Archive for the 'writing' Category

Shakespeare in Silver Street

28 April 2016


It is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this month, so a good moment to write something about Charles Nicholl’s Shakespeare book, The Lodger. It’s about Shakespeare’s time lodging on Silver Street with the Huguenot family the Mountjoys, and I bought it on the strength of Nicholl’s fine book on the death of Marlowe, The Reckoning.

Silver Street, or Sylver Street, doesn’t exist any longer, bombed in 1940, but it ran east to west near the London Wall, close to the present Museum of London and south of the current Barbican complex. The Huguenot church in Fann Street is about five minutes walk to the north. The house was destroyed earlier, in the Great Fire of London, or before.

Old Map Showing Silver StreetsmallNicholl suggests Shakespeare was probably a lodger in the Silver Street house from 1603-1605, which would mean that he probably wrote Othello, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That End’s Well, Timon of Athens and King Lear while he was there.

Shakespeare’s stay at Silver Street is interesting to Shakespeareans because it gave rise to the one document from his lifetime that Shakespeare attested in his own voice, as a witness in a court case between the owner of the house, Christopher Mountjoy, and his daughter, Mary, and son-in-law (and former apprentice) Stephen Belott.

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Listening to McCartney

27 March 2016


When the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, died recently, Richard Williams posted a note on his blog about the recording of ‘A Day In The Life’, based on a long interview he’d done with Martin for Melody Maker in the early ’70s. Martin explained:

They decided that they were going to put a lot of just rhythm in it, and add something later. So I said, “Let’s make it a definite number of bars, let’s have 24 bars of just rhythm in two places, and we’ll decide what to do with them later.” … When they’d done it, I asked them what they were going to do with those bloody great gaps. Paul said he wanted a symphony orchestra, and I said, “Don’t be silly, Paul — it’s all right having 98 men, but you can do it just as well with a smaller amount.” He said, “I want a symphony orchestra to freak out.”

After some toing and froing, Martin booked a 41-piece orchestra, and wrote some structure for the orchestra, but also got them, in effect, to improvise around a long glissando. There’s more detail in William’s post, but the video on Vevo gives some sense of the atmosphere on the recording.

Anyway, youtube being youtube, that led me into a couple of more recent videos with Paul McCartney which were useful reminders that he has always been smart and curious, and despite his fame and wealth remains a human being.


There’s a long interview at Rollins College in the US with the American poet, and former US Laureate – Billy Collins in which he talks among many other things  about writing the three hundred songs he co-wrote with Lennon, sitting down for writing sessions of three hours or so, sessions which always produced a song. In the interview he talks about one session where they got stuck on a lyric involving “golden rings.”. The clip starts at the right place in the interview.

One of the students has a question about what it takes to succeed in songwriting, and McCartney talks about doing a lot of writing—getting better through practice, which is fair enough. But several of the stories he tells are actually about keeping your ears open, about the importance of listening.


The other video was a one man show he did in front of an invited audience at Abbey Road Studios, where he displays a gift for telling stories, even some comic timing.

This moment, where he does a solo version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on the standup bass played by Presley’s first bassist, Bill Black, has some magic in it. Again, it starts at about the right place:


And actually, it’s worth letting it run on a bit for this reason. After McCartney plays ‘Heartbreak Hotel” he wonders over to a Mellotron and does a nightclub style number, before talking about what the Beatles did with the Mellotron. He plays a few bars of the start of a fifty-year old song and the audience breaks into the applause of recognition.  (I’m not going to spoil the effect by saying which song it is.)

Billy Collins – who’s about the same age as McCartney – starts his interview by saying, “You were a Beatle weren’t you? That’s amazing to me,” and the students in the audience clap. Oddly, it’s only when the question gets put in that “Martian” way that you realise what a huge cultural space the Beatles still fill, half a century on.

“The last time I saw Richard…”

11 January 2015

There’s something arresting about the opening line of Joni Mitchell’s song “The last time I saw Richard,” the final track on her 1971 LP Blue.

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,

And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday

Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.

You know several things straightaway: The singer and Richard used to be in a relationship (otherwise why would she care, or remember where she saw him last), and that it didn’t end well, and that this was definitely down to him, not her.

She has your attention right there, right now.

“Richard” is probably Chuck Mitchell, briefly Joni’s first husband and also her musical partner for a short period in the 1960s. And in fact the song is a sustained piece of character assassination. A bit later on we learn that,

Richard got married to a figure skater

And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator

And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on

Even these days buying this stuff would be a pretty empty materialist gesture. But in 1971?

I was listening to Blue again after reading an article by Sean O’Hagan about Joni Mitchell’s golden period, broadly from Blue to Hejira. O’Hagan writes that on Blue she “single-handedly redefined the notion of the singer-songwriter.”

One of the reasons for this was her willingness to expose her intimate self in these songs. As well as writing about “Richard”, another, “Little Green”, alludes, cryptically, to her daughter, given up for adoption in 1965. Other songwriters were shocked. As O’Hagan relates, “On first hearing them, her friend Kris Kristofferson exclaimed: ‘Oh Joni – save something of yourself!'”

Song to the siren

6 December 2014

This post is about a single line:

“I’m as puzzled as the oyster.”

It’s from the original version of Tim Buckley’s song, “Song to the Siren”, seen at the top of this post: the lyric was by his former band member and regular co-writer Larry Beckett. Buckley, of course, had a brief, uncommercial, but influential music career in the late 1960s and early 1970s before he died of a drugs overdose at the age of 28.

“Song to a Siren” is probably his best known song, but initially Buckley played it once, on The Monkees TV Show (seen above) in 1967, and then set it aside after the singer Judy Henske, who was also the wife of his producer, made fun of that line. By the time the song appeared on Starsailor, in 1970, Buckley had changed it to,

I am puzzled as the newborn child.

You don’t need to be Shakespeare or Seamus Heaney to see that this doesn’t scan as well, or fit so well into the lyric, which is inspired by the famous Homerian sequence in which the Sirens try to lure Odysseus and his ship onto the rocks by their singing.

In fact, the whole lyric is infused with the sense of sea and water. The original stanza continues:

I am puzzled as the oyster
I am troubled as the tide.
Should I stand amid your breakers?
Should I lie with Death my bride?

Beckett’s answer to Buckley’s concern, shared in an article in the Guardian, a couple of years ago:

“A pearl is an object of great beauty caused by a grain of sand getting inside the oyster’s shell, which seemed apposite to me, what with the sea imagery and the sailor and siren confronting each other. Will beauty or pain rule all? But Tim believed the song was flawed and could never be performed, even though he agreed it was the best song he ever wrote. But then Tim always self-sabotaged his career.”

Starsailor wasn’t the success that Buckley had hoped for, and he died in 1975. “Song to the Siren” became visible again in 1983 when This Mortal Coil (actually the Cocteau Twins covered it, as a B-side. This version quickly became an A-side, and sold half a million copies. Since then it’s been covered by everyone –  Robert Plant, Bryan Ferry, George Michael, Sinead O’Connor, even Alfi Boe, are all on the list.

But the oyster has long been washed away.


“He maintains”

10 August 2014

Pereira Maintains was re-published by Canongate in English in 2010. An earlier version, from Harvill in 1995, was titled Pereira Declares. It’s an important difference, and I’ll try to explain why without too much in the way of spoilers.

The novel was written by Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian who spent half his life in Portugal. It comes with plaudits from the likes of Philip Pullman, Roddy Doyle, and Diana Athill, and a new introduction by Mohsin Hamid, the now celebrated author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

It is set in 1938, with Salazar’s dictatorship well-established and the Spanish Civil War raging on the other side of the border. It tells the story of the friendship between Pereira, the culture editor on a second rate Lisbon evening paper, the Lisboa, and Rossi, a Portugal-based Italian whom Pereira hires to write obituaries. As the story progresses, Pereira’s view of the world changes as he struggles with trying to do the right thing.

The style is deliberately flat, and the phrase “Pereira maintains” occurs repeatedly through the narrative. There is no first person, and no direct speech. You realise as a reader, slowly, that the sort of person who uses the phrase “Pereira maintains” may not be completely believing of Pereira’s account of events; indeed, that in 1938, all may not have turned out for the best for him.

As Andrew Blackman observed on his blog:

The two words from the title, “Pereira maintains”, occur regularly throughout the book to qualify what we’ve just been told. For example:

In Praça de Alegria there was no sense of being in a besieged city, Pereira maintains, because he saw no police at all…

The effect of these two words is incredibly interesting. Although the novel is narrated in the third person, these two oft-repeated words make it clear that this is Pereira’s own testimony – in that way it becomes similar to a first-person account, with all the issues of limited perspective and potential unreliability that go along with that. It also raises the question of who the narrator is – who did Pereira tell his story to, and who is now telling it to us, and why?

Mohsin Hamid says in his introduction that he read the book twice, once as “a reader” and once, after he had published his first novel, “as an apprentice”, trying to understand the technical structure of the novel. His reflections are worth sharing at a bit of length:

I began by trying to understand how it managed to achieve so much with so few words. But I was soon asking myself another question. How, with such serious and pressing concerns, did Pereira manage to be so difficult to put down? …

I found my answers in Pereira‘s form. Its brevity gave the novel a lightness that counterbalanced the weight of its subject matter. Moreover, because it was short it was able to move quickly, or at least was able to give the impression of moving quickly. But what seemed to me most striking about the form of Pereira was its use of the testimonial. …

The result is mysterious, menacing, enthralling and mind-bending – all at once. Through the testimonial form, Pereira makes detectives of its readers. We are unsettled and given more to do.


The world of Dennis Potter

22 June 2014

I have always been a big fan of the work of Dennis Potter, which is probably the most radical body of television drama produced by a single writer. Indeed, in the days before video recorders were common, I once wrecked a friendship by insisting on watching an episode of The Singing Detective, his masterpiece, in the middle of a dinner party. (I had warned the host beforehand that if I came I would do this: but I don’t think she believed me).

So I gravitated towards a recent article by Michael Newton that marked the current BFI retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Potter’s death. Newton captures one of the core themes in Potter’s work:

When a child wakes at night and cries out, and its mother comes and comforts him, saying, “There’s no need to be afraid … it’s all right … everything is all right,” is she telling lies? That question haunted Dennis Potter. In interviews, he shared [Paul] Berger’s answer, that, in ways mysterious to us, the mother tells the truth, everything really is all right.

Yet in play after play, Potter appears to offer the contrary thought.  … Potter’s gift was his refusal to hold either of these beliefs alone, and instead to forge his plays in the tension between.

There’s a second tension in Potter’s plays, Newton suggests, between “place” of his upbringing and childhood, which he described as “a sort of mythic Forest of Dean,” and “no place” (my word, not his) of popular culture and popular song. And maybe a third as well, of the “other place”, the not-Forest of Dean of Hammersmith, where he moved in his teens, or of Oxford, where he went to university. It’s not coincidence that the last scene in Pennies From Heaven, if I remember it correctly, plays itself out on Hammersmith Bridge.

Of course, Potter’s view of the world is so distinctive that there is no school of “Potterian” writers: he hasn’t had the influence on television drama that, say, Steve Bochco had with his formal and stylistic innovation in Hill Street Blues. But that’s partly because there is a deep political streak running through his work: notions of class, identity and power are never far below the surface, sometimes breaking through.

And in turn, I think, that’s because he was a product of that so far unrepeated moment in post-war Britain when the social system, unfrozen by the war and a progressive education system, allowed a generation the chance of significant social mobility. It meant that identity and opportunity constantly rubbed up against each other, throwing off questions as sparks.

Potter’s father was a miner, and Potter’s skill was to use these sparks to turn this modest – even ordinary – social background into extraordinary television drama. Autobiography shines through his work, which is deeply rooted, without it ever being explicitly “autobiographical.”

He also knew that the world took sides and that you needed to know which side you were on. It’s not in Newton’s article, but as he was dying of cancer, desperately writing his final plays, and at a time when Britain’s politicans spent their time fawning on Murdoch and his newspapers, he called his cancer “Rupert”. The passage where he explained this to Melvyn Bragg, in his memorable final television interview, is worth quoting in full:

I call my cancer, the main one, the pancreas one, I call it Rupert, so I can get close to it, because the man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time – in fact I’ve got too much writing to do and I haven’t got the energy – but I would shoot the bugger if I could. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life.

The BFI’s Dennis Potter Season runs until the end of July.


Hollywood on Hollywood

25 May 2014

Of course, if you want to win an Oscar, making a film about film-making is a pretty good way to do it. The Artist in 2012 and Argo in 2013 are only the latest in a line going back to A Star Is Born in 1937. Argo, no spoilers, is a film about the CIA pretending to make a film, and therefore gets all the upside of telling jokes about Hollywood while also having Hollywood as one of the good guys. And a bit more upside, since the story is mostly true.

John Goodman plays John Chambers, the make-up specialist who is enrolled in the plan to set up a fake movie to rescue six American Embassy staff who are in hiding in Tehran out of the country after the Embassy was seized by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979.

When the CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) goes to LA to meet Chambers, there’s some inevitable smart, knowing, writing:

Tony Mendez: I need you to help me make a fake movie.
John Chambers: Well, you came to the right place.
Tony Mendez: I wanna set up a production company and build a cover around making a movie.
John Chambers: That we’re not gonna make?
Tony Mendez: No.
John Chambers: So you wanna come to Hollywood and act like a big shot…?
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: Without actually doing anything?
Tony Mendez: No.
John Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

And just a bit later, it gets better, almost all because of the way that Goodman delivers the lines.

John Chambers: Look, if you’re gonna do this, you gotta do it. The Kominiacs are fruit loops but they got cousins who sell prayer rugs and 8-tracks on Le Brea. You can’t build cover stories around a movie that doesn’t exist. You need a script, you need a producer.
Tony Mendez: Make me a producer.
John Chambers: No, you’re an associate producer at best. If you’re gonna do a $20 million dollars ‘Star Wars’ rip-off, you need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. [BEAT]

Somebody respectable, [BEAT]

with credits, [BEAT]

who you can trust with classified information, [BEAT]

who will produce a fake movie, [BEAT]

for free.

And CUT to Alan Arkin.

In other words: set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ payoff. And almost all of it done through the timing.

Thanks to Movie Quotes and More for the extracts.

The Lady Vanishes

29 March 2014

LadyVanishesStillAThe Lady Vanishes, made in 1938, is my favourite of Hitchcock’s pre-war English films. As few spoilers as possible, but it’s about a train journey from a fictional central European country back to England – a journey on which, as the title promises, a lady vanishes.

At its heart the film has the form of a thriller (Will they find the lady? Why has she vanished? Why are these people lying?), and the story is driven along by one of Hitchcock’s favourite devices, the couple who take an instant dislike to each other. (It made stars of Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, seen in the publicity still above with the sinister Paul Lukaz). Along the way we get some fine Hitchcock set-pieces, notably the fight in the guard’s van, stuffed full of magician’s props, and of course (it is set on a train) the climb between the carriages along the outside of the train.

But this is wrapped around with a set of stories that capture the good and bad of inter-war England (yes, I do mean England). The good? The cricket obsessed Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, desperate to make their connection at Basel that will get them to England in time for the last day of the Test match who come good when the chips are down. The bad? The ambitious lawyer who’s taken his mistress on holiday, but (it becomes clear) has no intention of leaving his wife. And also the plucky: the English governess who is not quite what she seems to be. A lot of this is down to the writers, Frank Launder and Sydney Gilliat, who had completed the script for another director before Hitchcock joined the project. Their work often had a sharp eye for Britain and its culture.

There’s some fine writing here, and some fine construction; the sequence on the train where several people swear that they haven’t seen the vanished Miss Froy for reasons that are to do with their own small worlds, rather than malice or conspiracy, is a wonderful thing.

But there’s a lot more: we get a film that both prefigures the imminent outbreak of war and, in its way, is an elegy for the England that will be swept away by it. (The peerless Philip French called it “a faultlessly cast mirror held up to the nation in the year of Munich.”) The hotel where the action starts is both a metaphor for pre-war Europe, with guests from dozens of countries crammed in by an avalanche, and an anticipation of the privations of war (Radford and Wayne have to share a maid’s room, and take so long dressing for dinner that the restaurant has run out of food).

And the shootout on the train (spoilers here) is almost like Dunkirk: outgunned by the military surrounding them, they are down to their last bullet, and on the verge of having to give up, when they manage to make an unlikely escape.

But, before the escape, one of them decides the position is hopeless and chooses to surrender:

Just because I’ve the sense to try to avoid being murdered, I’m accused of being a pacifist. Alright. I’d rather be callef a rat than die like one. … If we give ourselves up, they daren’t murder us in cold blood. They’re bound to give us a trial.

Despite his white flag, he ends up getting shot – in cold blood – for his pains. Before Munich, before the annexation of Czechosolvakia, Hitchcock – and Launder and Gilliat – knew what was coming.


You can watch the film at the Internet Archive, and come to that, all over youtube. The image at the top of the post is from Joe Landry’s excellent Vintage Hitchcock site, and is used with thanks.



The banana skin and the manhole

14 December 2013

There’s a story about a conversation between the Hollywood screenwriter Charles MacArthur and Charlie Chaplin. 

“How, for example, could I make a fat lady, walking down Fifth Avenue, slip on a banana peel and still get a laugh? It’s been done a million times,” said MacArthur. “What’s the best way to get the laugh? Do I show first the banana peel, then the fat lady approaching, then she slips? Or do I show the fat lady first, then the banana peel, and then she slips?”

“Neither,” said Chaplin without a moment’s hesitation. “You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.”

There was an excellent piece of banana skin and manhole business in the last but one show in the current series of the BBC comedy Hebburn, which has just finished. (UK readers can find it on iPlayer for another couple of weeks). Without giving away any spoilers, the McGuffin of the story was an edition of the Telegraph magazine in which there was an extract from Jack’s secret diary of his wife Sarah’s pregnancy. Jack calculates that no-one in Hebburn – not an affluent town – reads the Telegraph, and reluctantly shreds his own copy. 

But – of course – a copy arrives in town, and gets left by mistake on the sofa in a recording studio where Jack’s sister happens to be (banana skin). But before she sees it, the sound engineer scoops it up and takes it out with the other rubbish. From then on the plot ticks inexorably towards the manhole moment and the discovery of the offending article by a friend of Sarah’s. You know it’s going to happen, but you don’t know how or when: it creates a point of comic tension.

I like Hebburn, not least because it’s blessed by the acting of Gina McKee and Vic Reeves. Although the second series is less dark than the first, it’s managed to develop the characters so they feel fuller (they could easily have descended into thin North-eastern cliches). You also know immediately that the scriptwriters, who come from the area, like their characters rather than regarding them as clotheshorses to hang jokes on (Little Britain, anyone?). I also like the fact that their lifestyles in the show correspond with how they might be in actual life; these are people who live in post-crisis Osborne-land, who don’t have much money, and the storylines and quite a lot of the humour reflect that. In contrast, when you watch Big Bang Theory you wonder how Penny, working as a waitress on minimum wage, manages to afford to pay for an apartment on her own when Sheldon and Leonard, both better paid, have to share. Or at least I do.  

The photo of the cast of Hebburn at the top of this post comes from its production company, Baby Cow Productions, and is used with thanks.  

Bryan, William, and Nanette

11 May 2013

Bryan Forbes, the film director, has died – a British director who managed to have a fairly successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. He directed interesting British films such as Whistle Down The Wind, but for me The Stepford Wives is the one that has stuck in the fabric of the culture.

If you haven’t seen it (I’m pretty sure that this isn’t a spoiler) it is set in a small town in Connecticut in which the men become disatisfied with their wives and set out to turn them into clones of what the “good wife” should be. It was made in 1975 and you don’t exactly need critical theory to locate it as a story sparked by the feminist wave of the ’60s and early ’70s.

Anyway, the screenplay was written by William Goldman, from the book by Ira Levin, and it’s one of the films Goldman writes about in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade.

In fact he opens the chapter with an epigraph, a couple of lines of dialogue between him and Forbes:

FORBES: I think Nanette might be rather good for the part of Carol, don’t you?

GOLDMAN: She’s a wonderful actress; I think she’d be fine.

“Nanette” was Nanette Newman, Forbes’ wife, then in her early ’40s. A good actress, as Goldman describes her, “but not a sex-bomb”. And casting her has a big consequence for the film. In Levin’s story, as well as being willing and supportive providers, the women are male sex fantasies as well, all shorts, thighs and cleavage. That wasn’t Nanette Newman, however:

“By having Nanette Newman in the part, the whole look of the film had to alter. Forget the tennis costumes. Forget the parade of Bunnies walking through the A&P in shorts on their perfect tanned legs. She can’t wear the clothes.”

And so the Stepford Wives in the film end up in long pastel dresses. Goldman, looking back at the film, clearly thinks this is a problem.

But you never know how things will turn out. That other version of Stepford Wives, without Nanette Newman, would be unwatchable now, the sexism right there “on the nose” rather than embedded in the psyche, a period piece that screamed the mid-70s at us. As it is, long dresses and big broad-brimmed hats and all, it still stands up as a story – and one worth re-making 30 years later – about men who’re so threatened by intelligent, independent women that they’ll …. Now, that would be a spoiler.