The Thespian Life.

I was fully expecting the world of Am Dram to be populated by the sort of characters you find in Alan Ayckbourn plays. There would be a grande dame figure called Pat (half-moon spectacles on a chain, voluminous paisley shawl), with a serenely magisterial air; everyone would be secretly a little bit in awe of her. (“You’d have to check that over with Pat, I’m afraid.“) There would be a “character actor” called Bernard, who would be given a Comedy Turn cameo role in every production; he would play all of these parts in exactly the same hammed-up way, mugging furiously to his loyal crowd in the audience. (“Good old Bernard – couldn’t have a show without him.“) There would be a slavishly self-martyring borderline hysteric called Hilary (Costume Department), who would rail constantly about having to do ALL THE WORK, with NO SUPPORT and PITIFUL RESOURCES, and absolutely NO THANKS AT THE END OF THE DAY FROM ANYONE. The stage manager would be a surly sociopath, answerable to no-one. There would be a subtle but rigidly stratified order of precedence amongst the actors – in effect, a miniature Star System – with an inner clique of three or four players who would constantly bag the best roles, to much furious sotto voce mutterings from the rest of the company. (“Well, I think we all know why Rupert gave the part to Helena, don’t we? I mean, I don’t deny that she’s a very pretty girl, but really…“)

To this effect, I have been pleasantly surprised. Everyone involved in this production has been – well – normal, and nice, and unpretentious, and socially skilled, and welcoming, and co-operative, and mutually supportive, and all of that. Who knew?

The constantly nagging question of the past three or four weeks: why haven’t I been doing this before? Why has it been eighteen years since I last acted? (Not even K has seen me on stage.) This – the acting – is actually one of the few things which I can do reasonably well. How ridiculous to have let it slip. I can’t begin to understand it.

I seem to be better at it this time round, as well. Back then, in the days of University Dramsoc, with all of its intimidatingly faux-soignee Crispins and Portias and Ramsays and Dinahs and Dominics, my self-subordinating timidity could hold me back. Besides, how much did any of us really know about the intricacies and nuances of adult human behaviour? Too many times, we would fall back on Doing It Like We’ve Seen It On The Telly – or else we’d come over all self-consciously Art-ay, in a kind of clueless sub-Samuel Beckett way. Whereas now, despite playing a deliberately stock character – the Camp Stereotype – I can work from real life observation, rather than guesswork and second hand imitation. He could have been James Dreyfuss, or Kenneth Williams, or Brian Dowling, or “Just Jack”, or Graham Norton, or any of the rest of them, but no – my little “Lexis” is his very own special creation, Lord love him.

To this end, Buni and I went out and conducted some Field Research a few weeks ago. In the Lord Roberts and @D2 (our local midweek gay venues), we trained our eyes on all the trashy queens, and solicited advice from all and sundry. What would he wear? How would he sit? How would he hold his cigarette? We tuned ourselves into the prevalent look: low-slung, distressed, “extreme boot cut” jeans (“flares” to you and me), mussed-up “fin” hairdos with the blonde highlights growing out, metal chains which dangle from the waist to the backside via the kneecap, buckled leather wristbands, chunky neck chains…quite a studied, carefully constructed look, it seemed to me. It would probably take hours to assemble, and much trawling through God knows how many funky specialist shops…

But, no. What I hadn’t realised was this: you can buy the whole look at Top Man. Every last little accessory – it’s all there for the taking, and my word, so CHEAP! Especially when Buni (my newly appointed Stylist & Personal Shopper) presented his NUS Discount Card at the till. Having set aside half a day to turn me into a trashy queen, we’d got the whole thing – including three changes of top – in less than an hour. (“It’s a mid-life crisis in a bag!“, we quipped, skipping out of Top Man together.) The ease and speed with which we were able to do this was both astonishing and somewhat disillusioning. Homogenised Chain Store Street Style: ho hum, how very humdrum. I really had credited the trashy queens with more creativity than that.

All that remains for my transformation to be complete: the haircut and the fake tan. Buying my bronzer in the chemists yesterday lunchtime, the sweet little old lady at the till smiled at me and said: “Ooh, going anywhere nice?

(Good GRIEF. It’s for a PLAY, woman. Because WHY ELSE would I POSSIBLY want to buy bloody BRONZER? Do I LOOK like the sort of person who would turn themselves ORANGE before going on holiday? Are you perhaps confusing me with SOMEONE ELSE?)

And, oh dearie dearie me, orange is most definitely the word. Shiny, luminous orange. David Dickinson, Dale Winton, Judith Chalmers orange. People in the office have already commented – and I’m still only on my second application. Just wait till they see tomorrow afternoon’s Spiky Bleached Fin hairdo. Ooh, there’ll be talk.

orange-dd orange-dw orange-jc

Ah yes: the Spiky Bleached Fin hairdo. Now, I’m all for taking my character as far as I possibly can – but, well, I’m visiting clients in Paris next week, and the flight leaves on Monday afternoon, and the salon doesn’t open on Mondays. It’s a good job that the guy who cuts my hair is an old friend, who might be persuaded to do me an out-of-hours favour on Sunday – because I simply CANNOT walk round the streets of Paris with orange skin AND a Comedy Haircut. At least, not without a sign round my neck, in two languages, saying: IT WAS FOR A PLAY. IT’S SUPPOSED TO LOOK STUPID. I AM NOT HAVING A MID-LIFE CRISIS.

The perils of the thespian life, eh? Still, I’m doing it for Art. So that’s OK then. Because Art trumps Life, every time.

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Things which I never got round to blogging about, even though they happened ages ago, because I am the King of Procrastination. Part 3.

riley01Yesterday, Diamond Geezer talked about the Bridget Riley exhibition at Tate Britain, which ends this Sunday – so I guess this is absolutely my last chance to plug it. (We visited the exhibition over the summer, and both loved it – but I was on Hitzefrei at the time, so said nothing about it.)

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition starts with Riley’s heavy duty monochrome op-art work, with which she made her name in the 1960s. The cumulative effect of these pictures upon the eyes is so physically intense that if you’re not careful, it can actually make you feel slightly sick. Consequently, we both found ourselves staring at soothing patches of bare white wall every now and again, just to calm our poor little eyes down; the optical equivalent of a “palate cleanser” in a posh restaurant.

riley02

Moving through to the “multi-coloured vertical stripes” section, our first reaction was disappointment. “Cuh, swizz, nothing’s happening with this lot.” Because by now, we had come to expect every painting to f**k with our vision, Magic Eye style. Maybe, in the early 1970s, this had become a general expectation amongst Riley’s public. Maybe she had begun to feel burdened by this expectation. Maybe this was one of the reasons why she changed direction.

riley03

Our favourite section of the whole show was at the point where the strict, formal stripes had progressed into curvy waves, containing twists of colour. Warm, expansive, serene, mature, intensely pleasurable, and vaguely reminiscent of late Monet water-lilies in some inexplicable way.

riley04The subsequent “diagonal cross-hatching” phase – although I loved it 10 years ago, when it provided my initial entry into Riley’s work – now seemed a bit stale, a bit over-familiar, a bit too – dare I say it? – Late Eighties Habitat Duvet Cover. On the other hand, that’s hardly Riley’s fault. Indeed, over the years, she has consistently objected to the way that her work has sometimes been co-opted by the world of fashion and style (in particular by Mary Quant and the mods in the 1960s). It’s strange how these shallow imitations have at times posed genuine threats to the purity and the power of Riley’s original vision.

Next, I would have banged on about the Wolfgang Tillmanns exhibition in the next door gallery, but it’s far too late for that now (it shut a while ago). Excellent in a very different way – and in a way which appealed far more to me than it did to K, what with its sexy sheen of oh-so-stylish, aren’t-we-just-living-the-life, bleeding edge metro-homo fabulousness. Anti-glamour glamour, which finds as much beauty in everyday random rawness as it does in studied, posed artifice.

Some of this work had originally appeared in trendy style mags, such as i-D. Did it therefore even belong in an Art-with-a-capital-A Art Gallery? The simple answer: no-one ever seriously objected to a Norman Parkinson retrospective. Or a Richard Avedon. Or a Cecil Beaton. Like Tillmanns, they all dealt in supposedly transitory images, which were very firmly rooted in their own particular time. And yet, somehow their photographs simultaneously managed both to capture that time (definitively, iconically, fascinatingly) and to transcend it. I would contend that it’s going to be the same with Tillmanns. An originator (along with Jurgen Teller) of that whole anti-supermodel “gritty realism” aesthetic in fashion, I suspect that his work will endure for far longer than his detractors might imagine. But, as I say, no point in banging on about that now.


Right at the end of the Tillmanns exhibition, a video installation piece. Inside a large, pitch black room, pumping techno music blared out. Bloody good pumping techno music, at that. Grade A stuff. Mid-nineties vintage, at a guess. My era, in other words. It drew me in, like a moth to a flame, even as K started nervously looking at his watch. (“I’m not sure we’ve really got time for this…“) The far wall was a giant video screen, showing various images of club lighting. The lights were synched perfectly to the music. The camera never panned down to the crowd below.

I was transfixed. In my disco-biscuit-munching Glory Days, I would sometimes – as so many did – “have a wobbly” early on in the night. A sort of mini-anxiety attack. At times like these, one of my best coping strategies was to tune out from the mashed-up crowd around me, fixing my gaze instead upon the light show. I would then calm myself down by focussing all my concentration on the various complex lighting patterns that were being created, and the way they followed and reflected the music – reminding myself all the while that these effects were being carefully orchestrated by people who weren’t “on” anything at all: the lighting jocks, the DJs, the musicians. These were the people upon whom I would then train all my newly minted “empathy” – the sober, straight, creative ones. I found it deeply reassuring that they were all in charge, quietly directing the madness from behind the scenes. Thus stabilised, I would then eventually train my gaze back down towards the roiling throng around me – and joyfully reconnect.

“I don’t feel comfortable in here at all, Mike. Can we go? The riverbus leaves in five minutes…”

Another, deeper, more enduring level of sanity punctured my reverie. Torn by conflicted feelings of yearning nostalgia and slightly shamefaced foolishness – which I covered up as quickly as I could with self-deprecatory mockery (“Good job you’re here – I’d have been stuck in there for days otherwise, haha“), I stumbled towards the light.

Memories of Cerne.

Scaryduck posts about his adopted homeland of Dorset, and sends me spinning off into a nostalgic reverie.

My late grandparents lived in Cerne Abbas, a picture-postcard-perfect village which nestles under Giant’s Hill, home of that famously priapic ancient chalk carving, the Cerne Giant. Every Easter and every August, my mother, my sister and I would travel down from North Nottinghamshire to visit them; an epic journey, which would take us most of the day. Down the Fosse Way, through the Cotswolds (where we would turn off the road, stop the car, spread out our checkered blanket and eat our cheese or meat paste sandwiches), and over Salisbury Plain towards Sherborne. With no car radio to distract us, my sister and I would sing, play I-Spy, or maybe score points for the numbers of legs contained in pub names on our respective sides of the road. (I can still remember the surge of joy I felt as we passed – on MY SIDE! – a pub called The Horse & Hounds.)

Until around 1973, when the level of chalk erosion forced the National Trust to fence it off, anyone was free to clamber up the Cerne Giant. It was, of course, our favourite walk. But oh, my poor mother…

cernegiant

“Here’s his foot! And here’s his other foot! And here’s his leg … and here’s his other leg. OK: you take the left leg, I’ll take the right leg, and I’ll see you when we reach his … what is this bit, Mummy? I can’t work it out.”

“That’s his tummy, darling.”

“But it’s got all funny lines on it…”

“No darling, that really is his tummy. Come on, quickly now…”

“I know! I know! Why don’t we stop and have our picnic here for a change?”

“No darling, I don’t think so. Let’s climb up a bit further and sit on his face like we normally do, shall we?”

It was YEARS before I realised that the giant was sporting a big fat stiffy. YEARS! I had something of a sheltered childhood, shall we say.

The best place to view the giant from a distance is from a wide lay-by, just outside the village. Driving past this spot one lunchtime in the late 1980s, my mother noticed a large group of people, formally dressed, having a full sit-down banquet in the middle of the lay-by. They had erected a long dining table, covered it with a white linen tablecloth, and laid it with china plates, silver cutlery, wine glasses, the full works. Mystified, my mother made enquiries in the village. It turned out that this banquet was an annual event, which was well known to the locals.

Because of its manifestly priapic nature bloody great enormous penis, the Cerne Giant has always been known as a fertility symbol. As such, certain magical powers have been ascribed to it over the centuries. Indeed, legend has it that any couple who have been unable to conceive should make their way, at dead of night, to those very same funny lines on the giant’s tummy – where they should commit the sacred act of conception have a shag. On the side of a hill. In the open air. Lawks! Nine months later, they will be then rewarded with a beautiful bouncing baby, courtesy of the big fella himself.

Which is precisely what the son of the Duke of Something-Or-Other (or was it the Marquis of Thingummy?) and his wife had done, a few years earlier, in a final act of desperation, having previously been told that they were unable to bear children. Ever since then, on the exact anniversary of the shag act of conception, the couple would bring their friends to this lay-by, all togged up, best china in the boot, and they would have this celebratory thanksgiving banquet together.

A few miles away in Dorchester, my grandfather presided over the Quarter Sessions in the local court house – these being the criminal trials which were eventually replaced by the County Court system. Unlike his notorious predecessor, the dreaded (and dreadful) Judge Jeffries (known in the C17th as the “hanging judge”), my grandfather never got to hand out any death sentences – much to his chagrin, I suspect. (I can just picture him with a black handkerchief on his head, banging his gavel, and snarling “Take him down!” in his iciest tones.) A man of robustly traditional views, was my grandfather. After all, this is someone who once opined over dinner that society had been sliding downhill ever since the working classes had been granted paid holidays. Someone who refused to have a television in his house (“the dread goggle-box“), and who witheringly referred to TV quiz shows as “The Glorification of the Common Man“. (On the other hand: he did have a finely tuned sly wit, and was not above affecting a provocative stance for the sake of effect. Not unlike his grandson, in that case.)

As Scaryduck reports, the name of Judge Jeffries lives on in – of all things – a rather stuffily old-school restaurant and tea-room, just opposite the Dorset county museum . On shopping trips to Dorchester, we would collect my grandfather from the members’ room at the museum – where he would be sitting in an ancient leather armchair, reading The Times – and we would take luncheon together at Judge Jeffries. For me, this always felt like a major treat. For my first course, I would be solemnly presented with a glass tumbler of tomato juice, sitting on a paper doily, in the middle of a china plate. The waitress would then always ask me whether I wanted a drop of Worcester Sauce in my tomato juice. To me, this was the very height of sophistication. The main course would be plaice, chips and carrots (I didn’t like peas), and for pudding – oh, joy upon joy! – I could choose a slice of gateau from the sweet trolley. For me, there was nothing quite so awesomely splendid as the Judge Jeffries sweet trolley, where everything was garnished with glacé cherries, “hundreds and thousands”, or tiny little green chunks of angelica. Heaven!

Just beyond the Cerne Abbas graveyard, with the ruins of the old Norman abbey to the left, and the wooded foothills of Giant’s Hill down at the far end, lies the field known as Belvoir. For reasons which I can’t quite explain, but which probably have a lot to do with deeply embedded happy childhood memories, there is something magical, almost sacred, about this ground. It’s where my ashes are to be scattered. The details are in my will. Bury my heart at Giant’s foot!

Conversation with an 11 year old.

(…or is she 12 already? They grow up so fast these days…)

When I get a bit older, I want to be a Goth. I’m going to wear loads of black … black nails, black lipstick … and I’m going to call myself … Tammy.

Tammy? That’s not a very Gothic name, is it?

(somewhat taken aback) But the singer in Evanescence is called Tammy!

[suddenly feels very old indeed]

I really like Evanescence. I’ve even got one of those … oh, what do you call those things where you only get three tracks, and they’re all the same song anyway? Oh yeah … (witheringly, dismissively)singles.

So you’re not into singles, then? What about the Top 40 – do you follow that?

(with authority) I think the Top 40 is really silly. Because there are only about 2 or 3 people in our class who buy singles, and they’re all the same sort of person anyway. What’s that CD you’re playing? Can I take a look?

[picks up Yes CD (“Fragile”) and examines booklet]

Eurgh! They’re all really ugly! (amused) Did you really listen to that stuff when you were young? Do you still like it now?

Yeah … I mean, we don’t listen to it all that often, but when we do … yeah, it still sounds good.

(firmly) I’ll always like Evanescence, and I’ll always like Good Charlotte.

Well, just you wait then. In thirty years time, you could be sitting around the dinner table with your daughter, and she might take a look at your Evanescence and Good Charlotte CDs, and she might say: “Oh, mum! Did you really like this lot? They look really stupid, and they sound awful!

[dumbfounded look – she hasn’t thought of this before]

[thinks: ha! gotcha, little girl!]

“And after the show, there’s the after party…”

I haven’t told you about the rest of last weekend yet, have I? OK, as quickly as I can, then…

After the Stones concert (of which more below), I beetled straight down to Vauxhall, for the one-off The Cock Live event at Crash. Goodness me, but it was Trendy Wendy Central down there. Wacky hairdos galore, and more “ironic” mullets than a man could shake a stick at. Such delicate little hot-house flowers, the lot of them. Could any of them even begin to exist outside Zone 3? Indeed, while waiting for my posse to arrive, I amused myself by trying to picture them shopping for groceries in Ashbourne. It didn’t compute.

Actually, I found this resurgence of wacky hairdos and self-conscious “individuality” rather re-assuring; maybe there’s hope for our youth after all. It all reminded me of hanging out in Berlin nightclubs in 1984. The same stock figures were there: the tight little bopping gaggle of impeccably dressed Japanese girlies – the extra-large woman with the black bob, white make-up, black shapeless floor-length dress and the “seen it all” scowl – the clubland “face” weaving through the crowds with his phalanx of outriders fore and aft (“important clubland face coming through!“), complete with the little wannabe fella trotting along at the rear, content just to be walking in the same direction – one or two token tattooed love gods (for balance) – and the occasional “I just don’t get where this is coming from at all” out-and-out fruit loop (my favourite being the dude in the striped flannel pyjamas, clutching a copy of the Daily Mail all night). As for me, I was more than happy to do my “retired elder statesman beaming approvingly from the sidelines” act. From the Stones at Wembley to this, in just under an hour? Talk about culture clash.

The assembled Bleeding Hedge Poserati had gathered together in order to witness live performances from no less than four Bleeding Hedge Neo-Electro Whatever They’re Calling It This Week acts. First up were Synthetic Pleasures: an arresting looking trio comprising one masked skinny lad in teensy-weensy red rubber shorts, one masked skinny lad in high heels, teensy-weensy black panties, and clip-on braces attached to his stocking tops, and one rather sweet-looking chunky skinhead in a yellow rubber one-piece that can only be described as “unforgiving”. They started shakily and somewhat nervously, but rapidly improved, and I ended up warming to them considerably.

By this time, I had hooked up with David, Luca, Dr. Bitful, Jonathan and several of their friends – although we lost Jonathan almost as soon as we had found him (his own account of the night can be found here). Goodness, the years haven’t been kind to Keren & Sarah from Bananarama, have they? Oh, silly me, it’s The Readers Wifes innit? Hahahaha! (Bitchy observation nicked from Luca. And since he’s no longer able to blog them for himself, I’ll also be helping myself to choice asides from David, and brazenly passing them off as my own.)

All year, I have longed to hear The Readers Wifes perform their marvellous Top 200 hit single, Bitch At The Brits, and they didn’t disappoint. Why, they even had the good grace to perform a Stones number as well (Let’s Spend The Night Together), thus neatly linking the two halves of my night together for me. Much obliged, I’m sure!

I had already seen Atomizer perform once this year, down at Duckie on the first of my Apotheosis Of Blog weekends, and I have to say that the intervening six months seem to have blunted their edge somewhat. A touch of Superstar Complacency had set in, I thought – which is a bit rich when you haven’t even released your first single yet. The haphazard energy and loose-cannon aggression had been toned down, the performance had been polished up, and – most noticeably of all – singer Jonny Slut had put on a fair bit of weight round the old tum. (On the other hand, didn’t I read an article in The Guardian announcing that beer bellies on skinny men were the New In Thing? Oh, I just can’t keep up any more…) “I’ve been on the Atkins Diet!”, he quipped, as he peeled off his top to reveal those trademark blacked-out nipples. That feathery jockstrap (which had impressed me so much in February) had seen better days, as well – it was beginning to look a bit mangey and moth-eaten round the edges. Still, cracking good entertainment for all that.

Finally, all the way from New York City, The Scissor Sisters: a proper band, with guitars and drums and everything. Their lead singer reminded us variously of Leif Garrett, Roger Daltrey and Rik Mayall, only with perfect teeth and perfect tits (when I could tear my eyes away from the heart-meltingly cute, clean-cut, boy-next-door type on guitar, that is – it was nearly 2:00 and the Red Stripes had kicked in Big Time by now). Sometimes rocky, sometimes synthy, and sometimes both, The Scissor Sisters were on a whole different level from the self-consciously outré cabaret nouveau acts which had preceded them. They were bloody good, in fact – and duly went down a storm. (Godness, real live atmosphere in Crash – now there’s a first!)

At one point, as a chugging, mid-paced disco-rock number started up, complete with daft Bee-Gees style falsetto vocals, I thought “Hey, another Rolling Stones song! I am blessed!” Except that it wasn’t Emotional Rescue after all, but a radical re-working of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. (I have since located this on an absolutely splendid new compilation CD called Hotel Pelirocco, which I cannot recommend too highly: Dusty Springfield meets the Climax Blues Band via Add N To X and Noosha Fox’s long-forgotten S-S-Single Bed, and it all melds together surprisingly well.)

Finally, a bouncy neo-electro DJ set from Mark Moore, heavy on the Giorgio Moroder influences, in which seemingly every single track sounded like it was about to morph into Bitch At The Brits. (“Stupid, pushy and needy, Christ! you people are greedy…”) An alarming version of Toni Basil’s Mickey was enough to tip me over the edge and send me running for my taxi. (Me to David: “It’s alright – it’s an ironic deadpan cover version – we’re safe!”)

And after the party there’s the hotel lobby…

Not in this joint, mate. Say hello to your s-s-single bed!

There will be more weekend jinks tomorrow.
(Sneak preview: I got the part in the play. Woo! Gulp!)