Christmas TV schedules always include a few retrospectives from the TV archives, and I’ve just watched two that were sublime. First was “Victoria Wood: Seen on TV”, an absolute delight showcasing the career of possibly the most intelligent comedy writer in Britain today. Easily the best thing ever to come out of “New Faces” (well, Lenny Henry wasn’t bad) she is the unlikeliest comedy hero you could imagine: dressed like a wee suburban wifey, she has a face that she herself acknowledges you would pass by in the street. Not me. I’d rush up and get her to sign anything I had available: if Fate was good to me, I’d have a copy of the Woman’s Weekly in my pocket.
The programme is full of excellent analysis of just why she is so good: her ability to create a whole range of totally believable characters, a skill perhaps enhanced by her largely anonymous look working as a blank slate; her observation of the nuances of how people interact with each other blown apart by grotesquery (“Have you seen it on the trolley?”); her difference in coming from a background so unlike the Oxbridge or alternative scenes that held sway at the time of her rise and from the North (“We’d like to apologise to viewers in the North. It must be awful for them”); and most of all her fabulous writing (who on earth could write a line like “There’s hens in the skirting board”?). So many gems, like Acorn Antiques and, of course, “The Ballad of Barry and Frida”, possibly the greatest comic song ever written. And I looked up the “Two Soups” sketch on You Tube and fell off my chair laughing. Three times. A brilliant woman.
And then wee Ronnie Corbett got his own wee show. “The Two Ronnies” was comedy staple for kids of my generation, along with Python, Morecambe and Wise and Marty Feldman. A few years ago, I think he was seen as twee and old-fashioned, but his status as a top class comic has been reinvigorated by the number of projects new comics seem to want him to be part of. Stephen Merchant, David Walliams, Matt Lucas and Catherine Tate all sang his praises, and a host of new talent took part in his recent “The One Ronnie” show which reprised some of the best ideas of The Two Ronnies, including that wonderful word play that characterised their work (“I caught a child playing football on the pitch the other day. I had to order him off it.” / “Audrey Moffat! Now there’s a name! Considering all the friends we have in common, we should get together some time.”) and a drag “Songs of Praise” that is inspired. Every one of them spoke about Corbett’s generosity and willingness to do anything subversive to support fellow comics, including risking his reputation with the blue rinse brigade by snorting coke in a toilet cubicle at the BAFTAs in “Extras” and snuggling Bubbles’ bosoms in “Little Britain”. Eighty-two years old and the most be-jumpered and twinkly of anarchists. Super stuff.
It’s been a year of movies about alternate realities, what with Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” (which I missed in the cinema and must get on DVD!) and the gorgeous “Never Let Me Go”. This is an end of year offering in the same vein, and it’s quite, quite beautiful, if just a little bit empty.
You have no idea of the power of that image on the big screen, another luscious Earth hanging in the sky, offering so much but somehow also suggesting the menace of the unknown. After all, what could be more frightening than knowing that somewhere, another you had got it all right, had made the correct decisions, had achieved all that you had ever wanted to, was more successful and attractive and loved? Could we cope with a happier us somewhere? That’s the torture offered here to Rhoda (Brit Marling), a callow, ambitious 17 year old who finds her life changes beyond belief when, drunk and squinting to the night sky to catch a glimpse of the newly discovered planet, she kills a mother and child in a head on collision that puts the father John (William Mapother) in a coma. After serving 4 years in jail and her place at MIT (used so often as a metaphor for paradise for the new achieving classes) down the tubes, Rhoda takes a dead end janitorial job and, as a result of her own inability to face up to what she has done, finds herself cleaning for John as some kind of atonement. When she wins a place on a space mission to “Earth 2”, she wonders if, up there, John’s family might still be alive.
The movie centres on Marling’s performance. Marling – slightly wonky nose, teeth that aren’t quite straight – is a heart-stopping, incredible beauty, and she’s an interesting character. A whizz-kid economics graduate, she rejected a career shafting the world economy in Goldman Sachs to take up film making. She stars, co-wrote the script and co-produced the movie. There’s a prodigious talent there – she’s not yet 30 – but perhaps also a whiff of prodigious privilege? No matter, her portrayal of Rhoda is exceptional, a blank slate of shock and grief. Skeletal and grey at the beginning of the film, as she realises redemption may lie either in John’s arms or on Earth 2, she opens up like a flower ever so gradually, always on the brink of closing in again for good. Given that her own script is so spare – lengthy silences between the occasional moments of luminous beauty – she carries the emotional weight very powerfully indeed.
It’s also beautifully shot. Beginning with a grainy, shaky, almost out of focus handy cam style, the only pinsharp image is of that glorious orb hanging in the sky. As warmth returns to Rhoda, though, light and heat invest the film. Marling loses that flat monochrome, Mapother loses his corpse-like dead sheen and the world they inhabit becomes tentatively alive again.
It’s a relationship, though, that doesn’t quite work for me. Perhaps it’s the brevity of the script – with so much drama, emotion, and quantum metaphysics to pack into 1 hour 40 minutes, something has to give – but the enormity of what has happened to Rhoda and John makes their affair just a little on the glib side. They fall into a rather chaste version of a steamy sex session after he plays the saw for her (yes, that’s right), and in a minute he’s begging her not to go, and a minute later telling her to get the hell out. I needed more development of that, and perhaps a more experienced scriptwriter could have done it. And the end – clever though it is in its dreadful implication that nothing could be better than it is – seemed to spin us out of that emotional core.
It’s an almost excellent production though, and is a very welcome addition to the downbeat, low-tech sci-fi genre that has become so popular recently with films like “Never Let Me Go” and “Moon”. It is also, at heart, an apocalyptic movie – in snatches of media coverage, we hear dire warnings of mutually assured destruction, and we know this ain’t going to end well – and takes that wonderful approach of looking at the end of the world from the most human of standpoints. For that reason, it sits in the same category as my favourite low-tech, sci-fi apocalypse now movie, the blackly comic “Last Night” by another prodigy, Canadian Don McKellar. From 1998 – McKellar wrote, directed and starred – it tells of ordinary people spending their last day alive as the world ticks closer to an unamed end at midnight. McKellar and Sandra Oh are totally convincing as two strangers thrown together in amongst the emotional wreckage of a world on its very last legs. It’s terrific.
Awww. Just spent a lovely evening at the Christmas performance of the City of Glasgow Chorus (my friend Michael Inglis is a member), accompanied by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera.
Is there anything more evocative than beautiful sopranos soaring their harmonies on the “Fa-la-la-la-la” of “Deck the Halls”? Choirs are lovely – I don’t see enough of them.
A really fun time. Even an old cynic like me was singing along to the Mamma Mia medley, and old favourites like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” evoked quite a few goosebumps. Many thanks and Merry Christmas to them all!
Okay, end of year and nothing planned between now and January, so it’s time for a bit of reflection. Let’s start with music which, I’m sure you have gathered, is like food and drink to me.
Best concerts? Well, of course, Mayra Andrade at Ronnie Scott’s would win the top five places in my top five list, but that’s a bit unfair on the others. Seeing one of the world’s great new stars in such an intimate setting and with such a fabulous band was a highlight of this or any year. Along with Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time” tour at the SECC in 1991 – a very different proposition – it’s definitely an all time favourite.
So if I am giving other places out, second goes to Ane Brun at King Tut’s, one of my discoveries of the year. A fantastic night of gorgeous songs and transcendent sounds, it was gob-smacking in its emotional power. Third is Love and Money at the Queen’s Hall, purely for nostalgic reasons. Impeccable funk and charisma personified from James Grant, it was a wonderful reminder of a band I constantly return to on the CD player. Fourth – Yasmin Levy at the GRCH in January: a fantastic voice, beautiful Sephardic songs and a warmth of spirit that was captivating.
So many others: Lau’s set at the O2 ABC in January; Grethcen Parlato’s cool at the Tron; Imelda May’s raucous sexiness at the O2 Academy. But fifth spot in the top five goes to Catfish Keith at The Ferry in October. A brilliant, brilliant guitarist, a growling voice and a genuinely nice guy; a perfect blues night.
As for the albums that I’ve been playing a lot, I’ve been part of the so-called “vinyl revival” that never really went away. On a good deck LPs still sound as good as any digital source, and on top of that, there’s the aesthetic of watching a record spin. I’ve always felt turntables are as much musical instruments as anything else. Mine, a thirty year old Alphason Sonata with MC-100s pure copper rewired tonearm, Atlas power supply, Dynavector Karat cartridge and Trichord Dino and Dino+ headamp, is my pride and joy.
So what’s been spinning? Ane Brun’s “It All Starts With One” has been almost worn out. “Undertow” fills the room, the flat, the whole fucking building with its huge sound (really, it does – ask my neighbours), and the last three “bonus” tracks – “One Last Try”, “Du gråter så store tåra”, “I Would Hurt a Fly” – are astonishing. Album of the year for me…
Except I love Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful or So What”. Simon’s inventiveness at 70 is incredible. He’s always reinvented himself, done something new, refused to trade on past glories. His latest is a huge return to form (I wasn’t too impressed with “Surprise” or “You’re The One” when compared with his legendary albums like “Graceland” or “Still Crazy…”) and is outstandingly produced. His voice sounds just as gorgeous as it did when he was twenty. Incredible.
Bought late in 2010 but worked hard this year was James McMurtry’s “Live in Europe”, an artist who may well be, after Simon, the greatest living US songwriter. Recorded on the tour I saw him on, it contains some classic protest songs of blue collar America, including “Hurricane Party”. It also contains one of the saddest, angriest, most beautiful love stories ever recorded: “Ruby and Carlos”. If it doesn’t make you weep, you’re a robot.
Sevara Nazarkhan’s “Tortadur” is only available digitally, unfortunately, but it’s beautiful. Her 2007 album “Sen” was phenomenal in it’s cool, Uzbek take on trip-hop – I heartily recommend the cool, cool, cool live recording of “Erkalab” on You Tube – and she then diverted into cheesy pop for a while. “Tortadur” is a return to Uzbek folk roots, and its slow-burning gorgeousness is fantastic. I’m hoping for a tour on the back of the album, though it’ll probably mean a trip to London. Damn…
The Civil Wars “Barton Hollow” made a big impression too. Grounded in folk rock of the Sixties and a traditional bluegrass aesthetic, the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White produce some of the most convincing harmonies since Simon and Garfunkel. It may be gentle music – perhaps even at times twee – but it’s never less than utterly listenable because of the perfection of its pitch.
Other ear-grabbers included Vintage Trouble’s “The Bomb Shelter Sessions”, the seriously deranged My Brightest Diamond’s “All Things Will Unwind” and, a personal favourite and a lovely discovery from Poland, Mikromusic’s “Sova”.
I’ve missed out so much, but next year starts in just a fortnight. Six gigs booked in January – methinks I’ll be busy!
Ahh, diddums… Manchester, red and blue, is out of the Champion’s League.
Okay, I apologise, but I’m going to rant. I’m sort of sorry to see United go because I like their football and they have lots of Scottish connections. But, then again, we Scottish love underdogs because we identify so well with them, so I couldn’t help roaring my approval at Basel’s second goal. City: I used to like them when I was a wee boy and Frannie Lee played for them, but nobody likes a team that buys its way to success, especially if you’re a St Mirren supporter. It’s why I dislike Chelsea too, but adore the Arsenal philosophy.
I’ve no problem with English clubs being successful in Europe, except… jings, those commentators just drive you into the arms of the opposition. In the closing stages of the match, as United huffed and puffed at two goals down, the commentator made an outrageous claim. Well, he said, Arsenal and Chelsea have absolutely nothing to fear from Basel.
Really? Let’s see. United drew with Basel at home thanks to a 90th minute equaliser, and they lost to them tonight. So the tiny Swiss minnows remain undefeated by the Premier League champions, taking 4 points out of a possible 6, and were seconds away from taking a maximum haul.
What about Chelsea’s record against the Red Devils this season? One game. Lost by three goals to one. And Arsenal? Well, United spanked them for eight goals. Eight.
But, simply by virtue of the fact that Arsenal and Chelsea are English sides, they of course have nothing to fear, have they?
It reminded me – as most English commentaries do – of the 1997 Juventus – Borussia Dortmund Champions League Final, dear to the heart because local legend Paul Lambert won his winner’s medal. Lambert was a true Scottish hero: like Dennis Law, he achieved success at the very top of the sophisticated European elite rather than the goldfish pond of the Old Firm. In addition, he came from Linwood, where I taught at the time, and was a former St Mirren player. So I was cheering for him and his German team mates.
In the middle of the match, during an understandably nervous spell when passes were going astray, the commentator said something along the lines of – well, you’d have to think that Manchester United would do a lot better against these teams if they were here.
Well, actually, they wouldn’t have done that well. In the groups stages, Juventus beat United at home and away 1-0. Nul points, United, two defeats.
But what if they’d come up against Dortmund? Surely they’d trounce the dastardly Germans?
Nope. In the semi-finals, Dortmund beat United 1-0 in Germany. And then came to England, and beat them 1-0 again. Nul points once more.
So, basically, United would have done absolutely shite against the two finalists: but no patriotic commentator was going to let logic get in the way of a good dig at Johnny Foreigner.
Look, I know Brazilian and Spanish and Italian commentators are just the same: but I don’t have to listen to them and don’t understand them. And Scottish commentators stopped that rubbish years ago with the end of the careers of Arthur Montford and Archie Macpherson; nowadays, a Scottish win is greeted by sighs of relief or, if it’s against somebody who should have trounced us (remember France!), perplexed delight at the sheer bloody luck of it all.
So – English commentators: please, stop the arrogant assumption that the world cowers in fear whenever you say “Premier League”: it doesn’t. Then, you might actually enjoy it when your teams win.
And don’t get me started on the national team. Wayne Rooney? World class? How I enjoyed the way in which the wonderful, sublime Diego Forlan showed him how the game should be played in South Africa…
I spend an hour and a half driving through the wettest Scottish flooding for ages, being forced to take the very long way round in places, to see Imelda May. It’s worth it.
For a few years now, May has been ploughing an unfashionable rockabilly aesthetic that has attracted a large but niche following. She’s been getting more attention recently, though, since her second album, the brilliant “Love Tattoo”, and a Meteor award in 2009. An audience that has taste has been getting ever more fed up with production line sultry brunettes and perky blondes whose main talent consists of wearing something skimpy in a generic dance video and are turning to something much more ballsy.
Of course, resplendently quiffed and poured tantalisingly into a tight retro dress, she’s quite happy to play the sex appeal card herself: she is, to be honest, absolutely stunning, miles more beautiful than the Cheryls and Pixies of the industry because she dares to be different, dares to look and sound the way she wants to; and both are very, very good.
The gig is a riot. The band – Al Gare brilliant and eccentric on bass, May’s husband Darrell Higham driving the band on guitar, Steve Rushton manic on drums and Dave Priseman providing the star horn solos of the set – are really tight and crack on apace. Tons and tons of headlong rock and blues and rockabilly, great songs like “Big Bad Handsome Man”, “Love Tattoo” and the oddly narrative “Smoker’s Song” which has always reminded me a bit of Rickie Lee Jones’ “Danny’s All Star Joint” for unaccountable reasons: it builds momentum to a fine three final numbers, the absolutely feral “Psycho” and “Mayhem” from her new album and, my favourite of her songs, “Johnny Got A Boom Boom”.
However, I’m a bit predictable, in that I notice the slower numbers. Two are absolute stand outs. A few songs in, she does a strutting, sassy, sexy and absolutely self-possessed cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful”. Later, there is a spine-tingling rendering of “Knock 123” during which it seems the only sounds that exist in the universe are May’s gorgeous voice and Priseman’s plaintive muted horn.
The encore is interesting too: all covers, she begins with “Baby I Love You”, accompanied only by Gare on ukulele, follows with a rip-roaring rocking of “Tainted Love” and, to the delight of many of the audience who have come along be-quiffed and winkle-pickered, finishes with an Elvis medley.
She’s a regular visitor to Glasgow – she gets a reception reserved for the very best Guiness-drinking friends – so catch her next time. My only issue is with the venue: I’ve always found the Academy’s sound bloated and echoey and I’d much rather see this band in a Dublin pub or a smokey working man’s club. I bet it’d be even more of a hoot.
I don’t get baseball. It’s too complex – why don’t they just get on with a good game of rounders – and can’t see why it generates such sentimentality: the reaction it gets seems like some sort of outpouring of a national spiritual psyche, like cricket to Englishmen. And I hate cricket. For me, football (real football, the game with the feet that Pele played) is the really beautiful game, especially when played by Barcelona today or Brazil circa 1970.
However, there’s no denying it inspires some really good movies – “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural” are the most obvious – that seem to embody tales of honour and courage and true sportsmanship (or the negation of it, as in “Cobb”): on the other hand, football movies are invariably shite, “The Damned United” being possibly the only notable exception because it centered on the life of one of the most fascinating and irascible characters of the late 20th century (and I don’t mean Don Revie).
“Moneyball”, though, is a bit of a disappointment. It’s entertaining, charming, interesting: but it’s a tale about money, and money is the grubby element in sport. It centres on the 2002 season of the Oakland Athletics, a team hampered by a budget of “only” $32 million, about a quarter of the major teams like the Yankees. That $32 million is seen as chickenfeed for a sport that involves chucking a ball and swinging a bat is pretty obscene in itself; how many African kids could you save from starvation with that amount of dosh?
So it loses sympathy then and there. Sure, the fight of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to change the culture of guru scouts and mammothly overpaid stars has echoes in all major sports, including the lunacy that has become football in Europe, and it’s a fight we want them to win, but… it’s just not personal enough, and there’s no real investment in the characters. As they try to shape a team based not on overblown reputations and huge salaries but on the statistical analysis of overlooked or ageing or injured or wayward players who might actually get the job done for a lot less, the sense of danger for either of them is minimal. Beane may lose his job, but the threat is actually never made by anyone other than blowhard commentators; Brand, a Yale economics graduate, will find a career in any boardroom. So for neither character is this a do or die enterprise or a moral war of right against wrong or a seemingly insurmountable, mad tilt at windmills; and that sense of “so what?” is compounded by the fact that, as Beane himself says, the team at the start of the movie is way below crap, and the owner seems to think second best is a perfectly satisfactory state of affairs – so what the hell has anyone to lose anyway?
In addition, we don’t get to know anyone enough to care, especially the players who Beane and Brand stake it all on. I’m sure a US audience who know the true story and the people behind the movie will appreciate it much more, but one name becomes another for a British audience. Everyone except Beane is drawn one-dimensionally, especially Brand, whose idea the moneyball strategy is but whose motivations are never explored and who is ignored at the end of the movie during the customary “where are they now?” paragraphs.
Of course, that’s because this is a Brad Pitt movie. I like Pitt and think he’s a very capable actor, despite doing smug vanity projects like “Mr and Mrs Smith” or the Oceans series. I think he’s at his best towards the deranged end of the spectrum, as in “12 Monkeys” or “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (a true classic). In this, he plays Beane as stoically single-minded rather than maniacally obsessed, and therefore comes across as nice but a bit dull, cuddly but a bit scuzzy. No doubt millions of women will disagree, but he’s not as handsome as he once was, and he’s nowhere near as dangerous. That’s a pity, especially when an actor of the stature of Philip Seymour Hoffman is so underused as the team manager Art Howe and the only possibility for dramatic conflict – as there must have been, given that Howe refused to follow Beane’s lead for a large part of the season and left Oakland at the end of 2002 – is unaccountably missed. It would have been good to see the two actors going head to head, though one suspects Hoffman might have shown Pitt up just a bit. The drama suffers as a result.
Like “Super 8”, this is by no means a bad movie, and it’s obviously helped by a slick script co-written by megastar writer Aron Sorkin: however, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations nor to the hype it’s been getting in the press. Worth seeing, but only once.
A terrific evening, and Graham Fulton reminds me why he’s one of my favourite Scottish poets. He’s been writing like a demon since leaving his job at the beginning of the year, and his work has become funnier, cleverer and more mature than ever. Stunning stuff.
Most of the readings are new and will probably appear in future collections. What I’ve always admired about his work is his instamatic quality: like Edwin Morgan, he has a terrific eye for the minutiae of existence. That has now been tempered with a contemplative quality that makes his work much deeper than when I worked with him in Paisley Writers’ Group. Thus, a hilarious poem about an untied shoelace is actually a reverie about growing older; a punk lads’ night out at the Silver Thread Hotel in Paisley (God, I remember the Silver Thread!) is a paean to nostalgia, to friendship. Many of the readings have that look over the shoulder at encroaching time that makes guys of our age (Graham is a few months younger than me) shift uncomfortably in our seats.
Of course, I recognise so much of what he writes about, given that , as a Barrhead boy, I know Paisley almost as well as he does; the pangs of recognition are like welcome taps on the shoulder. I also, though, recognise the characters he writes about: the wee old woman who embarrasses lads out watching a Scotland match in the pub by talking about her pet dog she had put to sleep that morning; the neds who beat up Graham as he weaved his way homeward on his 40th birthday; the stony faced policeman who commandeers a bus and makes everyone feel guilty just by being there.
It’s not surprising that Graham’s aesthetic is visual: like one of my other favourite Scottish poets, Gerry Cambridge, Graham is a talented photographer, of the urban rather than the natural world. I’m delighted when I win second place in the raffle and carry off, amongst other goodies, a copy of “The Ruin of Poltalloch”, a booklet of poetry and glorious black and white photographs of Poltalloch House near Kilmartin. That quality extends into the way he captures images of people. One lovely poem about a guided ghost tour of Paisley, “Jim the Witch”, has absolutely recognisable gallus wee lassies putting their oar in and punters staggering alarmed out of pubs to see what all the ghostly commotion is about.
Another pamphlet on offer tonight is an epic, “The Zombie Poem”, a thesis on life and undeath prompted by being turned down as an extra for Brad Pitt’s recent “World War Z” Glasgow shoot. He reads a couple of related poems, but I read the poem itself quickly before the reading starts, and it’s brilliant, lines jumping out of the page that speak directly to me at my age and in the place and time I am:“It’s a way of being content with the art of being alive, regret, bad choices, directions you can’t undo, commas in the wrong place, i before e except after c, words you can’t go back to…”
Graham reads practically non-stop for more than an hour, and there isn’t a dull moment. Stabs of recognition, lots of laughs, driving rhythms, pin-sharp images and characters – Graham is at his absolute best, and his best is quite brilliant.