. Nicholas was as unlike Tarkovsky as it was possible to be. Affable, hearty, and possessed of the most bone crunching and painful handshake in London, and, being a good European, he would insist on shaking hands every morning with anyone that he met for the first time that day. The trauma of these morning handshakes was such that staff would peer nervously round the auditorium doors as they came to rehearsal to check if Nicholas was in range. If cornered one cast around desperately for something that required both hands to carry like a tea tray or a crystal chandelier but Nicholas was remorseless in his quest for good fellowship and he always got his man in the end.

The climax of Tarkovsky and Nicholas’s deteriorating relationship came as the result of a dispute over some floral garlands. Tarkovsky wanted something to decorate the distinctly spartan ‘Polish’ scenes, Nicholas didn’t, I had run out of budget and sided with Nicholas. Right at the end of the production period Tarkovsky finally lost patience and called a meeting of everybody who was anything in the Opera company in the producer’s office. In front of an audience that included Sir John Tooley, Claudio Abbado (who was conducting), the rest of the creative team, every HOD in the building, interpreters and riff raff like me Tarkovsky launched a volley of abuse in Russian at Nicholas. Nicholas turned grey and stood pinned to the wall by Tarkovsky’s words like a man in a knife throwing act that has gone horribly wrong. I turned to Irina, our interpreter and asked desperately for a translation. She too had turned grey and said “I can’t tell you! I can’t tell you!” When he had finished Tarkovsky stalked out of the room looking well satisfied with his mornings work.

Was the production good? Yes it was and Tarkovsky’s staging was at times extraordinary. Here is an example. I won’t trouble you with the plot which is a rambling chronicle (so rambling that you can change the order of scenes pretty much at random and no one would be any the wiser) of events in Russia around 1600, most of the time the stage is packed with people bewailing the fate of Mother Russia. At the beginning of Act 3 there is a short scene between Marina, the daughter of the Voyevode of Sandomir (definitely not top billing in the European royalty stakes) and a Jesuit named Rangoni. She is trying to decide whether to get hitched to a pretender to the Russian throne named Dimitri. Rangoni is urging her to remember her Catholic duty and to convert the Orthodox Russians if she makes it to the throne in Moscow. To be honest this is not the most interesting scene in the opera, it is one of those scenes that 19th century composers thoughtfully put in to give the audience a break. It gives you a few minutes to wonder if your PA remembered to book the restaurant or whether you have a shirt ironed and ready for tomorrow. In Tarkovsky’s version Marina sat on a rather Disneyesque throne while Rangoni simply paced backwards and forwards across the forestage. Nothing more than that, nothing else happened but it was gripping. No one was thinking about PAs or shirts, we were all gripped, and to this day I can’t work out why. The production was dotted with similarly compelling moments.
None of us realised at the time how ill Tarkovsky was (he died 3 years later) and perhaps he can be forgiven the evil temper because of those moments that have stuck in my head for more than 20 years.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Let Me Sleep All Night In Your Seoul Kitchen

Easily the most interesting and exciting thing about Seoul is the fact that the street numbering bears no relation to the geographical position of a house but is based on the age of the house. In other words No 1, the first building to be erected, could be standing next to No 357 which was the last. No 2 could be 400 yards away. Koreans spend much of their lives standing next to a fax machine waiting for someone to fax them a map of where to go next. Also tattooing is illegal, there are no blondes in Seoul and yes they do eat dogs, which are a winter speciality deemed to be particularly warming.

I am here to see ‘We Will Rock You’ (or ‘We Will Lock You’ as it is known in these parts) into the Seongnam Arts Centre. Seongnam is a 40 minute drive from our hotel and is to Seoul what Woking is to London.
Seoul was pretty much flattened during the Korean War so it is an unattractive modern city, the shopping streets are smothered with epilepsy inducing signage and the suburbs consist of mile upon mile of randomly numbered tower blocks. But I like it, the Koreans have energy and the streets are full of cheery confident young people. Unlike some of our party I like the food, I even like kimchi, Korea’s national dish. Kimchi is fermented cabbage pickled with garlic and chilli, it’s smell pervades the entire nation. Like it or loathe it no one can deny the effect that recent advances in Kimchi technology have had on the exploding Korean economy. The development of MDK (Medium-Density Kimchi) has revolutionised the manufacture of computer keyboards and sports shoes. All motorway bridges in Korea are now constructed entirely from HDK (High-Density Kimchi).

The theatre at Seongnam is utterly charmless, steel and marble foyers, backstage corridors in green and magnolia without a molecule of decoration. The stage is vast and the crew are generally helpful with only an occasional attack of bureaucracy so the load-in was no real problem.
One of the treats on these trips comes about when we lose or need to replace the material backing the Killer Queen’s appearances in the video booth. Bright red and vulgar is what we usually go for, after all the company motto is “Never knowingly in good taste”. So on this occasion, with the help of the hotel concierge I carefully memorised the Korean for “Excuse me. I wonder if you could help me? I’m looking for something in pink leopardskin” and set off, via Seoul’s excellent metro system, for Namdaemun Market. This is a termite’s nest of retail heaven. A maze of tiny alleys, stalls and cafes. that seems firmly set 50 years earlier than the surrounding streets with their Body Shops and Starbucks. Particularly charming are the lady food vendors who deliver lunches to stallholders balancing trays on their head while they weave through the heaving aisles. The only problem with this market is that it is full of utter tat, there is nothing any sane person would want to buy, unless you are after “something in leopardskin”. So in no time at all I found a leopardskin bathmat that was just the job.

We have had our first night and all went well apart from the moment when the Killer Queen from the video screen demands “Who dares play live rock music ….?” The answer was nil since a computer glitch in the flying system aborted the fly Q and the band were not revealed leaving three actors on stage and one in the video booth(in front of the leopardskin bathmat) working hard to earn their weekly crust. Good stuff, it’s always a pleasure to watch actors squirm their way out of a crisis.
We play the show in English, 95% of the audience here don’t speak a word so we have the dialogue running as Korean subtitles on screens either side of the stage. Would they get the jokes? Well yes and no. I’m sure that when Khashoggi describes Galileo as an “ignorant plucker” the audience were probably puzzled as to why he was thought to be “a stupid worker who removes the feathers from chickens and other domestic fowl”. The oral sex gag in Act 2 after Galileo tells Scaramouche to keep up, was received with a few titters, a few intakes of breath and a few tuts. Then when Scaramouche says “…and you kept your socks on” there was deadly silence. I don’t think that this was shock, I think Koreans often leave their socks on when having sex and is therefore commonplace enough not to be funny. In fact it is possible that Koreans always put socks on before having sex, this is a very tidy and hygienic nation and the fear of sexually transmitted verucas must be all too real.
Apart from jokes lost in translation the first night audience were happy to clap along with anything and were on their feet screaming at the end. Mission accomplished.

The company, which with contingents from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, is the theatrical equivalent of a multinational peace-keeping force, is off to pacify Singapore next.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map