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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