Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘live!’

You never forget the moment when you realise you don’t believe in God despite what everyone around you has told you all your life; you never forget the moment when you realise the mortality of your parents is a fact; you never forget the moment when you discover that Wikipedia, far from being a perfectly objective source of Platonic fact, is fumbling around for information just like the rest of us. For me, the last of these came in 2007, when I was spending an awful lot of time just surfing the web in my local internet café in Japan. I came across the Wikipedia entry for John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a novel I have always had the greatest admiration for, and was gratified to see that my opinion was very much shared by critical consensus, according to the article. This turned out not to be so surprising after all, as it turned out that in this instance Wikipedia’s idea of the critical consensus had been arrived at by reading an old article I myself had written some years previously, which was duly listed as a source. Wikipedia did not so much happen to agree with me, as I happened (less shockingly) to agree with myself.

Well, cue shock, bemusement, etc – my faith in the whole site was shaken. How could I set so much store in the quality of information provided by a website which set so much store in the quality of information provided by a goon like me? Still, if nothing else I can now proclaim myself as an acknowledged expert on The Chrysalids and John Wyndham, and it is only marginally spurious.

While I may have lost faith in Jimmy Wales’ brainchild, I have never lost faith with The Chrysalids, nor indeed with Wyndham, who remains one of my favourite writers: he is up there with H.P. Lovecraft when it comes to the great names whose style and content I have ineptly been ripping off every November come NaNoWriMo time. Any Wyndham adaptation will automatically grab my attention; indeed, I have been awaiting with some trepidation the moment when some bright spark in Hollywood happens upon The Chrysalids and realises it could quite easily be filleted into an effective YA dystopian adventure a la Hunger Games.

Turning up to Pegasus Theatre’s stage adaptation of the book, I wondered if this would in fact be the case. I was pretty sure going in that this would inevitably not be a ‘straight’ adaptation of the novel, for many reasons which will be instantly obvious to anyone who’s read it – the discovery that this would be a youth production by the theatre’s 11-15 age group only confirmed this suspicion. So – how were they going to tackle it? Had they found a young performer with extra toes?

Well, perhaps inevitably, the first casualty of the stage version (cut down to a fairly pacy sixty minutes in length) is much of Wyndham’s careful world-building, and with it much of the context of the novel. The stage show concerns David and Petra, two of the children of Joseph, a strict and authoritarian father, living on a farm somewhere called Waknuk. Their society seems to be strictly religious (though this element is downplayed) and under the control of an oppressive authority (represented by dreaded functionaries in grey suits). The authority exercises strict genetic control, and anyone diverging from the established norms is declared a mutant and banished to somewhere called the Fringes.

However, David and Petra have a secret: they are also mutants, possessing a telepathic link with others of their kind (there are five telepaths in the stage show, a reduction from the number in the book). If they are found out, the very best they can hope for is permanent exile to the Fringes. But how long can they keep their secret?

As readers of the book will have perhaps gathered, David Harrower’s adaptation dispenses with a lot of the background detail – it’s never really suggested that the characters are living somewhere in Canada, nor that this is taking place in the distant aftermath of a nuclear war, which has flattened civilisation and left many of the survivors genetically damaged. This is in many ways a more allegorical version of the story. It should also not come as a surprise that the climax of the novel, which features a pitched battle between armies of norms and mutants and the intervention of another group of technologically-advanced telepaths from elsewhere, has also been radically amended. You expect these sorts of things in the theatre.

Something being amateur youth theatre should also impact on your expectations if you have any decency in your soul. The performances at the show I saw ran the gamut from capable to rather less so; one should also not be entirely surprised by a number of fluffed lines, missed cues, or someone accidentally sticking their foot through the set. All of this gets a pass, and I will repeat that some of the young actors were actually pretty good.

The question is really one of whether you can actually make The Chrysalids work as a piece of youth theatre. Quite apart from the changes to the story, and I will add to them the fact that a story which plays out over a decade or so in the novel is very compressed here, some of the key characters really do need a bit of mature gravitas and authority to them in order for them to work – I’m thinking here of Joseph and Axel, both of whom struggle to fill their narrative roles when they appear to be teenagers.

And there really is no getting away from it – The Chrysalids isn’t a children’s book, nor even really much of a YA book (all right, I read it when I was ten, but I’m just strange). It is about bigotry and intolerance, and a Darwinian battle to survive between different subspecies of human – the kicker being, of course, the final realisation that ‘baseline’ humans like the reader are both bad guys and likely to lose in the end. It is shot through with serious, even vicious moments – a woman drowning herself and her mutant child, a father contemplating the murder of another child in order to protect his own, mutants being tortured by the religious authorities.

You can’t really put this sort of stuff in a youth theatre production, and indeed most of it has been excised (with one surprising exception, concerning the fate of Sophie Wender). Even the cross which all the norm faithful wear has been tweaked into an ankh, presumably to avoid inflaming people concerned about Christophobia (or whatever we’re supposed to call it).

The most telling change comes near the end, and I should say that a mild spoiler follows. Joseph, believing Petra to be a norm child kidnapped by the telepaths, comes to rescue her from the Fringes people, and is appalled when she tells him she is a mutant too. Nevertheless, he wishes her well and they bid a sad goodbye as she and the others head on into the wilderness. This is not recognisably Wyndham’s Joseph Strorm, a monstrous character who happily joins a posse to hunt down his own children – if Wyndham’s Strorm was in the scene, it would have a totally different ending and qualify for one of those ‘scenes that some viewers may find disturbing’ trigger warnings.

As I say, this is the nature of the beast where this book is concerned. I should say that the stage version is often intelligent and inventive in its take on the novel, and the young performers all obvious tried their best. If the production still ends up feeling a bit flawed and lacking in a climax, that’s simply because The Chrysalids is not really at home in this particular context.

Read Full Post »

It is, I am reliably informed, just about Christmas, and therefore possibly a good time to do something different. Now, as regular visitors will be aware, I do spend most of my time hereabouts talking about new films and (most commonly) genre movies from the past, interspersed with occasional musings about musty old cult TV series from the sixties and seventies. But for once, let us go boldly into new territory and take a look at a brand spanking new theatrical production, which recently had its world premiere in London (based on a musty old cult TV series from the sixties – you shouldn’t overdo the novelty thing).

Yes, it is a stage version of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. I suppose it is just possible that you may be reading this and not aware of exactly what The Twilight Zone is, or was: it was an anthology TV show that ran for five seasons from 1959, primarily consisting of fantasy, horror, and science fiction stories, mainly from the pens of Serling himself (92 episodes), Richard Matheson (16 episodes) and Charles Beaumont (about 20 episodes – there is a degree of ghostwriting involved). Although it obviously predated Star Trek by a good half-decade, the intention of Serling matches that of Gene Roddenberry with striking closeness – Serling wanted to write about serious contemporary and philosophical issues, but the network were skittish, and his solution was to disguise his subject matter in the trappings of fantasy.

The question, of course, is why do a stage version of The Twilight Zone now, in 2017, and in Britain? The show itself is the most fundamental piece of post-war Americana imaginable. The answer, I suspect, is simply that The Twilight Zone has come to permeate popular culture to a degree where everyone is on some level familiar with it, even if they’re not aware of that fact – everyone recognises the doo-de-doo-doo-doo-de-doo-doo theme tune, not to mention Serling’s own inimitable style of narration. And the most famous of its stories have almost become folklore, thanks to endless parodies, homages, and remakes.

In a sense this is almost a problem, because so many of the original stories’ ingenious twist endings are now their best-known features. I suspect one of the reasons why the various attempts to revive The Twilight Zone never really took off (there was a revival in the eighties, another in the early noughties, and another new version, to be overseen by Jordan Peele – presumably on the strength of Get Out – was announced earlier this month) is that every single new episode was compared to the greatest triumphs of the Serling version, as opposed to the mid-table episodes, of which there are a fair few.

I’ve no idea how many of the audience at the Almeida in Islington were familiar with the TV show, but it was a good turnout, with many people bringing their kids from the look of things. Will this result in a spike in DVD sales of the TV show in north London? I’ve no idea.

So, you may be wondering: how do you adapt 156 episodes of black and white 1960s TV into a two-hour stage show? Adaptorial duties have been done by Anne Washburn, who has wisely chosen to pick eight or so of the original scripts and rework them for the stage, with a cast of about a dozen playing various roles.

Things get going with a truncated version of Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?, setting a rather drolly comic tone which persists for most of the first half, at least. This rolls on into similarly cut-down retellings of Nightmare as a Child, Little Girl Lost, Perchance to Dream, and a not just cut-down but seemingly cut-up take on And When the Sky was Opened. The results are impressionistic more than anything else, giving a vague sense of the original stories and the unsettlingly unpredictable world in which the series specialised.

There’s more of the same in the second half, although it seemed to me the tone darkens as the play continues: with two of the stories concluded, their places are taken by versions of The Long Morrow and The Shelter, along with – I assume, not having reached the episodes in question yet in my own viewing of the TV series – uncredited elements from either The Dummy or Caesar and Me. There’s also an oblique gag based on To Serve Man (not sure how many people got that), and the central conceit of Eye of the Beholder is also incorporated as a kind of silent ballet, threaded through the production.

It is, as I say, more of an impressionistic homage to the look and style of The Twilight Zone, for whatever that’s worth. One of the great strengths of the show was Serling’s willingness to completely change the tone of the series from episode to episode – a really quite dark drama like Back There is followed by an absurd comedy, The Whole Truth, for instance – and one result of Washburn’s cut-up approach is that everything ends up feeling tonally quite similar. Naturally, this means the dramatic stories suffer more than the comedic ones, although the heart of the second half is a lengthy excerpt from The Shelter, in which the fault-lines of ethnicity and religion running through American society are ripped open by a crisis. You can see just why a writer in 2017 would zero in on this particular script (written in 1961) as still having something to say.

Mostly, though, this is a knowing version of The Twilight Zone intended to generate laughs rather than anxiety – the insertion of a musical number (stormingly performed by Lizzy Connolly) into Perchance to Dream just emphasises this. There’s also much fun had with the presence, or absence, of Rod Serling as narrator: as the show progresses, various characters find themselves possessed by the spirit of Serling, addressing the audience in that teeth-gritted manner, unable to stop themselves from producing cigarettes, seemingly out of thin air. There’s a similar gag concerning the title of the series, which people are endlessly stopped from saying, although the famous Marius Constant theme music is deployed less effectively than I would have expected.

In the end it is an engaging couple of hours, although perhaps lacking somewhat in heft and seriousness compared to the TV show at its best. My suspicion is that anyone more than passingly familiar with the original episodes will find it a little frivolous; others will probably enjoy themselves but wonder exactly what the fuss is about when it comes to the TV show. I would say it was a tribute to or parody of The Twilight Zone more than an actual adaptation, but an inventive, entertaining, and well-mounted one.

Read Full Post »

One of the ways in which cinemas have been boosting their profits recently has been through the screening of, well, other cultural things which are not movies. On more than one occasion I’ve turned up at the local Picturehouse to find a scheduled movie delayed due to a live broadcast from the opera over-running, while plays, football matches, and transmissions from art galleries are also fairly common events.

Personally, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this sort of thing, for all that I’m sympathetic to cinema-owners’ need to turn a profit. It’s not just that broadcasting a stage show or the ballet takes up space where they could actually be showing a proper movie, it’s just that I think there’s a proper context for everything – just as I think by far the best place to watch a movie is a cinema, so the best way to watch a live show is, well, live.

wotw

Nevertheless I was coaxed into giving this sort of thing a chance by the as-live screening of the latest incarnation of that perennial chart-botherer, the musical of War of the Worlds. Or, to give it its full and extremely unwieldy title, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation – Alive on Stage. (Jeff Wayne is clearly a man who knows when he is onto a Good Thing – rumour has it there is a statue of a Martian Fighting Machine in the garden of his mansion.) I first properly discovered this extraordinary blending of founding-text SF and prog rock when I was about ten, and I’ve been listening to it ever since (not continuously) – the original version, anyway. I’m very fond of it, and the chance to hear it over a proper sound system was an appealing prospect.

Surely everyone know the story of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds by now? There have certainly been enough adaptations and riffs on it (as befits what is probably one of the five or six best ideas in the history of fiction). Martians invade the Home Counties at the end of the Victorian era, crush all resistance with vastly superior technology, topple human society, start thinking about full-scale colonisation but reckon without the pestilent, germ-saturated atmosphere of Earth, to which they have no resistance. The Jeff Wayne version is basically the same, but with a somewhat underdeveloped romance and some songs added.

If watching a live show on a cinema screen seems like an unsatisfactory compromise, it does suit this particular show quite well, as it is itself a borderline-peculiar multimedia production incorporating filmed sequences, on-stage pyrotechnics, musicians, and singers, and the presence (through the miracle of ‘3D holography’) of Liam Neeson as the narrator. Neeson’s physical absence leads to a few dubious moments (at one point he has to punch out someone actually present on stage) but he lends the undertaking an appropriate level of gravitas.

It goes without saying, I hope, that a prog-rock-disco-orchestral fusion steampunk-inflected musical version of a Victorian SF novel including roles with names like ‘The Sung Thoughts of the Journalist’, ‘The Voice of Humanity’, and ‘Beth, Parson Nathaniel’s Wife’, is quite colossally uncool and even borderline absurd – well, to be fair we’re well across the border and probably well on the way to naturalised citizenship. All this was true of the original album.

And yet – and I’ve no idea what strange alchemy is at work here – for all of its uncool absurdity, the War of the Worlds album is also quite breathtakingly brilliant, with some killer tunes, tremendous performances, and memorable lines (one of Wells’ throwaway pieces of dialogue has almost reached proverbial status simply because it’s been incorporated into the lyrics of the album). The question is, how much of this has been preserved in the sort-of-live show?

Well, the stage show kicks off with the understudies (as astronomers) getting some dialogue about odd things happening on Mars, which leads us into some rather spiffy fully-CGI’d footage of the Martian High Command planning the invasion (rather more impressive and sophisticated than most of the footage which accompanies the show, which blends live action and CGI with varying degrees of success) – all very well, but I think that not to start with ‘No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century…’ is a bad call, and it also lessens the impact of that initial da-da-DAHHHH from the string section.

From this point on the live show follows the album very closely in musical terms – indeed, apart from a few little tweaks and additions to the script, the New Generation version seemed virtually indistinguishable from the original. As an actual spectacle, there’s a bit of an issue with some of the numbers outstaying their welcome – the animators run out of things to put on the screen towards the end of The Heat Ray and resort to showing a rather cringeworthy ray-gun jiving along to the music – and, as previously mentioned, some of the stuff on the screen is less stirring than one might have hoped for, the demise of the Thunder Child (the subject of the original album cover) being a particular disappointment. (On the other hand, the moment when a full-scale Fighting Machine first appears on stage is genuinely gobsmacking.)

And most of the on-stage performances are excellent, which given that the singing and music are what this show is about is surely the most important thing. It is, admittedly, a little odd to hear a new set of voices tackling the songs I have grown up listening to, but this turned out to be refreshing rather than jarring. I was particularly dreading the new version of The Spirit of Man, mainly because I really doubted that Jason Donovan had the chops to fill the shoes of Phil Lynott. Well, credit where it’s due: Donovan is up to the task (Kerry Ellis replaces Julie Covington with equal aplomb) and this segment is as much a highlight live as it is on the album – in fact, I can’t imagine Lynott giving an acting performance as good as Donovan’s.

The decision to reprise a full-cast version of The Eve of the War in the middle of the climax is distinctly odd, and the epilogue, with a present-day NASA mission running into problems, feels as dubious as ever, but on the whole the live show does full justice to both the spirit and the substance of the original album. I suspect seeing the live show actually, er, live, would be even more impressive, but watching it on a big screen with proper sound was a reasonable alternative. I’m just left pondering the prospects of a full movie adaptation of the Wayne War of the Worlds, which seems to me to be an idea loaded with potential. Maybe the existence of the live show is an indicator this is never going to happen – but I hope not.

Read Full Post »

‘How many people here have seen the original Wicker Man?’ Robin Hardy, dapper in black blazer, shirt, and trousers, peers around the dimness of the Phoenix Oxford’s smaller screen. Eight or nine hands go up. Given that he is here to show The Wicker Tree, the veteran writer and director’s follow-up to the 1973 masterpiece, probably the biggest cult movie ever made in Britain, this would be somewhat surprising were it not for the fact that only eight or nine people have actually turned up – possibly a consequence of this event being organised at very short notice and, as a result, not being well-publicised. However, if Hardy is disappointed by the poor turnout he does not show it: from the outset it is clear that he is a gentleman in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

Introducing the new film, Hardy announces that it is a piece in ‘the same genre’ as The Wicker Man – which as far as he’s concerned means it’s a black comedy with musical interludes. He admits to the problems he and his production partners are having actually getting the film into theatres, and ascribes this to the decision not to include any big-name actors in the film (if he feels there are parallels with the tortuous release endured by the original film, he doesn’t mention it). Quite sensibly he opts to postpone the full Q&A session until after we’ve watched the new film, but before it gets underway Hardy clearly feels the need to reassure us on a few points. ‘This is a film with its tongue in its cheek. It’s made to be laughed with and laughed at, particularly in the first half hour. But things still get pretty… pretty black by the end.’

The Wicker Tree is one of those films which isn’t a sequel, isn’t a prequel, isn’t honestly what you could call a remake, but is nevertheless so totally in thrall to a predecessor that it has very little genuine identity of its own. As it opens we meet Britney-esque popstrel turned born-again evangelist Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicoll) and her devoted if slightly less dedicated fiance Steve (Henry Garrett), who are both residents of the great state of Texas. Intent upon carrying out the will of God, Beth and Steve are flying off to do important missionary work in Scotland. This is at the invitation and with the assistance of wealthy community leader Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife (Jacqueline Leonard). When their initial efforts in Edinburgh fall on stony ground, Beth and Steve accept the Morrisons’ offer that they try their luck in the countryside. But saving souls is hard work, especially when Steve – who is finding total abstinence to chafe somewhat – is distracted by energetic local groom Lolly (Honeysuckle Weeks). Things get even worse when it starts to appear that the locals may have had an ulterior motive in inviting the couple to visit, and especially take part in their traditional May Day celebrations. Needless to say the missionaries soon find themselves in a very uncomfortable position indeed…

Well, there has been talk for years and years and absolutely years of something new and Wicker-related making an appearance – firstly, there was Anthony Schaffer’s mooted Wicker Man 2 (also apparently known as The Loathsome Lambton Worm, though Hardy refers to it as The Loathly Worm), ultimately abandoned due to the death of so many key participants, and then the American remake by Neil LaBute with Nicolas Cage, which turned out to be an utter stinker (read on to learn Hardy’s thoughts on it). And now, finally, a film which by any standard is a close relation, made with the involvement of two of the surviving principals from the 1973 production. For those, like me, for whom The Wicker Man is one of those extraordinary, nigh-on perfect films, expectations can’t help but be impossibly, unmeetably high.

Even so, it was a heavy blow for The Wicker Tree to be quite as thoroughly disappointing as it actually turned out to be. That in itself is slightly surprising, given how closely it cleaves to its inspiration – the two films have, fundamentally, exactly the same plot, very similar settings, and identical themes. How can two such superficially similar movies be so wildly different in terms of quality? My opinion of the original film has been aired quite often enough – suffice to say it’s one of my absolute favourites. The Wicker Tree is an exasperating, strangely-pitched, un-evocative and borderline silly micro-budget comedy horror film.

If nothing else the follow-up throws into sharp relief just how brilliant the 1973 film is – every single difference from The Wicker Man serves only to make The Wicker Tree less involving, less thoughtful, less atmospheric, and less memorable. The most noticeable thing is the overall tone – which is, very much as Robin Hardy promised, one of camp excess with more than a hint of broad comedy. At one point an ominous pagan heavy gets stabbed up the kilt, to the consternation of the colleague tasked with giving first aid: ‘Och! They’ve well-nigh severed one of your googlies!’ she trills.

On top of this we get drawling cowboys, creepy villagers, and perky young maidens, all out of Central Casting, all issued with a script fatally short on any kind of subtlety and with precious few ideas. The performances themselves are not that bad – one senses the actors are delivering what’s been requested of them – and the two leads are reasonably good. That said, Robin Hardy assured me both of them were actually British doing American accents, which Brittania Nicoll’s own website flatly contradicts – if they are using their own voices it’s a little less impressive. Needless to say, the standout moment is a brief cameo from Sir Christopher Lee as Morrison’s enigmatic mentor. Briefly, Lee manages to give the film a real intelligence and sense of gravitas which its sorely lacking the rest of the time. Hardy leaves it open as to whether Lee is reprising his role as Summerisle; Lee assures us he is not, and I tend to agree simply due to the chronological issues involved.

Lee’s appearance is sadly curtailed, but perhaps that’s for the best: I think the film would have dragged Lee down rather than him raising it up. As it is, the resonances with the 1973 film are more often than not unfortunate as you are simply reminded how much better this material was handled then. Where the original film walked a razor’s edge in making the Edward Woodward character sympathetic while credibly naive, here, the two Christians just come across as stupid. The strange and oppressive atmosphere first time around is completely absent, replaced by a crashingly unsubtle tipping-off of what’s really afoot very early on. The songs are not as good either. When the film does shade over into explicit horror, there are a couple of mildly effective moments – but the film is edited so as to cut away from two crucial, climactic scenes much too soon. Overall it has none of the weird and ghastly power of The Wicker Man and very little to commend it beyond the basest curiosity value.

And so, following the film, it is with a slightly odd atmosphere prevailing that we loyal few assemble in the bar, gathering around Robin Hardy for the promised talk with the director. Hardy beams at us cheerfully. ‘So, what did you think of it?’

This is an awkward question in the circumstances. The most anyone says is that the new songs aren’t as good. Luckily, Wicker Man fans being as they are, the conversation almost at once goes off on a weird tangent or two. Someone quizzes Hardy in somewhat surprising depth on his work with veteran character actor Aubrey Morris, while someone else, having treated Hardy to a drink, also treats him to a long and rambling anecdote concerning real-world pagans and the Rollright Stones. On his part, Hardy seems utterly nonplussed by his adoption as some kind of figurehead by pagans, and also by the wealth of academic material The Wicker Man has spawned.

Eventually I spin the question back at Hardy: though I’m aware he can hardly be objective, how does he think the new film stands up in comparison to the original? Hardy bats it away and doesn’t even look at me. ‘It’s doing terribly well. The DVDs are selling like hot cakes.’

Oh well. I make the point that the lead characters of Wicker Tree just come across as sort of stupid. He blinks at me. ‘Well, they are American.’

This, and a discussion on the gender politics of the films too murky to recount here, at least leads us onto the topic of Neil LaBute’s version of The Wicker Man. What does Hardy think of it? He shifts in his seat and doesn’t quite snort. ‘Well, it has nothing to do with my film… I was rather surprised that a film made by so many talented people turned out to be such a ****-up.’

Well, we agree on that at least. The conversation moves on, concentrating mostly (of course) on the arcana surrounding the original: the mysterious fate of the original Wicker Man negative (apparently it’s almost certainly not under the M3), the issues Hardy is having with the digital restoration of it – apparently the restored bits of the extended cut are so grainy that the technicians don’t want to put them out on Blu-Ray –and the plans for The Loathly Worm. According to Hardy, and contradicting what I’ve heard elsewhere, Peter Cushing was never in the frame to play Howie – this of course leads us on to discuss where The Wicker Man stands in relation to the Hammer tradition. Personally, I think it’s well apart; but others disagree.

Soon enough Robin Hardy is looking at his watch and train ticket home with mild consternation and a few books get signed. I shake his hand and make my excuses, still pondering one of the announcements he made – work on his latest project is well underway, and he’s optimistic about it going in front of the camera quite soon (he touches wood). The name of the new film? The Wrath of the Gods, the final part in what Hardy’s calling The Wicker Trilogy.

I wish I could be as positive as Robin Hardy about yet another attempt to nail another appendage onto the Wicker Man edifice, but in the light of The Wicker Tree I really honestly can’t. Having met him, my respect and appreciation for Hardy as a gentleman and artist are undiminished, but I can’t really summon up any enthusiasm for his recent work. A very nice man, but a deeply flawed movie.

Read Full Post »

Regular readers may recall the fairly unusual occurrence of my trailing a future event, to wit last Thursday’s debate on the legalisation of cannabis, held at Waterstones Oxford and occurring between ‘Protestant iconoclast’ Peter Hitchens and ‘the most sophisticated drug dealer in the history of the world’, Howard Marks. I note that, according to his own blog, Mr H himself feels unable to accurately relate what went on, on account of his being a participant. With the big man thus having effectively recused himself – well, what can I say? – here’s how it seemed to me at the time.

I turned up for the event nice and early, while the shop itself was still open, and passed a few pleasant minutes, as usual, browsing the graphic novel shelves. (I note that Neonomicon is still on sale in a non-sealed format which anyone of any age can pick up and look through. Somebody really ought to have a word with the booksellers about this.) I still couldn’t quite justify buying Mega-City Justice – it may end up being another Christmas present to myself – but it did occur to me that Peter Hitchens might share my own sneaking admiration for Judge Dredd’s inflexible moral stance. Who can say.

Anyway people were starting to drift in and I thought it prudent to actually grab a seat. At this point I found myself actively considering the question of what kind of person would go to a personal appearance by Hitchens and Marks for the first time: identifying who was here to support who was not especially difficult, shall we say. At the risk of generalising inappropriately, a goodly portion resembled the solid Tory stock of Mr Hitchens’ natural consituency, while much of the remainder were clearly people who take life very easily indeed. (I myself, of course, was there as a helpless thinker and fascinated long-term Hitchens-watcher.) Some people had even brought their kids, which startled me inordinately, mainly because it seemed to me this could be a highly-charged encounter with passions surging on both sides. Should it all kick off I resolved to go down with the first punch that connected and crawl discreetly to the lift.

Hey ho. Not long after seven we were treated to a highly rigorous security check from the Waterstones staff (‘Can everyone please wave their ticket in the air?’) and then the two men themselves descended from the lofty heights of the bookshop Costa (they’re turning up everywhere) to commence the event.

Things took an unexpected turn as the moderator revealed that the dyed-in-the-wool conservative commentator and the convicted drug dealer are actually great friends with a history of saying very nice things about one another – Hitchens is a ‘courteous and considerate friend’ and a ‘brilliant writer and debater’, according to Marks, while Hitchens has unstintingly praised Marks’ chivalry and decency (as well as other positive qualities) too. This was a surprise.

So the proceedings, as they got underway, are slightly more clubbable than I’d expected, with both speakers provided with comfy armchairs and microphones. Marks spoke first, reading from notes: the gist of what he says – cannabis was only internationally banned by the League of Nations as an afterthought to the banning of opium, the ban has done nothing to reduce demand or supply and is instead only responsible for a vast black market with its devastating attendant evils, and that given that people are always going to smoke weed, having it distributed by criminals is the least desirable option – is probably rather less striking than his method of imparting it. Never having heard Marks speak before, I’d no idea he was Welsh – but he is, and very very Welsh. Delivering his statement in mellifluous Welsh tones with more than a hint of theatricality, seated in his comfy chair throughout, Howard Marks’ opening statement is rather like a very strange episode of Jackanory.

And then Peter Hitchens rises to speak. I must confess to partly being here in order to see what Hitchens is like in person, being much more familiar with his writing and occasional TV appearances. Well, rather to my surprise, Mr H is a much more likeable and charismatic figure than his reputation might suggest – he opens with a gag, which I would never have expected (not a great gag, but as it’s virtually the same as one I used myself on this blog earlier this year there’s a limit to how critical I can honestly be), is generous to his opponent throughout, and he’s good-humoured and thoughtful rather than an inflexible martinet.

Basically, Hitchens’ line is that cannabis is at least as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, two drugs far less socially acceptable, with a documented history of causing serious mental illness in a significant percentage of users. As a result it would be folly to make it easier to acquire, and the only sensible course is to try and drive it out of acceptable society entirely. It’s a lot harder to make things illegal than to legalise them, and so it’s better not to take the chance.

This argument depends heavily on the strength of the evidence as to how dangerous cannabis is – I’m not really qualified to comment on this either way, but I respect Hitchens enough to believe that he hasn’t just invented this stuff out of the air. But, given this is the case, it’s difficult to take issue with Hitchens’ argument.

However, in the Q&A which follows, various people try: most of the questions are for Hitchens, from people taking issue with his views. I’ve already commented that the current system seems a bit inconsistent to me – why make cannabis illegal when alcohol, an equally damaging drug, is free available? And this same point is made to Hitchens. Rather unexpectedly (possibly you should just assume that everything that went down at this event was rather unexpected, as I appear to be typing those words rather a lot), Hitchens’ response is pragmatic: he’d support an alcohol ban with great pleasure, but the fact of the long history of it as a presence in society would make this almost impossible to enact and enforce.

There’s another interesting moment when it’s put to Mr H that the prohibition of cannabis is responsible for tremendous suffering across the developing world, by putting the cannabis trade into the hands of organised criminals, with the result that numerous minor wars and insurgencies are largely funded by the sale of drugs. Needless to say Hitchens disagrees – the market for cannabis which these criminals operate to meet only exists due to the existing drug laws not being enforced with sufficient rigour. This is more questionable ground – can people really be persuaded or cowed into not wanting to get off their heads? – but it’s not obviously incoherent either.

A year ago I would have said that Peter Hitchens and I had nothing in common and would be capable of little interaction other than arguing, but it really does seem to me that he was talking rationally and very persuasively at this event. And his arguments were based not on handed-down moral absolutism but an appeal to a sense of collective responsibility and the value of all members of society. Given the dangers of cannabis, for someone to still argue that it should be widely available is for that person to declare they are indifferent to the lives of all those damaged by the drug – it seems to me this is basically a deeply selfish position, and one I could not personally justify to myself.

These principles – concern for society as a whole, collective responsibility, and so on – are not ones I would traditionally associate with members of the Right. I am increasingly wondering if the whole Left-Right dichotomy isn’t hopelessly simplistic when it comes to breaking down what people actually believe. I’ve always called my own politics left-of-centre but there are a few issues, usually social ones, in which I realise my views are actually quite traditional. My left-of-centreness is mainly based on my dislike of free market economics and unfettered capitalism – but as the economy is the main political issue of our time, that’s the bit that really counts.

Nevertheless it seems to me that, just as certain writers and commentators demonise some ideas in such a way as to discourage people from genuinely thinking about what it is they actually objecting to (the transformation of concepts such as Human Rights, Health and Safety, and Political Correctness into straw-men targets to be reflexively abjured), so the very left-right idea can be a barrier to people with useful and valuable things to say to each other actually communicating. Empty tribalism gets in the way.

I turned up to the event as a Don’t Know, but left in provisional agreement with prohibition. Howard Marks was amusing and memorable but, truth be told, Peter Hitchens was genuinely impressive throughout, not least during his final contribution. Challenged to justify why a potentially harmful drug like cannabis should be banned while two definitely dangerous ones remain on sale legally, Hitchens rose to his feet and for the first time we got some of the passion and force that suffuses most of his columns in the MoS. Again, what he says makes sense: ‘we have two dangerous legal drugs already, so why not add a third?’ is an absurd position to take. ‘You may say there is only a chance that cannabis will cause you harm, but should you be one of the unfortunates whose mental health is damaged by this drug – that would not be a chance, my dear sir, that would be a catastrophe for you and for everyone who loves you!’ It’s an electric moment and at its conclusion Hitchens flops back into his seat, not making eye contact with anyone. It’s the only time he seems genuinely angry all evening.

It’s been a stimulating evening and has caused me to question my own beliefs in some detail – perhaps it’s too easy to hide behind abstract principle when there are issues of people’s real lives to take into account. In the end, feeling it’s only good manners, I pick up a copy of Hitchens’ book and – seeing as I’m there – attach myself to the queue to get Mr H to sign it himself. The queue to have copies of Howard Marks’ Book of Dope Stories autographed is much longer; Marks’ microphone is still live and rumblings and mutterings and excerpts from startling anecdotes are randomly emerging from the speakers.

Nevertheless, Hitchens signs the book and we shake hands. ‘I disagree with you on a lot of things,’ I say, ‘but I’m always interested in hearing what you have to say, and I have a lot of respect for you as a thinker and a writer.’

Peter Hitchens’ eyes widen. Could these words have moved him? Could this be the beginning of the washing away of the old left-right dichotomy? Could we be about to forge a bold new intellectual axis which will reshape British politics for generations to come?

‘I’m sorry,’ he says in the gentlest and mildest of voices, gesturing to the amplifier behind his head. ‘But I couldn’t hear a word you said.’

Oh well, can’t win ’em all. British politics will have to stumble on as before.

Read Full Post »

And now, to coin a phrase, for a little bit of politics. One of the more startling NCJG moments of 2012 to date came round about Easter-time when your correspondent found himself embroiled in a rigorous and yet terribly polite discussion with none other than Mr Peter Hitchens, the noted Mail on Sunday columnist, author, and ‘maniac’ (according to the Rt. Hon. David Cameron), as an indirect result of my seeing him in the street in Oxford.

I know what you must be thinking, and I too was startled to learn that Mr H was a reader of this here blog. Much thought on this topic has led me to conclude that one of three possibilities must be true – a), Mr H, when not bewailing the state of the nation, is very keen on reading semi-comic film reviews, accounts of wargaming disasters, and waffle about cult TV programmes; b), Mr H googles himself on a regular basis (don’t think too harshly of him, we’ve all been there); or c), he came across it in some other fashion which is less potentially amusing but also less likely to provoke a writ.

Anyway, since that point I have occasionally seen Mr H out and about around Oxford, always in roughly the same neighbourhood of the city centre, often upon his bicycle but never appearing to particularly enjoy riding it very much. Then again, to my mind Mr H never gives the impression of enjoying anything very much, although he has assured me he enjoys arguing with people (which some might say was just as well, given the nature of the beliefs he shares with the public with such dedication).

I would probably not go so far as to say I actually like Mr H, as we are just a bit too far apart on the political spectrum, but close reading of his works has left me with a definite respect for his intelligence and integrity, and it does occur to me that the reason why he is so execrated in certain circles is not what he says but the manner in which he says it: not so much the message but the medium. In any case, the news that Mr H was scheduled to make a proper public appearance in my adopted home city was cause for much pricking up of ears in the garret.

The reason for this is, of course, that Mr H has a new book out which I suppose I am obliged to plug. Ahem: said tome is The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs. The main thrust of Mr H’s latest opus really doesn’t need much more explication from me, which is just as well as I’ve no intention of actually buying or reading the thing – you can sort of work out the gist from the title.

Now, rather than just letting Mr H stentorianly … you know, I’ve been on holiday, so I’m perhaps a bit rusty, but I can’t for the life of me think of an adequate verb to describe the way our man expresses himself… rather than just letting Mr H do his thing to a crowd (who may well have been frisked on the way in for rotten vegetables, etc), possibly with the odd selected reading from the book in question, what we have to look forward to is in fact a debate on British drugs policy, with Mr H naturally speaking in favour of total abolition.

Possibly rather mischievously, the good people at Waterstone’s (hosting the event) have recruited, to speak in favour of recreational drugs, the author, commentator and convicted drug dealer Howard Marks (aka Mr Nice). It says something about the status of Mr H in the public eye that, in a confrontation with a convicted criminal with past connections to the Mafia, the Yakuza, and the IRA, for many people he will still be the bad guy.

This baffles me a bit, probably because I am generally dubious about the cult of the celebrity criminal: a modern phenomenon I genuinely can’t understand. I actually know very little about Howard Marks, and have never really had any interest in learning more. I will be very surprised if he has the kind of intellectual firepower to seriously contest the issue with Mr H.

The set-to isn’t until Thursday night so I have no idea how things are going to unfold. My prediction is that Mr H will be proceeding from a position of principle, while Howard Marks will be rather more pragmatic.

Personally, my own views on the drug question are as follows. Currently we’re in a situation in most countries where there are a multiplicity of recreational drugs available, some of which are legal and some of which are not. Quite where you drop the legal barrier, in terms of which are which, is what interests me: tradition and precedent, to me, are not sufficient grounds for maintaining such a ban.

Most people, hearing the word drugs in this context, won’t think of nicotine and alcohol simply because they are legal – even though they are both potentially harmful and, certainly in the latter case, the cause of much social ill. And – to paraphrase Bill Hicks, someone who always struck me as a source of much wisdom on this topic (if only Bill was around to debate Hitchens – he would only have been 50, if he were still with us) – if you give one room of people unlimited alcohol, and the one next door unlimited cannabis, everyone knows which will be the most pleasant room to be in two or three hours down the line.

In short, go ahead and ban cannabis and mushrooms, but if you’re going to do that you really need a rock-solid argument as to why you shouldn’t also prohibit the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. And I’ve never heard one yet. Maybe Mr H will be the man to produce one this week; I am curious to see if he does. In any case, I will let you know how it all kicks off and which telling blows, if any, get landed by the literary gladiators. Should be a memorable confrontation no matter how it turns out.

Read Full Post »

A rare collision of different blog strands tonight, as another silly old film review collides with one of my vague and unhelpful disquisitions on the playing, or not, of the ukulele. This is probably more interesting to followers of the latter than the former, simply because Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher’s Mighty Uke is being released into the world one cinema at a time – or, to put it more accurately, the film-makers are taking it on tour.

I knew that this groundbreaking uke-umentary was only making a single appearance in Oxford. This in itself seemed uncannily well-timed as I only learned of it within hours of taking up the uke myself. While I was also aware of the events supporting the showing, I didn’t know quite what an unusual evening this was to be. I was standing in the ticket line when a disparate group in matching t-shirts arrived and introduced themselves to the Phoenix staff with cheery cries of ‘We’re the Mighty Uke people!’ You don’t get that down the local Odeon.

So I took my place in the theatre, looking around surreptitiously for ukes amongst the crowd (I had, of course, brought my own), but was interrupted by the appearance of a stocky Canadian in a cap in front of the screen. Rather to my surprise this turned out to be the film’s director, Tony Coleman: the ‘Mighty Uke people’ were not particularly rabid fans of the movie, but the actual film-makers themselves. Having the director turn up in person and thank you for coming is a very gratifying experience, and I’m surprised more movies don’t arrange something similar. With the way the evening would go having been explained, the film rolled.

Coleman and Meagher’s film is about the ukulele; partly the history of this remarkable instrument, but mainly concerned with the current boom in its popularity. They set their cards on the table from practically the first sequence, which portrays the celebrated uke soloist Jake Shimabukuro in action: suspicions that anyone involved is going to treat the ukulele as a joke or in a remotely condescending manner at utterly blown away.

From hereon the movie proceeds at a fairly brisk trot for the rest of its 80-minute running time, starting by covering the extent of the current ukulele boom (players from as far afield as Japan and Israel make an appearance), and the reasons for its popularity. The ease of starting to play is, rightly, addressed, along with the pleasingly low expectations surrounding the instrument (both reasons why I myself took up the uke).

After this there is a lengthy segment on the history of the instrument, beginning in Hawaii in 1879 and proceeding through the 20th century, and interviews with notable players both past and present (one of whom, the 103-year-old veteran Bill Tapia, died only days before the screening I went to). These run the gamut from traditional folksy performers, to singer-songwriter Uni and her Ukulele, to Jon Braman (an extraordinary hip-hop ukulele player from New York), to Scandinavian punk uker Elvira Bira, and finally to the Canadian virtuoso James Hill whose talents on the instrument almost seem to defy logic.

From hereon the movie segues again, to look at one of Canada’s most distinguished ukulele groups, the Langley Ukulele Ensemble (of which Hill is an alumnus) and their almost insanely enthusiastic teacher. Needless to say their skills are such that every summer they play a residency in Hawaii, and the film follows them on one such trip.

British audiences will no doubt have one major question: and the answer is, yes, George Formby does appear in the film – but we hardly get to hear that legendary right hand in action, doubtless for rights clearance reasons. The same presumably explains the omission of other noted performers such as the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain or Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. There’s hardly any Jake Shimabukuro in it either, really – the only modern great who gets serious screen-time is Hill, frequently described as the world’s greatest ukulele player, who was clearly heavily involved with the production behind-the-scenes.

Hill has a point when he talks about the extraordinary musical sleight-of-hand a well-played ukulele is capable of – the sounds it generates seem so far in excess of what the musician is doing to it – but I think the appeal of the instrument is far simpler. It’s impossible to listen to decent uke music without feeling just a tiny bit uplifted and cheered, and the sound of massed ukes playing together is, quite simply, absurdly joyous.

A wise man (not me) has said that a great documentary makes you interested in a topic you knew nothing about previously. As a uke player myself, I was probably always going to enjoy a film which celebrated the instrument, but even so I think this is a great little film. I don’t think it’s perfect – the structure doesn’t lend itself to much of a climax and the film seems to stop rather abruptly – but another wise man (and this time it was me) has commented on the suicide-inducing qualities of most allegedly ‘feel good’ movies: I’ve never seen Mighty Uke described in those terms, but for me this was one of the most simply enjoyable films I’ve seen all year.

And the evening did not conclude with the end of the film – following a short intermission, we moved forward to cram the front two or three rows of the theatre, as James Hill himself was accompanying the tour and performed a brief set with his accompanist, the cellist Anne Davison. When not telling fairly droll anecdotes about being interned in Singapore on suspicion of having bird flu, Hill showed off his own skills and the versatility of the uke by playing folk songs, jazz, original compositions, and then rounding off with his celebrated arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, playing percussion, rhythm and melody simultaneously on a single uke. One of the most astounding pieces of musicianship I’ve ever seen.

Finally, there was the promised ukulele jam, and it seemed that most of the crowd had brought their own ukes. (Another thing you don’t get down the Odeon – though I suspect if I turned up to the latest Twilight and started strumming along to the action I would be bodily ejected from the showing.) My Makala MK-SC seemed very humble given the distinguished instruments suddenly appearing all around, but this was no time for bashfulness. The sound of twenty-five ukuleles and a cello tuning up simultaneously is not one which is easily described, and only added to my concern that the A-string on my own uke is an octave low, but then the assembled ukes and their players launched into a couple of simple songs, led by Hill (performing a strange human semaphore to indicate chord changes). This was a strangely transcendent moment for me in my playing; the duff noises coming off the A-string and my tendency to get my strumming finger tangled on the upstroke suddenly seemed quite inconsequential (although my inability to get from G to D minor cleanly was more of an issue).

Too soon it was over and we all wafted out of the theatre in a state of elation, united by our affection for the uke. Much to my delight I made the acquaintance of a group of Oxford-based ukers and with any luck I will not be labouring in isolation for very much longer. A good movie, a great experience, and the best night out I’ve had in a long time.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »