Thursday, 27 October 2011
Some interesting records have made their way into the Oxfam music shop in Exeter of late, prime amongst them being the old 1975 LP of BBC Children's Themes. Full of timeless music from 70s children's TV, this features Lionel Morton and the witchy Toni Arthur singing Superstition (not a Stevie Wonder cover, alas) in Play Away, the beautiful pastoral guitar themes which Freddie Phillips provided for Camberwick Green, its more urban cousin Chigley and the courtly Rubovia, the immortal Derek Griffiths doing his thing in Ring a Ding, Roy Castle telling you what to do if you want to be a Record Breaker, and Maggie Henderson and Fred Harris bringing on the good times in Ragtime. There's also the snappy end theme to Vision On and the whirling fairground organ tune inviting us into the world of The Magic Roundabout. But perhaps most excitingly, there are several Radiophonic Workshop pieces, with Delia Derbyshire's famous Dr Who theme followed by some of Dudley Simpson's incidental music (realised by 'Derek Mill', presumably Dick Mills). Mills also 'realises' Simson's music for Moonbase 3. Another Workshop composer, Paddy Kingsland, provides the theme for Fourth Dimension, and there are almost five minutes of his magnificent music from The Changes, the adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s three novels depicting a world which turns suddenly and violently against all modern technology (when will the BBC get around to releasing this memorably imaginative series). All this, and the Girl Guides singing Kum Ba Yah on Blue Peter too. More 70s children’s TV magic is available on Hey You!, an album of songs from Play Away, with a nautical Brian Cant in rainbow shirt on the cover shouting out the rather rude greeting, thereby losing control of his oars. Brian is joined by pianist and musical arranger Jonathan Cohen, Toni Arthur and Lionel Morton (former chart topper with the Four Pennies) again, and future Evita Julie Covington. Brian sings Hey You! with Toni, and that exclamation mark led me to imagine them doing it in a Fall style – needless to say, it’s not like that at all. Toni's pagan roots show through on the Full Circle Medley, featuring Roll, Turn, Spin, Twelve-Month Turnaround and The Green Man, and on Spells, taken from a poem by James Reeves.
Old fashioned folkie delights are on offer in a couple of 1970 EPs emerging out of Cecil Sharp House under the aegis of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. This venerable institution was founded in 1932, although it was actually formed from a merger between the Folk Song Society, founded in 1898, and the English Folk Dance Society, set up by Cecil Sharp in 1911. Sharp, a key figure in the preservation and recording of English folk songs and traditions, died in 1924, and the new headquarters which was built for the EFDSS in 1930 was named in his honour. In the post war world, the institution gained a rather reputation for being rather old fashioned and fusty, ignoring the more radical and politically engaged interpretations of the tradition presented by Ewan MacColl and AL Lloyd. Rob Young, in his book Electric Eden, which traces English folk traditions and their mutations from the twentieth century and into the present, quotes Lloyd’s amusing dismissal of the EFDSS’ favouring of ‘clodhopping bumpkin folderol’ – which actually sounds like a lot of fun. There was something of a split between the outlook of Sharp and his followers, who saw folk as the music of England, of some collective culture, and the MacColl and Lloyd axis, who saw it as being the music of the people, used to express the reality of their lives. This split persists to this day, with extreme right wing groups occasionally attempting to appropriate it for its own nationalist purposes, only to be repudiated by the musicians themselves. These two EPs feature a number of dances played by The Greensleeves Country Dance Band, led by the wonderfully named Dennis Darke (a Christopher Lee figure, I like to think), which has apparently ‘been playing for dancing in this lively and rhythmical way for some twenty years and is well known in the West Country’. There’s a rather forbiddingly pedagogical air about the sleeve notes, with the tune Princess Royal described as ‘an easy three part dance for initiating beginners into the contra dance progression’. It suggests that this is all meant to be taken with deadly seriousness and places the records outside of the more progressive syntheses of the traditional and the modern (ie rock) presented by the likes of Ashley Hutchings in his Morris On LPs. The EP covers have lovely monochrome graphic designs by Pat Clarke, though, which have been expertly and artfully photographed by my fellow worker (and Doctor Who fan) Kevin.
More Englishness is to be found on the 1965 LP Treasures of English Poetry, which finds theatrical worthies such as Michael Redgrave and Flora Robson lending their authoritative tones to masterpieces spanning four centuries (we don’t quite make it into the twentieth century here). Of particular interest to me is Marius Goring, who played major roles in two Powell and Pressburger classics, as the dandyish conductor of souls between earth and heaven in A Matter of Life and Death, and as the romantic composer Julian Craster in The Red Shoes, who vies with the svengali Lermontov for the affections of the young ballerina Vicky. I also recently heard him reading Mervyn Peake’s The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb in a recording included in the recent Peake exhibition at the British Library. Here, he reads Elizabethan poet Thomas Wyatt, 17th century verse by Robert Herrick, and Blake’s Tiger, Tiger. More poetry of a distinctively Welsh flavour is also to be found on the World of Dylan Thomas LP, which includes extracts from the first BBC broadcast of Under Milk Wood as well as readings from the 1954 memorial concert recorded at the Globe Theatre in London. These include several by Richard Burton, second to none in giving Thomas’ poetry life, who delivers And Death Shall Have No Dominion with mesmeric force, sufficient to make Death itself shrink: ‘When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone/They shall have stars at elbow and foot’. A real oddity comes in the form of a 10” LP from the French publisher Gallimard called Albert Camus Vous Parle. Even my paltry French can figure out this means Albert Camus Talks To You, which sounds surprisingly intimate given the unforgiving existentialism of much of his work. Camus’ vocal contribution comes in the form of a reading from that old Cure favourite L’Etranger. There is also a reading of the early essay Les Amandiers by Serge Reggiani, and a scene from the play Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding) with Alain Cuny and Maria Casares, who played the Princess Death in Jean Cocteau's films Orphee and Le Testament D’Orphee.
More French film magic can be found in the LP soundtrack of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s affecting musical starring a young Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo. This is a lovely artefact with luxury gatefold sleeve, in blue and pink cardboard, with three full colour plates attached, as well as an attached pink booklet with all the lyrics in French with a parallel English translation, which is handy. The whole thing has the feel of a souvenir from a gala premiere. There’s about 50 minutes of unbroken speech and music taken from Michel Legrand’s score, which syncopates everyday dialogue to a jazzy rhythm, occasionally bursting into joyous or sorrowful melody. Film music of an entirely different sort can be heard in Kenji Kawaii’s amazing score to Mamoru Oshii’s sequel to Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. The opening has a booming bass drum and low thrumming drone overlaid with chanting close-harmony voices which resemble the Bulgarian singers of Trio Bulgarka or the Mystere des Voix Bulgares. There is a dipping waver of wow and flutter in the midst of tones held by the singers, suggestive of a glitch. This cleverly incorporates the theme of the definitions of human and machine becoming blurred into the form of the music itself. It’s as if the voices are revealing their mechanical or recorded nature. Elsewhere, the haunted music box tunes (music boxes being a recurring image in Oshii’s films) again introduce this mechanical element. Ringing gong and Tibetan bowl sounds underlie much of the music giving it a ceremonial aspect. This becomes a literal soundtrack to the extraordinary scene in which we see a slow and dreamlike carnival procession in the vast information city in which the protagonists have just arrived, with the high wavering vocals providing indecipherable accompanying mantras. The whole thing ends with a song (in English) called Follow Me, which follows the melody of the adagio section of Rodrigo’s famous guitar Concierto de Aranjuez. This is either schmaltzy or affecting, according to taste. I quite like it. We’ve two John Barry LPs: The Great Movie Sounds of John Barry from 1966, which a side of his arrangements of James Bond music (no vocals here), and another featuring his playfully cool scores for The Ipcress File and The Knack (all moody cimbaloms, airy flutes and funky organs), alongside his more traditionally romantic orchestral themes for the likes of Born Free. The Concert John Barry from 1972 sees him take control of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to play his arrangements of some of his classic and lesser known film scores, with another Bond suite as well as his music for the star-stuffed 1972 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the 1971 costume drama and luvvie face-off Mary Queen of Scots (with Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth and Vanessa Redgrave as Mary) and the 70s TV spy series The Adventurer.
An interesting obscurity from the 60s British jazz scene comes in the form of the rather clunkily titled Curried Jazz, which shows that John Mayer wasn't the only one producing Indo-jazz fusions at the time. A cue seems to have been taken from Mayer, with the band calling themselves the Indo-British Ensemble. The first side features the great trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (actually on flugelhorn here), with Leon Calvert taking over the horn on the B Side. Johnny Dankworth sideman Ray Swinfield plays flute, with Dev Kumar on sitar, Chris Karan swapping his drum kit for tablas, Jeff Clyne on bass and Bill Eyden and Art Morgan sharing drum duties. Track titles like Meeting of the Twain and Looking Eastward to the Blues give a pretty good idea as to what’s going on here. Finally, there’s a couple of railway recordings, with the neatly titled Gresley Beat offering not a hitherto undiscovered skiffle band but the equally exciting sounds of Nigel Gresley’s engines, including the speed record-setting Mallard and the Sir Nigel Gresley itself. The World of Steam, meanwhile, offers you the chance to eavesdrop on express trains on the Paddington-Birmingham line at Templecombe Station, a goods train on the Waverley route, climbing towards Whitrope Summit, and rather more exotically DB locomotives in Southern Germany, at Muhlen bei Horb, in the Black Forest and TCDD locomotives on the Bagdhad-Istanbul line, in the Taurus Mountains and at Yenice in Southern Turkey. It’s like you were on the footplate itself, breathing in the heady aroma of steam and being temporarily blinded by a stray smut.
Wednesday, 26 October 2011
Utopia London is a film by Tom Cordell, shown at the bfi Southbank last month, which laments the demise of post-war modernism in the capital and more particularly the social ideals which drove it to create new, large scale public housing projects. It’s an unashamedly partisan work, a heart on sleeve polemic which never attempts to disguise its partiality. As such, it falls into line with the whole genre of cinematic agit-prop documentaries which have found their way onto arthouse screens in recent years, to often mixed effect. There is always a certain sense that these pictures are preaching to the converted, affirming them in their beliefs, and there’s certainly an element of that sermonising here. It’s perhaps significant that in the list of buildings referred to in the film on the Utopia London website, Cordell still refers to Berthold Lubetkin’s Bevin Court under its original name, Lenin Court. Scenes use found footage to amusing but often rather crudely crowd-pleasing (assuming that the crowd is of a left-leaning tendency) effect. An old piece of comic cartoon propaganda depicting the progress of evolution, with a lumbering dinosaur trampling through the landscape, plays as the narrative describes the return of the Conservatives to power in 1951; A silent film clip depicting a corpulent banker puffing on an oversized cigar offers an absurdly obvious caricature; and footage of lab rats attacking one another in confined cages whilst Conservative experiments and studies into the psychological and social effect of high density living is emotionally manipulative, and seems to draw on the use of such associative imagery for darker purposes in the past. A film with a different agenda could easily have used these shots to illustrate the social engineering designed by some of the post-war modernist planners and architects, for whom the inhabitants of their new worlds were expected to conform to a particular notion of community. Cordell’s comments after the screening, in which he noted that his film was a way of saying ‘fuck you’ to those who rejected the egalitarian ideals which he unequivocally identifies with the large scale post war developments hardly suggests that cool objectivity was ever a major priority for him. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of passion though, and part of his motivation for making the film was to put the case for the preservation of the remaining public buildings of the post-war modernist period, before they are razed like the Pimlico school in Westminster. We see the bulldozers move in to level this building, as does its architect John Bancroft. Travelling past on the top of a double decker bus a few days after seeing the film, I can confirm that the site is now a flattened and cleared blank, the school itself replaced by a purpose built academy run by a trust headed by a venture capitalist and leading Tory donor, with new ideals fit to match.
Alexandra RoadIf you accept that this is a personal film expressing a strongly felt viewpoint (and, indeed, if you share that viewpoint), then there is a great deal to enjoy here. In a way, this is the official version of post-war modernism in London as its architects would have us hear it. Several of them are on hand to revisit the buildings they designed and talk about the ideas behind them, and the extent to which they feel they were realised (and, crucially, maintained) in the real world. The film is valuable in giving a voice (and face) to architects whose identity was subsumed within the anonymous government structure of the LCC; people such as Oliver Cox, John Partridge and Peter Aldington. They all remain proud of their achievements, although in the case of Neave Brown, the architect behind the Alexander Road Estate, often seen as the terminal bookend of the monumental public housing schemes, his walkabout proves inadvertently hilarious. Noting a couple of surly and suspicious kids (probably wondering why a camera is being pointed at them) jumping up onto a concrete wall, he declares in a loud, plummy voice ‘oh look, they’re having fun’. His description of the hard, concrete slopes tilting down towards the pedestrian centre of the estate’s long avenue as making it like a large playground is a little far-fetched, It’s the kind of surface against which heads are cracked in old public information films. Brown does show a wryly humorous side, which is not often associated with the doctrinaire sternness of brutalist architects. Coming to the end of one of the elevated walkways, which projects slightly beyond the wall of the final stack of flats, he remembers one of the builders telling him ‘I know why you made it like that – so you can jump off it when you reach the end’. He does have the grace to conclude that he probably made the whole estate too long. It certainly has the feel of being a world unto itself, with the stepped terraces overlooking each other and allowing little sense of privacy, and it can appear like a labyrinth from which escape is difficult. It was used to ironic effect on the cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Sunnyvista LP, and its rapid fall from favour and fashion meant that it was regularly used as a backdrop betokening ‘gritty’ urban deprivation on 70s and 80s TV. The building has won praise from architectural critics, but few plaudits from social commentators. Jonathan Glancey (who’s a bit of both) remarks in his book on 20th century architecture that it is ‘an extraordinarily powerful, if utterly terrifying, experience. The ideas behind the project seem rational, yet it all seems so inhumane’. With Brown as your affable guide and a bright sun in the sky, you could almost be convinced. But a change of the light and a solitary digression and the atmosphere could rapidly darken.
The Alton West estateResidents of the buildings are also given a voice. One particularly resilient old lady in the Alton East flats shows around and, when she reaches the lobby by the lifts, talks with offhand matter of factness about how this was where you used to find the drug users, and how it used to reek of urine. Another couple of elderly residents in Alton East are interviewed sitting on their couch, with its doily head rests, in their neat and immaculately orderly flat. They provide a rather conveniently conservative perspective with which to contrast the Alton East and West estates, suggesting a class division between the brick built buildings of the early phase of post war modernism, inspired by Swedish examples, and the uncompromising concrete buildings of the second phase, who looked to le Corbusier as their guiding figure. Kate Macintosh, the architect of Dawson’s Heights in East Dulwich, meets some of the people living there as she wanders around. They’re friendly and open and seem happy and cheerful and in their home environment. The outline of Macintosh’s buildings rising in irregular ziggurat masses above the tree-lined slopes of Dulwich and Forest Hill is a thrilling and strangely ennobling sight, redolent of an age when the future was still a place to anticipate with excitement and an expectation of wonderful new worlds to come.
Kate Macintosh's Dawson's HeightsCordell’s filming is very accomplished, making the picture an enjoyable visual experience. He captures both the detail and the wider aspect of the buildings featured with judiciously composed shots. There are also a series of speeded up, Koyaanisqaatsi style interludes which evoke the kinetic buzz of city life. These are accompanied by gentle ripples of ruminative marimba music, a refreshing alternative to the sort of Kraftwerk electronica with which modernist architectural images are generally paired, and an invitation to revise our preconceived notions about what we see. He clearly has a wide knowledge of film history, too, making good use of clips from a number of movies. These include Soviet films from the experimental silent period, including Dovzhenko, Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, and the pupils’ declaration of revolt from Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite. Milling zombies from George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead are used to more ironic effect in relation to the Pimlico School and its attempt to provide a less conventional educational environment. The use of the Alton West estate by Francois Truffaut in Fahrenheit 451 is also shown (and I’ve about the use of brutalist architecture in 60s and 70s SF in a previous post), as is the film’s association of uniform new town housing with passive conformity and more traditional brick-built garden city housing with individualism and free thought. There are also quotes from the likes of Victorian socialist William Morris, Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, German communist martyr Rosa Luxembourg, Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh – and Margaret Thatcher! These give the film a more essayistic, literary feel, providing prefatory headings for the different ‘chapters’.
The Bevin Court staircaseThe film finds its founding figure in Berthold Lubetkin, the pioneering architect of a new and fairer world. The Finsbury Health Centre is the starting point of the architectural story, with the Hampstead modernism of Lubetkin and Tecton’s le Corbusier influenced Highpoint flats airily dismissed as having being built for the wealthy. We get to gaze up at the floating seashell spiral of the stairwell suspended in the lobby of Bevin Court, with the striking 50s graphics of its mural by Peter Yates to the side. John Allan, who got to know Lubetkin having studied his work as an undergraduate, talks about his architecture as art, whilst still remaining practical. The tale is told of the renaming of the building from Lenin to Bevin Court in the wake of the revelations of Stalinist atrocities. The bust of Lenin which was to have adorned the entrance sign was buried by Lubetkin beneath the hall, a ritualistic offering which made it a symbolic part of the foundations. It’s reminiscent of the myth in which the Bran, the pagan king of Britain, instructs that his head be buried beneath the White Mount in London in order to ward off evil from across the sea. Lubetkin is positioned as the defiant socialist hero, with a convenient omission of his later building of the luxuriously appointed Highpoint 2 extension (complete with separate entrances to the flats for tradesmen), with his own self-designed penthouse perched on top. Heroic portrayals are intended to provide inspiration, but are inherently two dimensional, and must needs ignore the more contradictory (and therefore more interesting) complexities of human nature.
Patrick Abercrombie's 1943 County of London planThe story takes us from the plans drawn up by Patrick Abercrombie in 1943 and 1944 for the rational reconstruction of post war London around zones of mixed, low density population and varied housing and amenities, to the popularising modernist showcase of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and shows how the ideas were realised and developed. The Alton East estate follows the Abercrombie ideal of the dispersal and decentralisation of the population, with a mixture of high rise buildings, and terraced house and maisonettes, all on the edge of leafy parkland. Its Alton West counterpoint, built a year later in 1959, is more monolithic and domineering, the separate blocks of parallel flats like great vessels moored at the edge of the park. There’s no denying that this kind of monumentalism became very unpopular, amongst inhabitants as well as conservative opponents of public housing. The degree to which this was the fault of the buildings themselves, or to the poor maintenance and inappropriate housing policies of local councils is still a matter of impassioned debate. The film doesn’t include Robin Hood Gardens or the Thamesmead Estate, neither of which has attracted a great deal of support in the face of the general consensus that they are social disaster zones (although Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and other prominent architects favour its preservation), perhaps conceding that neither will do much for its case. As high rise buildings fell out of favour, due to the hasty and cheap construction methods exposed by the Ronan Point disaster as much as any inherent dislike, low rise high density estates came to be seen as an alternative solution. Which is where Alexander Road came in.
George Finch's future on a human scalePerhaps the film’s greatest success comes not in winning any new converts to the cause, but in its portrayal of the architects themselves. This refutes the oft-held view of them as aloof and disdainful social engineers, dictating the way in which they believed the poor should live and shaping those lives through rigid and authoritarian structures. Such arrogance was reportedly a characteristic of the arch-brutalist husband and wife team of Peter and Alison Smithson, but it’s emphatically not a quality found in any of the architects we meet here. Particularly engaging is George Finch, a raffishly elegant figure in his pink shirt, white scarf and peaked cap. He guides us round his point positioned blocks of flats in Cotton Gardens and introduces himself to the receptionist at the Brixton Recreation Centre (recreation is a feature incorporated into all of his buildings, in line with the 60s anticipation of a leisure society) as the person who designed the building. His line drawings of his buildings, complete with charming figures of all ages mixing together and having fun, and with the odd aeroplane which looks like it’s been folded out of paper soaring overhead, sums up the bright and human future he envisaged better than any more precisely delineated architectural design ever could (and I'm sure Finch has included a hidden door which leads to adventure somewhere). It's like the bustling and happy world of Mr Benn's Festive Road transposed to the age of the high rise estate. All of these architects still cherish the ideals which they held, and mourn their loss from the world. Kate Macintosh was on hand for the Q&A session after the screening to affirm her own beliefs in the social value of architecture, and was joined by Cordell and Owen Hatherley. I would have liked to hear more of what Hatherley had to say; his blog Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy is always witty and engaged on the subject of modern architecture (and on other matters which occupy him, too). Unfortunately, as tends to be the case when lefties gather in any number, the session was taken over by a series of people in the audience who were more interested in delivering lengthy testimonies as to their own beliefs and the way in which they had put them into practice than with asking the panel any questions. I soon tired of this righteous exchange of mutual self-affirmation and quietly exited into the South Bank night.
The word utopia is a hard one to pin down. Deriving from the ancient Greek, it can, according to interpretation, mean the good place or no-place (or perhaps both). It’s an ideal plan or social thought experiment which tends to harden into oppressive forms as soon as it’s actually constructed or imposed. No matter how hard you try to wish it into being, Utopia can ultimately be found nowhere, least of all in London town. But the buildings which manifest the particular post-war moment of utopian dreaming in the capital deserve reassessment, whatever their flaws. Utopia London puts their case with conviction and a great deal of heart.
Monday, 24 October 2011
The Neil Innes Night a the bfi Southbank last month was a part of the Flipside strand of programming, a nook for film and TV from post-war Britain which has a cultish sheen and which has, for one reason or another, fallen into obscurity and neglect. As curated by hip bfi archivists Vic Pratt and William Fowler, it has spawned an eclectic dvd catalogue, which has just been re-released in its entirety (to date) in dual dvd/blu-ray editions. The evening was also shoehorned into the month long Scala Forever season, fitting in with the old Kings Cross repertory cinema’s fondness for oddball artists, offbeat imagination and colourful pop surrealism, as well as its penchant for 60s and 70s retro before it gained the widespread currency it now enjoys. Neil Innes is neither obscure nor someone stuck in the past, of course, and was present on the night to prove it. He is not always given his due as a prominent part of the continuum of quintessentially British comic surrealists. This is partly perhaps because of his eclecticism and ability to absorb and wittily recast the work of others, and partly because, as a person, he is very balanced and evidently quite sane, with none of the cultivated eccentricity or ingrained oddness which often seems required of comic icons. The esteem in which he held many treasured British eccentrics, who were often fairly marginal figures at the time, was made explicit in his series The Innes Book of Records, which featured regular guests, who appeared with little fanfare as part of the ongoing associative progress of the show. Old Bonzo Dog Bandmate Vivian Stanshall was given space to air some of his intricately punning semi-Joycean prose, and it was here that I first came across the likes of John Cooper Clarke and Ivor Cutler, who made an immediate and lasting impression. As I remember, Ivor did his routing about Gruts, and Clarke rattled through Chickentown, each sentence beginning with a slightly toned down ‘bloody’. Much of Innes’ work onscreen is currently available only in random fragments trawled up from Youtube, which made this evening, gathering together the various threads of his performing life, particularly welcome.
We started the programme with How Sweet To Be An Idiot from the Innes Book of Records, in which Neil played the yellow duck-hatted clown, wandering through an exhibition of surrealist art (which sets the tone for the series as a whole), bestriding a model village, looking at the animals in Bristol Zoo surrounded by raucous children, and riding the vertiginous, water-driven cliff railway connecting Lynton and Lynmouth on the North Devon coast. Oasis borrowed heavily from this song for Whatever, as DJ Simon Mayo demonstrated by playing them back to back on his show. Innes’ agent promptly got on the case, and he (Neil, not the agent) now has a co-writing credit, which must earn him a few welcome extra pennies.
Choreographed head revolutions - Music for Head BalletThe Bonzo Dog Band were an obvious focal point, with a rare chance to see the amateur film The Adventures of the Son of Exploding Sausage. It’s fair to say that this is one for the fans, consisting of little more than aimless goofing about whilst the band were ‘getting it together in the country’ at an old farmhouse during the rehearsals for what became the Keynsham album. Still, Neil sports his stylish, wide-brimmed, pastel felt hat, Viv shows off his sporting prowess with a giant beachball (a disavowal of any autobiographical elements in Sport, the Odd Boy?), and we get to see Roger Ruskin Spear’s perpetual bubble blowing automaton (used, naturally enough, during renditions of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles). Music for Head Ballet is a piece of choreographed (roughly) deadpan headturning, the Bonzos turning themselves into impassive automata, whilst Equestrian Statue finds our merry troubadours raiding the dressing up chest and cavorting around what looks like Hampstead Heath. Hooray!
There’s a lengthy extract from a 1975 Rutland Weekend Television show, in which The Old Grey Whistle Test was parodied as The Old Gay Whistle Test (not the height of sophistication, I know). Eric Idle made for a hilariously earnest Whispering Bob Harris, greeting everything with a ‘wow, great’, and the cosmic prog noodling of Toad the Wet Sprocket was spot on (didn’t sound half bad, actually). Neil stepped up to the mic for a take off of glam rock, fronting a band called Sprint (‘on the Abbatoir label’) performing at the Gerrard’s Cross Festival with a number called Bandwagon. The song demonstrated Innes’ fine ear for musical pastiche, which had already been evident in the Bonzo days (Equestrian Statue is a great take on toytown psychedelia). This came to the fore with his emulation of Beatles songs for the Rutles, a prefab band often described as sounding more like the Beatles than the Beatles did themselves. We saw the ‘re-union’ video from 1996 of the song Shangri-La, with its host of celebrity vocalists and look-alikes gathering for the final Hey Jude-style singalong. Neil denied claims that he had mistaken the Elizabeth Taylor impersonator for the real thing. He also revealed that George Harrison (who produced and played an in-disguise role in the film) was fine about the Beatles parody songs, although when he heard With A Girl Like You, he commented ‘that one’s a bit close’. He may have been bearing in mind his recent travails over the Chiffons’ claim that My Sweet Lord had plagiarised their old hit He’s So Fine. Someone apparently told Neil that they had heard John Lennon wandering along the New York streets toward his apartments in the Dakota Building singing the Rutles song Cheese and Onions to himself, so it would seem that he was not averse to Innes’ pastiche of his style. Innes played Ron Nasty, the Lennon figure, in The Rutles film, and Cheese and Onions (do I have to spell it out?) is a perfect distillation of his psychedelic period dream songs. In this context, the ’96 reunion (timed to coincide with the Beatles Anthology archive releases) becomes quite affecting, with Ron’s presence unsentimentally (well, he is called Nasty) imagining a celebration in which Lennon might have participated, had he been so inclined by this point. However, Eric Idle, who played Dirk McQuickly, the Paul McCartney figure, didn’t take part in the video, so there was an equivalent absence.
Neil’s talent for pastiche was also on display in Protest Song, the number from the 1976 Pleasure at Her Majesty’s concert, taken from an edition of the BBC Omnibus arts programme. Here he takes off protest era Bob Dylan, complete with excruciating harmonica breaks. Put alongside his epically painful guitar mangling sole in the middle of the Bonzo’s Canyons of Your Mind, this shows how a very talented musician can somehow manage to make himself sound completely hopeless (not an easy feat, I’m sure). The pastiching of various musical styles, along with a love of surrealism and a sidewise satirical perspective on the modern world, led someone in the audience to ask Neil whether he felt any affinity with or was influenced by Frank Zappa. He affirmed that he loved the Mother’s records from the 60s, especially We’re In It For the Money, with its air of real social engagement giving bite and focus to the comedy. He tactfully drew a veil over some of Frank’s later efforts, suggesting that they were more particularly American in their concerns. In fact, We’re Only In It For the Money is very much attuned to the America of the times, whether that be in terms of hippie conformism, the machinations of power or police brutality. Zappa simply became less engaged and more narrowly focussed, and therefore (lyrically, at least) less interesting as time went on. Innes never displayed anything resembling Zappa’s caustic misanthropy, the unforgiving eye which he cast on human foibles (but never his own). He is more likely to respond to human folly with a wistful melancholia, regretful but not judgemental. This may partly derive from the love of old-fashioned clowns which he professed, as well as his fondness for the great silent film comedians (The Innes Book of Records includes routines which show him playing Chaplin and Stan Laurel). They all tended to shade their personae with a touch of pathos, painting themselves as innocent fools at the mercy of a cruel and manipulative world (the fate of Pierrot in the Harlequinade). Any hint of Zappa’s subversive provocations is rather blown by Innes’ 1977 Top of the Pops appearance singing his Silver Jubilee ditty, without any hint of irony, to a cod-reggae beat. He denied that this was a riposte to the Sex Pistols, and said that it was written at the suggestion of his agent. He brushed the idea aside at first, but then found lines and rhymes coming into his head. It’s a harmless enough song, a catchy singalong which makes Paul McCartney’s Her Majesty at the end of the Abbey Road LP sound like a radical Republican call to arms. Neil’s appearance on 3-2-1 singing an updated version of I’m the Urban Spaceman with light entertainment dancers doing their spangly thing around him was hilariously incongruous, however. The bfi audience cracked up at a particularly cryptic stream of rapidfire word association from Ted Rogers, which only someone who finds Finnegan’s Wake a light read would be able to make any sense of. There were also a couple of his assured and enjoyable ads for Holsten Export from 1980, each finding Neil, in smooth, ivory tinkling Noel Coward mode, and his stoically mute companion marooned in some remote or exotic location, with the awkward encounters related in the song leading to the refrain ‘that calls for a Holsten’. Neil was evidently brought in to lend the lager an air of class, a tall order which he did his best to fulfil. There must be some subconscious association between ex-Bonzos and beer. Viv Stanshall advertised Ruddles ale and Tennents lager in ads from the late 80s (the former drawing on Sir Henry, the latter on his punning Chandleresque Bonzo song Big Shot). The Bonzo’s Mrs Slater’s Parrot also changed its feathers to become Mr Cadbury’s parrot, remaining equally annoying and relentless (he’s ‘the fuhrer’s favourite’ in the original).
Finally and most enjoyably, however, we were treated to a full episode of The Innes Book of Records. Someone in the audience subsequently asked why this had yet to make it to dvd, and whether there were any plans to release it. Neil ruefully replied that it was entirely in the hands of the BBC, who didn’t seem in any hurry to do anything about it. A lot of it was filmed on location on 16mm film, meaning that the picture is not of the quality that people are used to seeing these days, but he favoured releasing it in its original state, without any further digital fiddling or cleaning up, leaving it in all its grainy, textured glory. Each episode of The Innes Book of Records consisted of a series of Neil’s songs performed in character and linked by a framing device which located them in a particular landscape or narrative context. Here, this consisted of an archetypal scene cinematically shot in faded black and white in which an old man pushes a rickety cart which bears an old gramophone along a cobbled street in a poor northern town in the early twentieth century. He stops and picks out one of a pile of old shellac 38, whose labels read Innes Book of Records, and winds them into motion, the needle’s crackling contact with the surface conjuring up the colour films which accompany the songs. Some of these are evidently written with this visual element in mind, music videos at a time when they didn’t have the ubiquity they would later attain as essential promotional adjuncts, and later as primary elements of a pop song (sometimes, in fact, more memorable than the songs itself). Recurring characters turn up from show to show. Here we had the downtrodden, raincoat-wearing everyman (or no-man), traipsing around after his wife and dreaming of a more colourful life, which is tauntingly projected at him from the bright packaging of various products prominently displayed in the supermarket he drifts through. The song which accompanies his daydreams, Et Cetera, is one of Innes’ gorgeously sad tunes, reflecting the yearning ache and lightly ironic shrug of its lyrics, summoning up and dispelling banal fantasies of escape.
Innes’ slightly sinister, white-faced a rouged clown crooner, with his tailcoat, kid gloves and swept back mop of black hair, also made an appearance. He wandered down a wilderness road winding across a bleak and remote moor, singing the ‘we will go on’ song Down That Road in the surviving against the odds Frank and Judy style. As he walked on, disconnected mic cable trailing uselessly behind him, he passed various tableaux of medieval death and plague, as if he had strayed onto the set of The Seventh Seal or Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which Innes was in, of course). There’s a man in the stocks, an Inquisitorial procession, a cart piled with corpses and a skeleton filled gibbet. It’s all hilariously grim and makes the song’s sentiments seem hopelessly unrealistic. If there’s one species of performer whom Innes likes to have a go at, it’s the insincere and schmaltzy showbiz crooner. There was another clip from the 1986 Channel 4 programme Comedians Do It On Stage in which he played a grotesque nightclub singer with prosthetic pot belly and oversized medallion swinging between an unpleasantly wide-open shirt singing the song Let’s Be Spontaneous. Of course, this is the last thing such a singer would be, and it was theatrically repulsive. Viv Stanshall also liked to nail the phoney crooner (partly because it gave him the opportunity to put on his exaggerated ‘relaxed and sophisticated’ voice), which he did in Bonzos songs such as Canyons of Your Mind (which he tended to adorn live, after the ‘I mean it’ line, with a belch or vomiting sound), I Left My Heart In San Francisco (hey, leave Tony alone – he’s OK), Look At Me I’m Wonderful and The Sound of Music. Someone in the audience asked if there was a particular target against which he would like to unleash some real bile – whether, in effect, there was a dark side to Neil Innes? He replied that this wasn’t really in his nature. He didn’t want to belittle or demean anyone through his comedy, which didn’t really extend beyond occasionally thumbing a nose or blowing a raspberry at certain targets. He mockingly added ‘I’m just so perfect’, in this sounded too self-important or -congratulatory. However, if there has been one target against which he’s consistently aimed a mildly stronger degree of satirical mockery, it’s this kind of unctuous showbiz character with their feigned intimacy and false humility.
Apeman (or Ungawa) was another song in the show, with its catchy chorus combining the Weismuller yodel with an uh-huhhed ‘ngawa’, a melding of Tarzan with Elvis. It sees the Lord of the Jungle finding love (‘ape man go ape dancing/ape man stay out late’), settling down and having kids with his ‘ape-girl’, vowing that ‘ape man raise ape family/ape man will provide’. Amoeba Boogie is a funky disco number in which a white-coated Neil shakes his bootie whilst squinting at cell divisions (represented by a bunch of dancing school kids doing their thing and having a fun time, by the looks of it) through his microscope lens. His excitement at all the ‘matter dividing’ gets the better of him in the end, and he breaks out into a few choreographed dance moves with his two female lab assistants. Catchphrase is a mock Top of the Pops performance by a new wave band, with Neil as the gum-chewing, low-hung guitar toting front man in the Paul Weller mode. It contains the line ‘a poet for a lie and a clown for the truth’, which could well be Innes’ own catchphrase. It’s another great pastiche (and a good song), and demonstrates how he is able to convincingly adopt the latest styles. There’s none of the crude and embarrassing caricaturing which many other comics of the time indulged in when it came to punk and new wave. In the Q&A session at the end of the programme, Innes was asked if he liked all of the kinds of music which he took off, since there always seems to be real knowledge and affection behind his pastiches. He said that yes, by and large he did appreciate them in one way or another, and always tried to keep up with what was going on. A particular song could also be adapted to different styles, too. Catchphrase had also been performed in an old time dance band style, he revealed. In another episode to the Innes Book of Records (which you can find via the SHARE site, since it features Viv), Neil sings the old Bonzo song The Humanoid Boogie in a seaside cave as a prancing Scottish Frankenstein’s monster to accordion accompaniement and with yelping backing vocals from a trio of limbless shopfloor dummy busts. Yes, it’s that kind of show. Funnily enough, it works really well.
Neil stayed on for a good hour and a half or so after the programme ended, answering questions fully and considerately and with a wealth of amusing anecdotage. He finally picked up the hat which he’s placed at the foot of the stage, brim upwards in the hope of catching a few coins tossed his way, and exited to warm and fulsome applause, with a hint that he might be found in the bar for further convivial exchanges. It was a real pleasure to have spent time in the company of such an easy going, engaging and down to earth fellow. An unsung legend innes own time, as we all felt assured by the end of the evening.
Friday, 21 October 2011
There was a fascinating programme on Radio 4 this week, The Sound of Fear, presented by Sean Street. It examined the way in which certain sounds, or indeed the absence of sound, can induce a fearful response, and the manner in which artists have used the disconcerting quality of certain sounds to uncanny or terrifying effect. Freud’s essay on the uncanny, or unheimlich emerges as a central point of reference, with its exploration of disturbing encounters with unknown or strange phenomena in literature. These often take place within an otherwise familiar and comfortable domestic setting (heimlich can roughly be translated as homely), and the novel elements are disturbing partly because of their unfamiliarity. Sound researcher Marcus Leadley makes the distinction between sounds which are distorted or warped in some way, but which still have an identifiable and familiar source, and therefore merely produce a sensation of disorientation; and those whose source is unknown, and whose unfamiliarity creates a fearful apprehension of the uncanny. Freud’s essay doesn’t pay much attention to the role played by sound in evoking a sense of dread or terror, and the story upon which is at the heart of his analysis, ETA Hoffmann’s The Sandman, specifically revolves around the fear of losing one’s sight. Unsurprisingly, Freud interprets the idea of eyeballs being torn from their sockets as symbolically relating to a castration complex. David Toop, in his book Sinister Resonance (the title taken from a Henry Cowell piece, played on the strings inside the body of the piano), subjects the story to a thorough sonic scrutiny, showing how sounds without identifiable origin provide the most unsettling intimation that the known world of the heimlich has been invaded, tainted with something other. Toop adds perceptive comments and personal observations throughout the programme, the valuable insights of someone whose innate aural sensitivity has led him to a lifetime as a listener, writer and musician intently immersed in the worlds of sound.
I sense that the idea for the programme may have originated in a reading of his book, and in particular the lengthy chapter Chair Creaks, But No One Sits There. In it, Toop examines the uncanny as manifested through sound in supernatural fiction. He writes about Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, with its full dynamic range building up from the microsounds of busy scrabbling and half-heard whispers to an unbearable, deafening pounding; Charles Dickens’ Chimes: A Goblin Story, with its empty nocturnal church as a sounding chamber for the elements; Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and stories, in particular The Tell-Tale Heart, with its regular beat pulsing to the insistent rhythms of unassuaged guilt (the murder in the story is occasioned by the narrator’s hatred of the old man’s cold, staring eye, ocular and aural terrors once more interlinked); Three MR James stories which involve sound as a principal, premonitory or summoning element – A Neighbour’s Landmark, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book and Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You (perhaps the scariest of all ghost stories); and Algernon Blackwood’s tales of hypersensitivity to eerie sound (or ‘eary’ sound, as Toop quotes Nicholas Royle punningly describing it) A Case of Eavesdropping, The Empty House and The Listener. He notes that, given the importance of sound to the creation of the haunted atmospheres, immanent with uncanny presence, which suffuse Blackwood’s stories, it is appropriate that the psychic detective he created to confront the various supernatural manifestations which he is called upon to investigate is named John Silence.
In the programme, the emphasis is laid more on film than on literature, a concession to a predominantly visual oriented culture, which is a bias the book sets out to counterbalance. Toop talks about the way in which horror films often begin with an anomalous sound, an indication of the presence of something which shouldn’t be there, presaging the onset of a disruptive force. He writes of the powerful use of sound in Robert Wise’s 1963 film of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting, and the bungling of the 1999 remake, with its explicit visual manifestation of the uncanny, entirely withheld by Wise and Jackson, through banally emphatic cgi. He also cites The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of Henry James’ novella, in which a piano is played by an invisible hand in an empty room, with whispering voices and spectral mocking laughter assailing the troubled protagonist. The sound design here was carefully fashioned by Daphne Oram, one of the founders of the Radiophonic Workshop. Here on the radio, Toop is content to make use of a more familiar example, Hitchcock’s Psycho, in order that the shrieking strings of Bernard Herrmann’s score can be played. These alarming stabs are perhaps the best known and certainly amongst the most effective musical expressions of sudden terror. Toop keeps out of the shower, however, and instead refers to the scene in which Martin Balsam’s detective slowly climbs the stairs in the old house before being attacked by Norman’s ‘mother’. Marcus Leadley, a sound researcher, identifies high and low end sounds as being the most effective in inducing fear, with deep rumbling undertones building a sense of undefined, amorphous dread and an anticipation of impending terror, whose eventual emergence may be signified by the sudden leap into the upper register – the harsh, treble pitch of the scream. Both ends of the spectrum affect the body physically, sounds passing through flesh and bone to be felt viscerally.
There are some fascinating insights into the physical origins of human fear impulses revealed by the neuroscientist Sophie Scott. It is the old attic rooms of the brain which deal with fear; the amygdala, part of the ancient lizard core. This is also the centre from which anger and rage radiate. Most fear triggers and responses appear to be innate, a basic set of emotions which are universal across cultures and even across species. The sounds which convey disgust, terror or sudden shock remain essentially the same across the animal kingdom. As Mark Cousins observed in his Story of Film series (when talking about the advent of the horror movie), no emotion affects us more directly or primally than fear. Toop talks of sound being apprehended on an instantaneous and instinctive level before rational understanding has the time to process the information (or before the imagination toys with it). He cites a personal example of having heard a ‘cartoon monkey chant’ like that of the Balinese Kecak chorus in the middle of the night. It was only upon further bleary investigation that he divined its true origins to lie in a fight between two London foxes. The prosaic dispelled the exotic creations of an aurally stimulated mind, unknown sounds sparking personal associations and dream images.
Louis Niebur, a professor of musicology at the University of Nevada and author of the book Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is on hand to talk about the otherworldly quality which much electronic music used to possess (and continues to in some quarters). He points to this stemming from the sounds having no identifiable grounding in the world of physical materiality. Their origins are thus open to imaginative interpretation, and the imagination tends to approach the unknown with a certain amount of trepidation, if not outright fear. The media history professor David Hendy talks about the early days of radio, with its disembodied voices carried across the airwaves. Its development coincided with the post war period in which there was a widespread need to believe in a continuity of being beyond death, so many bodies having disappeared without trace beneath the mud of the Western European battlefields. Sir Oliver Lodge, a pioneer of early radio invention and discovery, about whom Hendy has written, was also a keen believer in psychic phenomena, and was president of The Society for Psychical Research from 1901-1903, and a member, alongside Arthur Conan Doyle, of the Ghost Club. As well as numerous scientific works with titles like The Ether of Space and Life and Matter, he also wrote about spiritualism. In particular, he detailed the contacts he believed he had made with his son Raymond, killed in the war, through various mediums in the heartbreaking book Raymond, or Life and Death (1916). Perhaps he heard the voices of the dead in the sea of static and the aetheric wind whistling between stations, the aural equivalent of pattern recognition which leads us to see a face on the moon or in the grain of a wooden table surface. David Toop also writes about Electronic Voice Production, which pseudo-scientifically holds out he hope that the voices of the dead can be captured on tape. Californian author Tim Powers literalises this figure of speech in his novel Expiration Date, in which ghosts are captured by an elaboration of Edison’s early recording equipment (Edison’s ghost is itself a character in the story) by the predatory living who consume their essence in an attempt to achieve immortality. Toop talks about the impermanent nature of sound, its short-lived existence in time, as imbuing it with an inherent sense of loss, of disappearance and fading memory, and ultimately of death. This leads to the idea that the ultimate sound of fear is in fact the absence of sound. The well-known anecdote about John Cage’s 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber, a room which eliminates all sound, is retold. As all external sound was removed, Cage expected to experience total silence. Instead he heard a high pitched whine and a low, steady hum. When he asked about these sounds, he was told that he was listening to his nervous system and the circulation of his blood. The true sound of silence is the sound of death. Life is sound, so lend an ear and make a merry clangour.
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
We traversed a great deal of ground during the course of this year’s Open House London weekend, from the starkly forbidding concrete canyon of Alexander Terrace in Camden to the cooler modernism and statesmanlike halls of the RIBA building in Fitzrovia; the ultra-modern foldaway one-room cupboard for living of the Lux Pod in Chelsea to the Victorian College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington, once presided over by Arthur Conan Doyle; the London Library in Picadilly, with its vertiginous floor to ceiling shelves interleaved with iron grille walkways, allowing you to see the book-lined precipice above and below to the medieval stone arch of St.John’s Gate, inserted into the narrow 18th century streets of Clerkenwell, and the twelfth century crypt of the Knights Hospitaller’s church over the road; and to the wide rectangular expanse of the Victoria Docks in Newham, which we circumnavigated in the community boat the River Princess, crewed by a disparate parcel of friendly and likeable rogues, from whose decks we could survey the surrounding Ballardian terrain, with its isolated apartment blocks and hangar-like arenas, airport runway abutting directly upon the dock basin and the looming white-walled ruin of the Millenium Mills and its attendant silos.
But the culmination of the weekend was a visit to the Theatre Royal, Straford. We had to fight our way through the milling hordes making their pilgrimage to or pouring out of the new Westfield shopping centre, corporate gateway into the Olympic park and village and genuine ‘retail destination’, positioned to funnel passengers pouring out of the termini of rail, docklands railway, underground and overground and bus route directly into its marbled naves and aisles. As one woman excitedly announced on her phone on the overground on the way back, the crowds were so huge that there was a ‘one in one out’ policy in operation, a form of martial law imposed by the security who are the law in such privately owned enclaves of the city. The theatre and its surrounding companions the Picture House and Stratford Circus performing arts venue can’t compete in terms of scale (or monumental advertising hoardings) to such a temple of consumerism, but it can offer an alternative place to congregate. Set back in the square named after the man who did so much to preserve the theatre in the face of rapacious developers, Gerry Raffles, it’s somewhere in which to find a certain distance from the frenzied busyness of transport cross-connections, the all-engulfing mall and the general ‘regeneration’ of the area.
The Theatre Royal is indelibly associated with Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles’ Theatre Workshop company, about which I’ve written in a previous post. We were there both to see the site of many productions which have now become the stuff of legend, and to hear a talk by one of the key members of the Workshop company, Murray Melvin. Melvin is now the Theatre archivist, a role which he assiduously carries out on an entirely voluntary basis. As he told us, this is his way of saying thank you to Littlewood for giving him such an invaluable education, the Workshop having been his university, and also akin to a family. Littlewood was not the sort to accept directly expressed gratitude. As Murray impishly pointed out, ‘if you thanked her, she’d sack you’. Murray’s hard work can be seen throughout the theatre in the many wonderful pictures of Workshop productions which adorn the walls. There’s Harry H Corbett in Richard II, Richard Harris building a wall onstage in the Lord Chamberlain vexing You Won’t Always Be On Top, Barbara Windsor in Sparrers Can’t Sing and Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be, and there’s Murray himself in A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and donning the pierrot costume for Oh What A Lovely War. Many of these photos are from the Spinner collection. As Murray points out in recorded on the occasion of an exhibition of photographs at the National Theatre of the Workshop productions, collected in a book which he edited, John Spinner was a local Walthamstow boy who shared in his father’s enthusiasm for amateur photography. He became entranced by the Workshop’s performances and began to record them, becoming a semi-official documenter (much about the Workshop was semi-official, with funds always low or non-existent) when Gerry Raffles agreed to pay for the costs of his material. Murray suggested to him that his collection could be taken into the archive, where it would be sorted, catalogued and properly exhibited, shortly before his death, and he has remained true to his word. It’s a good example of the way in which the Theatre Workshop engaged with the local community and encouraged the development of nascent enthusiasm and talent. The Workshop is also memorialised in the new area to the right of the entrance corridor, which has been christened the Avis foyer in affectionate tribute to Avis Bunnage, one of the Workshop family’s most long-standing and dedicated members. You can see the busty costume she wore in Oh What A Lovely War to send the boys off to the front with the promiscuous promise of her I’ll Make A Man of You recruitment song. There are also designs for dresses and costumes from this landmark play, and a picture of Avis as Marie Lloyd in the Marie Lloyd story, a performance which provided the enduring pleasures of the old music hall songs but also unveiled the tragedy of the life which lay behind the limelit mask of indefatigable good cheer and bawdy ribaldry.
The Marie Lloyd Story was a fairly late production in the Workshop’s history, staged in 1967, and seemed to be an attempt to reach back into the theatrical past of which the Theatre Royal was a part (perhaps inspired by the end of Gerry Raffles’ lengthy struggle to buy up the Freehold for the land in which it stood, thus seemingly insuring its future). Murray Melvin took us back to its origins in the late Victorian age. Theatrical troupes often performed at temporary sites or ‘fit-ups’, setting up wherever they felt they might attract a good crowd. One such band of wandering players was the company of Frederick Fredericks (son, wouldn’t you know, of Frederick Fredericks snr.). An actor in his company, Charles Dillon, decided to try and create a more permanent base for performance, thus presaging the Theatre Workshop’s decision some 70 years later to settle down after many year’s travelling around the country. Dillon’s application for a license met with strident opposition from the local clergy, in particular one Reverend RP Pelly, who felt that ‘a theatre would not tend to the moral devotion of the people of the neighbourhood’. He was also concerned for the corrupting effect that theatre (and presumably theatrical folk) might have on the inhabitants of the local Home for Respectable Gentlewomen. As Murray wryly observed, there is unfortunately no record of what the gentlewomen themselves felt about the prospect of this new venture. The theatre opened, in spite of the good reverend’s objections, on Wednesday 17th December, 1884, with a production of Lord Bulwer Lytton’s popular and well-known play Richelieu, or The Conspiracy. The building itself was converted from an old, barn-like wheelwright’s shop, its outer shell essentially retained in its original form, with the front wall intact to this day.
Dillon, whilst he was a seriously-minded and committed actor, proved to be a less than inspired manager when it came to the financial side of running a theatre. It soon passed into the hands of Frederick Frederick’s brother Albert (who happened to be married to Dillon’s sister), a successful coal merchant who had a far sharper sense of business acumen. It was to remain in the hands of the Fredericks family for the next 50 years, and as Mr Melvin pointed out, the double F above the proscenium arch remains as a testament to their central role in the creation and development of the theatre. Albert Fredericks put on a more populist programme than Dillon’s traditional theatrical fare, with plenty of full-blooded melodramas. He also had an eye for innovations and novelties, and staged several dioramas, moving image precursors to the cinema in which lengthy panoramas were unwound before the audience’s eyes, with an impression of life and movement created by lighting pinpointing particular areas from before or behind the semi-translucent screen. A particular masterstroke was the introduction of opera in the 1889-90 season. This proved a huge success with local audiences, which goes to show what a popular form of music Italian and light opera used to be. As a result of this success, he was able to make some improvements to the theatre, buying up some of the surrounding land, shops and houses. Murray stepped towards the middle of the stage (set up for a performance of A Clockwork Orange, with added seating to the rear) and spread his arms out to indicate where the back wall used to be, demonstrating how far the theatre had been extended, increasing the depth of the stage from 18 feet to 38 feet. The new bar to the side of the building (added after inevitable mumblings from the Temperance Society) was built on the site of the old Angel Lane fish shop, and a stretch of mosaic tiling can still be seen delineating a portion of its floor plan. After electricity was installed in 1902, along with a new box-office and panel mirror (now installed in the lobby), the theatre, now under the ownership of Albert Frederick’s niece Caroline, offered new delights such as local variety acts, and projections of bioscope pictures were inserted into the usual bill of popular plays.
The story of the theatre after the First World War is one of steady decline, however. Fires, local and national economic depression, closure during the Second World War, and failed attempts at variety and saucy revue shows all took their toll. There was still the occasional highlight. In 1950, the aptly named Tod Slaughter, a veteran Grand Guignol ham who invariably played bloodthirsty gaslight murderers in the Sweeny Todd mould with gleeful violence, starred in Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of Epping Forest, a performance which was broadcast by the BBC. However, when Gerry Raffles booked the Theatre Workshop in for a week towards the end of 1950 for their production of Alice in Wonderland, the building was in a shabby, rundown state, and things hadn’t improved by the time they returned in 1953 for a temporary 6 week residency which gradually settled into a more permanent arrangement. Murray Melvin joined 4 years later in 1957, Workshop productions of Edward II and Richard II having made a deep impression on him. Harry H Corbett’s Richard was his finest hour, according to Joan Littlewood and others who saw him in the role. After years of studying in evening classes at the City Lit Institute, Melvin was able to quit his job as a shipping clerk when he received a grant to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. But, in one of those instinctive moves, seeming irrational and foolish to others, which fundamentally change the course of your life, he rejected his place. Instead, he approached Gerry Raffles and proposed that he join the Workshop as a student, and was welcomed in to the family. His grant became his payment. All of the regular members of the Workshop lived in a semi-communal fashion in the theatre, which they patched up, repaired and decorated to the best of their abilities, making the most of the paltry funds which they amassed. They undertook all manner of tasks in addition to rehearsing and ploughing through the considerable amount of background study which Joan Littlewood insisted upon for each play. Young Murray was immediately set to work painting the front of the building, followed up by the foyer, and recalled with a barely concealed shiver how everyone was constantly attempting to coax the antediluvian basement heater into life. He told us that when the Workshop actors found out which parts they were to play, they would immediately see who was on in the first scene. The heating was turned on an hour before a performance to warm up the auditorium, and they knew that when the curtain went up, the audience would emit a collective shudder at the blast of icy air which would roll over them. Not a sound to boost an actor’s confidence at the start of a performance.
Murray’s apprenticeship was to be short-lived, however. In 1958, he was cast in two substantial roles which would afford him great critical acclaim in plays by two new writers who gained considerable attention, both for their work and as figures of interest in themselves: the Salford teenager Shelagh Delaney and the rambunctious Irish force of nature Brendan Behan. He was Geoffrey in Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, and the young English soldier in Behan’s The Hostage. His readiness to muck in with the Workshop family may have gone a good way towards helping in gaining him his first significant roles. As Joan Littlewood recalls in her anecdotal autobiography Joan’s Book, ‘Murray Melvin, who had been given a Co-op grant to study with us, was always making tea, tidying the green room, taking care of us – Geoffrey to the life – he got the part’. And it was a part which he would take on to a successful run at the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End and, of course, to the 1962 Tony Richardson film version, alongside Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan (Francis Cuka and Avis Bunnage didn’t make the transition from stage to screen). As he says in the National Theatre podcast, he swiftly graduated from a ‘dogsbody in 1957’ to a feted actor. ‘Wasn’t I a lucky lad’, he comments.
Murray and Rita - A Taste of HoneyBoth A Taste of Honey and The Hostage demonstrated the Workshop’s concern for uncovering and nurturing new talent, whether it was on the writing or acting side. Delaney and Behan’s scripts were used as a starting point for the development of the performance, with extensive improvisations within the cast and discussions with writer and director producing a collaborative work, which was never considered a final version. The performance was always open to further revisions and rethinks, even during the course of its run. Some writers, such as Delaney and Behan, enjoyed such an active interaction with those who would be bringing their characters and situation to life (and Behan used to add his own on interjections, amendments and ad hoc interventions from the audience during his own plays). Others didn’t take so kindly to what they saw as a dilution of their original text, or a co-option of their authorial voice. Wolf Mankovitz, whose Make Me An Offer was produced in 1959, and Frank Norman, whose Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be was also performed in that year, both had difficulties with this way of doing things.
But as Melvin points out in the National Theatre interview, the Theatre Workshop wasn’t a writer’s theatre, like the Royal Court, in which the text was sacred. All elements of the performance were afforded equal import, with the creation of a genuinely engaging theatrical experience the ultimate aim. The way in which an actor moved was given particular consideration, with the ex-ballet dancer Rudolf Laban's theories being a great influence. The conscious control of movement helped to define the character and the way in which they inhabited their environment, and even their speech inflections and tone, and this was very much a part of the Workshop’s creative process. As Murray poetically put it, it was like ‘dancing the speech’. For Geoffrey in A Taste of Honey, he was ‘light and airy’, whereas for the soldier in The Hostage he was ‘down and solid’, his voice lowering in accordance with his physical movements. Joan Littlewood helped him to achieve this heaviness of movement by attaching chains to the bottoms of his trousers in rehearsals. Background study was also an intensive part of the preparation for a performance, with knowledge of a particular milieu or historical period considered vital for expressing the authentic feel of a work. The script of Oh What A Lovely War, published by Methuen, contains an appendix with an extensive reading list of what is referred to as source material for the play. This study might extend to learning new physical skills, such as World War One military drills for Oh What A Lovely War, or bricklaying for You Won’t Always Be On Top, a play set on a building site during the course of which a wall was gradually built up on stage. But all this wasn’t in the name of realism. Melvin is adamant that naturalism was never the aim of Joan Littlewood’s Workshop productions, which always had a strong theatrical element. There was always an acknowledgement that this was a performance, and one which needed to involve the audience, to draw them in to the action on the stage. They never ventured far into the kitchen sink territory so prevalent in the mid to late 50s. In A Taste of Honey, which might be thought to inhabit that territory, particularly in the light of the film version, the characters all had their theme tunes, which they would enter and exit to, sometimes dancing. When Avis Bunnage’s Helen finds herself alone on stage, with her daughter off in another room, she turns to the audience and addresses them instead, as if taking them into her confidence.
Vaudeville and music hall elements were often a part of these physical performances, which also seemed to acknowledge the history of the building in which they were enacted. There was also a healthy dose of cheerful vulgarity (something which made the Lord Chamberlain, still the official theatrical censor at this time, get twitchy) and humour which stuck two fingers up to authority. It’s fitting that a significant number of Workshop performers went on to become well known in film and television comedy: Barbara Windsor, Harry H Corbett, Victor Spinetti, Roy Kinnear, Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce (George and Mildred, of course). All of these really came to the fore in Oh What A Lovely War in 1963, which was a perfect piece for the building, drawing on the kind of popular songs which might once have echoed around its walls, and looking at the First World War from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers who were largely drawn from the kind of working people who came to the Stratford Theatre in the Edwardian era. The screens upon which photographs and statistics detailing the terrible facts of the war projected also recall the dioramas and bioscope screens from the days of the Fredericks family. There’s a sensitivity to place in this and other Workshop productions, whether that be to the character of the surrounding area or to the atmosphere of the building and its accumulation of past entertainments, faintly echoing down the decades. Oh What A Lovely War was framed as a pierrot show, as performed by the Merry Roosters, with rough khaki being donned over the white silks as the play progressed. Murray was one of the pierrot players, alongside the likes of Brian Murphy, Victor Spinetti, Grifitth Davies and John Gower. The songs are very affecting, sometimes bitterly ironic, sometimes strangely tender.
Joan amongst the rubble - but the Theatre still standsMurray emphasised how important it had always been to make the audience feel welcome, to feel that the theatre was their own. They would be greeted as they came in, and possibly even before, as they approached the building. Members of the cast were also encouraged to go down to the bar after a performance, where Gerry Raffles was also likely to be found, and talk with the audience, thanking them for coming. He continues to evince impeccable old school manners to this day, and we were made to feel very much at home. Welcoming us all, he asked if we had all been to the theatre before. Only Mrs W and I hadn’t, so he pronounced us doubly welcome. He asked us what had made us come along, and I mentioned having seen the film of Sparrows Can’t Sing and read up about the Workshop as a consequence. ‘Oh, well done’, he replied, before making sure I knew that Sparrers Can’t Sing (as the stage version was called) had first been performed here. I subsequently read in Joan’s Book that he was none too keen on the film version (which I like), but of course he was far too polite and accommodating to say that here. He still clearly has an enormous affection for both Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles, whilst not in any way sentimentalising them. He does believe that theirs was one of the great romances, however, and it’s clear that when Raffles died suddenly of a heart attack on 11th April 1975 at the age of 51, she was left utterly devastated, and effectively left the theatre for good. Murray sounded quite emotional when he said that they all still raise a glass to his memory on that day, and he always sheds a tear. But the legacy of the Workshop lives on, particularly in the work that the theatre does with young people from the area. We were ushered in by one immaculately stylish young man who has joined the theatre as a result of one of these programmes, in much the same way that Murray himself did all those years ago. He is closely involved with these youth programmes, and you can be sure that he inculcates these young aspirants with the ethos and spirit of Joan and Gerry. And for my part, that sense of being welcomed and made to feel that the Stratford Theatre was a place to feel at home means that I will surely return in the future.
If you want to find out more, you can’t go wrong with Murray’s own short book The Theatre Royal: A History of the Building (yours for a measly fiver), and also the book of Theatre Workshop photos which he edited (The Art of the Theatre Workshop). For those of you living in Devon, there are a number of books in the library system (all at Exeter, but you can get them out through the inter-library loan system). Michael Coren’s Theatre Royal: 100 Years of Stratford East covers the history from Charles Dillon to the era after Gerry Raffles’ death and Joan Littlewood’s departure. The Theatre Workshop Story by Howard Goorney follows the Workshop from the travelling days with Joan and Jimmie Miller (later Ewan MacColl) in the 30s and 40s through to the Stratford years. Nadine Holdsworth’s Joan Littlewood looks at her life and her working methods, and includes a detailed analysis of Oh What A Lovely War. Joan's Book, Littlewood’s autobiography, is a thoroughly readable and conversational take on her life and work. There’s also the CD issue (on the bizarrely named Must Close Saturday label) of the original cast recording of Oh What A Lovely War in the Performing Arts Library, as well as the Methuen published play script (only an approximation of the performance, obviously, as above comments have made clear), so you can sing along to such old favourites as Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser, Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy, I’ll Make a Man of You, Hush Here Comes a Whizzbang, When This Lousy War Is Over, I Want to Go Home and I Don’t Want to be a Soldier. With this year’s Armistice Day falling on the 11/11/11, it seems like a propitious time to resurrect the old songs once more and gain a sense of the tenor of those terrible years.
Thursday, 13 October 2011
The third edition of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, undoubtedly the definitive reference work in the field, has now gone on line in what is referred to as its beta form. The use of such a term means that it is not yet complete. I’ve already noticed that there is no entry for Jeff Vandermeer, or for the New Weird, the cross-generic hybrid form which he helped to coin and to promulgate. The editors reckon that their work is about three quarters of the way to fulfilment, although in its updatable online form, it will always remain a work in progress (and I note with sadness that the entry for David Bedford already needs amendment, the composer having died earlier this month). At 3.2 million words, however, there is plenty here to browse through, and the editorial team of John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight, along with the contributing editors in charge of specific subjects have clearly put in a huge amount of hard work. The authors of all entries are identified by intitials, but there is not as yet a guide letting us know whom these represent. JC and PN are evidently Clute and Nicholls, and I’m assuming that the KN who contributes to several film and TV entries is Kim Newman. This is no doubt something which will be added anon. One of the key advantages to having such a beast online is the ease of following links through to related themes, works or authors. Graham Sleight, on the Encyclopedia’s blog site, points out that the six degrees of separation tendency towards exponential connectivity is in full flowering here, with every entry no more that six clicks away from every other. Well, that’s got to be tested out, hasn’t it? Let’s see if I can get from Samuel Delany to I Married A Monster From Outer Space. We have a link in Delany’s entry to Alien, which takes us to Monsters, which leads naturally on to Monster Movies, which includes a direct link through to I Married A Monster From Outer Space. Hey, that was easy.
Five steps from Samuel DelanyThe thematic entries have always been at the heart of the previous editions of the Encylopedia, and collectively provide a comprehensive guide to the wildly disparate strands which constitute the genre. This is the closest you’re likely to get to finding an answer to the knotty question of just what SF is (and just as importantly, what it isn’t). Here you can distinguish the difference between Absurdist SF, Fabulation, the New Wave, and the playful puzzles of Oulipo (a movement of which John Sladek was an enthusiastic proponent and which, in its very form of self-imposed linguistic or structural limitation, sends us back to absurdism). John Clute’s newly adopted term Fantastika, his attempt to embrace all the subsets of the modern fantastic (of which SF is one) within an all-embracing framework, makes its appearance here. Some thematic areas naturally lead on to one another. The sudden apprehension of the Appearance vs Reality divide would push the newly enlightened protagonist towards Conceptual Breakthrough, a key concept at the heart of much SF. There are several entries taken from the outer reaches of scientific knowledge which demonstrate just how damn strange and counterintuitive the universe can be – all grist to the SF mill. The sensory cross-cutting of Synaesthesia, so memorably conveyed through the typographical eruptions of Alfred Bester’s The Star’s My Destination, and the theoretical paradox of the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment, with its implication of bifurcating realities. Unobtainium offers a rather wistfully humorous definition of a non-existent element which would allow scientists to effortlessly achieve the impossible. In SF, of course, you can just invent such a convenient means with which to build dream futures or speed off to the stars.
Cosy?One of my favourite critical terms from the second edition of the Encyclopedia, Big Dumb Object, is retained, such awe-inspiring but mysterious artefacts turning up in the likes of Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Greg Bear’s Eon and, best of all (in terms of writing, characterisation and story) Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, with its Dyson Sphere (an artificially created shell which englobes an entire solar system, thus making maximum use of the sun’s energy). SF’s many eschatological scenarios are summed up in the entries for End of the World, End of Time, Entropy (that staple of the British New Wave of the 60s), Dying Earth, Cosy Catastrophe (the somewhat unfairly derogatory epithet coined by Brian Aldiss and directed at British post-war SF such as John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids and Terry Nation’s TV series The Survivors), Global Warming and Climate Change (newly added apocalypses). Ruins and Futurity demonstrates the melancholy pleasures of picking through the rubble of fallen civilisation (echoing the romance of ruins extolled by the Romantic movement in the late 18th and early 19th century). There are some great SF neologisms here, too. Kipple is Philip K Dick’s term for the entropic build up of household detritus which occurs with no apparent human input. The mordant word Corpsicle refers to the frozen bodies of those who have put themselves into cryogenic suspension in the hopes that they’ll be woken up one day after the world has all been sorted out (corpsicles play a central role in Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik). The helplessness of such cryogenic subjects would, of course, leave them open to Organlegging, a sinister modern variant of an old-fashioned illicit trade, subject of many an urban myth and often linked in SF to Clones (which have increasingly tended to be used as emblematic objects of exploitation and slavery). A Ship of Fools is a symbolic vessel which has sailed across the ages, and can be easily updated to suit the technology of the times (even future times) without loosing its allegorical power. It could be found in the context of a Comic Inferno, which exhibits the kind of sardonically bitter humour directed at the folly of humanity and the dystopian hells it creates for itself that SF is so adept at providing (with Kurt Vonnegut as one of its exemplary practitioners).
The extrapolative side of SF is encompassed by the scientific scrying of Futurology and Futures Studies, the latter being the currently fashionable name for the former. Personally, I prefer futurology. It sounds more, well, futuristic and exciting. Futures Studies sounds like just another way of predicting market trends in order to pile up yet more virtual wealth, with no interest in modular habitations on the moon or superfast frictionless monorails. The flickering origins of modern, brightly arc-lit SF are explored in Gaslight Romance, Gothic SF, Occult Detective, Scientific Romance, with Steampunk and Retro-pulp indicating their persistent charms. Hitler Wins, Shaggy God Stories, Hollow Earth and Little Green Men cover some of the well worn storylines and plot devices of the genre. Airship Boys and Radio Boys celebrated the excitement of invention and technological know-how in the early 20th century, and included the character of Tom Swift, later lovingly pastiched and updated by Alan Moore as his science hero Tom Strong. The archetypal Robinsonade tale of isolation in unknown territory also indicates the way in which SF adapts older forms for a new age. The themes guide us through the dizzying diversions of Time Dilation, Time Distortion, the Time Loop, Time Stasis and Time In Reverse, help us distinguish between a Jonbar Point, Trojan Point and Lagrange Point, and memorise Wells’s Law, Clarke’s Laws and Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. We are also given a glimpse of the hidden worlds of Wainscot Societies, a Polder (one of my favourite terms from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, with its co-option of a geological term for use as a thematic literary device), and a Pocket Universe, along with those perennial SF misfits the Wild Talents and the Pariah Elite. The darker side of science and pseudoscience and its potential for social control is found in Eugenics and Dysgenics, with its extension into Social Darwinism. Such control could be a part of a Godgame, which highlights the way in which SF has created a modern mythological framework for telling stories about the world, which sometimes verges on or intersects with a religious outlook. There’s an entry on Christ here, as well as on the Matter of Britain and the German idea of Sehnsucht, or longing, which lies behind a good deal of religious yearning. Meanwhile Quantum Computers, the idea of an Alternate Cosmos, and Panspermia and Xenobiology (both great words) give a number of new ways of creating mythologies of creation, evolution and godlike intelligence.
SF writer and critic Adam Roberts handles much of the section on music, and assembles an impressively eclectic list of artists who have used generic elements. These range through the alphabet and across the globe, with Acid Mothers Temple from Japan, Ash Ra Tempel, Can, Pete Namlook, Kraftwerk and Stockhausen from Germany, Biosphere from Norway and Bjork from Iceland, Leos Janacek from Czechoslovakia, the mighty Magma from France (perhaps the ultimate SF band – who else can lay claim to having invented their own alien language), David Bedford, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Fridge, Robert Fripp Gustav Holst, Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, Joe Meek and Stereolab (hooray) from England, and the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane (mutating into Jefferson Starship for the wonderful Blows Against the Empire, an old favourite from teenage years), the Flaming Lips, The Residents, Afrika Bambaata, Sun Ra and Frank Zappa from the US of A. All of whom seem to point to the way in which SF and musical invention and exploration go hand in hand.
The shape and sound of the future - The Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels ExpoThere are a few names which I would have included, particularly from the field of electronic music, which provided the de facto soundtrack to SF and the future for decades. The Radiophonic Workshop should definitely get a mention, particularly as its invisible composers such as Daphne Oram, Desmond Briscoe, Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills, Paddy Kingsland and Malcolm Clarke provided the soundtrack to so much SF TV and radio from the 70s through to the 80s. The way in which their sounds entered the bloodstream of the British people was reflected in the fact that the soundscape composed for the recent British Library exhibition on science fiction was released on CD as Radiophonic 42 (and very good it is too). Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic ‘tonalities’ for Forbidden Planet and Bernard Herrmann’s hovering theremin for The Day the Earth Stood Still should also earn them a place. Edgar Varese’s Poeme Electronique, played through 400 speakers at the Philips Pavilion designed by Iannis Xenakis for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, with projections chosen by le Corbusier, provided possibly the ultimate vision of a modernist future. Also in the 50s, at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center, Otto Luening was producing pieces with titles like Fantasy in Space and Moonflight, which made the link between electronic music and the dream of a future beyond the bounds of the planet explicit. Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon also captured the future-directed spirit of the age. A poppier electronica with science fiction on its mind and in its dreams was also produced by Tom Dissevelt on the records Fantasy in Orbit and Song of the Second Moon (with titles such as Moon Maid, The Visitor from Outer Space, The Ray Makers and Orbit Aurora) and Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley (whose sprightly ditties such as Unidentified Flying Object, Little Man from Mars, Cosmic Ballad, Visa to the Stars and Girl from Venus have titles which speak for themselves). Visions of the future were still being expressed through electronic music in the 80s and 90s, with the Detroit techno of the likes of Derrick May and Juan Atkins, disguising themselves in the dehumanised, android forms of Cybotron and Model 500, and in later LPs such as Jeff Mills’ Metropolis, a 2000 soundtrack to an hour long edit of Fritz Lang’s film. Recently, there have been a number of groups and artists like Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never and Tim Hecker who look back to the rippling kosmische arpeggios and sequenced loops of the likes of Tangerine Dream and Cluster, reflecting a general sense of nostalgia for futures which never in the end came to pass.
Lunar landscapes - Pram's The Moving FrontierThe Czech composer Janacek is included largely on the strength of his opera the Makropulos Affair, which features a synthesised potion which grants immortality, but the Glagolithic Mass always sounded like it could describe a strange geological feature on an alien planet. There are more classical connections with SF which could be explored. John Adams’ Harmonielehre opens with music representing a dream image of an oil tanker taking off from the waters of San Francisco Bay, an idea which delivers a real SF rush. He also later wrote an opera, Doctor Atomic, concerning Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. Two composers who have directly engaged with SF works are Philip Glass and Tod Machover. Glass collaborated with Doris Lessing on operatic adaptations of two of her Canopus in Argos novels, The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four and Five and The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (beware mainstream writers who write SF in which everything is clearly and neatly divided into zones and numbered areas). Machover based an opera on Philip K Dick’s late novel Valis, a book which is part brilliant, part cracked (but which part is which?) Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has also created works such as Io, Solar and Lichtbogen (her depiction of the fluttering, luminescent veils of the Northern lights) using a blend of conventional orchestral instruments (played unconventionally) and electronics. A distinctive film composer who also deserves inclusion is Kenji Kawaii, who has collaborated with anime director Mamoru Oshii on most of his pictures, including Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Avalon and the Sky Crawlers. Oshii himself has yet to be granted an independent entry, and there is no mention of Avalon, one of the best SF films of the new millennium. The article on anime is itself also absent, so this is obviously an area which will be fleshed out in due time. As far as pop and rock are concerned, I’d add Mahogany, whose Connectivity is full of an old fashioned utopian optimism for bright, clean technologised futures. Pram make haunted clockwork songs with instruments which sound like a mixture of the primitively electronic and the steam-driven. They summon up Melies landscapes and magic lantern journeys, with titles such as Dancing on a Star, Nightwatch, Legendary Band of Venus, Moonminer, Metaluna, Space Siren, The Last Astronaut and (the title of their debut LP) The Stars are so Big, the Earth is so Small…Stay as You Are (originally a line from the Country Joe and the Fish Song Magoo). Whether you want to or not, you can’t ignore Rush either. Whilst other metal bands tend to look to Tolkien or occult horror when seeking literary inspiration, Rush always used SF themes, whether in the nightmarish trip into the black hole of Cygnus X-1, the post apocalyptic car ride of Red Barchetta, their plot-summarising homage to the Twilight Zone, or their prog space opera 2112, drawing on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self-serving individualism to create a rather simplistic dystopia. And if the Human League, then why not also their fellow Sheffield Ballardians Cabaret Voltaire; and if Zappa, then surely also Beefheart, with his Big Eyed Beans from Venus, Sun Zoom Sparks, Neon Meat Dreams of a Octafish, The Blimp, Space Age Couple, not to mention Flash Gordon's Ape. The Past Sure is Tense seems to express a preference for the future. Ant Man Bee and the fish-headed dandy on the front of Trout Mask Replica suggest mutant cabinet of curiosities vivisected hybrids, whilst Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, The Mascara Snake, Rockette Morton and Winged Eel Fingerling sound like the weirdest crew of a spaceship since Captain Lorq von Ray piloted the Caliban towards an exploding star in Samuel Delany's Nova. Air would also seem to fit the bill, and Laurie Anderson has always made music which looks at the world through the curious, distancing lens familiar to SF readers, her songs taking the perspective of an alien looking at the earth and the behaviour of its inhabitants as if for the first time. She’s been a composer in residence at NASA, too, which must count for something. Finally, Burning Star Core and the Exploding Star Orchestra are surely worth a nod just for their brilliant names, which give out the promise of some of the most searing, ecstatically intense music you’ll ever hear. Eat your heart out Disaster Area.
The film section is edited by Nick Lowe, who has for many years written witty and insightful reviews for Interzone Magazine, which sometimes build up to a Hunter Thompson-like pitch of intensity if the mood takes him. The boundaries between SF and other forms of the fantastic are contentious, but there seem to be a few movies included in this list which fairly definitively breach them: the likes of Death Line, Coraline, Mirrormask, the Evil Dead, the Legend of Hell House (pseudoscience at best), My Neighbour Tortoro and Princess Mononoke (confusingly referred to by its Japanese title Mononoke Hime in an otherwise English language encyclopedia). Mononoke does include the development of the early stages of industrialisation as a major theme, I suppose. And you could argue that Death Line depicts the end results of devolution, with the pitiful cannibal on the Northern Line a lonely Morlock ahead of his time. But the Evil Dead? Hmmm. Is necromancy a science? Several of these entries lack attendant articles at this stage, so the writers haven’t had the chance to elucidate upon their inclusion. I look forward to discovering their logic as the gaps are filled and explanations provided.
Entrancing or agonizing?Of the film entries I have glanced at, all have been written by Peter Nicholls. He has a pointed and frequently amusing turn of phrase. I particularly like his observation in his piece on the 60s Amicus film Dr Who and the Daleks that ‘despite their fierceness the Daleks prove ridiculously easy to immobilise’. Having recently seen the movie, I can affirm the accuracy of this criticism. Just spin them around and push them down one of the conveniently placed ramps and watch them self-destruct with a lid-busting bang, barking ‘out of control’ all the way. The films are pretty poor, but I wouldn’t call Peter Cushing’s Doctor colourless. Mind you, I refuse to hear anything bad said about Cushing in general. About Larry Cohen’s wonderfully demented film God Told Me To, which mixes wild profligacy of imagination with cheap offhandedness in execution, he dryly comments that ‘it is as well that Larry Cohen has his own production company, Larco, since it is impossible to imagine any other company taking on so eccentric a project’, before concluding that it is ‘perhaps the most baroque SF movie ever made’. Nicholls has a clever way of writing about certain films such that he maintains a critical distance whilst making it fairly clear that this is not really his cup of tea. Of La Jetee, he switches to the passive tense to note that ‘this celebrated French short film is often seen as a breakthrough in SF narration that has yet to be equalled’, and of Tarkovsky’s Stalker he writes that it is ‘agonizingly static, punctuated by abstract philosophical conversations with long pauses, and yet for some viewers it has an almost unequalled hypnotic intensity’. I’m certainly one of those viewers, but I can certainly see how others might find it interminably dull, fulfilling their worst nightmares of being stuck in front of a lengthy, monochrome Russian art film in which gloomy men discuss the meaning of existence. Nicholls summation of Robert Altman’s icy post-apocalyptic tale Quintet is absolutely spot on. He says that ‘Quintet bores the watcher, yet lingers for years in the mind’. I watched it again recently having seen it as a teenager, and found that certain scenes had indeed remained vividly ingrained in my memory as half-remembered dream landscapes. Nicholls’ antipathy towards Nigel Kneale remains from the previous edition, evidently fuelled by the writer’s unkind remarks about SF fans and the ungenerous portrayal of fandom in his rather cruel comedy Kinvig. I think Kneale deserves more recognition, and certainly an entry for his 1968 future dystopia The Year of the Sex Olympics, depicting a society pacified by a constant diet of voyeuristic TV spectacle, culminating in the production of a murderous reality programme, the Live Life Show. However, sometimes a critic has to write what a critic has to write, and he evidently feels strongly on this matter, expressing his feelings clearly and persuasively (and there is something to what he says, truth be told).
Anyway, this is a major work of SF scholarship, a genuine triumph, and all who are involved with it are to be congratulated and, in due course, showered with the appropriate encomiums and awards. If the second edition of the Encylopedia was definitive before, it’s now even more definitively definitive. Doubly definitive. And you can’t get much more definitive than that. Until it’s definitively complete, at least.