One Man, Two Guv’nors, One Blog Post

It would be difficult to do a contemporary play about a jobless man who ends up serving two masters, one an idle aristocrat, the other a gangster who turns out to be his own sister in disguise. In fact it would be impossible – without setting it in India or something like the Goodness Gracious Me crew did with the old ‘I look up to him, I look down on him’ sketch. So the National Theatre did the next best thing; they set One Man, Two Guv’nors in the 1960’s. The period was excellently done, with skiffle music between scenes, but what lifted this from a fairly run-of-the-mill knockabout comedy to an absolute riot was James Corden.

I’ve never seen James Corden in anything before and I had him down as someone not particularly funny, I’m not sure why. But in this he is pure genius, running around trying to keep each of his masters from finding out about the other whilst the sub-plot of star-crossed lovers and mistaken identities goes on behind him. There’s a lot of physical comedy here, people being slapped about (Corden slaps himself at one point) and a waiter who looks like Marty Feldman and acts like Manuel falls down the stairs any number of times – in fact he only climbs them in order to be knocked down again, apart from one moment when in an hommage to Victoria Wood’s Two Soups sketch, he tries to carry a couple of bowls across the stage and of course fails. There are swodges of pantomime, oodles of audience participation including one woman who seemed so shy and awkward and who was bullied so much that in the end we concluded (correctly) that she must be a member of the cast, there’s a bit of Shakespeare (Comedy of Errors) and Oscar Wilde as well as the Commedia dell’arte – in fact I lost count of the number of traditions that come together in this. I could have done without quite so much of the music as it was good but not brilliant, but James Corden was a revelation.

It’s still on youtube so go watch. Next week they’re doing something else, I forget what – and in a couple of weeks it’ll be the A-Ma-Zing Twelfth Night production with Tamsin Greig as Malvolia about which I blogged a few years back. Best Shakespeare ever. So head over to youtube and get some tonight. Here’s the link:

We interrupted the play to go outside and clap for – well, basically everyone who’s still working but specifically NHS staff and care workers. Loads of people out, whooping and cheering and waving at each other. Terrific stuff.

A Very Happy Thursday

One blustery day Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet set out for a trip around the forest to wish all their friends a Very Happy Thursday. And here I am to wish you the same, only sans Piglet as sadly he is self-isolating.

How are you getting on with the lockdown? For me it’s pretty much business as usual; I get up, do my yoga, make a drink and head for my desk. I work till about 12.30, go for a walk before lunch, read a while, then get back to my desk till around five or six. Evenings are spent reading or watching TV (tonight it will be a live streaming of the National Theatre’s ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors‘ with James Corden.) And yet I miss things – things like not being able to go to the cafe, not going to meetings (or Meeting), not seeing friends, not going to the cinema, not going to the pub or the folk club or Friday Room discussion group, not having a meal out. I may not have had a welter of social events but when you have none at all you notice the difference.

On the other hand, it has meant less time spent organising for meetings and Meeting and discussion groups and seeing friends. So what have I been doing with my time? As I said, I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel; I promised (or threatened) a review and I will get to that in due course; I’ve also been reading a Paula Hawkins novel (she of ‘Girl on a Train’ fame) which is deeply, horribly yet fascinatingly dystopian and of course I am still ploughing on with Ducks, Newburyport (only 350 pages to go…) And on Britbox we’ve been watching Rev, which has to be one of the best sitcoms ever. I also chat to my friends online and get frequent phone calls from friends (and Friends). I attended my first online Meeting yesterday via Zoom, which worked quite well, all sitting in silence in our own houses… Oh, and I nearly forgot – I’ve started learning ancient Greek! I can now recite the alphabet from memory and write a few actual words (shut up about your bloody evening classes Gerald!)

So that’s me. What have you been up to? Let me know – I’d love to hear.

Kirk out

We’ll Be There For You: The Play Wot I Wrote

Faced with a blank afternoon where I simply couldn’t get going on anything, I decided to make a list of short tasks I could do which might kick the arse of procrastination and actually achieve something. The list includes such activities as completing the Guardian Quick Crossword (done) doing a five-minute writing prompt (done), going through some mental exercises and writing a blog post. Hence this.

It’s time to move on from the election and allow its aftermath to unfold; as such, further comments on these topics are not invited and will not be approved. You can still post such comments on the two election-related posts below but please leave this one free for other topics. So: what else has been happening in the life of this blogger?

Well, Christmas shopping, for one. I have compiled an album of baby photos for my mother in law and have today bought other presents whose nature I cannot disclose because their recipients might read about them. I have also been visiting daughter and granddaughter in Doncaster where we did yet more Christmas shopping, but the main thing I’ve been up to is The Play Wot I Wrote.

About a year ago it occurred to me that Quakers are known as Friends, and that Ross, Rachel, Monica et al are also known as friends. Maybe comedy could be made! I started batting some ideas around and pretty soon a short skit was written. Set in Central Perk coffee house, it features all the characters dressed in 17th-century costume and saying things like ‘Greetings, Friend! I shall not doff my hat to thee as thou and I be equals!’ and ‘Hast thou ordered? I would not say no to a meatball sub,’ and other such Quakerly slogans. There are numerous references to fair-trade chocolate and Quaker oats (‘which are a marketing ploy and have nothing to do with Friends’) and I got a lot of fun out of writing it. When it was finished I began to wonder whether the local Meeting could perform it some time. It was too late for that year’s Christmas entertainment but in the New Year I sent it to a few people and they said they enjoyed it. There was an attempt at getting it off the ground in the summer but not enough people could commit to rehearsals so I gave up on it, but! thanks to the efforts of one Friend in particular (who ended up playing Joey) the performance was realised and it far outstripped my expectations. Everyone committed wholeheartedly to rehearsals and learning their lines and the wardrobe mistress dug out some authentic costumes including hats which, together with a Central Perk sign and the theme music played at the beginning and end, made for a brilliant half-hour (well, ten minutes.)

The other thing I’ve been doing is re-watching Grace and Frankie on Netflix. This is made by some of the same people as Friends, and it shows: imagine Monica and Phoebe living together in their seventies, having been married to Chandler and Mike for forty years, and having just found out that their respective husbands have been having an affair for twenty of those years and now wish to get married. Unlike the Friends characters, Frankie who is pure 100% hippie and Grace, undiluted work-driven WASP, don’t like each other at all to begin with but their friendship develops as the series goes on. There’s another series coming in January so I’d better hurry up and finish the first five.

So that’s me up to date. And how have you been?

Kirk out

Sorry We Missed You, Ma’am

Yesterday I finally caught up with Ken Loach’s latest film, ‘Sorry We Missed You,’ the story of the grinding down of a family by a heartless system. Ricky Turner is fully signed-up to the work ethic, has never claimed the dole and has done a variety of manual jobs; he is clearly prepared to work hard so he and his family can have a home of their own rather than living in scrappy rented accommodation. At first the job sounds great; being your own boss, working when you want, delivering parcels with the opportunity to earn upwards of a thousand pounds a week. But the down-side doesn’t take long to emerge – and it keeps emerging. Theoretically self-employed, the drivers have to either supply their own vans or hire one from the company at an exorbitant daily cost. Not only that but if they take a day off (for no matter what reason) they are responsible for finding a relief driver. That’s just day one – and it keeps ramping up from there.

At first Ricky sucks it up and works hard, tramping up and down the stairwells of flats with broken lifts, braving dogs to deposit parcels in sheds and having to fight customers to present the ID they are legally obliged to show before handing over valuable items. At the bottom of all this is the fear that if anything goes wrong, the driver is held responsible. If the parcel is not delivered, if it’s lost, if it’s broken, if they can’t find anyone to take it – they’re responsible. Not only that but they are tracked every second of their day and have no time for breaks; before Ricky sets off for his first journey a colleague tosses him a plastic bottle. ‘No thanks,’ he says, ‘I’ve got me own.’

It’s not fer drinkin’, says the other, ‘it’s fer pissin’ in. Yer don’t have time ter stop.’

The remorseless wheels continue to grind Ricky and his family into the dust. His son is arrested for shoplifting and he has to take time off to go down to the police station; his wife spends so much time rushing between care jobs that she has no time to look after her own children and the family almost implodes under the pressure but their love for each other stands in stark contrast to the inhumanity of the system. But life just keeps grinding them down and one day, having a pee in his bottle, Ricky gets beaten up and his digital pad smashed. While waiting to be seen at the hospital he learns that he will be fined £1000 for the ‘loss’ of his gadget. Next day, still not having been seen by a doctor (there was a 3-hour wait) he drives off to another day at work, nearly crashes the van, keeps driving. Tears run down his face. King Lear was not more tragic. This miserable abuse is happening now and it needs to stop.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is ‘The Crown,’ (or if you want to pronounce it prawperly, the Crine) an excellent new series starring Olivia Coleman as her maj. If you haven’t heard about this I can only assume you’ve been living at the bottom of the sea for the last month or so because it’s been trailed and reviewed to within an inch of its life.

First there’s the terrific casting: apart from the excellent Coleman Helena Bonham-Carter plays Princess Margaret wonderfully, Jason Watkins is Harold Wilson to the life, Tobias Menzies is terrific as Prince Philip, there’s a surprise appearance by Jane Lapotaire as Philip’s eccentric Greek mother and you’d swear Erin Doherty actually was Princess Anne. Then there’s the pace: some people have complained that The Crown is too slow but I find it perfect. Modern drama is like fast food, gone before you know it and digested so quickly that before you’ve gone to bed you’ve already forgotten what it was you ate, but The Crown stays with you like a long, slow meal; you dine on it and then sit back with a smile to digest.

And then there’s the nostalgia; I remember just about everything from this series, from Wilson’s premiership (and most of his cabinet) to the Aberfan disaster and, this week, the groundbreaking royal documentary which failed to convince the British public and press that the Royals were good value for money and should, as Philip suggested, be given a pay rise.

So I’d recommend both. Watch them in any order and see what an unequal society we live in.

Kirk out

Is It Summer Yet?

Thanks to climate change it’s been summer, on and off, since the middle of February when we had unseasonable warmth. Unfortunately we then skipped back to autumn with a touch of wintry chill and a storm or two when the greenhouse I had so optimistically put up blew down again, then back to spring, a bit more summer before settling on what used to be ‘normal’ temperatures. I guess what we have at the moment is typical for May, so I’ve been dithering about putting my basil plants out but now I’ve decided. The instructions (presumably seed packets haven’t yet caught up with global warming) say put them out at the end of May and the end of May it is, so out they go.

I said I’d get to Summer of Rockets and so I shall, but first I gotta tell you! Last night! Oh, my god. I’d read about the National Theatre’s production of All My Sons and it sounded so good I wished I could get down to see it. But that’s never going to happen so when I saw it was coming to the Phoenix (in a ‘stage on screen’) I knew I had to go. I tried to assemble a small group but in the end it was just one friend accompanying me. And wow. That’s all I can say, just wow. I was so gripped, I felt emotionally drained at the end of it. It’s such a harrowing play – not in an Auschwitz kind of way but in a ‘small close-knit families betraying each other’ way. I’m not going to tell you the plot because if you don’t know it, the denouement should come as a shock to you as it did to me. But if you get a chance to see this production, go. And if you’re in London, for god’s sake go to the Queen Vic – I mean the Old Vic – and see it. It was one of those plays that stays with you long after the curtain goes down.

The oddly-titled TV drama Summer of Rockets begins oddly and has odd dialogue – so odd that I nearly turned it off. But enter the divine Keeley Hawes and I was hooked. I’m glad I persevered because it’s an intriguing drama centring on a Russian emigre and his unlikely friendship with Hawes’s character, the aristocratic wife of an MP. Timothy Spall features as a rather crocodile-like brother and when the Cold War moves from being a backdrop to a central feature of their lives, the drama hots up. The sub-plots – the mysterious disappearance of the MP’s son which his wife investigates tirelessly, and the Russian’s daughter who is being groomed as a deb against her will – are fascinating in their own right even before they somehow join up. I’m only on episode 3 so I’ll keep you posted.

Kirk out

Keep Mum Mum and Don’t Forget Don’t Forget the Driver

Sometimes I wish the Beeb wouldn’t put so many box sets on the iplayer because then I go and watch them in all a bloody great binge.  This isn’t so bad when a series has already been on and you’ve seen it week by week, but they’ve taken to putting some things up before they’ve even been broadcast and I found myself unable to stop viewing the latest excellent Toby Jones vehicle, ‘Don’t Forget the Driver.’

This was in its way as innovative as ‘Detectorists’ though without the involvement of Mackenzie Crook: written by Toby Jones and Tim Crouch it features Jones as a well-meaning but unassertive coach driver who from his base in Bognor takes a different group of people each week to places like Woburn Abbey, Legoland and Hampton Court.  Like Detectorists this has no laughter-track or studio audience and the incidental music is cleverly done by broadcasting whichever tune is ‘playing on the radio’.  If I have a beef with this it’s that the scenes are sometimes too short and the cuts too frequent, so that it ends up a bit like the classic disaster movie switching from train to trapped female and back to approaching train… but it’s a small beef.  I’m not going to say any more about the plot as its still being broadcast but there’s some brilliant understated humour:

Japanese tourist (outside Hampton Court, holding a volume of Shakespeare):  ‘Please can you tell me about this… iambic pentameter?

Peter (Toby Jones):  Well, Mr Pentameter, if you go that way you’ll find the guide who will tell you all you need to know.

Tourist: (nods happily) Thank you.

Mum‘ on the other hand, is not so much understated as unstated.  OH asked me, as I was chuckling away, why I enjoy it so much when in general I dislike cringe-comedy.  It’s true that I avoid stuff like ‘The Office’ and ‘I’m Alan Partridge’, because I think comedy should be a release rather than making you more uptight than you were to start with: but in any case I think ‘Mum’ is different because she is the only character not making us cringe.  We are feeling and laughing with her, not at her – and that’s the difference.

Again it’s a programme with no laughter and almost without incidental music, though there’s a little of the title track’s percussion between scenes.  What’s also different is that nothing actually happens; each episode takes place before or after an event, usually when people are getting ready for something.  We first meet Mum Cathy on the day of the funeral and one by one all the other characters drop by: her brother Dave with his unbearable girlfriend Pauline; the rude and miserable grandparents and her live-in son and his well-meaning but clumsy girlfriend.  And then there’s Michael.  It’s obvious from day one that Michael is head-over-heels in love with Cathy, and probably always has been.  It’s equally obvious that he won’t make a move – not today because it’s the day of the funeral, but probably not ever, because Dave the deceased was his best friend and it would seem like betrayal.

As prolonged and delayed romances go, this is drawn-out agony with more misunderstandings, absences and interruptions than any human being can bear.   The supporting cast are all, in their own way, intolerable, and Michael is the only person Cathy can talk to but they hardly get an opportunity to talk and when they do, each of them is so hesitant and reticent that you just want to bang their heads together.

Anyway I’ll say no more but let you go ahead and watch them both.

Kirk out

 

Fairyhell Marriage

Millions of words have been written about Princess Diana and even more pictures printed but we had to wait until after her death to learn that Andrew Morton’s biography  was based largely on tapes she recorded secretly with the author.

It’s a story to break your heart: a classic Grimm fairytale with enough evil stepmothers, ugly sisters and neglectful husbands to fill an entire library.  Diana’s married life – and possibly her life even before marriage – was utterly devoid of human warmth and compassion: according to her account during her worst hours the Royal Family, her husband and even her own sister failed to support her.  Buckle up and get on with it seems to have been the order of the day: but what must have made an intolerable situation far worse was having to present a smiling face to the world.  The world needed to believe in the fairytale of a commoner marrying a prince and living happily-ever-after: it was a fantasy in which the hapless couple were forced to be complicit as they were not only followed everywhere by cameras but cross-examined in interview after probing interview.  Diana must have felt she was carrying the weight of the whole world on her shoulders.  There were times when she wanted to cancel the wedding but once announced the preparations were like a rocket already launched and could not be stopped.  Imagine: it’s hard enough for a commoner to cancel a traditional wedding once preparations are in train; if you add into the mix the cold, inflexible royal protocols and an unprecedented level of press intrusion, you have a recipe for 360-degree hell.  On her wedding day she was sick with bulimia (who wouldn’t be?) and wanted to cut her wrists.  Had her marriage been happy the rest might have been tolerable, but it wasn’t: she had little in the way of love and support from her husband as he was always more interested in Camilla.

Diana must have been made of steel, because she not only survived this hell but made a role for herself, a role which seemed genuinely to use her gifts and talents.  She had the common touch and an ability to connect with ordinary people, particularly those suffering from AIDS and injured by land-mines.  But sadly the press never left her alone and although it’s not clear that they were directly responsible for her death, they surely must bear part of the blame.

The story of Diana has many possible narratives and in fairness her version is just that, a version.  I have no reason to doubt what she says, but every witness is partial and there are always other points of view: in a sense Charles was as much of a victim as Diana, being unable to marry the woman he loved and forced to wed for the sake of the succession.  In the past he’d have been able to carry on with Camilla in secret whilst presenting a respectable public face but modern levels of scrutiny make this impossible.  Besides nowadays the royals, like the rest of us, are supposed to marry for love.

The story also illustrates a paradigm shift, as pointed out in The Queen: a ‘shift in values’ between the old stiff-upper-lip of royal protocol and the more human and compassionate face which Diana represented.

I hope no future royal princess will receive that level of intrusion because we have no right to demand it of them.  They are not there to fulfill our dreams, we need to do that for ourselves.

Here’s the film:

https://bit.ly/2BDYj4Y

Kirk out