A Very English Scandal, Television Series, BBC

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A Very English Scandal is a 3 part series, a fictionalised retelling of a political scandal that took place in the UK in the 1970s. Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberals for part of that time and he was a very well known politician throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s. He is alleged to have had an affair with a man named Norman Scott, this affair ended badly and Norman Scott threatened to tell all; to the police, the papers and Jeremy’s mother. When he began carrying out these threats, beginning with a detailed and graphic letter to the mother, Jeremy Thorpe is supposed to have hired a hitman to kill Scott. The hitman was incompetent, shot Scott’s dog instead and it all ended up in a well documented court case.

Lets just say that if you were to try and make up a salacious story to sell newspapers to the British public in the 1970s, you could hardly invent a story better than this. It had everything, its biggest difficulty would be convincing the readers that it was actually true. The court found them all not guilty, however from speaking to people who lived through the newspaper coverage, the accusations were believed by the general public and the feeling was that they were acquitted because of some biased summing up by the judge and the protection of “an old boys network” which was prevalent in political circles at the time.

Nevertheless, they were acquitted and this series is fiction because it assumes that they were all guilty as charged. It has Thorpe and Bissell plotting to kill Scott, something that Thorpe denied until his death, although Bissell gave evidence to the contrary.  Stephen Frears directed this, with great attention to detail, even without the story this is a beautiful period drama, the 1960s and 1970 are lovingly recreated in the clothes, the decoration, the speech, the attitudes. Russell T. Davies wrote the piece and he adds humour and wit to the dialogue, he peoples the back story with the eccentrics of the time, but basically sticks to the story as it was covered when it broke.  The narrative itself really didn’t need any embellishment, it was more a question of keeping it from being too outrageous.

Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, he is absolutely believable in the role of a suave, charismatic politician, with a defective moral compass, prepared to do anything to cling on to power.  Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott, is a tougher sell, part naïve ingenue, part worldly manipulator. He is alternately the hurt boy led astray and the vindictive gold digger who knows how much his silence is worth, this is a thin line to walk – but in the end, he carries it off well. There are some great performances throughout the series, Patricia Hodge is wonderful as Ursula Thorpe, Jeremy’s indomitable mother.

There are some lovely, funny cameo roles as British eccentrics, David Bamber has a role as the 8th Earl of Bamber, with badgers running around his country house. He does appear to be as eccentric as his role suggests – he introduced both the homosexual reform bill in the House of Lords and a bill for the protection of Badgers. When asked why he thought that the first passed and the second failed, he is reported to have said, “Well, there aren’t any Badgers in the House of Lords”

Overall this is a admirable treatment of an incredible story, I was aware of the people involved in the story before watching, without any great knowledge of the detail. It gives insight into the political and social attitudes of the time, for example, it was more damaging to a political career to be accused of homosexuality than to be accused of murder. It is well written, entertaining and funny, with some great acting. It is on BBC I-player now and likely to distributed around the world in the near future. If you have any interest in politics, the 1960s and ’70s, attitudes to LGBT rights, Britain and British eccentrics, I think that you will enjoy this. Actually, even if you have no interest in any of those things, I think that this series is funny enough to entertain you.

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Langan’s Brasserie, Stratton Street, London W1

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Langan’s Brasserie has been in Stratton Street since 1976. It was a favourite of mine in the 1980s but I think I haven’t been in over 25 years. I am surprised how little has changed in that time and more surprised at how that pleased me, it was like unexpectedly bumping into an old friend in the street.

Langan’s is smart without being pretentious, don’t expect anything big or flashy, but they do what they do very well. It is the perfect restaurant for a special occasion, or if there is a large group meeting for a meal. On arrival, we were shown to a lounge area, to order a drink while we awaited the rest of our party. When everyone had arrived, the Maître D’ showed us to our table while the waiter transferred our drinks.

The décor, if my memory is accurate, is still as it was in the 1980s. This consists of plain cream walls covered in mixed photos, paintings and magazine sketches. One wall has many large windows, making the room bright and airy at lunch or in the early evening. The tables are set with white linen tablecloths, good quality crockery and glassware. The room feels smart when you enter. The menu is a mixture of French and English dishes all well known. The soufflé with anchovy sauce is wonderful and the Caesar salad is excellent. Both of these are quite substantial for starters. The main course portion sizes are big too, there is nothing too unusual on the list but we had five different main dishes at our table and each one was prepared very well.

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The wine list is extensive, a surprising amount of them are served by the glass. The service was really very good, there are plenty of staff, they seemed unhurried but were always there when we needed them. The actual menu itself is attractive, designed by David Hockney. The restaurant was quite full and, although we ate early, we never felt rushed, or that the table would be needed again at a certain time, I believe that we would been allowed to linger as long as we wished.

Langan’s is not cheap, but it is very centrally located and the food, service and ambience are reliably good. It is the perfect example of a great 1980s London/Paris Brasserie and long may it continue to be so. I hope that I will not have so long between visits in future.

Bat Out of Hell – The Musical, Dominion Theatre, London 2018

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Bat Out Of Hell – The Musical is a full-on, no holds barred show. It is not afraid to take risks, it is prepared to appear ridiculous and one has to admire that bravery. Sometimes these bets pay off and there are moments of stupendous, over-the-top brilliance. Most of these come in the songs that are on the Bat out of Hell album, when the spectacle and choreography seem to step up a gear. The original LP was about forty minutes long and this show runs a little under three hours including the interval.

All the tracks from 1977 are done well, and some of Jim Steinman’s other early songs fit in well. Surprisingly “It’s all coming back to me now” made famous by Celine Dion is a real highlight. However some of the other songs are saccharine, subpar Disney, teenage angst repackaged for the late middle aged.

The storyline is poor, difficult to follow and uninventive. The characters are all two dimensional, composite caricatures. Despite this, some of the performances are outstanding. Andrew Polec has the perfect rock bearing as Strat. Christina Bennington, who plays Raven, has a lovely voice and can act well, a more traditional musical might suit her talents better, I’d love to see her sing Sondheim.  Rob Fowler is outstanding as Falco; a camp, overblown baddie – who can really sing. Perhaps it’s true that the devil has all the best tunes. Danielle Steers steals the show as Zahara, she has an amazing rock voice and rock attitude, she commands the stage whenever she sings.

The set is excellent, the huge stage at the Dominion allowing it to be up to four different areas, all at the same time. The special effects are among the best I have ever seen in a stage musical, although I suspect that those who sit in the front few rows miss parts of the show because of the amount of dry ice rolling off the front of the stage. The choreography is mostly wonderful, especially in the big set pieces and the songs that end each half ensure that you leave the auditorium on a high.

The audience adored it. The cheering began when the first backing singer arrived on stage, even before the start of the show and there was an instant standing ovation at the end. I can understand why it is such a hit wherever it goes, it is a big overblown, melodramatic rock opera and it does that wonderfully well. I think it could have been even better if it cut the emotionally manipulative ballads and ran maybe an hour shorter.

 

 

Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1

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The Ferryman is a kitchen sink drama with an epic storyline. Apart from the prologue, it is totally set in the large kitchen of a family farmhouse outside Derry. The action is a day and a half in the lives of the extended family that resides there. But, the themes are huge, its about family and war, about love and loyalty, about freedom fighting and terrorism, and it tells these stories through short interwoven family interactions that come and go throughout the play that gradually meld together to make a complex tapestry.

Jez Butterworth has been spoken of as one of the best writers around today, and with  The Ferryman he delivers. The language and the narrative are superlative, it is the writing of someone both confident and ambitious. He is brave to wind traditional songs and ancient stories through the dialogue and he is talented pull it off so well.

The direction is awesome, there are 17 characters in this play, without counting the live goose, rabbit or the baby. Just moving them all around the stage must have been a major task but, Sam Mendes makes the whole setting feel real,  natural and, even simple.

The cast is also fabulous, lots of lovely performances from so many different actors. Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly are great as Quinn and Caitlin, but right through the cast there were great turns. I loved Rob Malone as the troubled Oisin. Brid Brennan had a scene stealing part as Aunt Maggie Faraway and she played it perfectly. Dearbhla Molloy and Des McAleer are wonderful as Aunt Patricia and Uncle Pat.

As you can tell, I loved this show. I have to finish because I am about to run out of superlatives. This is a play that will become a classic piece of literature that will be on school curricula.

 

 

Zigger Zagger, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

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From the second the opening whistle sounds and the cast of 50 begin their football chants, the audience is dragged in – to a world of youth tribalism, disaffection and tough choices. Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect size for this play, large enough that the cast doesn’t outnumber the audience, small enough that the cacophony of sound envelops you to feel part of the crowd.

Zigger Zagger is a late 20th century parable, ostensibly about football hooliganism but also about loyalty and fitting in. The protagonist, Harry Philton, excellently played by Josh Barrow, is a school leaver searching for belonging and is drawn to the local football terraces. He is aware of its limitations as a life choice so investigates the alternatives.

Among these are: Police, Army, Religion, Apprenticeship and, settling down. These options are caricatured, often in musical or poetic form. Adam Smart is particularly funny as the Youth Careers Officer. In between each option we are brought back to the terraces for a song and each time we feel the allure of being part of the crowd.

The soundtrack is great, T.Rex, Mud, Bay City Rollers even the Sex Pistols. The crowd songs are classical and traditional, with some chanting thrown in for good measure. Zigger Zagger is a boisterous and entertaining evening, with some great performances, and an interesting reminder of a specific moment in this country’s development.

 

The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black) 2016

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This is a curate’s egg of a film – good in parts. It’s sets out to be a pastiche of a corny 1970s Blaxploitation movie, and it succeeds almost too well for its own good. The plot is very ’70s, a light, far fetched, political conspiracy theory.

The characters are caricatures. Ryan Gosling as Holland March is quite knowing about it and carries it off very well, we get to like him and he is actually very funny.  Russell Crowe seems to be just walking through the film saying his lines, so his character is two dimensional. Angourie Rice is great as Holland’s daughter and also has some of the best lines of the show.

This movie contains violence, sex references, nudity, bad language and drug use; all gratuitous, all characteristic of the time. Not so funny in itself but funny because in the 70s they were only recently able to put these into films, so they did, even if it was unnecessary.  The humour is broad, bordering on slapstick, but it works, mostly

The sets are perfect and costumes are right on.  I particularly enjoyed the soundtrack, apparently some of the songs were too late for the time in which it was set, but they felt right to me.

On balance, Shane Black has done an excellent job directing “The Nice Guys” in that, from slight material, he has made a little go a long way.