Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Best of the Fest?

It's about this time of year when I get really envious of anyone who is Edinburgh bound... The bank holiday weekend is the crescendo of the month long Fringe Festival, and nothing can beat the 'buzz' of the place at this time. I've been lucky enough to get to the festival 4 times over the last 10 or 12 years, and for me it really is the ultimate holiday... cramming in 4, 5, maybe 6 shows a day EVERY DAY, yet still not even scratching the surface. This year’s Fringe features no less than 34265 performances of 2098 shows in 265 venues.

Digital TV station 'Dave' have been running a poll to find out which comedian has the best 'one-liner' joke in their act this year. A panel of 'comedy critics' came up with a shortlist, and then put it to the vote... I doubt it was very scientific, but none the less, they have just published the winning top ten, and I have to say there are one or two belters in there! The winning line came from Dan Antolpolski's current show 'Silent But Deadly'.... Here's the list in full:

1) Dan Antolpolski – Hedgehogs - why can’t they just share the hedge?

2) Paddy Lennox – I was watching the London Marathon and saw one runner dressed as a chicken and another runner dressed as an egg. I thought, 'This could be interesting'.

3) Sarah Millican – I had my boobs measured and bought a new bra. Now I call them Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes because they're up where they belong.

4) Zoe Lyons – I went on a girl’s night out recently. The invitation said ‘dress to kill.’ I went as Rose West.

5) Jack Whitehall - I'm sure wherever my dad is; he's looking down on us. He's not dead, just very condescending.

6) Adam Hills – Going to Starbucks for coffee is like going to prison for sex. You know you’re going to get it, but it’s going to be rough.

7) Marcus Brigstocke – To the people who’ve got iPhones: you just bought one, you didn’t invent it!

8) Rhod Gilbert – A spa hotel? It’s like a normal hotel, only in reception there’s a picture of a pebble.

9) Dan Antopolski – I've been reading the news about there being a civil war in Madagascar. Well, I've seen it six times and there isn't.

10) Simon Brodkin – I started so many fights at my school - I had that attention-deficit disorder. So I didn’t finish a lot of them.


Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Odeon - Southend

As a rule, I do try to keep self indulgence to an absolute minimum here, but I'd appreciate it if you'd let me have a day off so I can waffle on for a bit about one of the most iconic buildings from my childhood. I've always had a thing for old fashioned cinemas... There was something about their grand scale, plush seats and incredible interior design that used to fill me with wonder as a kid, and I'm genuinely sorry that my son wont grow up to experience it. Instead he will have wonderful memories of various insipid, characterless, soul-less Americanised multi-screen complexes... that all looked the bloody same!

Between 1898 and 1935, no less than 16 different cinemas opened in my home town of Southend. Add to that a further 14 within a 4 or 5 mile radius of the town! The cinema was big business in those days, and must have pretty much been the national pass-time of choice (well, the Nintendo Wii never really took off like they expected back then!!). By the time I started going to the cinema only 3 of those 30 cinemas remained.... guess how many remain now??!

But I will always have such fond memories of the Odeon in Southend. I can still clearly remember what it looked like inside, the smell, the cinema tickets on a roll (like old fashioned bus tickets), the queues round the block for the summer blockbusters, the usherettes selling goodies during the interval (ALWAYS a 'support film' before the main event in those days), the popcorn, the ice cream, those awful cups of warm, still orange juice that you had to pierce the top with the straw!, the distinctive 'sound' of the seats flipping up, even the soundtrack to the films and those cheesy adverts for local businesses ("ere Burt, this is the place..."), had a unique, stark twang to it. It was a real occasion to go there... And it was the venue for so many 'firsts' in my life too.... first time I ever went to the cinema (Disney's Robin Hood in 1973), first time I ever went to the cinema without Mum and\or Dad (Star Wars in 1977), first time I ever took a girl to the cinema (Airplane! in 1980) and first time I ever saw an 'X' rated film (Porkys in 1982). I spent 25 of my first 32 years going there, and have always been a little obsessed with the memory of the place. So I thought it was about time that I document this now defunct pleasure palace.

The Astoria, opened in Southend high street on 15th July 1935 (Brewster's Millions was the first film shown), on the site of the recently demolished Lukers brewery. The cinema was by far the biggest in town and boasted room for a whopping 2,750 punters (1750 in the stalls and 1000 in the balcony), and even had room for a large cafe area. The exterior was faced with polished stone and there were three very striking, large arched metal windows above the entrance. Here's a picture of it on the opening day:

Check out the luxuriously lavish foyer and auditorium:

Within a year it had been taken over by County Cinemas Ltd. In 1937 Odeon Theatres took over County Cinemas, and in the early 1940's the venue was renamed the Odeon. Here's a picture of it in 1948:

Here's a great picture of the Odeon in 1959, which really shows off those windows:

In 1960 it was refurbished, the seating was reduced to 2286 and the cafe became a dance studio. The venue had already made a name for itself for booking big name acts (Laurel and Hardy even played there for a week in 1952), but during the 60's they really upped their game.... Louis Armstrong appeared there in 1962, The Beatles played twice in 63, The Rolling Stones played in 65, The Who in 66... and many more besides.

In 1970 the Odeon was closed, and the building underwent major reconstruction to turn it into a two screen cinema. Screen 1 was built in the space of the old cafe\dance studio area and seated 500. For screen 2 the balcony was extended forward to create a 1350 seater auditorium. It was at this point that the entrance was moved from the High Street to the side of the building in Elmer Approach. This enabled the original High Street entrance and foyer to be sold off as shop space (I remember it as a Presto's supermarket in the 80's, and a shopping arcade in the 90's and later as an amusement arcade). My only recollection of this cinema is as a two-screener, and I only ever knew it with the much less glamorous side entrance. Here's a picture of the all new entrance in 1971:

Here is the original frontage in 1991, complete with 'Shop In Village' crappy indoor market!

The Odeon cinema eventually closed for good in 1998...rather fittingly, the last three films I saw there were the 'special editions' of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997... twenty years on from seeing the original film in the very same auditorium.

The empty building hung around for a few years looking rather sorry for itself, and it's final indignity was for the old front entrance shop to be turned into a 'Poundland', until the whole building was finally demolished in 2004. Here it is in the last year or two of its life, those windows, despite now being broken and boarded up are still as prominent as ever.

Now in it's place stands the frontage to the University of Essex... nice.

Apologies if this piece has been of little relevance to you (quite likely!). I'm sure you all have a fondly remembered equivalent from your own childhoods, which was equally neglected and eventually torn down by the local council with little regard for architecture and\or local history. And it's that very attitude that is fast making every high street in every UK town look identical. There are no new character buildings, nothing to give a place some identity.... just bland, 'built as cheap as possible' boxes. But hey, look on the bright side, we do have some amazing white goods super-outlets, drive-thru takeaways and retail parks in their place, so it's not all bad. I guess in 40 odd years time my son will be writing a similar post, lamenting on the loss of his favourite KFC outlet "they served the best hot-wings money could buy".


Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Man On Wire - Philippe Petit

Did anyone catch this fabulous docu-film on BBC2 the other weekend (Sunday 2nd Aug)? I Sky Plus'ed it and only got round to watching it last night (hence this rather belated post), but I have to say it was a completely enthralling and truly gripping ride.

I first became aware of the genius\madman (delete as appropriate!) that is Philippe Petit back in the year 2000. On holiday in Canada, a friend and I took a day trip out to Niagara. The falls were simply awe inspiring... It's somewhere i'd wanted to visit ever since I was a child, and they did not disappoint. However, once you've 'done' the falls there is little left of much interest. The town that has built up around the falls is a pretty tacky affair to be honest... think Southend seafront with a wonder of the world bolted on the side! Still, we were there for the day, so thought "in for a penny.." blah blah, and hit the touristy trail. This included a visit to the Imax cinema which was showing a film entitled "Niagara: Miracles, Myths & Magic"... which was actually pretty good. It was a general re-cap on the history of the area, but with a section devoted to all the daredevils who have attempted to 'tame' the falls. In the film a tightrope walker re-creates the feat of 'The Great Blondin' who walked across the Niagara Gorge in 1860. Guess who was the only person crazy enough to re-create it for the camera when they made this film in 1986??!

Man On Wire however, focuses on Philippe Petit's insane idea to walk a tightrope between the twin towers on the World Trade Centre... roof-to-roof! The documentary features new interviews with Philippe, his girlfriend of the time, and many of his accomplices who helped to make the whole thing happen. You'd think that seeing Philippe sitting there in 2008 retelling the story would take the edge off it somewhat, knowing that he's still alive and all that! But there was none of it... this really was compulsive, edge of the seat stuff, in much the same way that 'Touching the Void' was. The film is also considerably enhanced by 'home movie' footage, capturing all of the planning and preparation stages.

The obsession goes back to 1968, when Philippe first read about the construction of the twin towers... which when complete would become (at that time) the highest buildings in the world. Already a tightrope walker of some note, he made the decision there and then that he wanted to walk across them. For the next 6 years he worked on his goal.... The planning was out of this world, and the attention to detail simply stunning.... but then, if you are thinking of walking a tightrope almost 1,400 feet in the air, without a safely net, I guess you'd want to be pretty thorough!

He traveled to New York numerous times to watch the towers being built, even taking helicopter rides over the construction to take ariel photographs. He proceeded to gain access several times over the years, hiding on a roof or unfinished floor. He studied the clothing of the construction workers and copied them, then with fake ID cards, he and his accomplices managed to gain themselves more regular access. They actually got away with telling security they were installing an electric fence on the roof! Later he would pose as an architect to enable himself to interview the workers. Using all the information he gained on his many visits, Philippe built life size models of the tops of the towers, to practice the feat. There was no way he could factor in the 'sway' of the buildings, or what the wind would be like at that altitude, so he just got his mates to pull and bounce on the wire to try and knock him off!

Finally, one night in August 1974, two teams went up to the top of the towers. A fishing line was fired from one roof top to the other via a bow and arrow, and the rest of the night was spent rigging the 'wire' into place. The next morning Philippe finally realised his dream.... walking backwards and forwards between the two towers for a whole hour. Oddly, having filmed all the preparations up to this point, there was no actual footage of the tightrope walk itself. However there were some simply stunning still shots of it. I wasn't expecting them to be, but I found these photographs of him walking between the towers quite moving. At one point he knelt down on the wire, and at another, incredibly, he lay down on it.... a quarter of a mile in the air! News traveled fast (even in the 70s!), and by the time Philippe came off the wire, two burly New York cops were waiting to arrest him.

History will no doubt tell it differently today, but in the early days, America was pretty uninspired by these twin towers, and at the time of Philippe's stunt, much of the building was empty and the landlords were struggling to rent out the floors. This high wire feat seemed to bring warmth to the construction, and started to change the way people felt about the buildings.

I am now very keen to read Philippe Petit's book 'To Reach The Clouds', on which this film was based. Incredibly, it took him 27 years to pen his memoirs on this stunt.... and it was whilst he was writing them that the planes went into the towers.

I found this documentary oddly inspiring... I wont be taking up tightrope walking any time soon i might add, but there was a powerful message behind it all. He really did reach for the sky... and he got there too.

Here's the trailer for the film:

Here's some CBS news coverage from the actual day of the stunt:


Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Theatre of Dreams... or Nightmares?

The theatre... The last bastion of common decency and polite behaviour... well, apparently not anymore. This week, The Times reported that many London theatres are complaining about large increases in unruly patrons. It's got so bad that it's becoming a regular occurrence for the Police to be called in to help eject some of these odious audiences. The article went on to say that the theatres are now fighting back and are now in the process of employing security staff and bouncers to ensure the public keep in line. Here's just a few of the delights that have been happening in our historic auditoriums lately DURING a performance:

  • Fighting between audience members;
  • A male audience member walking to the side of the stage and urinating;

  • A woman caught 'pleasuring' her partner in the stalls;

  • Unrequested audience participation;

  • Not only phones going off, but people answering them and having conversations;

  • Audience members walking to the front of the stage to take photos on their mobile phones;

  • Incoherent shouting and abuse; and

  • House staff being verbally and physically abused.

As a rule, I do try to suppress the snob inside me, but at times he gets the better of me, and he definitely did on reading this article! (actually, I don't really think I'm being a snob in expecting people to have some manners and behave courteously).... The theatre used to be nice quaint (and quiet!) way for people to enjoy an evening out didn't it? Nothing was more cultured than popping down to the West End and getting engrossed in a gripping thriller, or perhaps a rare old farce (with the obligatory eight quid ice cream at half time of course!). But it looks as though the great unwashed are putting paid to that pastime for us. They have already ruined the cinema experience... I no longer go, as the last few times I did, I came out seething with anger at the ignorant cretins enclosed within, and their inane, constant chatter, mobile phones, noisy bags etc, and now they are turning their attention to the theatre. But hold on, didn't an evening of 'thespian-ism' used to be classed as "boring" to these types?? Well yes, indeed it did, but have you checked out the 'what's on in London' guides lately? Just like our TV, theatre is being 'dumbed down' before our very eyes. See if you can find more than a couple of powerful, thought provoking plays these days. You'll still find the thinking man (and woman)'s plays out on the fringes, but they have all but been removed from the West End now in favour of dozens of low rent, cheesy musicals.

Shite, disposable Saturday evening talent shows have a lot to answer for. Unfortunately, the type of people who can be entertained by and persuaded to vote for a new 'Joseph', 'Maria' or ' Sandy and Danny', are also the same people who will go see the resulting performance. The lure of easy money for putting on 'lowest common denominator' shows, has created the by-product of a new, low-rent punter, for whom going to the theatre is an alien experience. Oddly they don't seem to know how to behave, and therefore start the evening in much the same way as any other of their nights out (i.e. excess alcohol), thus ensuring half the audience is half cut before the curtain even rises. It would also seem that these people are also unaware of the finer protocols of theatre-going.... such as not wanking or pissing during the performance for example..

So well done theatres of London, I for one have little sympathy for your current plight, it's no good moaning about it now. I saw it coming a mile off, and you should have too. What is that line about reaping what you sow??

(Grumpy Old) Piley

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Gary Le Strange

I've been a fan of live comedy for almost 30 years. One of the first comedy shows I ever went to see was Alexei Sayle at a theatre in Chelmsford around 1980/1981 (I know I had school the next morning!). But my favourite environment for comedy has to be a 'comedy club' venue. With the theatre setup there is very much a divide between artist and audience, but with the 'cabaret seating' arrangement of the comedy club, these lines become merged, and a much bigger element of danger is always in the air! Of course, you have to take the risks that go with the territory, and after 20+ years of attending comedy clubs I've had a few encounters of being 'chosen' by comedians (being 6ft 4 doesn't really help me to blend into the crowd at times!!). One encounter that particularly sticks in my mind was at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004, where Gary Le Strange strutted up to me and sung pretty much the whole of his song 'Modern Disguise' directly at me! Literally a couple of feet from my face!

Gary Le Strange was\is the comic, musical creation of comedian Waen Shepherd... "The idea was simply to find a way of combining various pursuits at the same time, like writing, acting, making music and trying to be funny. Specifically, I wanted a way of making my strange sense of humour seem acceptable to a comedy audience, and a fake pop star seemed the way to go, complete with real proper albums to make him seem even more real and proper" First dreamt up in 2002, the character was originally a send up of the 'New Romantic' scene from the early 80's.... a time which, looking back on it, has comedy gold written all over it! I was a massive fan of this era of music (and still enjoy much of it today), but much of the pretentious, pompous and over-arty attitudes that went with it are quite laughable these days. Waen has since explained why he chose this era "It started out as a New Romantic/New Wave pastiche, partly because of the software I was using at the time and partly because the genre allowed me to be weird, pompous, extravagantly-dressed and socially inept all at the same time". Waen honed his character to perfection, taking those original attitudes and pushing them just that little bit more for the comedy market. This Frankensteins monster of a creation was a combination of anyone and everyone who mattered during that period of music. He's Gary Numan, he's Steve Strange, he's Marc Almond, he's Adam Ant, and many many more. There is even a generous dollop of that architectural New Romantic David Bowie in there too. It was a very original idea for stand up comedy, and it's no wonder that at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003 he won the Perrier Award for the best newcomer.

Waen Shepherd is obviously a very talented song writer, and his knack of being able to extract the essence of so many classic bands and songs and cram them into his own work is nothing short of genius. Some are a complete pastiche of a single artist ('Warriors of Style' is a combination of most of the Adam and the Ants back catalogue, 'Seedy Pimp' is virtually the whole of Soft Cells Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret album wrapped up in about three minutes, and 'The Outsider' encapsulates Bowie's output from the 70's!), where as others are a take on several bands all in one song... I actually found it an added bonus trying to work out exactly who he had 'borrowed' from for each one! If you are a fan of Soft Cell, Gary Numan, Japan, Spandau Ballet, ABC, Visage, Depeche Mode, Adam and the Ants etc etc (oh, and you have a sense of humour!) then these songs are bound to appeal... and much like another humorous singer I've blogged about, Richard Cheese, underneath it all, you can't help but admire the talent underpinning all the mirth.

The thing that can make some of the original New Romantic era songs sound so dated is their obsession with futuristic technology. I guess it was quite arty at the time to do so, but we've moved on so much that many of them sound quite funny now. Waen tapped in to this for a number of his songs and again upped the ante for comedy effect, producing a selection of po-faced tunes about photocopiers, washing up robots and toasters! Oddly, I met Waen Shepherd once, and unsurprisingly, in chatting he told me what a big fan he was of this era of music. Somehow I fully expected to hear that, I don't think you could do a pastiche that well without having a genuine love (and a good knowledge) of that scene.

So, the songs were clever, but what really made it for me was the way he created the whole package. The clothing and bad make-up were both spot on, but just pushed that little bit more for extra ridiculousness! However it was the live persona of Gary Le Strange that was the real masterstroke... delusions of grandeur doesn't even come close! World domination was what GLS had his sights firmly set on... but it wouldn't be achieved with weapons, oh no, he planned to do it with fashion!! As Waen himself has since said about the character "Essentially he's a tragic, eccentric, outsider pop star who has never had any success, and probably never will". I saw Gary live a few times around the mid 2000's, and it was this carefully crafted pompous image that really nailed it for me. Seeing him taking it all so seriously, and even getting visibly annoyed at any laughter that his manifesto and songs created (a very bold stance for a comedian when you think about it) was a pure joy. I was always intrigued to see the reactions of the audience at his live shows, it was always very 'marmite' (love or hate)... They were either rolling around crying with laughter (like me!), or completely straight faced with a puzzled look, never much in between. I honestly think that to fully enjoy an act like this, you need to be a pretty big music fan, or at least have an understanding of the New Romantic era. Maybe there are people who didn't get Spinal Tap and the like too, because they just couldn't relate to what they were poking fun at in the first place.

Despite really enjoying his act for a few years, I have to confess that until this week I'd all but forgotten about Gary Le Strange. A conversation with Planet Mondo about possible themes for our future podcasts threw up the idea of 'humorous\comedy' records. I had a flick through my CD collection, dug out the GLS albums, and they have been on the player all week! They are still very clever, and looking back, were yet another piece of the 'complete package' jigsaw... even the design of the CDs is perfect. Slip these albums in the middle of your early 80's collection and they would blend in without a second glance. But on closer inspection they are hilarious! Particularly the Steve Strange-esque pose with the bald, silver tailors dummy with the unfeasibly long neck!!

Having been reunited with GLS, I did a search on the net to see if I could find out what's happened to him. Not only is he still going, he appears to have sensationally spurned the New Romantic scene!! His new image and most recent album, Beef Scarecrow, have seen the man reinvent himself as a pompous, suited n booted art rocker! I've already ordered it, so I'll be sure to let you know!


The Official Gary Le Strange website (where you can stock up on GLS CDs)

Gary Le Strange on MySpace

Finally, here are a few Gary Le Strange songs for you to try.

Metal Boy

The delightfully pretentious Human League\Blancmange inspired 'Photocopier'

Video to 'Seedy Pimp'