Friday, November 27, 2020

'Voodoo Sonic' by Parov Stelar

27 November 2020

I’ve been a big fan of electro swing for years – though without knowing there was a name for this emerging music genre. In 2009 I came across Imam Baildi – two Greek brothers who take old Greek tunes from the 40's, 50's and 60's and add modern instruments and beats to create music which is cool, mysterious and incredibly catchy (reviewed here in May 2009). I then saw the French band Caravan Palace at the 2009 WOMAD Festival (reviewed here in July 2009), playing the gypsy jazz swing of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli to pounding high-tempo electronic beats. At WOMAD in 2012 I saw The Correspondents mix swing-era big band records with contemporary electronic beats (reviewed here in August 2012). In 2013 I discovered the Dutch singer Caro Emerald and her old-fashioned big band swing, updated by a modern four-to-the-floor dance beat (reviewed here in April 2017). The Latvian band Dziļi Violets (reviewed here in February 2019) have a similar modern take on old-fashioned swing. But my new favourite electro swing is Parov Stelar – Austrian musician Marcus Fuereder – who has just completed an epic album ‘Voodoo Sonic’, released gradually over the past year as three EPs. ‘Voodoo Sonic’ is a more varied collection than Parov Stelar’s earlier albums (I would particularly recommend 2013’s ‘The Art of Sampling’) with more purely instrumental tracks. It’s great fun: this is playful and inventive dance music – cool quirky and infectious.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

'What a Carve Up!' by Jonathan Coe, adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett

17 November 2020

I’ve written here before about our chance discovery, around 1996, of Jonathan Coe's novel 'What a Carve Up' in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge. Coe quickly became one of my favourite contemporary novelists so I was thrilled to discover a new online theatre adaptation of ‘What a Carve Up’ by Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre & New Wolsey Theatre. Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Tamara Harvey, this is an interesting example of the emerging genre of webcam drama. It frames Jonathan Coe’s tale of 1980s Thatcher’s Britain with original protagonist Michael Owen’s son Raymond investigating, in 2020, the 1991 multiple murders of members of the Winshaw family that his father is assumed to have committed. Raymond (Alfred Enoch) is recording his findings straight to camera while playing-in archive audio recordings of the testimony of some of the people who knew his father and the Winshaws. This cleverly allows the production to involve some very well known actors (including Celia Imrie, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Gryff Rhys Jones, Rebecca Front and Robert Bathurst) who have literally phoned in their performances. (Incidentally Robert Bathurst – here playing Thomas Winshaw – played Michael Owen in the 2005 BBC Radio 4 adaptation of ‘What a Carve Up’.) Raymond also uses the video recording of a 2020 interview with the one remaining member of the Winshaw family, Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (played by Fiona Button) who is interviewed by Tamzin Outhwaite. Raymond’s tendency to obsessively pause and rewind the various YouTube clips he is showing us is a nice nod to his father’s fascination with pausing and rewinding his VHS tape of the 1960’s film ‘What a Carve Up’ in the novel. Indeed the whole online production feels like more of a homage to the book than a coherent drama in its own right. Fans of the novel will love the many knowing references but, by cutting up the content of a lengthy and complicated narrative and revealing it to us in iterative bite-sized morsels, I suspect Henry Filloux-Bennett may have made it nearly impossible to follow if you are not already familiar with the story. I also felt the 2020 parallels (such as Josephine Winshaw-Eaves campaigning for a second Trump term) were a bit clunky, and ignored some elements of what happened next to the Winshaw clan from ‘Number 11’ – Jonathan Coe’s own sequel to ‘What a Carve Up’ (reviewed here in January 2016). Nevertheless it was fun to revisit the original story. And the innovative online format was intriguing, feeling like something that could have been delivered as a one-person Edinburgh Fringe show, now transferred online. ‘What a Carve Up!’ runs from 31 October – 29 November 2020. Tickets can be purchased at A portion of the proceeds raised will be donated to a freelance fund to support the creative workforce that the theatres would not be able to survive without.

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Friday, November 13, 2020

'Abion' by Mike Bartlett

13 November 2020

Last weekend we finally got around to watching the live recording of Mike Bartlett’s play ‘Albion’, which was broadcast in the summer as part of the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine season. Mike Bartlett is a really interesting writer who explores a wide variety of dramatic formats and styles. He is perhaps best known for his TV dramas ‘Doctor Foster’ (written in the form of a Jacobean revenge tragedy) and its recent companion series ‘Life’, starring Victoria Hamilton. But I have also enjoyed his writing for the stage, including: ‘Charles III’– a modern Shakespearean history play, written entirely in blank verse (reviewed here in January 2015); ‘An Intervention’ – an unconventional two-hander looking at what happens when you hate your best friend (reviewed here in April 2014); and his contemporary version of ‘Medea’ by Euripides, starring Rachael Stirling (reviewed here in November 2012). ‘Albion’ is, as the title suggests, a state-of-the-nation play which uses the allegory of a very traditional English country garden to address issues raised by Brexit. In the Almeida Theatre production, directed by Rupert Goold, Victoria Hamilton plays a woman who has purchased her childhood home and plans to restore the garden to its original Victorian design. It can be enjoyed as a darkly comic family drama about personal grief, but you can also see the relationship between the family and the local community – now excluded from what had previously been a communal garden – as a commentary on the UK’s departure from the European Union. The action is all set in the garden and has the feel of an Alan Ayckbourn play but with underlying connections more reminiscent of Tom Stoppard. It takes on some unsettling themes but is also very funny, and brilliantly acted with a stunning central performance by Victoria Hamilton.

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‘What’s Funny About …’

 6 November 2020

I’ve been catching up with ‘What’s Funny About …’ - a fascinating series on BBC Radio 4 Extra in which TV veterans Peter Fincham and Jon Plowman talk to the writers, producers, and performers behind some of Britain’s biggest TV comedy hits, and hear the inside story of how they brought their programmes to the screen. To date they have addressed ‘The Vicar of Dibley’, ‘The Thick of It’, ‘Absolutely Fabulous’, ‘Blackadder’, ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ and ‘W1A’, with guests including Dawn French, Armando Iannucci and Meera Syal. Each episode gives an interesting glimpse behind-the-scenes into the making of some of our favourite recent TV comedies. Fincham and Plowman add an interesting perspective as they were personally involved in commissioning or producing many of these series. And there are intriguing insights into the rivalries between some of the writers and performers (explaining why most of those involved in making ‘Blackadder’ don’t seem to be talking to each other any more). You can listen to all six episodes of ‘What’s Funny About …’ on BBC Sounds at:

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Friday, October 30, 2020

NSO horns rehearsal

 30 October 2020

On 14 March I played Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No 5’ with the Milton Keynes Sinfonia at the Chrysalis Theatre in Milton Keynes (reviewed here in March 2020). As I wrote here at the time, it was an inspirational evening that felt like a bright moment of hope in dark times, but there was a strong expectation that this might be the last live music any of us experiences for quite a while. Since March I have practised playing my French horn at home, I have taken part in several multi-part lockdown recordings and I have pioneered experimental online orchestra rehearsals using the Jamulus software – but I have really missed making music together with other people in the same room. Last night, 229 days after that Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert, I finally got the chance to take part in a real live face-to-face rehearsal. Four of the horn players from the Northampton Symphony Orchestra met at St Mary’s Church in Wollaston, Northamptonshire, to play through some horn quartets. This recently refurbished church provided comfortable surroundings, plenty of room for us to be significantly socially distanced from each other and a pleasantly flattering acoustic. It was really exciting to see each other again after such a long break, and to play music together in which we could make eye contact and co-ordinate timing. We played some simple tunes before attempting a few more ambitious arrangements, including the two pieces we had recorded as multi-part lockdown videos earlier this year (the Scherzo from Shostakovitch ‘Symphony No 10’: and ‘It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing’ by Duke Ellington & Irvin Mills: Playing these live revealed quite how much editing we had each done to our recordings! As a thank you to the church, we also recorded a live performance of ‘Silent Night’ which will be used in the St Mary’s virtual Christmas carol concert. With rising infection rates across the country and severe local restrictions already in place in many areas, we were very lucky to be able to get together yesterday evening. I hope we can meet again soon but I’m incredibly thankful we managed to play music together this week.


Friday, October 23, 2020

'The Kershaw Tapes'

23 October 2020

Regular readers may remember I was a big fan of Andy Kershaw’s much missed BBC Radio 3 show. I last encountered him at The Stables in Milton Keynes on a tour of talks to promote his autobiography (reviewed here in December 2018). So it was a real treat to hear Andy back on Radio 3 for a two-part Sunday Feature ‘The Kershaw Tapes’ in which he introduces recordings made on his trusty Sony Walkman Pro cassette recorder during his travels in Africa and the Americas in the 1980s. These two programmes are a great introduction to what makes Andy Kershaw such a compelling broadcaster – his raw enthusiasm for music, his bemused reflections on the eccentricities of the world, his journalistic framing of a good story and his Zelig-like ability to have been present at key moments in history. The short description of his first trip to Equatorial Guinea in the first episode of ‘The Kershaw Tapes’ is a beautiful miniature Kershaw story – fascinating, incredible, absurd, terrifying and life-affirming. And there’s some great music – exclusive live recordings of some of the world’s greatest musicians performing in their own homes, or in the kitchen of Andy Kershaw’s small flat in Crouch End. You can listen to both episodes of ‘The Kershaw Tapes’ at:

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Friday, October 16, 2020

'Hold Fast' by Stick in the Wheel

 16 October 2020

Amongst the plethora of excellent new English folk music recordings that seem to come out almost every week, ‘Hold Fast’ – the new album from London-based duo Stick in the Wheel – caught my attention because of its unpredictability. Nicola Kearey (vocals) and Ian Carter (guitar/producer) have produced an eclectic collection of songs with some fairly conventional acoustic guitar folk sitting alongside tracks with more of a rock feel plus some electronica and pop. The lyrics include poetry from 10th century Saxon Britain, 17th century London slang and a Yiddish lament. By its nature the album is a bit of a mixed bag (the Guardian’s review suggested Stick in the Wheel were maybe trying too hard) but the best tracks have a swagger reminiscent of Bellowhead. See, for example ‘Budg & Snudg’ featuring the accordion of John Kirkpatrick (whose son Benji Kirkpatrick was a member of Bellowhead and who I reviewed here in April 2009):

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Friday, October 09, 2020

'Pure' by Andrew Miller

 9 October 2020

The best book I’ve read so far this year was Andrew Miller’s 2018 historical thriller ‘Now We Shall Be Entirely Free’, set during the Napoleonic Wars (reviewed here in April 2020). I was keen to read something else by him and have just finished ‘Pure’ – a novel he published in 2011 which is set in pre-revolutionary France of the 1780s (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jonathan Aris). Andrew Miller’s writing is wonderful – beautifully crafted and constantly amusing. He conjures up the reality of living in Paris in 1785, through the quirky tale of the demolition and clearing of an old church and cemetery. He creates an extensive cast of believable, sympathetic characters and his protagonist, the engineer charged with overseeing the demolition project (“a man, neither young nor old”), floats through the story with an innocent naivety. But ‘Pure’ lacks the thriller plot of ‘Now We Shall Be Entirely Free’: it’s a much more gentle tale which feels more interested in the period (and the early stirrings of revolution). Despite three dramatic and violent incidents that punctuate the narrative, you are left with the feeling that not much has really happened. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable and entertaining read and I look forward to reading more Andrew Miller.