Miscellany and detritus, from the writer of Is This Mutton?com

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Friday, November 27, 2009

The mystery of Michael

I've always been fascinated by cemeteries and it started at a young age. I would happily go to St Mary's church in Plympton and study the gravestones. I was always drawn to one grave in particular, that of Michael Clyne Wasley, who died aged just eight months in 1945.

What's particularly poignant about Michael's grave is that every Christmas, new flowers are placed on it.

As the years have gone by, we have wondered who still keeps up the remembrance. His parents, if they're alive, would be very old now. Is it a sibling perhaps?

I created a scrapbook layout to ponder this and to reflect on a baby whose life may have been short but has never been forgotten.

Strictly Come Dancing preview

It's all change in tomorrow's Strictly Come Dancing and not a moment too soon. There are two new dances plus a competitive Viennese Waltz.
The new dances are the Charleston and the rock and roll (if that is its correct title.) Natalie and Vincent, and Ricky Whittle and Natalie will be dancing the rock and roll and the other couples the Charleston (popularised by Josephine Baker, pictured.)
What's interesting about the new dances is that they're not known to the professional dancers, who were trained and choreographed by specialists.
From what I've seen on It Takes Two, Vincent has been struggling with the rock n roll which is a very demanding and physical dance. He seemed to be having more problems than his celebrity partner, Natalie Cassidy, although you wonder if the producers "stage" this to try to get us to watch the show on Saturday.
As usual there is another injury drama. This time it's Ali Bastian who injured her foot. Nonetheless she will bravely battle through even though the Charleston is very "foot intensive" (I can't think of a dance that isn't!).
I'm really looking forward to the competitive Viennese Waltz. Unlike the group dances, which are choreographed so that there's enough room for everyone, a competitive group dance is basically "every man for himself", and couples will have to navigate their way around the floor to avoid bumping into the others and to showcase their dance. It's a real throwback to the old-fashioned Come Dancing show. It will be hardest for the male celebrities because they will lack the knowledge, garnered by the professionals over years of competitive dancing, of "room craft" and how to slow down or speed up to ensure a clear path.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cast Offs: Ground breaking drama at its best

Channel 4 gets a lot of stick from the lofty TV critics who disparage it for reality shows and documentaries that are in dubious taste.

But the channel is still a leader in bringing ground breaking drama to the screen. It is bolder about challenging taboos and the status quo than the other more conservative channels. BBC3, for all its supposed edginess, serves up a relentless diet of mediocre dross.

Channel 4's latest drama is the series Cast Offs. Hidden in the schedule (10.35pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and barely promoted, the station was perhaps a bit wary about the reception this might receive. But what a jewel of a drama!

The concept is what's ground breaking because the comedy drama features disabled actors and not in the negative or cruelly comedic comedy way in which disabled people are usually featured on TV (think of Blofeld in James Bond or the wheelchair worker in The Office.)

The premise is: six disabled people are sent to a deserted island to fend for themselves in a Channel 4 reality show similar to Survivor. The actors are all disabled in real life, as are two of the three writers. We have Tom, who is blind; April, who has Cherubism; Gabby, who is deaf; Dan, a paraplegic sportsman; Carrie, who has dwarfism, and Will who is thalidomide affected.

We find out that the characters are the same as the rest of us, except they have a disability to contend with. They're funny, sad, spiky, kind, sexy.

The first two episodes have shown life on the island interspersed with the run-up to the show for two of the characters, Dan and Tom.

The episode featuring Tom was very touching. Tom, a blind actor whose roles have been limited to "blind man in lift" was shown "teaching" an actor how it feels to be blind in certain situations. It was clear that he would have played the part better than the boorish actor, but wasn't given the chance. We saw him having dinner with the blind ex-girlfriend of his flatmate. All seemed to be going well until the next day she told him she was getting back with the flatmate and thanked him for allowing her to experience sex with a blind man.

Meanwhile back on the island, Tom is told to sit up all night with a shotgun, waiting to shoot a fox that keeps stealing the camp's food.

He probably isn't the best equipped for this task and falls asleep, earning the wrath of the other campmates. He goes back out with Dan and this time manages to shoot the fox by sensing it. He's treated as a hero and glowd with pride at having done something useful for the camp, having previously been described as being so lazy he makes Bagpuss look as if he has Attention Deficit Disorder. The humour in the programme is sometimes gentle, sometimes vicious, but it's in the natural context of people's dialogue rather than forced lines with canned laughter as you get in the appalling new comedy Miranda.

I predict a bucketful of awards for this brave new series and hopefully a gradual change in the way disabled people are portrayed on TV and in films.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nothing adorable about a 3 year old in heels

I am mystified as to why the papers and glossy magazines go ga-ga over pictures of three year old Suri Cruise in her designer clothes and kitten heels. "Adorable" they cry, while breathlessly recounting how proud mum Katie Holmes spends around £25,000 a month on clothes for the precocious kid.

I don't see it as adorable. The kitten heels, along with the nail varnish, look creepy to me. Why is childhood brushed aside so quickly? Do little girls have to be dressed up as teenagers? I'm wondering what Suri's feet will look like when she's 30.. Similar to Victoria Beckham's I imagine: misshapen and covered in bunions.

Maybe in later years we will read how Suri went off the rails because of the pressure put on her to look gorgeous and slim. Maybe - gasp - she won't have any talent and will be constantly trying to top her child star performances. Famous for nothing but tottering along on high heels. It's a hard act to live up to when you're only three.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sublime Dame Shirley

I've never been a fan of Dame Shirley Bassey. She always seemed like a relic from a different time. I was vaguely aware of songs like Diamonds Are Forever, Hey Big Spender, and the lady from Tiger Bay in her sequinned gowns. But she was never competing for attention on my ipod.

Until yesterday.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Dame Shirley on Dermot O'Leary's radio show. She's done a Tom Jones with her latest album and collaborated with some of today's top songwriters and musicians including the Manic Street Preachers, Rufis Wainwright and Gary Barlow. I was busily painting or making cards but the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, which hasn't happened since David Bowie's Starman.

I downloaded the album, The Performance, and have been listening amazed to the sublime tracks. This is a softer, more vulnerable Shirley Bassey. But the songs are still show stoppers. I love the wistful sentimentality of "The girl from Tiger Bay", written by the Manic Street Preachers.

I've been checking out her website, Dame Shirley Bassey dot com (what else?) and discovered the album was Radio 2's album of the week. Give it a whirl!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Strictly Come Dancing: anti climactic final ahead

It looks as if Jade Johnson is out of this year's Strictly Come Dancing which poses a scheduling issue for the BBC. Unless they have a show where no-one gets voted off, the final will only have two couples competing, which does not make great TV. We also face the prospect of the final being a real anti-climax.

Jade didn't dance last night so after two non-shows, she probably can't come back as a contestant.

As I predicted, Ricky Groves was in the bottom two and was the unanimous choice to go when he competed against Laila Roussos in the dance-off.

Ricky and Erin's tango was a real dog's dinner. It wasn't just Ricky's luke warm performance, which lacked the sharpness and controlled aggression of a tango, but the choreography. It reminded me of the disasterous dance with dummies that Erin choregraphed for Colin Jackson which ultimately cost him the SCD prize.

Laila and Anton's ballroom number was effortlessly floaty and restrained but I believe the public is tiring of Laila and her ankle histrionics.

Natalie Cassidy was in the judges' bottom two but was saved by the public. Her samba lacked bounce and was a bit too stop / start, but we all love her and the bright pink she was wearing really suited her.

Ricky Whittle and Natalie did a bravura American Smooth and showed off with a lift that looked like it had come out of Gold's Gym rather than the ballroom.

Chris Hollins came good in the Viennese Waltz. He and Ola have a great partnership and I'm sure it's this that is sustaining his appearances week after week.

Ali Bastian and cheesy Brian were technically good as always but vacuous and unmemorable. I'm afraid I can't even remember what dance they did. Was it a foxtrot?

Now that Jade has gone, the final will undoubtedly be between Ali and Ricky Whittle. Jade was the only one who could challenge those two and bring a bit of frisson to the final. It will, I'm afraid, be a bit of a Strictly yawn.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Strictly Come Dancing preview

Will she dance or won't she?
That's the big question around Jade Johnson (pictured with the gorgeous Ian) and tonight's Strictly Come Dancing. On Take Two last night, Jade explained that she's has extensive physio on the knee problem which forced her out of last week's show, and while her phsyio says it's OK for her to dance, the BBC's physio is currently saying no (no doubt for insurance reasons.)
She hasn't rehearsed all week but she could simply recreate the tango she didn't get to perform.

I'm predicting that Chris Hollins (Viennese Waltz) and Ricky Groves will end up in the dance off tonight. Laila Roussos may also hover in the danger zone. Compared to Jade, it seemed her ankle problem and tearful exit last week were just an actress's histrionics, and she was lucky the public kept her in.

Natalie Cassidy is dancing the Strictly killer, the samba, but I imagine her zest and energy will help her pull off this challenging number.

I'd like to tell you what Ali Bastian and Ricky Whittle will be doing but I find them both so dull my mind tunes them out when they're on Take Two. Actually I think Whittle is doing the American Smooth. I find it hard to believe that Bastian is an actress because she doesn't bring any acting ability to her dancing: she's simply a good dancer, as you would expect from someone who was ballet trained.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Back in the Isles of Scilly

It's buried away in the wastelands of BBC2 scheduling, but "An Island Parish" is back and it's enthralling once again to be caught up in the lives of Heike, the newly engaged vet; the Rev David Easton (pictured) who's sadly having to leave because a secret Methodist vote turned against him, and other characters, new and old.

It's a gentle little series with beautiful scenery and a perfect voiceover by Nigel Farrell, who thankfully has stopped his efforts to be centre stage. Remember the ghastly staged Nigel & Nippi series about two friends starting up a restaurant? Or was it buying a chateau? Can't remember.

Last week's episode had a real surprise. Not only did a fine set of church bells get delivered to the islands for the first time ever, but it turned out that Father Guy was blessing them. And there he was! We haven't seen Father Guy for a long time and I even wondered in an earlier post if he had left the Scillies. Perhaps now he will take centre stage again, with the departure of Rev David. After all, it is supposed to be religious programming.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sickness and injury threaten Strictly Come Dancing

Well, what a night: first Brucie is laid up with the flu; then Jade does something to her knee and can't deliver the paso doble, and then Laila, with an ankle problem, limps off during her dance in tears.

As I expected, the silly public kept her in, even though she'd only done half a dance - badly, and Tuffers was evicted in the dance-off after Ricky Groves significantly upped his game.

The tears and histrionics make me smile. Ricky Groves, in his "keep me in, I'm on a journey" little speech (after lines had closed) burst into tears. C'mon guys, it's only a dance competition! I am more concerned about Jade's Olympic chances now that she has a knee problem, rather than will we ever see her paso doble.

So we have two clear front runners, Ali Bastian, whose chances are boosted by a strange little romance with her partner Brian Fortuna (it will last as long as the show, I predict), and Ricky Whittle (not Groves as I mistakenly said earlier today.) I reckon they will be in the final along with Natalie Cassidy and Vincente, if there are three couples in the final. Natalie is doing a good "tortoise and hare" but she will never quite reach the natural brilliance and ease of the other two celebrities.

Bruce has nothing to worry about after seeing Tess elevated to his role. What was Ronnie Corbett doing there? Absolute waste of time. Tess, I have read, considers herself the star of the show and no doubt put up a big fight to be allowed to do the Brucie role. But she is nothing more than a hostess, an Anthea Redfern, in a lovely dress. She can't sing or dance and she isn't funny.

If I was her I would be worried about my day job, seeing how easily Claudia Winkleman (pictured) made the transition to the after dance interviews. The atmosphere significantly lightened and she was amusing and irreverent. Drawing attention to Natalie's bow made of hair: that's the sort of insightful observation we want to see!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Mature Bride

Last Friday was quite a red letter day for me. Not only did I have a wonderful pre-birthday pamper day at The Sanctuary with Wendy P, and not only did I go to the theatre to see Little Voice, but J finally made an honest woman of me.

Yes dear reader, he proposed under the loudspeaker in a Canadian pub called The Maple.

Well, he insists that he did propose: it seemed more of a discussion to me which started with him asking what I really wanted for my birthday, to which I replied a BMW Six Series (well we can all dream.) Eventually he forced me in the direction of marriage and then said "do you want to?" which, as it transpired, was the proposal.

For the first few days I was excitedly surfing the web looking at historic stately homes and castles, and muttering "Camilla Parker-Bowles" when asked about The Dress.

It is our second time round, and as a mature bride I don't want to be labelled mutton, so sadly I won't be going to one of those delicious bridal boutiques any time soon.

But then my pragmatic side kicked in and I decided that we really would be better off going off to the register office with J's children and my mum, and then going to Scott's for a damn good lunch and maybe a show, and getting a nice ring.

So that's the current POR (plan of record), although it is subject to change of course. J definitely approves of the new plan: he was somewhat alarmed when fireworks and a Beatles tribute band were mentioned.

In the meantime, I popped out today to get some milk and came back with an engagement ring. I have always been very decisive (J would say impulsive).....and impatient. I will not be seeing J until Friday so this will be his first sighting of the artifact.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Little Voice and Jack the Ripper

J and I have been to the theatre twice this week and the two productions couldn't have been more different.

"Jack the Ripper" was an amateur production performed by the Royal Bank of Scotland Theatre Company, while "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" is a West End production starring Lesley Sharp, Marc Warren and Diana Vickers (X Factor semi-finalist.)

It took us a fraught few minutes to find the Southwark Playhouse, venue for Jack the Ripper, tucked away in that part of London near London Bridge which, with its arches and narrow streets, is still so evocative of the time of Jack the Ripper and Charles Dickens.

The play opened with a bang that made everyone jump, and there then followed an exuberant performance by a small but lively company. With no stage or scenery, "Jack" was effectively portrayed by a menacing silhouette that was projected every time he stalked a victim.

For those who don't know the history of this production, the musical was first presented in 1974, transferring to the west end a year later.

The musical is largely set in a music hall and mines a rich seam of the type of entertainment you would have seen in those times, starting around the 1830's.

Stand out performance was from Helen McSorley, the very confident lead, whose pleasantly soaring soprano filled the playhouse. Helen is on the RS graduate scheme. I also liked the honest, earthy performance of Rose Mitchell as Lizzie Stride / Queen Victoria, and Gemma Rushton, the red headed Annie Chapman. J's colleague Lee Ford, as leader of the gang Daniel Mendoza, also acquitted himself very well with a swaggering performance.

Over now to "Little Voice" at the Vaudeville. This is a musical play that is rarely seen because it calls for a young girl who can convincingly deliver the voices of Judy Garland, Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey to name but three. In the film, Jane Horrocks shot to fame as shy "LV", who is forced to sing in a tawdry working man's club after being discovered by her sluttish mother's latest boyfriend, Ray Say.

The scenery and staging is absolutely wonderful: the house, with LV's bedroom upstairs, is so realistic, and it was amazing to see how the house swung round to reveal its front and then, with suddenly became the tinselly working man's club with the characteristic electric organ.

As someone who doesn't watch the freak show that is the X Factor, Diana Vickers was unknown to me, but she really is a star in the making and received a standing ovation. Not only does she sing exquisitely and soulfully in the manner of all the divas she imitates, but she brings a touching vulnerability to the role.

This could not be said for Lesley Sharp, whose performance as the manic slut Marie Hoff, LV's mother, was far too over-the-top. There wwren't enough glimpses of the real woman beneath the blowsy facade, so that when she was supposed to tug on our heart strings, it somehow missed the mark.

The charismatic Marc Warren was very competent as Ray Say, the Michael Caine role, showing the dexterity and command he brings to all his roles. Rachel Lumberg as the lumbering, largely silent but highly comedic Sadie, Marie's friend, was outstanding.

With a run time of 2 hours 45, this is a play that could still be reduced in length without losing any of the meaning. It runs until January and is worth seeing for the star-making performance of Diana Vickers. Sensible girl, she has apparently secured a separate record deal with RCA rather than join the Simon Cowell circus where she would be "milked" for a year and then dropped. I think we'll be hearing a lot more of her.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Wearing a poppy with pride

They used to say you can tell you're getting old when all the policemen look younger. Now I think there are two good barometers at this time of year: you know you're getting old when you're the only one who remembers Bonfire Night (or knows what it is), and you wear a poppy.

Some of the papers talked nostalgically this week about the demise of Bonfire Night and its replacement by the dreaded US replacement, Halloween. To be fair, Halloween wasn't strictly speaking a US replacement. I remember as a child carving out turnips and putting a night light in them, and apple bobbing in a bowl. It was the Hollywood films however, in particular ET,that brought Halloween and all its commercial ghastliness to our shores. Still, it if makes the hard-up supermarkets more profits, what's the problem? (She says cynically.)

I do think it's a pity that a real home-grown tradition like Bonfire Night, which was steeped in history, has faded away. At least when children begged for a penny for the guy they had actually made a guy, rather than just demanding money with menaces.

I wasn't here last night on Bonfire Night, I as returning from a business trip, so I can't tell you if there were more or less fireworks than usual. I like to watch other people's displays. I would love to have some fireworks in our garden, which we did a couple of years ago, but it's really too small.

When we were kids we trudged out into the garden and Stamps would dutifully put rockets in milk bottles and attach Catherine wheels to the fence, and Giz would scream about the bangers and jumping jacks. It was all over in 10 minutes and then we would go back inside.

The other poignant symbol of this time of the year is the poppy, worn in remembrance of the dead. Hardly any young people wear them. My dad, Stamps, was in the Royal Marines and this is the time of year when I remember him most. He always watched the Royal British Legion's Festival of Remembrance, and I do too. It's a very moving moment when the poppies descend quietly and thickly from the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall, each one commemorating a serviceman or woman who died in the line of duty, whether it was the world wars, Iraq or Afghanistan and anywhere else where there is conflict.

Every year there are fewer WW1 veterans. This year we have lost Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. I don't think there are any others left. The minute's silence at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month is very moving.

On the Sunday, Stamps would always watch the Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph. I remember asking him, many years ago, the name of the haunting music that was being played as the politicians laid their wreaths. "Nimrod by Elgar," he replied, and to this day I cannot listen to that piece of music without tears streaming down my face.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Dr Arnold Moon

I heard recently that a dear teacher of mine has died, Dr Arnold Moon. I was very sad because I had meant to track him down and write him a letter explaining the impact he had on me and other pupils. Brilliant teachers who inspire are so rare. At my school, Plympton Grammar, there were only three who met that criteria: Dr Moon, Mrs Bush (English) and Mr Brinkley (languages). The rest were average teachers who went through the motions.

Dr Moon taught religious studies, which I did at both O and A Level. It's down to him that to this day, I can talk knowledgeably about the Old and New testaments and I can still remember the differences in the account of the death of Jesus between the Synoptic Gospels and St John.

However, ask me about 19th century Europe, a period I did in History for both O and A level, and I remember nothing.

Mr Moon (he became a doctor later) was slightly eccentric, and because of the subject he taught was sometimes the butt of jokes by the snide Mr Dunton (history: average teacher.) I think he resented the fact that we seemed to look forward to religious studies after double lessons of Metternich and Bismarck.

When Arnold Moon taught religious studies he somehow managed to ground it into everyday reality, and when you're teaching 16 to 18 year old adolescents whose heads were full of romance and David Bowie, this was quite an accomplishment. I remember the long discourse we had about Saul of Tarsus, later St Paul, and how he suffered from manic depression. And how Dr Moon talked me out of Scientology when I began flirting with it because of one of the Spiders from Mars.

I heard via my mum, who sees Miss Bartrim socially (PE teacher) that Arnold Moon moved into a retirement or rest home in Portsmouth. I intended to track him down but I never got round to it. How I wish I had. But there is still time to contact Mrs Bush, who is in a rest home in Plymouth, and Mr Brinkley. I urge you all to do the same, because special teachers need to know the impact they made on impressionable youth. It's all too fleeting.
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