Thursday, 29 January 2015

Walking The Nile

I've written about the River Nile before, when Simon Reeve chose it as the first of his Sacred Rivers. But this programme wasn't just selected highlights of the river, it was someone walking its entire length. All 4,250 miles of it. And while Simon Reeve chose the Blue Nile to explore, Levison Wood chose the White, presumably because it gave him further to go in more hostile terrain.
I say no selected highlights, but they did have condense several months of monotonous walking (and seven million steps) into three hours of television. And I only watched the last of them, when Lev (as he introduces himself to his friends) reaches Egypt after crossing the entire Sahara desert on foot. Lev is either a little bit mad, or an incredibly strong-willed human being. He is certainly a teensy bit full of himself.

What is amazing to me when he reaches Aswan is how empty it is. When we docked our ship there at the end of our cruise down the Nile, to reach the quay we had to walk through at least ten other massive boats moored alongside ours. The water was higgledy-piggledy with feluccas and the bazaar teeming with people. The famous Old Cataract Hotel (where Agatha Christie wrote Death On The Nile and - I hasten to add - not where we were staying) was booked up for months. Today, the river is deserted. Lev is the only guest at the Old Cataract. The fragile political situation in Egypt really has made people stay away in droves.
The Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan
Feluccas vying for trade

Busy Aswan, with cruise ships parked in the background

The risk of unrest also means Lev is closely guarded by police. One van drives in front and another behind. When Lev sees the officers throwing sticks to knock dates off a tree to serve as a somewhat meagre lunch, he makes them a pile of sandwiches, but otherwise he finds their presence intensely irritating. For one thing, they are making him walk along a Tarmac road rather than the river, which is dull, choking with traffic fumes and at times downright dangerous (at one point he has to cross a bridge balancing on its parapet). And - as he needs to cover 25 miles a day to keep to his strict schedule - it is also giving him massive blisters. Even though Lev has all the relevant permits, other police officers keep stopping him to ask what the heck he is doing. Tourists aren't generally allowed to pass through the area between Aswan and Luxor unless they are on a boat or an overnight train. There seems to be a genuine risk that Lev could be shot by insurgents, but he is having none of it. The police are only trying to protect his welfare and keep him alive. They are often just offering him a lift. But stubbornly determined to cover the whole distance on foot, he wishes they would "f**k off", which instantly rises his audience's heckles and dooms his programme to be shown after the watershed.

Lev responds a little more graciously to the locals. One man is very keen to show him his cows. Lev attends a service at a mosque marking the end of Ramadan, only his "fixer" Turbo has to drag him away when police arrest some suspected Islamic militants and things turn ugly. He is asked to appear on Egyptian television at a government reception at the Pyramids of Giza. The town governor and a sizeable entourage accompany him on his last few metres to the Mediterranean coast at Rosetta, the estuary of one of the larger tributaries of the Nile Delta.
The backdrop to Lev's Egyptian TV appearance

He finds the view on the last leg rather disappointing, claiming he was hoping for a nice beach and some palm trees. In the background appear to be a nice beach and some palm trees. Never mind, soon he is charging into the Med wearing a Union Jack like a superhero cape. This does look a tad colonial. His parents show up to celebrate with him. Speaking as a mother, I suspect they have spent the past few months sick with worry, especially as Lev has crossed several war zones, dodged gunfire, and a journalist walking with Lev for three days in Uganda died of heatstroke. But I am not sure how much attention Lev has paid to their feelings. He certainly hasn't let them hinder his spirit for adventure. Much as I would like my daughter to grow up with a love for travel, I'd prefer it if she would stick to destinations where I, if left behind at home, can sleep at night.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Eichmann Show

The Eichmann Show was a docu-drama about the televising of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German National Socialist charged with crimes against humanity during the Holocaust. The trial took place in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was built, after Eichmann was captured by Mossad in Argentina. He was not put on trial in Germany where his crimes took place, but in Israel. It was - as the title suggests - a show trial, an attempt to attach blame to one individual for the horrors of the Holocaust, and to broadcast to the world the indescribable suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis. Eventually, Eichmann was found guilty of arranging transport to extermination camps and of the appalling conditions on the trains to those camps. During the trial, his one confession was that he "proposed" making 50,000 Jews march from Budapest to Austria when a transport could not be arranged. He claimed that he personally did not murder anybody. He claimed to be merely following orders. He remained impassive and unrepentant throughout the trial. Adolf Eichmann was hanged the following year, and his ashes scattered in the sea.

Adolf Eichmann was the subject of a book by Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, in which she coined the phrase "the banality of evil". Eichmann was a seemingly boring bureaucrat and pen-pusher caught up in a system that would have had him shot if he had refused to do what he was asked. One might argue that he shouldn't have got himself in that position in the first place. But one could also argue that it is impossible to see the future when you are living in the throes of a dictatorship and all freedom of speech has been lost. How can you imagine that there will ever be any other form of government when the party propaganda claimed that Hitler would never fall and that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years? There could be no vision of Hitler's demise, addled with prescription drugs, ranting, shaky and insane, holed up in a bunker near the Reichskanzlerei in Berlin, or his suicide by shotgun while the Russians bombed the city to bits, pillaged its property and raped its women. So it was safer to follow orders. The Endlösung (Final Solution) was party policy, however abhorrent, and Eichmann had to follow party policy. Arendt claims Eichmann's first crime was his stupidity. He was a part of a terrible system, but he had got himself in a position that he could not have escaped from alive. It begs the question of what anyone else would have done in that situation. There is what people should do, and what the instinct for survival makes us do. But I by no means condone his choices or his actions.

But this programme's focus was not really Eichmann or what he did or didn't do. Instead, it told the story of how the trial came to be broadcast to the world: the loopholes and technical issues the television crew had to overcome, the threats they were under, and their urgent desire to get a flicker of emotion out of Eichmann on to the big screen. They have to find a way of hiding their cameras in the theatre used as a courtroom so that the judges will allow them to film. They are surrounded by Holocaust survivors desperate for justice and Holocaust deniers intimidating their families. They are so focused on Eichmann's face that they fail to capture the collapse of a witness on camera. And then - after all this - the international television audience rapidly loses interest when Yuri Gagarin flies off into space.

But ultimately, what the filmcrew managed to achieve was to get the world to see the unspeakable horrors of the death camps for the first time. The sickening archive footage is now familiar to the majority of us, although its impact can (and should) never lessen. But in 1961, many people had never seen it at all, not even in Israel, where so many survivors had gone to settle after the War.** The landlady of the hotel where director Leo Hurwitz is staying shows him the numbered tattoo on her arm and thanks him for making her fellow citizens believe her story at last.

The actors' scenes are blended in with genuine archive footage of the trial. It's quite cleverly done, yet ultimately rather unsatisfying. Cutting the original film in between shots of the control room makes it difficult to follow what is being said in the witness box. Appalling, compelling testimonies that need to be given attention are drowned out by Hurwitz's mantra "Stay on Eichmann". The footage from the camps is the only thing allowed to play on in silence, and this makes it all the harder to bear. Only Eichmann remains immune to it.

Martin Freeman and Anthony La Paglia star. Freeman is Milton Fruchtman, the producer who secured the rights to broadcast the trial. Anthony LaPaglia is Hurwitz, the blacklisted documentary maker directing the filming. Both do their best American accents, but both are distracting to the viewer from past roles. Martin Freeman is still Sherlock's Watson, deferential to and irritated by his boss. Anthony LaPaglia is still Simon from Frasier, a man who thought that it was OK for someone from Manchester to speak with an Essex accent. Though that is a hardly a crime in comparison to what we are witnessing here.

I went to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau while teaching in Poland in 1996. The rain poured down on my body and my soul, and there can be a no more miserable, gut-wrenching or foul place upon this earth. I do not want to describe what there is to see there - the ovens, the gas chambers, the mountains of hair and lost suitcases, shoes and spectacles, the standing cells, the lake still grey with ashes. Words cannot portray how they make you feel.

But two things stayed with me that are relevant to this film. One is that the road from the station to Auschwitz I is lined with apartment blocks. People lived right next door to the camp, and still do today. They hung their washing out on balconies that overlook the camp buildings and punishment blocks. The camp was built to be integral to the town of Oswiecim. It was part of the fabric of society. You could not avoid seeing it. The second is the detailed record-keeping for every prisoner, the lists and notices and rules and books and files that highlight the sickening bureaucracy of the whole process. The system was full of pen-pushers like Adolf Eichmann, doing their duty, writing reports that played their small part in the deaths of millions of innocents.

** Many of the survivors in the camps did not want to return to their homelands after liberation. Night Will Fall was a harrowing Channel 4 documentary about films of the camps shot by famous directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Sydney Bernstein. The films were never broadcast because the Allied governments did not want sympathetic British and American citizens pressuring them to take in these thousands of displaced citizens. The Allies did not have the infrastructure at home to cope with them. A further reason for never releasing the footage was that they felt that the Germans had already been made to feel guilty enough about the Nazi atrocities in the aftermath of the war. Many of the refugees went instead to Palestine, where - with bitter irony - they ended up in camps once again.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is one of only two books I have ever given up on. (The other is Ulysses, where I barely managed the first page.) I don't give up on texts easily - I recently got all the way through AS Byatt's Possession, chosen by someone for my book group, even if - admittedly - I may not have read all (=any) of the poetry. I have ploughed through dozens of papers on Phonological Theory (although I was being paid for some of them). I have even read every word of Peter Ackroyd's tedious tome on London, which is months of my life I will never get back and makes me cringe every time I hear the word "noisome". (No one else uses the word "noisome", thankfully.)

But Wolf Hall got the better of me. It probably didn't help that I was pregnant when I started it. My contract for my job at the university had finished just before my 20 week scan, meaning I had a whole summer to myself before our daughter was born. And the bigger my belly grew, the more time I spent reading. So I thought it was the perfect time to pick up Wolf Hall. I was wrong. After a fairly gripping and pacey first chapter describing kicking a little boy's head in, everything ground to a halt. I quickly realised that I only had weeks left to myself before life would change forever. And I did not want these weeks to be wasted on Hilary Mantel when there were still so many other books in the world left to read.

I'm not the biggest fan of historical fiction, and my knowledge of the period in question is limited to "divorced, beheaded, died." So I would agree that I didn't have the best background for the book. But what I really couldn't deal with was Mantel's use of the pronoun "He" (capitalised) to refer to Thomas Cromwell. If she had just called Cromwell Cromwell or Thomas or Tom or Mr C or even "the lawyer", she and I could have gotten along. Elsewhere, "He" (capitalised) usually means God. Sometimes in this book He also did mean God. And then there were lots of other lower case "hes", like Henry VIII and Thomas More and Wolsey that became upper case "He" if they started a sentence. And sometimes "he" (lower case) actually meant Cromwell. It was all very confusing if your head is full of hormones, and reading every sentence ten times simply to work out the referents drained my desire to care two hoots about the plot.

So Wolf Hall went to the charity shop and when Bring Up The Bodies was published and also won the Booker I simply shrugged and thought a) "not on your nelly" and b) "I don't believe any of the judges have read it."

Apparently, there's a third volume in the pipeline, but the BBC have got ahead of themselves and already made the first two into telly. Which could prove a problem if the third has some drastic plot twist that turns the first two volumes on their head. Although I doubt it will. No one will read it anyway. But it will still win a Booker prize.

I watched Wolf Hall, just to see if in the absence of pronouns I would start to care about the plot at all. It turns out not much. You couldn't fault the performances, other than Cromwell's daughters visibly twitching on the bed after they had supposedly died from "sweating sickness", and Anne Boleyn's band playing completely out of the synch with the background music. Mark Gatiss was possibly a bit too like someone out of The Spanish Inquisition on Monty Python. And Damian Lewis made Henry VIII too attractive, although he is still young and only on his first wife at this point. (Being stuck on his first wife is kind of the point.) But I am just splitting (red) hairs here.

I have always admired Mark Rylance, and I don't think he could have been bettered in the lead part of "He". Only ever paying a fiver for a groundling ticket, I went to see him play many roles at the Globe Theatre in London, the most memorable of which was Olivia in an all-male Twelfth Night. Rylance has an extraordinary range of facial expressions, and his firm but gentle presence always makes the subtle magnificent.

Where is Wolf Hall? Not in the book, it seems. Probably because it's something to do with Henry VIII's wife number three, Jane Seymour, and he isn't even married to number two yet. So it's not really a problem that I haven't been there for the purposes of this blog, because you probably haven't either. York Place has since been swallowed up by Whitehall and ravaged by fire. But this is Telly And Travels, and if you have read this far, you must need a picture by now. So here are some very old photos of Hampton Court, which is now run by the lovely Dr Lucy Worsley, who must never be confused with Cardinal Wolsey, speech impediment or no. Hampton Court has an indoor tennis court, a very long vine and a lovely riverside setting, and to be honest, I can't remember much else about it other than its exorbitant entrance fee.

Cardinal Wolsey is banished to Esher, although he hates it, and I have been there too. A friend used to live in a little cottage near the station with two giant cats and a rowing machine, although we won't talk about who owned the rowing machine. Esher is next to Sandown Park racecourse, where my husband and I spent a fun day once. Although being surrounded by people on City bonuses who can afford to chuck away £100 on a single bet when you are on a paltry subtitling salary is quite an eye-opener. "Er, put one on for me at two pounds each way please. And since you're downing your third bottle of champagne, could I possibly nab your free beer token?"

But I think I will give up on the Wolf Hall television adaptation too. If only because I am feeling the lure of my Christmas present from my brother:

I may be some time.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Life Of A Mountain: Scafell Pike

This was worth watching for the stunning aerial photography alone. You didn't need the sound turned up (or on at all) to get the most out of it. The breathtaking footage of the fells was interspersed with featurettes about people who base their lives around England's highest mountain. And dare I say it, but some of them were a bit dull. Not the true local characters, like shepherd and fell-runner extraordinaire Joss Naylor, cut from the same cloth as my stubborn Cumbrian grandfather and built to live forever. Or the mountain rescue pilot who reminded us that he might be out for a nice candlelit dinner with his girlfriend when we decide to do something stupid on the side of a hill, so please spare him his girlfriend's wrath and be more careful in future. Or the National Trust volunteer who introduced me to the phrase "cairn anarchy" while removing piles of stones that were misleading walkers across a ridge. No, I mean the posh imports, who love the views, write a book about them and then think themselves above the rest of us. And then drone on in front of a television camera as if they have something to say that we can't just see for ourselves.

The camera crew spent a lot of time at the summit of Scafell Pike, where thousands of people arrive every year in all gear, in all weathers, and with a surprising range of agility and fitness. One - promised simultaneous views of England, Scotland and Ireland - has slogged it all the way to the top only to discover that she can barely see 30 yards in front of her, the mist is so thick and wet. But when the clouds lift, it really does look magnificent up there and you can see for miles. Even if - thanks to the mountain's popularity - you will never, ever get that view to yourself.

The camera crew also spent a lot of time down in Wasdale, which not only is home to the Lake District's highest peak and deepest lake, but also the world's biggest liar, as a notice in the pub will tell you. I don't think the programme mentioned this. But it did feature other notable sporting achievements at the annual Wasdale Show, such as hound trails, fell races and Cumbrian wrestling.

These Lakeland sports days are big events in the Cumbrian calendar. I've been to the Grasmere one a couple of times in recent years, although I spent most of the afternoon trying to tear our daughter away from the bouncy castle.

Grasmere Sports has a rather plummy announcer who runs the event with a calm but military precision. Although the military precision does not prevent the annual Royal Air Force Spitfire flypast being cancelled at the last minute every year owing to inclement weather, even if the sun is shining.

But it's so impressive to see a hoard of local schoolchildren running like the wind up an almost vertical slope, and the sheer speed with which a fell runner can leap down the side of a mountain. And to see quite how lost a hound can get in the bracken before he hears his owner rattling his food tin on the field below.

The wrestling has so many complicated rules that only a local can explain them to you, but I usually don't have enough time to listen before my daughter has run off to the bouncy castle again.

Most of the locals don't pay the entrance fee, since it is steeper than the Buttercrags fell the runners have to conquer, and instead they all stand along the A591 to watch the famous Guides Race. My grandfather always had the best view of the race - he built his house halfway up Buttercrags, and the runners would tumble past the end of his patio.
Guides Race

Mountain rescue at Grasmere Sports

"He ain't nothin' but a hound dog" - crossing the A591 to victory

I have never been up Scafell Pike. My official excuse is that it's a very long drive from Grasmere to get to a suitable start point, and not that I'm too fat and lazy.

The highest mountain I've climbed in the Lake District is Helvellyn, and that's so many years ago now I can't even begin to count them. It took two attempts, mind. The first was when my grandfather agreed to take me along Striding Edge when I was eight years old (was I insane to ask him to do this?), but the weather turned evil. The mist swirled in and a force eight gale struck up. The contents of our pockets were whipped out by the wind and hurled into the abyss. My grandfather, remembering his friends in Mountain Rescue who might be having a quiet afternoon at home with their girlfriends, did the sensible thing and led us back down to safety.

The closest I've got to Striding Edge since was choosing a band called by that very name to play for the ceilidh at our wedding. And it will probably stay that way. But Scafell Pike - yes, it really should be done. Because it's there. Because it's at the very tip of my Cumbrian roots.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015


Say what? Never heard of this one? Can't find it in your Radio Times?

That's because it's on German telly. I'm never going to sit in front of Jeremy Kyle while my daughter is at nursery, but I do like to indulge in a bit of ZDF, Germany's (very loosely defined) equivalent to BBC2, which I can watch online for free on my sofa in York. Mostly I watch the news, and sometimes try and transcribe it, sad geek that I am, pretending that I still have a subtitling career. Occasionally I watch a thriller, since there seems to be a weekly murder mystery set in every different Bundesland, but my God, German police dramas are bad. Yes, Die Rosenheim Cops, I'm particularly talking about you.

I have even been to ZDF. I did a German school exchange to Mainz (where ZDF is based) when I was 15, and the father of my exchange partner was a lawyer for the television station. He was good at getting free tickets to be in the audience of various chat shows and magazine programmes. Not the greatest quality broadcasts you'll ever see, but it's always fun and interesting to see television be made.

But at the start of January, ZDF showed Tannbach, which had me gripped almost as much as Edgar Reitz's absorbing epic Heimat. Although thankfully Tannbach only had 3 episodes and a total running time of 310 minutes (as opposed to Heimat's 3100). And OK, truth be told, it wasn't really a patch on Heimat. But it did leave you with a big sense of "What happened next?" as there was a lot left more to tell.
Not Tannbach - the house high on a hill overlooking the Rhine
used as the home of the main characters in Heimat 3
Tannbach is a small fictional village on the border between Thuringia and Bavaria (but it is evidently based on Mödlareuth). That border is to prove hugely significant, since we are in 1945 in the final days of the war, and Germany is about to be divided by the Allies into zones. Tannbach is initially liberated by the Americans, but after the meeting at Yalta it is taken over by the Russians. But a subsequent re-examination of the state border on an old map reveals that it runs directly through the heart of the village. Which means that unless the Russians and Americans can come to a sensible agreement, the iron curtain is about to run right along the village stream, separating the village into two like a mini Berlin. Needless to say, they don't come to a sensible agreement. Families are divided, hearts are torn, and there are unnecessary and tragic deaths.

There is so much going on in the immediate aftermath of the war it's hard to know where to begin. There are refugees. There are Nazis running underground and Nazis redefining themselves as Communist bureaucrats. There are Jews coming out of hiding and trying to locate their families. There are motherless babies and childless mothers. There is survivors' guilt and the shock of discovering what has happened behind the gates of the concentration camps. There are soldiers with their minds shattered by what they have seen. There is the indignity of foreign invasion and foreign ideology. There is the need to keep secrets, denounce enemies and to preserve standing and escape punishment for past crimes. Persilscheine, Entnazifizierung: there is the need to be officially declared clean in order to move on. For those that aren't, there is the threat of internment camps. There is much betrayal. No one trusts anybody any more, not even within their own family.

Village life seems to have carried on as normal during the war, but suddenly there is a starving population to feed and Germany's farmland is all in the East. The aristocrats lose their land, their large houses are torn down, and people in the Russian zone are resettled over hundreds of miles to farm smallholdings run by communes.

Later, there is the black market and smuggling, which only worsens as the border is fortified. There are people on the make, and people taking sides that they don't believe in simply for self-preservation. There is very much a chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the uncertain future and the pangs for home (Heimat) make decisions impossible, yet split-second choices to stay or go can be the difference between life and death, imprisonment and freedom. Collaboration is all, but collaboration has consequences. One half of the village moves from the control of one secret police to another at the opposite end of the political spectrum. And the leaders of both sides try to brainwash their citizens to convince them that their way is the right way.

Above all, it seems to ask the question, is love for your family enough to make you happy and make you want to stay, whatever happens in the world around you? Needless to say, opinions on this are as divided as the village, as some characters flee at a glancing opportunity, and others remain bound to the land, come what may.
Berlin Wall fragments, sent to me by a penfriend in early 1990
I never went to East Germany while it still existed. My first forays east were post-reunification in 1994. Living in Heidelberg at the time, everyone there actively discouraged travel to the former GDR with a dismissive, "It's just a building site. Go in 20 years when it's all finished." Which meant I instantly set off to have a look. The building site aspect was certainly true, but it was still such an important place to visit. I remember sitting on the ICE train to Berlin, travelling at ridiculous western speed, and suddenly seeing abandoned watchtowers overlooking acres and acres of muddy soil, the forests gone, and the fields ploughed to ruin. This was my first sight of the East. The next was climbing out of the U-Bahn onto a deserted Potsdamer Platz. The Wall had been torn down but at that time nothing had been built in the space left behind, and I found myself standing alone on what felt like an ocean of blank concrete with a bitter March wind tearing through me. The square was once one of the most important and bustling meeting points in Berlin before the Wall turned it into a minefield and no-man's land. It since been entirely redeveloped and regained its commercial importance, but I shall never forget that wilderness in the heart of a troubled, emerging yet jubilant city. I walked a little further past Checkpoint Charlie and then directly through the Brandenburg Gate, something which would have been impossible just five years before. Unter den Linden was a boulevard of fine facades, but behind it were decaying bullet-pocked buildings. Artist colonies and developers were battling (often with each other) to bring them back to life.
Berliner Dom looking towards Alexanderplatz

I travelled on to Halle, Leipzig and Dresden. Halle was depressed and horribly polluted from the nearby brown coal mines. Leipzig was rapidly springing back to be something magnificent. Dresden was simply shocking. Very few of its finer buildings had been restored after the city was blown to bits by the Allies in 1945, and those that were had since been blackened by soot and neglect. An unspeakably ugly avenue of concrete high rises had replaced whatever road had once led from the station to the city centre. (Not that we don't have similarly hideous post-war rebuilds in the UK.) The Frauenkirche, since reconstructed as a beautiful symbol of peace and hope after the reunification, was just a heap of numbered rubble laid out across the grass.

Frauenkirche, Dresden in 1994

And yet great things were being lost, such as free child care, which in turn ended the universal employment of women. Publicly owned assets and companies were rapidly privatised and millions of jobs lost. The farmland of Tannbach was sold off. Subsidised rents were stopped. The economy went bust and exports of East German products became impossible after a low fixing of the East German Ostmark's exchange rate, as they could not compete with the Western market. A lot of teachers and academics were blacklisted as having worked for the Party when they were merely government employees trying to do a decent and enjoyable job. West Germans came back to reclaim their houses in the East forcibly taken from them after the war, but there was no reciprocal arrangement for any East Germans who had lost property in the West. There was a mass exodus from the East, making it difficult to sustain infrastructures and the less desirable properties.

Baustelle Reichstag, Berlin 1999
I made a daytrip to Erfurt in the former GDR from Goettingen in 1998. By then the pace of restoration had accelerated, and the central buildings were mostly bright and vibrant. It no longer seemed any different from towns in the West, My last trip East was when I went back to Berlin in 1999 and stayed for a weekend on my way home from Poznan in Poland.

And now - incredibly - those 20 years I was told to wait are up. By anyone's account, it is time to head back.

I hope that BBC4 buys Tannbach so that everyone in the UK can see it too, in the Saturday night foreign drama slot. But at the same time I hope that they wait long enough for me to have resurrected that subtitling career so that I can translate it for you, Bavarian and all.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

CBeebies Panto: Peter Pan

Hooray, it's panto season. And that means it's CBeebies panto season. This Christmas they chose Peter Pan, with Nina And The Neurons as Wendy, Justin as Mr Darling, Cat as Tinkerbell, Andy as Captain Hook and Mr Bloom as Peter Pan. There was lots of singing and lots of flying. And it was - with a running time of 40 minutes - probably the briefest version of the story ever known. The Theatre By The Lake in Keswick are currently doing Peter Pan as their Christmas production, and they take two hours over it. Though 40 minutes is more in line with our daughter's level of concentration. Because she watches too much television, I expect.

Now, in my book, Peter Pan in panto should be played by a girl. Mr Bloom had ditched his fake Yorkshire accent for - well, I don't know what. One that was certainly all over the place. But he was wearing very tight tights for us lucky mummies so that gave us something else to think about. Katy from I Can Cook was playing Mrs Darling, and she gave it her all, like the overacting RSC wannabe she always is. Thankfully she only got two scenes.

Anyone know the word for crocodile phobia?

Andy seems to always be made to play the baddie - the Giant in Jack And The Beanstalk, Mr Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and now our crocodile phobic pirate. But he does a good job. He is so ridiculously tall he was still towering over the people up in the air on wires.

Tink to her friends
I took our daughter to see the new Tinkerbell film during the Christmas holidays. Only I didn't, because after I had made her walk all the way from our house to the Reel Cinema on Blossom Street we discovered it had sold out. This is because the Reel Cinema has two screens which are no bigger than the manager's office, which is in fact what they used to be. So I felt like the worst mummy in the world when I had to tell her that her long walk had been in vain, and I wasn't allowed to take her to see Fifty Shades Of Grey instead. She burst into floods of tears in the foyer. And we had to walk all the way back home again. It - stupidly - hadn't occurred to me to book in advance. Anyway, Daddy took her to see the film the next day instead so ultimately all was well. Or it was until she saw the Never Beast for the first time.

But panto - yes, we are going to do it this year for the first time as a family! We have already enjoyed the wonderful children's productions of Puss In Boots at the De Grey Rooms and Father Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this Christmas, but now it's time to go the whole hog. After all, CBeebies has given our daughter a handle on the genre, albeit a very short one. And in York we have the best panto in the world, in the hands of Mr Berwick Kaler, who has written, directed and played the dame at the Theatre Royal for over 35 years. We haven't been for the past five, but I am fairly sure that the plot won't have changed in the intervening period. Berwick Kaler kind of makes it up on the night anyway. There is always a video filmed in York city centre with a cameo from Look North presenter Harry Gration. There is always a scene with fluorescent puppets. There is always a scene involving a lot of water. There are Wagon Wheels thrown to the audience, and a bottle of Newcastle Brown passed a little more gently. This year the production is Old Mother Goose, and David Leonard is back playing the baddie ("the Dreaded Lurgi") after two years away in Matilda in the West End. (Ha, look behind you, Katy, there's a proper RSC actor in panto!) It may all be too brash, loud and long for our "babbie and bairn", but with Kaler now 69, you just never know how much longer he will keep up the show, and so we feel we have to give it a go before it's too late. 

Old Mother Goose

Monday, 12 January 2015

That Day We Sang

"I have bit of life still owing and I am more than just my name"
This was a delight from start to finish. It was like Dennis Potter with all of the singing but none of the psoriasis. It was very Victoria Wood, with arguments over yoghurt flavours and missing boxes of Matchmakers, and songs about Berni Inns ("Fancy words like garni - that just means they bung on cress") and the problem with being called Enid. One song even featured her immortal line from The Ballad of Barry and Freda - "Let's do it".

"Nymphs and shepherds come away..."
In 1929, the 200-strong Manchester Children's Choir recorded Purcell's Nymphs And Shepherds with the Halle Orchestra in the Free Trade Hall. This was a very big deal for those young boys and girls, some of whom lived in slums and came from troubled backgrounds. They were brought to the door of the Free Trade Hall in specially commissioned trams. Most of them remembered the occasion their whole lives long, which is why one of them organised a reunion of the choir during the 1960s. Victoria Wood watched a documentary about this reunion in 1975, while she was living off the dole in a bedsit, and That Day We Sang is the musical that resulted many years later. Initially a stage show, it was turned into a film by the BBC for Boxing Day.

The story focused on Tubby and Enid, two fictional members of the choir. They don't remember each other from being children and meet at the reunion as if for the first time. The reunion ignites a spark in their seemingly drab everyday lives, and a spark between each other too. They start to realise that they are missing out. They want to rediscover the joy that singing (with two Gs) awoke in them. Manchester is at the height of the swinging sixties, but they are stuck in a timewarp, living alone or with a lodger, working in dull office jobs, dreading decimalisation, and eating their lunchtime sandwiches with a boring regularity in the Piccadilly Gardens. Tubby is Mr Affable, and has cared for his mother all his life, after they were abandoned by his father. His mother has recently passed away, leaving him rather lost. Enid is shy and nervous, and is having an illicit affair with her uncaring boss, but the relationship is merely seedy, with none of the passion she deserves and dreams of. (It is subsequently destroyed in a hilarious scene broadcast over the office intercom.) Tubby is played by Michael Ball, and Enid by the wonderful Imelda Staunton, who we regularly listen to reading the Gruffalo on a CD in our car, and who - thanks to her stature, curls and ability to mix neurosis with occasional moments of exuberance - would be the perfect actress to play my mother in a film about her life.

The choir is run with military precision by a stern lady called Gertrude Riall and Mr Kirkby, an ex-soldier with Basil Fawlty-esque shrapnel in his leg. They aren't anywhere near as nice as Gareth Malone, but face the same issues as any modern choirmaster -  kids not turning up, other kids mucking about at the back, and bad pronunciation from all of them (there is an H in "Flora's holiday", the children are reminded - "We want all that pride in coming from Lancashire, we want the spirit of Lancashire, but not the accent."). It's quite surprising that a woman is in charge of the choir at all, since apparently the Halle's chief conductor in the 1920s Hamilton Harty (lots of Hs there) sacked all of the females in the orchestra when he took over, claiming that a lady could not possibly manage the touring lifestyle of a musician. Go figure.

Flora's holiday?
My parents were at university in Manchester in the 1960s, and I always have a sense that they too, like Tubby and Enid, were missing all of the fun. Manchester in 1969 is very different to 1929, with the trams gone, the Free Trade Hall bombed to rubble but the Arndale Centre not yet built. Another 40 years on, and it's very different again - the trams are back, the Arndale Centre was bombed to rubble by the IRA, and the Halle now play in the state of the art Bridgewater Hall.

The construction of Bridgewater Hall began in 1993, coincidentally the same year as my last - and only - visit to Manchester's city centre. I was living in Sheffield at the time and went over for a crazy afternoon with a friend, who was from there and wanted to show me around. I remember being hugely impressed by the scale of the city, its cosmopolitan feel and cultural offerings - it felt like the proper sort of place that Sheffield could never be.

It's strange, given my parents' attachment to Manchester, that I had never seen the city centre before. We had made several trips to the suburbs with my family over the years - we had relatives in Sale, friends in Didsbury, and my dad was always keen on attending his own annual reunion - the convocation dinner of his hall of residence, Dalton (now Dalton-Ellis) Hall in Victoria Park. But as far as I can recall, we never left the outskirts. Probably because small kids and a big city are a bad mix. Or we were always on a tight schedule en route to see grandparents in the Lake District. Whatever, all I can remember are long afternoons walking round the grounds of Dalton Hall playing pretend games of tennis (no racket, no ball) and being very, very bored, while Dad was otherwise engaged.

Victoria Wood, in a documentary about the making of That Day We Sang (called That Musical We Made) sits at the BBC playing people the tinny recording of Nymphs And Shepherds on her phone, which makes it sound even tinnier. And the strange thing is that hardly anyone remembers it. "Come on Eileen!" her frustrated voiceover encourages a baffled looking Kevin Rowland while Dexys Midnight Runners are waiting to appear on Terry Wogan's show. Instead, everyone in the green room at Radio 2 remembers O For The Wings Of A Dove, recorded by 15-year-old Ernest Arthur Lough at around the same time. I don't know if Nymphs And Shepherds stuck in her memory as a Manchester local and O For The Wings Of A Dove - sung by a London chorister - in everyone else's as some sort of North-South gramophone divide. (None of these people were around in the 1930s, but the records were played for decades afterwards.) However, I'm so glad that Nymphs And Shepherds stayed with Victoria Wood, though how she translated her memories into giant pantomime prawn cocktails, Ryvita ("Be cautious - they shatter!"), a doorman with a limp and a song called Happiness Street is a secret at the heart of her great genius.

As a little aside:
In 1986, a choir of 12 year old girls from my school made this record for the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson after our music teacher won a song competition on That's Life. It hasn't yet achieved the fame of Nymphs And Shepherds. But just in case Victoria Wood wants to write a musical about it, here it is on You Tube.
My school was not responsible for the sleeve artwork.