Wednesday, March 22, 2017

'Following the Martian Invasion' by Francis Spufford

22 March 2017

BBC iPlayer is a wonderful thing. Having really enjoyed Stephen Baxter’s sequel to ‘The War of the Worlds’ by HG Wells, 'The Massacre of Mankind' (reviewed here in February 2017), I had noticed that BBC Radio 4 was broadcasting a new dramatisation, by Melissa Murray, of Wells’ novel. Searching for ‘The War of the Worlds’ on iPlayer revealed not only this drama (still available to listen to at: but also an interview with Stephen Baxter about 'The Massacre of Mankind' on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ programme ( and ‘Following the Martian Invasion’ – a series of five 15-minute programmes broadcast on Radio 4 in which Francis Spufford retraces the journey of HG Wells’ Martian invaders. I’ve just finished listening to this series and it’s a little gem. Spufford starts at Horsell Common in Surrey, where the Martians first landed, and then follows their progress across the South East of England to Primrose Hill in London. In each episode he is joined by a range of experts to discuss ‘The War of the Worlds’ in terms of literary style, political theory, physics, anatomy, military strategy, science fiction and social history. It’s like an extended edition of Melvyn Bragg’s ‘In Our Time’ recorded on location. Even if you’ve never read ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘Following the Martian Invasion’ is a fascinating exploration of late Victorian Britain. You can listen to all five episodes on BBC iPlayer at:


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Omid Djalili

15 March 2017

On Saturday we made a first visit to the Grove Theatre in Dunstable – a stunning 780-seat community theatre which opened nearly 10 years ago. We were there to see the comedian Omid Djalili. Having seen Omid interviewed by Janice Forsyth on her BBC Radio Scotland show at the Edinburgh Fringe last August and, more recently, hearing him on the Danny Baker Show on BBC Radio Five Live, we were persuaded to catch his ‘Schmuck for a Night’ national tour. Omid Djalili is a very cheerful and engaging performer. His high profile from a wide range of TV and film appearances has given him a mainstream audience for whom he is careful to touch only lightly on political issues. He makes plenty of references to Brexit and there is no doubting which side of the argument Omid favours but he only scratches the surface in his set. His performance is assured and polished, delivered with a smile, but I thought the funniest moments were the comic dancing he introduces to mock more mainstream comedy. It was a lovely surprise to discover that his support act was Boothby Graffoe – the comedian who took his stage name from a Lincolnshire village near where we used to live. We last saw him performing at the Guildhall Arts Centre in Grantham more than 20 years ago and it was great to hear his particular brand of comic songs again. Boothby Graffoe has been touring with Omid Djalili for the last eight years and it was nice to see how the support act and the main set were linked – with Omid picking up, after the interval, on some of Boothby’s ad libs from the first half of the show.

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Thursday, March 09, 2017

'The Willow Collection' by Cassie and Maggie

9 March 2017

I’ve been enjoying ‘The Willow Collection’ - a concept album by Nova Scotia folk duo Cassie and Maggie. Bringing together songs and tunes on the theme of the Willow tree from a variety of folk traditions, the MacDonald sisters play fiddle, guitar and piano and sing close harmonies. They showcase a wide range of styles including Cape Bretton fiddle, folk-rock, Scottish folk and Americana. Some tracks reminded me of the music of Julie Fowlis (reviewed here in February 2006, May 2007 and May 2014) while there was also something of the frantic, furious fiddles of the Finnish group Tsuumi Sound System (reviewed here in April 2008). ‘The Willow Collection’ includes gentle lullabies and toe-tapping dance tunes. It is a good reminder of how strong the Canadian folk scene is and bears comparison with the great Canadian folk/roots group ‘The Bills’ (reviewed here in May 2006). This video taster give a good flavour:

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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

1 March 2017

As I wrote here in May 2016, from his first appearance in the BBC Young Musician 2016 strings final it was clear that 'cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was going to win the whole competition. But, in the end, he was run very close by the first saxophone player ever to reach the final. 17-year-old Jess Gillam, from Ulverston in Cumbria, gave a remarkably charismatic performance of 'Where the Bee Dances' by Michael Nyman in the concerto final at The Barbican in London. She was a fascinating performer to watch and the TV coverage gave a good impression of her infectiously enthusiastic personality – on and off the stage. So the prospect of Jess Gillam joining us to play a concerto with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra last Saturday at Christ Church in Northampton was really exciting. Even our first rehearsal with Jess last Wednesday was a joy – you could have heard a pin drop as we listened to her mesmerising solo opening of the slow movement. ‘Escapades’ by John Williams is a three movement concerto for saxophone and orchestra, based on his music for the 2002 Steven Spielberg film ‘Catch Me If You Can’. Its 1960s jazz feel gave an opportunity for excellent solos by Matt Jackson on double-bass and Liam Halloran on vibraphone, but there was no doubting who the star was. Jess Gillam was amazing – she made the virtuoso demands of the piece appear easy and was completely compelling to watch. It was a thrilling performance. In fact the whole concert was really interesting and enjoyable. NSO conductor John Gibbons had constructed an unusual and intriguing programme. We opened with ‘Pines of Rome’ by Respighi – a fiendishly challenging piece which featured a beautiful off-stage trumpet solo by Nick Bunker, an incredibly assured clarinet solo in the slow, third movement by Naomi Muller and a brilliant ending to the finale with impressive off-stage brass from the six-player ‘buccini’. The second half of the concert started with the lovely ‘Pavane in F-sharp minor’ by Faure with a gorgeous flute solo from Graham Tear. And, continuing our season of fifth symphonies, we finished the concert with ‘Symphony No 5 (The Heroic)’ by Alexander Glazunov. Like most of the orchestra (and our audience) I had never heard this symphony before we started rehearsing it but I really enjoyed it. It’s a lively, tuneful work with similarities to the symphonies of Tchaikovsky and the furious finale was a thrilling conclusion to a great concert. To cap a wonderful evening, John Gibbons announced that Jess Gillam is to return to Northampton in July to play with the NSO again in our summer concert for the Friends of the Orchestra – a very good reason to become a Friend!

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

'The Massacre of Mankind' by Stephen Baxter

23 February 2017

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” 

So, famously, begins HG Wells’ novel ‘The War of the Worlds’. Given the worryingly apocalyptic potential for world events in the opening months of 2017, I thought I would cheer myself up by reading ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ – Stephen Baxter’s new authorised sequel to ‘The War of the Worlds’ (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Nathalie Buscombe). There seems to be a particular vogue for authorised sequels at the moment, such as Anthony Horowitz’s excellent Sherlock Holmes novels ‘The House of Silk’ (reviewed here in January 2012) and ‘Moriarty’ (reviewed here in January 2015). Stephen Baxter does a great job of paying tribute to Wells’ original novel, while taking the story of mankind’s encounters with creatures from another world to the next level.

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said … but still, they come”. And then they came back. Thirteen years after the Martian invaders of 1907 were wiped out by the Earth’s bacteria they have returned – and this time they are better prepared. But what I found most fascinating about ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ was not the aliens but the resulting alternative history of mankind. By imagining what lasting effects the 1907 battle with the Martians would have had on the world, Baxter has a lot of fun creating a parallel reality. With many similarities to Philip Roth’s portrait of a world in which Nazi Germany wins the Second World War with the support of the USA ('The Plot Against America' reviewed here in September 2006), ‘The Massacre of Mankind’ starts in 1920 with the British and German allies victorious in the European war that followed the Martian invasion. The Titanic has survived its collision with the iceberg because its bow was reinforced with Martian aluminium. And Charlie Chaplin has achieved worldwide fame through playing ‘The Little Soldier’ - a character modelled on the British artilleryman famous for fighting the Martians in 1907.

I also enjoyed the meta-fictional construct of this sequel, in which the first-person narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds’, Walter Jenkins, has become famous for his account of the original conflict but is now hated by some of his friends and family for how he inaccurately portrayed them in his narrative. This echoes the second part of ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes (reviewed here in January 2012) in which the knight and his squire frequently encounter people who have read the earlier volume and are familiar with their history. Stephen Baxter also manages to throw in a reference, after Martians arrive in America in 1922, to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey – the landing site of the Martian invasion in Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio version of ‘The War of the Worlds’.

‘The Massacre of Mankind’ is a meticulously crafted homage to HG Wells. It reads like it could have been written in the period it portrays and, although the plot feels a little slow at times, it is a very impressive and intriguing counter-history of the early decades of the twentieth century.


Friday, February 17, 2017

'Saint Joan' by George Bernard Shaw

17 February 2017

I have still not visited the Donmar Warehouse in London but this week we were at Cineworld in Milton Keynes to see the NT Live broadcast from the Donmar of Josie Rourke’s production of ‘Saint Joan’ by George Bernard Shaw. As with the live screening of Rourke’s production of 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' by Christopher Hampton (reviewed here in January 2016) I was impressed by the intimate nature of the theatre, with its four rows of seats on three sides of the stage. It reminded me of The Other Place – the RSC’s (now defunct) third auditorium in Stratford-upon-Avon. As I wrote here in July 2014,  I always used to like The Other Place for the way it got you closer to the actors, stripping away the distraction of the big production values of the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage and allowing you fully to appreciate the brilliant acting. I felt the same about this performance of ‘Saint Joan’ at the Donmar Warehouse. Josie Rourke has given the play a modern corporate setting with each scene taking place around a constantly revolving boardroom table, allowing the audience a rotating perspective of each of the actors at very close quarters. Gemma Arterton’s Joan of Arc is the only character in period costume and each time she enters the stage she seems to drag the play back to the 15th century: three giant video screens showing Bloomberg stock index updates fade to display a religious triptych and the lighting dims. Gemma Arterton gives an amazing performance: her Joan is a cheerful pollyannaish religious fanatic, unfazed by setbacks and completely convinced she is carrying out the will of God. Shaw plays often feel extremely long and wordy but can also be incredibly funny – as I noted here in my review of 'Man and Superman' in May 2015. Josie Rourke has cut the text of ‘Saint Joan’ considerably and brought out an unexpected amount of humour in what is a failry bleak tale. The trial scene towards the end of the play was a brilliantly handled ensemble performance in which you could sympathise with all the opposing points of view simultaneously while ominously appreciating that Joan’s plight was not going to end well.

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Friday, February 10, 2017

'Designated Survivor' by David Guggenheim

10 February 2017

I hadn’t realised it was a real thing but Wikipedia tells us that “In the United States, a designated survivor (or designated successor) is an individual in the presidential line of succession, usually a member of the United States Cabinet, who is arranged to be at a physically distant, secure, and undisclosed location when the President and the country's other top leaders (e.g., Vice President and Cabinet members) are gathered at a single location, such as during State of the Union addresses and presidential inaugurations. This is intended to guarantee continuity of government in the event of a catastrophic occurrence that kills the President and many officials in the presidential line of succession, such as a mass shooting or bombing. If such an event occurred, killing both the President and Vice President, the surviving official highest in the line, possibly the designated survivor, would become the Acting President of the United States under the Presidential Succession Act.”   

David Guggenheim’s TV series ‘Designated Survivor’ (which I have just finished watching on Netflix) uses this premise to create a very exciting political thriller. When the Capitol building is destroyed by a terrorist attack during the State of the Union address, the President and the whole of Congress are killed. Designated Survivor Tom Kirkman, the lowly Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is suddenly being sworn in as the new President of the United States. Not only does he have to work out how to govern a country whose entire federal government has disappeared, President Kirkman also has to deal with the devastating aftermath of a massive terror attack on Washington. Keifer Sutherland plays Kirkman as an honest man thrust into the limelight and Maggie Q is the FBI agent who believes someone other than the Islamic terrorist group that claims responsibility might actually be behind the bombing. The first episode of ‘Designated Survivor’ is truly thrilling and the parallels between the fictional story and the White House in 2017 (such as when the President is asked to consider banning all immigration into the USA to guard against terrorists) are scarily close. ‘Designated Survivor’ is both a political drama that bears comparison with ‘Borgen’ (reviewed here in February 2013) and a thriller. I’m looking forward to the second series.

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