Monday, 25 October 2010

The King's Speech: How Colin Firth Struggled With His Words

Colin Firth’s career-defining mid-90s moment in Pride and Prejudice, emerging from a pond with a wringing wet frilly shirt clinging to his manly torso, might have shunted him to the top of any top romantic totty poll going but it didn’t do him many favours as a serious actor, and neither did his subsequent role in pretty much every British romcom. He may have put on a passable turn each time as a handsome chap (and his posh-boys-fighting scene in Bridget Jones is properly funny slapstick) but none of it seemed much of a stretch, acting-wise.
His thespian breakthrough may have come with Tom Ford's A Single Man, but I have been as guilty as anyone of thinking of Firth as a good-looking lightweight, certainly no great shakes as a serious actor. At least, not until I saw a little of what went into his lauded appearance as George V1, or Bertie, in Tom Hooper’s Oscar-tipped The King’s Speech. I was there, on what must have been the coldest day of last year, when the key scene – when Bertie delivers an excruciating speech at the British Empire Exhibition in 1925, and his stammer is revealed to the British public - was filmed at Elland Road football stadium in Leeds. It irrevocably changed my opinion – and that of anyone else who has seen him as the tortured Bertie, crippled and humiliated by his stammer.
I was one of the hundreds of extras who packed out the stands in their 1920s costumes, standing up and sitting down interminably on each take as the royal party entered, and trying to look mortified at Bertie’s speech, during the long day’s filming. It was hard enough for us – so freezing that the crew handed out hand-warmers – and just as hard for the principals; the on-set rumour was that Derek Jacobi had been provided with a hot water bottle to tuck underneath his Archbishop of Canterbury’s robes. It was a demanding and fascinating day, and the most impressive thing of all was to see how hard Firth worked. During take after take, he never flagged, but determinedly gave everything he could to the hard task of delivering a public oration from a man strangulated by a terrible speech defect. It was, as it was supposed to be, painful and difficult to hear, and see. On each of the many takes, Firth stepped up, in more ways than one. He worked his socks off in a part that cannot have been easy to play, and succeeded brilliantly . That freezing cold day, I watched Colin Firth memorably transform himself not just into a role, which is what any actor is supposed to do, but into a great actor. I can't wait to see the rest of the film, but on the evidence of that one day's work, if Firth gets the mooted Oscar for playing Bertie, he will have earned it, and the right to never have to appear as a drip in a romcom, ever again.
Watch the official trailer:

Saturday, 28 August 2010

A Genteel Lady Lunatic

‘Ah,’ said the director. ‘You’re the unfortunates.’
I didn’t feel particularly unfortunate at that point. True, I was wearing the most hideous costume possible, but I’d had a lovely lunch, passed most of the afternoon in entertaining banter with good-natured people, and the hardest thing I’d had to do was stand up.
Dressed in my awful outfit – a stained, shapeless cotton frock the colour of dishwater, and a hideous brown cardigan - I was playing the resident of a mental institution in the 1930s for the BBC’s forthcoming, Andrew Davies-penned adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s1930s novel South Riding. ‘Ooh you do look poorly,’ said the head of wardrobe – before I had been attended to by hair and makeup. When it’s screened, I will be, if visible at all, glimpsed on the edge of a shot, sitting in a basket chair overlooking the beautiful grounds of a stately home, clutching my blanket and yes, rocking backwards and forwards, as instructed.
South Riding is a novel about local government and a Yorkshire community struggling with the depression of the 1930s. One of its strands is a social-realist version of Jane Eyre: Sarah Burton, the heroine, is the bright, feisty schoolteacher deeply attracted to Robert Carne, a brooding, devastating landowner who made an unsuitable marriage to a highly-strung aristocrat who has gone insane. There having been significant advances in psychiatric care between the 1860s and the 1930s, unlike Bertha Rochester, the madwoman incarcerated in the attic, Muriel Carne is the resident of a genteel nursing home in Harrogate.
Winifred Holtby’s novel insists on the care devoted to her, and having been written before 1938, when electro-convulsive therapy was first used on human subjects, it is entirely possible that the kind of care Muriel would have experienced, in her expensive nursing home, would have been more enlightened and humane than the treatment received by Bertha, locked away out of sight. I’m not saying that conditions for the mentally ill poor would have been better then, or that there weren’t terrible instances of women being incarcerated on slim pretexts, or that the 1930s were a golden age for the treatment of psychiatric illness. But South Riding, for all its rich understanding of human flaws, is a novel written with a certain idealistic hopefulness about the potential for human goodness. The way my character was treated in make-up reflected this: ‘the nurses would have done it for her,’ they said, as my hair was pinned into a bun.
The attention to detail on a production like this is astounding. Two pairs of shoes for me, which would never be seen, were rejected: one for being too nice, the other because their buckles were too shiny. I was asked to remove my very tiny earrings, which were not even visible beneath my hair. A great deal of care is taken over everything, even on an ‘unfortunate.’ And although the word could evidently be intended disparagingly as well as meant kindly, there is something about the term ‘unfortunates,’ which suggests compassion, of a kind.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

For One Night Only - Taraf and Marko

The Hackney Empire hosted royalty – Romany royalty - last night. The beautifully ornate Victorian theatre, so shabbily splendid that you could imagine Angela Carter’s Fevvers flying above the heads of the assembled revellers, was the perfect setting for an incredible line-up of two of the brightest jewels in Roma music’s spangled crown: Taraf de Haidouks, supported by Boban I Marko Markovic Orkestar.
Boban wasn’t able to perform for personal reasons, but Marko, the stellar Serbian trumpeter’s son, proved himself worthy of the title of anointed heir, leading the Orkestar through a set of jazzy, oriental coceks that proved that a band of portly, hoodlum-looking young men with tubas and trumpets can teach the world a thing or two about rocking out, and rocking hard. Oozing testosterone, swagger, swank and gypsy flash, they parped out snakey, insistent sounds that induced a collective sweat-soaked delirium. This was music so upbeat and infectious that not moving to it wasn’t an option: it was heady, glorious stuff.
Marko and his band of tuba-toting troubadours took no prisoners in forcing the audience to live in the moment, but the fabled Taraf de Haidouks transported them to an older, stranger place. Apparently timeless, the virtuoso Romanian band of lautari play music so deep and wild that as you hear it and are drawn into their world, you somehow understand that you are hearing stories – strange, terrible and beautiful - that are elemental, or universal, and completely entrancing.
Taraf have survived the deaths of two of their members, the legendary violinist Nicolae Neacsu and singer and cimbalon player Cacurica, and their shifting line-up makes it feel as if the music they are channelling is of more significance than any one member of the band, no matter how vast his contribution may have been. Onstage, it looks shambolic as veteran Taraf members come and go, but with each tune they cast a spell that is powerfully potent. In particular, singer Ilie Iorga raises hairs on the backs of necks with the Cind Eram La, a chronicle of a peasant uprising; to call it haunting is an understatement. Razor-thin flautist Falcaru blows thrilling, trilling notes from his instrument like a demented Pied Piper; his solo in Flight Of The Bumblebee is so fast and so fluid that it seems impossible for a human being to produce such shimmering, quicksilver sound. An hour and a half passes as if in a dream, and having been transported by the Taraf into what felt like another world, afterwards it seemed as if they were only onstage for a few brief, magical minutes.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The man who shares a house with Edith Piaf

Yesterday I met a man who knew Edith Piaf. Bernard Marchois, who runs the Edith Piaf museum tucked down a sidestreet in Menilmontant, first saw her perform when he was 16. Today, nearly 40 years after her death, his life is utterly entwined with that of the dead singer. The former teddy boy is a tall, elderly, elegant gentleman with a deep tan and a very slight stoop, courteous and world-weary, who welcomes Piaf’s disciples to the two rooms in Menilmontant that comprise the extraordinary Edith Piaf Museum: a place so intimate that it feels as if it’s her home.
In fact, it’s his home, although he told me that once, for a short while, in 1933, it was also hers. Four flights up, the two rooms packed with Piaf’s worldly goods are part of his flat. You have to make a private appointment to visit; Marchois speaks personally to each would-be worshipper at the Piaf shrine; allocates them a time and gives them the door codes necessary to gain entrance to the building.
Inside, every inch of the two small rooms is pervaded by Piaf’s forcible presence. A life-sized lack-and-white cut-out of her rather spookily dominates the room despite her tiny size; I’m 5’5” and the top of her head was level with my bra. But, as a recorded version of La Vie En Rose drifts shamelessly through the air, it is obvious why the Little Sparrow has such a hold on French hearts, and those of other romantics, wherever they might be born.
The rooms are full of paintings, photographs and hand-written tributes, but the most fascinating items are the things she might have worn, touched, or loved. Her tiny shoes are there, as are two of the black dresses she famously wore when she performed – both enveloped in plastic, and once tucked behind a door - and the accompanying crucifixes. There’s the limited edition perfume La Mome; her great love Marcel Cerdan’s boxing gloves; an enormous plush bear given to her by last husband Theo, and incongruously, a housecoat in rich, warm red velvet. But then, Marchois says that, in person, she was different from how this icon of heartbreak and defiant survival appeared when she sang: in life, he says, she was funny, and loved to laugh.
She certainly knew how to inspire love. Marchois has written two books about her and devoted his life to tending her flame and welcoming her devotees to his apartment. You can almost feel Piaf in the room, and if you were to believe in ghosts, you might feel hers was hovering, just about to make an entrance.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Dandy, Now In The Underworld

Sebastian Horsley, who died this week of a suspected heroin overdose, might have deliberately made himself into a ridiculous, posturing figure, but he was enormously good value for money. His autobiography, Dandy In The Underworld, is as entertaining an account as it's possible to imagine of a life gone wilfully not just to the dogs, but to the hounds of hell. Foppish, narcissistic, excessive and ludicrous, his antics included having himself crucified as an art project and squandering his vast inheritance on drugs, prostitutes and outrageous tailored garments. Telling his tall tales with a wit that teetered between grandiosity and self-deprecation, Dandy is a devilishly good read from someone who, self-styled pervert and wastrel though he may have been, also went to great lengths to avoid being boring. He was British eccentric in the high gothic style, with The Hellfire Club, Lord Byron and Aleister Crowley competing as influences with the show-off instincts and urges towards decadence of those 1980s clubbers who really did believe in revolting into style. Horsley being Horsley, he doubtless made it a mission to take the concept of ‘revolting’ as far as possible – which in his case, was a very long way indeed.
Whatever he might have done by way of transcending the everyday tedium of a life on earth, this particular Dandy should be at home in the Underworld. Let’s hope he is, and that they’re stoking the fires high and having an enormous party where he’s welcomed as a guest of honour.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Animal Rights? Or Wrongs?

I went to see Circus Mondao's new show Gypsy last night, in a tent next to a football stadium in Doncaster. Formed in 2006, it’s a relatively new touring circus far removed from the dazzling big-top thrills of the likes of Moscow State Circus. In a way, it’s a throwback to the traditional circuses of yesteryear: small-scale set ups, touring an amiable show to a family crowd. Bippo the clown is a young, bouncing August; juggler Ben Coles makes up in charm for some cack-handed moments and the only performer whose skills are of the kind that put your heart in your mouth is Miss Carolina, on slow trapeze and corde lisse. The Mondao people come from old-school circus families, work damned hard, and even if it’s the kind of circus where people sometimes drop things, it offers a night of slightly shambolic sawdust and sparkle that means you leave with a twinkle in your eye.
For all its sweetness, Mondao is also old-fashioned in a way that causes controversy: it is one of seven touring circuses in the UK to use animals in their acts. On the opening night, when we visited, a small crowd of nicely-spoken, well-meaning activists from The Captive Animals’ Protection Society were very courteously asking people to boycott the show. According to Circus Mondao, they hadn’t been inside and had a look at the animals and the conditions in which they’re kept. This is a shame: the CAPS people might have found their prejudices challenged.
Rather than needing protection from their owners, Mondao’s animals shine with health and contentment. In the ring, beyond some formation dressage the most taxing thing any of them is asked to do is put their front legs on a lightly raised platform. They’re fed nibbles and petted throughout: in fact, the whole set up is more like a petting zoo than a display of tricks. Mondao’s way is to proudly parade its menagerie – which includes llamas, zebras and a Bactrian camel – and beyond that, the circus demands very little of them. After the show, the audience is invited to visit the animals and their trainers in their quarters. The RSCPA is also invited, although the animal rights organisation has no legal right to inspect circus animals. From yesterday’s evidence, you’d think they’d be hard-pressed to find anything to object to.
The circus would not have come into being if it weren’t for performing animals. Philip Astley, who founded what was to become the circus in the late 18th century, was an ex-army stunt rider whose tented displays of daredevil horsemanship became the UK’s first circus show. In The Circus Book (a fascinating 1940s compendium of snippets of British circus history), there are many testimonies from both circus folk and observers not just of the love of the performers for their beasts, but to the way the animals were treated as they deserved to be: as the stars of the show. There are also many references to the fact that cowing and terrifying animals doesn’t succeed in training them to show off for a crowd. More recently, Nell Gifford’s Josser – an account of her life working with horses in British touring circuses – makes plain the bond between the showmen and women and the animals they work with.
Circus has irrevocably altered thanks to the changing attitudes of audiences towards performing animals. The days when a parade of elephants would trumpet the arrival of a circus into town are gone forever. Now, the emphasis is on the skill of the human acts, and for many people that is as it should be. Cruelty to animals is unarguably abhorrent and unacceptable. But perhaps it is unfair to see cruelty to animals where it doesn’t exist – and without looking at what is actually happening before making emotional judgements. The animal activists are well-intentioned but Circus Mondao is one place where their concern looks as if it’s misplaced.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Wandering Stars

Eugene Hutz currently resides in Rio, but his spiritual home is on the road. Hundreds of years ago, Hutz would have been an itinerant musician, pitching up with his band of musicians with equal ease at campfires and palaces, because wherever he was, he’d have brought the party with him.
Today it’s different only in scale. Gogol Bordello are global stars, playing to thousands, but the essential quality is the same. New album Trans-Continental Hustle shows Hutz and Gogol Bordello firing on all cylinders, picking up influences from wherever they happen to be and in the way gypsy musicians have always done, infusing them with their own spirit and making them their own.
Produced by Rick Rubin, Trans-Continental Hustle marries Gogol’s inimitable incendiary gypsy-punk to the sounds and rhythms of Latin America. Tunes are infused with a mariachi vibe, heightening the impression that in this incarnation, the band have marched out of a spaghetti western to deliver their rebel songs. The best parts, though, are when Hutz’s desperado vocals are matched to the wild, virtuoso violin of Sergey Ryabtsev or Yuri Lemeshev’s atmospheric accordion.
The songs tell stories: some infused with plangent melancholia (When Universes Collide); or irrepressible lust for life (lead track Pala Tute). Hutz fits into the company of the Joe Strummers, Manu Chaos and Rachid Tahas of this world, voice fraught with conviction and with raggedy eloquence making personal music from global injustice as well as his own adventures.
He and Gogol may be firmly established in the rock‘n’roll hierarchy but, in contrast to many of the polite players on today’s scene, they make music for the underdogs of this world and the people who have no choice but to find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks. It may not be where a lot of people would want to live, but it’s where the best parties are: the places where living in the moment and giving yourself over to the music and dancing are a defiant, glorious act of resistance.