Erasure / Onetwo – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Tuesday September 4th.

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

Despite his many visits to the Royal Concert Hall over the years, few in last night’s audience appeared to recognise OMD keyboardist Paul Humphreys, now performing with Propaganda’s Claudia Brücken as part of Onetwo. Despite some initial nervousness (1), their brooding, dramatic synthpop was politely received, (2) with the warmest applause reserved for the instantly recognisable Propaganda classic Duel. (3)

Although they have never won the critical acclaim of fellow Eighties survivors the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure have achieved a similar level of success, on their own terms, without ever bending to musical fashions. You can always spot an Erasure song – but you might struggle to guess the decade in which it was recorded.

For this reason, the duo – Andy Bell as enthusiastic as ever on vocals, Vince Clarke as impassive as ever on keyboards – can easily switch between old and new material on stage, without anyone noticing the join. The new songs may not sell quite as well as they used to, but last night’s capacity crowd lapped them up as readily as the old hits. Opening the set, recent single Sunday Girl (no, not the Blondie number) got all three tiers on their feet, where they remained throughout. (4) Not even the Pet Shop Boys managed that, when they played here in June.

But then, Erasure have always been more Pop than Art, and they’ve never been above letting their audience know that they’re having fun too: the three impeccably glamorous backing singers struggled to keep straight faces during Chains Of Love, and Andy performed old favourite Oh L’Amour as a duet with a fake fur stole called “Mint Sauce”. For beneath all the costumes and camp (paint-splattered suits, ridiculous Andy Warhol wigs, army fatigue cocktail dresses), there lies an unassuming generosity of spirit, which welcomes everyone to Erasure’s party. Long may they party on.

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(Photo by Sarah)

(1) …which surprised me, as I was expecting an assured, ice-maidenly, This Is Art Darleenks performance from La Brücken, who seemed somewhat uncomfortable in her own skin. But then the minimal staging didn’t help, with the three performers merely plonked in a static row in front of a black curtain. Arty synthpop needs visuals, donthca know?

(2) …at least, by those who didn’t start chattering amongst themselves or slipping out to the bar. Nevertheless, album sales during the interval were brisk; I bought a copy for myself, and they were flying off the shelf at the rate of two or three per minute.

(3) …whereas my warmest applause was reserved for their cover of The Associates’ Club Country, played in memory of the late Billy Mackenzie, who would have been fifty this year.

(4) …as those of us on the front row could clearly see, if we turned around. For by a remarkable stroke of good fortune, I was approached during the interval by a nice lady (a very nice lady; she’d read my interview and everything!) who asked me whether I was on my own, as she and her husband had a spare ticket for the middle of the front row.

As my pair of perfectly decent press tickets were therefore suddenly going begging, I quickly dragged Sarah and Lord Bargain down from the vertigo-inducing second tier, and passed the tickets on. A significant result all round, which more than compensated for the earlier frustration of failing to offload the spare press ticket on any of my friends.

And let me tell you: front row seats at the Nottingham Royal Concert Hall are a trip and a half. With no security staff to get in the way, you’re mere inches away from the stage itself, which is roughly at chest height (if you’re tall like me), and hence so close that you practically feel like you’re part of the show (if you’re egotistical like me). The sound quality’s not so great, as you’re practically behind the main speakers, but the compensations are considerable.

(That Andy Bell, he couldn’t keep his eyes off me. I sense a connection.)

See also: Sarah’s photos from the concert (one of which can be seen above), Youtube videos from the Nottingham show (at which I can allegedly be seen bopping on the front row, but Sarah must have sharper eyes than me), my interviews with Andy Bell and Vince Clarke.
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Hallam Foe.

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Way back at the beginning of June, I received an invite to a special “bloggers only” preview, in the screening room of a swanky Soho hotel, of the movie Hallam Foe, which went out on general release in the UK this weekend. Never being one to turn down the opportunity for an ooh-I-saw-it-FIRST freebie, I duly accepted (provided that I could bring along a glamorous lady companion), but remained mystifed as to why anyone would have stuck me on their guest list in the first place.

A bit of judicious Googling led me to suspect the unseen hand of Hugh McLeod at work: he who writes the widely read blog gapingvoid. (You know, the one with the cartoons drawn on the back of business cards.) As it turned out, the hunch was correct. Hugh is an old friend of the film’s director David Mackenzie, and the bloggers-only preview appeared to be some sort of experiment in building a blog-based buzz around the movie, well in advance of its general release. Further to this, an official, regularly updated “making of the movie” blog had been in existence since February 2006, although I had never stumbled across it myself before.

Thankfully, no conditions were attached to the invitation. The assembled bloggers remained perfectly at liberty to write what they wanted about the film, positively or negatively, or indeed not to write about it at all. To my mind, this demonstrated a fairly massive statement of faith by the film’s creators.

Having met my glamorous lady companion (GLC) outside the swanky hotel, we sashayed into the swishy bar, where my GLC kindly got the drinks in: two spirits, two mixers, and virtually no change from a twenty quid note. How exclusive!

What neither of us had realised was that free drinks and canapes were simultaneously being served to the bloggerati in the downstairs bar, adjacent to the screening room. Well, why didn’t they say?

After some difficulty in locating said screening room, we eventually found the vestibule, where a nice lady with a clipboard was ticking off names. I had been wondering all along which of my other blogpals might be in attendance, and now I discovered that, with the exception of my GLC, there were none. This was a totally different group of bloggers, drawn more from the marketing/consultancy/web punditry areas of the UK blogosphere, many or most of whom made their livings from the sort of subject matter which they blogged about. Erk! Eek! Professionals!

As well as Hugh McLeod, who introduced the film and chaired the post-screening discussion, director David Mackenzie was also in attendance, along with the film’s two stars: Jamie Bell (best known for his starring role in Billy Elliot) and Sophia Myles (recently seen playing Madame de Pompadour in Doctor Who). Such exalted company! And all laid on for a bunch of bloggers? Talk about steering through uncharted waters…

And so to the film itself, which began by scoring two immediate massive Plus Points: an animated title sequence by David Shrigley, accompanied by Orange Juice’s fantastic 1980 single Blue Boy on the soundtrack. Indeed, the whole soundtrack – CD copies of which were given away free to all attendees, and ooh look, blimey, an exclusive new track from Franz Ferdinand – demonstrated sound taste, having been assembled from the roster of well respected indie label Domino Records.

In the movie, Jamie Bell plays the troubled youth Hallam Foe: a mixed-up loner who faux-ferally roams around the grounds attached to his capacious family home, with “tribal” daubings on his face and alternately voyeuristic and vengeful fantasies on his mind. His mother is dead, his father has re-married, and his stepmother is a cold-hearted eminence grise who reads his diaries on the sly. A potentially violent confrontation with her in Hallam’s tree-house ends with the two of them having sex (the first confirmation that Young Master Bell is now Quite The Young Man), after which Hallam runs away to Edinburgh, where the bulk of the film is set.

Soon after arriving in Edinburgh, Hallam becomes erotically obsessed with Kate (played by Sophia Myles), whom he spots on the street. He secretly follows her to the city centre hotel where she works, and ends up taking a job in the hotel’s kitchens. In the evenings, he spies on Kate through the windows of her apartment, as his obsession intensifies. The reason for this obsession: Kate is the spitting image of his late mother.

So far, so Oedipal. (And for many film critics, it has to be said: so far, so preposterous.) As for me, the assumption at this still early stage was that we were in for a standard stalker/slasher flick, with Hallam as the twisted aggressor and Kate as the silent victim. All of which was pressing hard on my Big Red Gender Politics Alarm Button.

Suffice it to say that, from this point on, my expectations of both characters were slowly and skilfully subverted, as Hallam and Kate revealed themselves to be more nuanced, more complex, and more intriguingly peculiar and perverse than we had been led to expect. And although many of the same critics have judged the film’s denouement to be far-fetched and unconvincing, I found it to contain recognisable emotional truths, which moved me to the brink of tears.

(Let’s just say that, without wishing to cause undue alarm, I spotted certain elements of my own mixed-up teenage self in Hallam’s character. But not the Oedipal elements, I hasten to assure you.)

Hallam Foe, then. A modestly budgeted independent production, beautifully acted and intelligently directed, which deserves all the support it can get. And yes, I have factored in the distorting effect of the ooh-I-saw-it-FIRST factor…

After the screening, the director and actors trooped back in for what I felt was a rather unsatisfactory and exasperating Q&A session, dominated as it was by a certain self-regarding self-importance on the part of the questioners. This was perhaps only to be expected, given the unprecedented hospitality which was being afforded us, but questions such as “How is blogging changing the film industry?”, and observations along the lines of “Pah, cinemas are old hat, we’ll soon be downloading movies onto hand-held devices, and what do you have to say about THAT?” made me, my GLC, and some of the assembled panellists visibly cringe at times.

Tellingly, when one questioner began by explaining that unlike his predecessors, he was neither a blogger nor a marketeer, Jamie Bell reacted by putting his head in his hands and groaning, with no small degree of force, “OH! THANK GOD!

But, as I say, uncharted waters for all concerned.

The evening concluded with a Meet And Greet Slash Networking Opportunity on the top floor of a swanky diner down the road. Upon entering, my GLC and I headed straight for a table in the quietest corner, which turned out to be rather handily positioned by the kitchen doors. As a result, we got First Pickings on all the tasty finger food, the moment that it was brought though, freshly cooked and piping hot, by the charming and faultlessly attentive waiting staff. Sod the networking, this was a Major Result.

We stayed put for the duration, locked in conversation, and ended up mingling with no-one (although I did get to chat earlier with Gia Milinovich, a long-standing blogging acquaintance, and briefly with social software maven Suw Charman). Such uncharacteristic aloofness, especially at a blogmeet, ill becomes me… but then, it really was exceedingly good finger food.