Thursday, January 25, 2007

'Clare in the Community' by Harry Venning and David Ramsden

25 January 2007

I've really enjoyed the third series of the radio comedy 'Clare in the Community' by Harry Venning and David Ramsden which has just finished on BBC Radio 4. (You can still 'listen again' to the last episode at I've been a fan of Harry Venning's 'Clare in the Community' strip cartoon in the Guardian's Society section (on Wednesdays) for years (see for recent examples). The radio version has been a really effective translation, retaining plenty of the three-frame format gags (set-up, emphasis, twist) while developing the characters, creating neat, rounded sit-com plots for each 30 minute episode as well as broader story arcs across each series, while keeping it light and very funny. Sally Phillips is great as social worker Clare and Alex Lowe wonderfully put-upon as her long-suffering partner Brian but my favourite is Nina Conti as Clare's former student, Megan (who transmuted from Welsh to Scottish in the radio version!). This is great observational humour which manages to create larger-than-life comic characters whose actions, opinions and behaviours are surprisingly recognisable from real life!

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Friday, January 19, 2007

’13 Songs’ by Julie Feeney

19 January 2007

I’ve been listening to ’13 Songs’, the debut album from Irish singer-songwriter Julie Feeney who recently won the Irish equivalent of the Mercury Music prize. Classically trained (and a member of the National Chamber Choir), she has a great voice and writes delicate, quirky melodies with sparse accompaniment including good use of overlaid vocals. With harpsichord and recorders on some tracks she strays in pseudo-medieval territory (not unlike Joanna Newsom) but the mood is more contemporary classical than early music. Gentle, poignant, puzzling songs with more than a hint of Bjork or Laurie Anderson.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

‘My Father and other Working-Class Football Heroes’ by Gary Imlach

12 January 2007

At three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, just as the teams should have been kicking off, Jeannie and I and Alistair Campbell (plus quite a few other Burnley fans) were beginning to make our way back down the steps of the South Stand at the Madjeski Stadium in Reading. Our 3-hour round trip to Reading had been in vain as Burnley’s FA Cup Third Round match was called off at the last minute because of a water-logged pitch, following a torrential downpour as we were making our way towards the ground. Soaked and despondent we consoled ourselves with the thought that at least Burnley would, rather unexpectedly, feature in the draw for the Fourth Round on Monday! And we were in home in time to hear of Macclesfield’s brave exploits at Chelsea and to see Liverpool’s demise at the hands of Arsenal – as well as Henrik Larsson’s inevitable and predictably brilliant debut goal for Manchester United on Sunday afternoon. I love the FA Cup – particularly the Third Round – always one of the cultural highlights of the year for me.

This week I have been reading ‘My Father and other Working-Class Football Heroes’ by Gary Imlach – the story of his father, Stewart Imlach, a professional footballer who played for Scotland in the 1958 World Cup and won the FA Cup with Nottingham Forest in 1959. Shortly after Stewart’s death, Gary decided to try to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of his father’s life. Through interviews with former playing colleagues, managers and friends and analysis of miles of archive newsprint, he reconstructs a fascinating story. This was an era where the players were often earning less than the factory-working fans who came to cheer them on and were very much part of the local working class community – usually combining their playing careers with part-time jobs as plumbers, builders or, as with Stewart Imlach, joiners.

Gary Imlach has produced a brilliant book that is biography, personal memoir, social history and sporting saga. It is wonderfully written – a non-linear narrative dripping with gorgeous phrases. Chapter Three, about Stewart Imlach’s arrival at Bury Football Club in 1952, starts: “Shortly after the residents of Colindale board the Northern Line for their morning commute south into central London, two groups of people set off the other way, into the past. Turn left out of the tube station for the RAF Museum (don’t forget the Airfix shop on the way back), turn right and cross the road for the British Newspaper Library. We had scrapbooks full of cuttings at home, but they were all highlights and headlines, sort of a director’s cut of my father’s career. Here’s where the rushes were stored.”

And when the working-class Nottingham Forest players are training in London ahead of the 1959 Cup Final, “The wives had to face the Savoy on their own. Plates of asparagus were set in front of them like straightened question marks to which they had no answer. The cutlery was a silver-plated trap set to go off if they dismantled it out of sequence. Waiters hell-bent on humiliating them sprinkled cheese on their soup.”

Like his father weaving past mesmerised defenders on the left wing, Gary Imlach negotiates a slalom around the unreliable memories of the remaining survivors of a black-and-white era. And throughout, the book is laced with poignant regret at the masses of questions he never thought to ask his father until it was too late to do so. This is a wonderful book – I urge you to read it even if you have no interest in football.

(On Tuesday evening Burnley lost the rearranged FA Cup match with Reading 3-2. Oh well, there’s always next year …


Friday, January 05, 2007

‘Caroline or Change’ by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori

5 January 2007

Last week we saw the new musical ‘Caroline or Change’ at the National Theatre in London. Written by Tony Kushner with music by Jeanine Tesori it was much praised by the critics and won the Evening Standard award for best musical. It is set in Louisiana in 1963 and looks at the civil rights movement through the story of a black maid working for a Jewish family on the day Kennedy was assassinated. The music was great – with plenty of numbers in a Tamla Mowtown style plus some klezmer clarinet – and the performances were very strong, particularly the children. But we found the overall experience a little disappointing. The plot was very subtle with little actually happening directly to the characters. There wasn’t much movement on the stage with most of the songs delivered without any element of dance. And few of the songs were given the chance to breathe – with a glimpse of each melody soon giving way to the next before it had had any opportunity to lodge in the memory.

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'Merry Wives The Musical' by Gregory Doran, Paul Englishby and Ranjit Bolt, based on the play by William Shakespeare

5 January 2007

On the Saturday before Christmas we were in Stratford to see ‘Merry Wives The Musical’ – Shakespeare’s play adapted and directed for the RSC by Gregory Doran with new music by Paul Englishby and lyrics by Ranjit Bolt. It was good, silly fun – veering very close to pantomime – with Simon Callow as Falstaff and Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly. There were some great performances – particularly from the comedian/impressionist Alistair McGowan who demonstrated some wonderful physical comedy and a fine singing voice and from Alexandra Gilbreath and Haydn Gwynne as the wives, who both looked as if they were thoroughly enjoying themselves! We particularly liked the set with its rotating cottages/haystacks and exaggerated sense of perspective. Overall the show lacked a little spark but it was enjoyable and the three hours flew by.

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