Review : David Baddiel “Fame” – Purcell Rooms

Gosh, but the Queen Elizabeth Hall is a spooky place.  Built in 1967, accessible only via a concrete flight of stairs just above the skateboarding bit of the South Bank complex and not – I discover to my fury – named after Elizabeth Taylor, it remains welded inside a late 1960s, architectural nightmare.  The toilets are especially weird.  Unchanged, the toilet paper dispenses from oval-shaped holders that may have doubled as a prop from the first series of Doctor Who.  The flush is resounding, as flushes on loos used to be.  It is a sad truth, but as the British have consumed less beef, boiled puddings and suet and swapped them for chorizo, lamb pasanda and Pret a Manger sushi, the British toilet has lost its imperial flushing zeal.  But the Queen Elizabeth Hall toilets know what they are about.  They’re the kind of loo you can imagine Richard Burton sitting on whilst smoking a fag and flicking ruefully through The Sunday Mirror.

In the Queen Elizabeth Hall terribly well dressed and terribly tidy middle class people resolve not to complain about the shocking Rioja they get in plastic glasses filled to the brim.  The wine inside the glasses tastes of damp November twilights and disappointment.  Beady eyed matrons rustle The Saturday Telegraph Arts supplement and eat Hob Nobs which they secreted in their handbags earlier back in Epsom.  It seems a very odd place indeed to go and see a part stand up, part memoir reflection on fame by David Baddiel, but here we are – his novels precariously piled up in a pile on a 1967 style table by the toilets, a smattering of patrons awaiting a classical concert in a room that smells of school.  Outside, the sky farts and creaks its way through the darkness of the first night after the clocks have gone back.  Oh I do apologise, all of this is making an evening with D Baddiel sound rather gothic and it really isn’t.  But the venue was a terribly weird idea.  It’s Waterloo for a start, and no one wants to go to the other side of the river unless it’s life and death / on a promise/ imminent nuclear attack due in North London.  But there were many other venues that would have served this show better – the UCL theatre, the glorious spaces of The Soho Theatre or even a week crammed into the sweaty intimacy of Islington’s Kings Head.

There were probably some other support acts that may have served this show better, or maybe he was having an off night, but unfortunately the support failed to connect with the audience.  Audience members appeared disgruntled during the interval foisted upon them between Starter and Main Dish.  The couple behind me were roues of the televised comedy scene, reminiscing about their evenings in pockets of West London seeing 8 Out of 10 Cats being filmed and eerily turning to each other and saying “Well, you know what we were doing this time last week…”   in a really unsavoury way.  They may well have only been in the radio audience of Just a Minute but they made it sound as if she’d spent last week trussed up whilst he indulged in radio audience themed role play. When David Baddiel did emerge – following the obligatory playing of David Bowie’s Fame to set the scene – it was clear he had had a marvellous time doing the 5:2.  So dieted and svelte was he that he seemed to have gone a trifle too far and swiftly shrunk to the 4:1.  Either way, he needs some matzo balls.  It sounds shocking, but he says he’s nearly 50.  Chillingly, I turned to my friend who had kindly bought me a vat of damp wine in a pint glass and said: “If David Baddiel is 50, how old does that make me?”

The answer was old enough to remember when he was first well known and old enough to have been young enough at the time to have gone to see him at Wembley Arena, where security searched my bag and confiscated my smoked salmon sandwiches.  I still do not know why this was. In those days, the heady, bizarre conflicted twosome that was Newman and Baddiel was hurtling uncontrollably into an Avalon-financed comedy pile up.  After three years in a van together touring the country dressed alternately as bickering History professors and Soho perverts, Rob Newman and David Baddiel were desperate for a divorce.  It’s fortunate that they didn’t stay together long enough to have children.  As it was, the combination of the then apparently porn-obsessed Baddiel and the startlingly beautiful Newman didn’t appear to be entirely simpatico and you had to wonder what kind of stars had been in alignment when they started writing together in the first place.  An awkward BBC documentary aired the same week they played Wembley Arena, showing them travelling side by side in a van seat along the M6 not talking and awkwardly eating service station sandwiches, whilst Sean Lock sat beside them like a Relate counsellor who had finally met a couple he couldn’t help.  Dave dressed like, well like the person he was, a North West London Jewish Arts graduate of the late 1980s, whilst Rob appeared to be channelling The Scarlet Pimpernel and risked being buried under the weight of his own velvet frock coats.    “We probably won’t work together again,” said Baddiel looking wired and distressed.  Comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll then, but the queue to rock ‘n’ roll with Baddiel was decidedly shorter than that for Newman, whose sexual attraction was positioned at such a glorious Olympian height that most of Wembley Arena lunged forward and offered him their uteruses during a five minute interval of disturbed, hollering feminine hysteria when he first appeared on stage.  I’ve yet to witness anything as unquenchable as the particular thirst that several thousand women appeared to have for him that night (and you’re talking to a lady who’s seen middle aged women fall over during Frank Sinatra concert encores) but there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.  His reaction to the infinite horror of being caught in the oestrogen headlights of thousands of young ladies was to go to ground.  He emerged several years later as an political activist, author and eco-warrior, and I really can’t blame him.  The initial upsurge of their fame was so strident and hysterical and sudden that it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that it was a really unpleasant experience for both of them.  That’s one of the peculiar things fame does.  Aside from being a glittery bauble of excess, money and adulation it darkens and splinters and seemed to cause Newman and Baddiel’s working relationship to combust.  Their management company, Avalon, also came under some fire for their marketing campaign of them – what were they doing putting Newman and Baddiel on the front cover of the NME and the Melody Maker?  They weren’t musicians.  But to criticise Avalon for this on grounds of it being inappropriate was to miss the point : there was no where else to put them (Oddly there still wouldn’t be – in the thirty years since the alternative comedy movement there is still no monthly magazine or journalism niche to serve it). Avalon put Newman and Baddiel everywhere they could.  And it all went a little bit bonkers.  Even a groupie experience of the time that Baddiel recalls is tinged with awkward humiliation and distaste when he is coerced into saying his catchphrase in the middle of proceedings.  Never mind, off they trotted on their different paths and we are left only to regret that the idea Baddiel said him and Newman had had for a sitcom set in a lunatic asylum (working title “In The Bin”) wasn’t picked up by the BBC.

After his decree absolute from Newman (he got custody of the jokes), Baddiel developed a long-standing partnership with Frank Skinner which led to a sofa-centric television career, which he curtailed slightly to accommodate novel writing, before blossoming out into film writing and – now – musicals.  His ruminations on fame come at a significant time because they concern themselves partly with the impact that social media has on the manner in which people who are well known are perceived.  This is essentially what he is dealing with : not fame itself but the way that the circus hall of mirror’s perception of fame appears to construct you.  His dalliance with fame has been , as he outlines in this show, a push-me, pull-me sort of thing, as it only can be for someone who relies partly on public performance and partly on solitary writing.  When he’s on television, he’s on television.  When he’s having a fruitful writing period, people approach him in West Country car parks assuming he is ill.  Television is the platform by which society judges how far you rank on the fame-o-meter.  Television, not social media, is the golden egg.  If you’re on television you’re doing well because your visibly channelling yourself into millions of peoples living rooms.  If you happen to make films like Steve Coogan well, then – you’re massive.  If you’re writing books you may as well not exist.

Much of the time it’s probably irrelevant for David Baddiel to discover that David Baddiel is famous, because, as he says in this show, 6 out of 10 people think he’s Ben Elton.  One of these is Andrew Lloyd Webber who, having written a show with Ben Elton, really ought to know better.  Indeed, there is a vast similarity in the type of facial hair / glasses and physical (pre – 5:2) shape – with the main difference being that Baddiel has always walked in a way that my mother would say was schlocking about.  He isn’t a schlock, but walks with a deep curve on his shoulders that makes you want to immediately enrol him in some Pilates classes at the nearest day centre.  However, he did recently tweet pictures of himself recovering in a clinic having had his back operated on, so perhaps his schlocking days are numbered and he will be forced into proper deportment.

Over the last six or seven years, Baddiel has focused away from television and more into writing, in other words, he has sought to be a little less famous / ignored by Madonna / dealing with the surreal every day business of being a Someone.  At this stage, he begins to acknowledge the liberation of people not quite knowing who he is anymore, but then Twitter invented itself and he has a very funny twenty minutes musing on internet trolls.  The problem with the perception of fame, he says, is that the over-riding culture we live in presents it in two ways – either fanciful, glorious adoration or death tragedy.  His experience, is neither, albeit this is a befuddled “third” way.  It isn’t entirely clear what the summing up of this show is : Baddiel repeats the premise of it several times – an investigation or a deconstruction of the process of discovering people think you’re utterly different to who you actually are – but this is smart comedy about an aspect of our culture which many others have chosen to leave unexamined.  It’s brilliantly funny but much of the laughs are underlined with a real sense of anxiety – the troll who abuses, the knife in the side of the internet that is Twitter, and the virulent poison that is England’s particular brand of sly anti-semitism.  These issues bring a sort of odd bitterness to the laughter.  There are all manner of despots, racists and idiots who consider those who engage in public performance have consciously lined themselves up to be fodder for abuse.  And they haven’t.  In fact, it is his musings on how anti-semitism is presented in British culture that are the must illuminating of the evening – how this country, which is dedicated to using words that express meaning without actually using the words themselves, ends up repeating phrases slyly synonymous with, and therefore disparaging of, Jewishness; “North London” being the most over-used example.  The phrase “North London” becomes a respectable disparaging conduit when what is truly meant is “Jew”.

The virulent side of fame is balanced out by referring to his family photographs and stories, notably how the American celebrity culture is echoed in something so apparently straightforward as his daughter’s junior school leaving show, and also in the comment that most people seem jolly nice.  But it seemed a strange end of the show to play a video of his daughter singing a song, and it underlined the fact that the show did not in fact have an ending.  And that’s really a shame because this was a series of observant, intelligent, very funny – yet slightly disjointed – tales.    Baddiel is saying something really worth saying it here, both about the nature of celebrity and the over-arching press culture that serves to enhance or destroy it.  It’s just that I was left with the the sense that he hadn’t quite said it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next update will be on November 21st.  Thank you.

Hello Foxy (Vulpes Vulpes)

Despite the near constant presence of them, there is  something special about spotting a fox.  During the day we can forget they exist, consider them an urban myth of our streets, but at night, the fox makes it entirely clear this is his London, his patch and he is absolutely astonished to see us trespass upon it.  They can only be caught in the blue, nocturnal gaze for a moment or two, almost always in late summer (reasons for that to follow), and whilst their physical looks are not in themselves compelling, the audacity with which they present themselves is.  For a second, in which he sees you before you see him, he’s got your eyeline, frozen in the clinical glare of the car light, and he crouches, one foot raised, warily staring as he pauses in his moonlit business.  For, make no mistake, foxes are busy creatures, and no one else is going to undertake that night’s scavenging, you know.  “You?”  their eyes seem to say.  “You?”  The tail stands, curving daintily.  “What are you doing here?  I say, this really won’t do, you know.  It is most irregular. I am a FOX. ”  Then they’re gone.  Whilst unsure how timid they are, I know they try to avoid us.  There are two that live in breaks in a fence beside a public path to the woods behind our flat in Finchley.  Very, very rarely I see them at night when I return to our quiet road.  For some reason I like them.  “Hello Fox No 1.”  I whisper, as he gazes startled as this be-hatted woman in her late thirties who totters stupidly down the road after Pilates.  “Evenin’ Fox No 2,” I nod.  They bolt off as soon as they see me, resentfully sniffing towards the bins that are tightly lidded at the side of the house.  “Spoilsport,” they seem to say. “Gissa chicken leg.  I’ve got five kids.”    Fox No 2 is more debonair.  Probably smokes Hamlet.  Has a smoking jacket.  Goes ski-ing in Gstaad.  You know, that kind of fox.  Acts like its grandfather didn’t die of mange.

Foxes cram a life into a year.  That’s because whilst in captivity a fox can live for 14 years, in London most of them will barely live to see their second birthday. Each spring a male fox will brush his tail until it gleams, whack on a splash of his chosen scent (usually Eau de Dead Dormouse) and begin stepping out with a vixen.  He will produce an average 4.5 cubs in spring, but often with more than one vixen.   He likes to have a couple of ladies on the go, does foxy.  He is fond of keeping it in the family, often having some of his spring cubs with the sister of the vixen who has already presented him with an offspring the previous week, otherwise known as The Ryan Giggs School of Fatherhood.

So, the cubs are born in April, but by September they’e grown so much that they’re indistinguishable from their parents.  The same thing happened to me in 1993.  For the fox watchers, it’s June or July where we see them most, as these cubs are now fox teens, setting out to explore their territory, which often will take in up to 80 London gardens.   This summer, a face suddenly popped up outside the glass doors leading to our garden, comical and inquisitive in the dark, a patchy, bushy bearded thing, staring in for a moment, presumably trying to work out whether we had any birds or worms on site.  For, this is what Mr Fox eats.  Only 35% of his diet is gained from scavenging; not by choice but by a recognition of labour : scavenging is hard work.  Garden birds, slippery worms, squirrels and mice are easy prey.  In the autumn, coming up to six months old, the foxes will set out and leave the district of their birth, and this is when it goes wrong for so many of them.  50% of foxes in the UK are killed by drivers.

They have dens.  People sometimes have dens too but the kind of people who have one and say “I’m just off to relax in the den” probably have one full of menthol cigarettes and / or cigarillos, Sky Sports, Venetian blinds and leather executive style lush chairs.  A fox’s den will have none of these things.  Instead it will have cubs, a musty smell and that half-eaten Thai chicken curry you ordered after four Budweisers last Wednesday.  The fox is a dog, but although a member of the Canidae family, as dogs are, it is vulpine, not canine.  So it is a member of the wolves  / coyotes / dingoes family rather than the “gosh, that’s a lovely Labrador!” family.    For this reason, although not this reason alone, the English feel rather differently about foxes as they do about dogs.

The interesting thing about foxes is not actually what they are but how towndwellers choose to see them.  A couple of years ago we had a brief civic disturbance in London called a riot.  I wrote about it here, not really the riots as it happened, but rather the language that is chosen to culturally comment upon it (see https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/a-riotous-message/).  Whilst revising Foxy this week, I realised that the language people use to describe him is merciless, and has much in common with the fears of cultural degeneracy that people express at times of social disruption or riot in urban spaces  (“feral”, “populous and breeding out of control”, “Scavenger”, “robber”, “urban blight”) and I don’t suppose a certain type of person would be surprised to find their local fox wearing JD Sports footwear, stealing tellies, sporting a back to front baseball cap, and carrying a knife whilst texting on his mobile phone with his mates about the best way to loot a “Burger King”.

Why does the fox come in for so much stick?  Because he’s used as a site onto which a whole range of cultural anxieties become projected and, like most manifestations of cultural anxieties, they are entirely without context.  Foxes are a pest to some, a wild nuisance to others.  On the other hand, dogs are sacred in Britain.  And more dangerous.  The chance that a fox may savage a small child is absolutely tiny when measured against the harm that dogs can do.  We hear about fox attacks solely because of their rarity rather than their violence.  In 2008/09, over 5,000 people were treated at hospitals for injuries caused by dogs.  Over 1,300 of these were children.    It is exceedingly rare for a human being to look in any way appetising to your neighbourhood fox, who is more interested in a half squished worm and a tasty robin redbreast, to be frank.  Of the 3 cases that hit the headlines of a fox biting someone in the last 11 years, one was discounted as possibly being a fox bite on medical evidence and the second involved a family who tried to divert the attention from their family dog, which seems strange.  A rat is more likely to bite a baby.  And 10,000 foxes patrol our streets keeping the rat population in check, so it’s a bit of a win-win for your baby who is subsequently less likely to get bitten by anything at all because foxy has just knocked off a few rattus rattus’s for his elevenses.

To call a woman a “vixen” (a female fox) is to imply she is shrewish, manipulative and malicious.  This is because foxes are cunning.  Cunning is just another word for wily and clever, but a woman who is wily and clever is faintly mistrustful and a carnivorous cunning cow.  (I don’t think men have this problem with implications of being wily and clever.  They just call it being bright).  The verb “fox” also has disastrous connotations for our urban friends : to trick, to fool, to baffle ; to act slyly or craftily and – oddly – to repair a shoe by replacing a new upper (to fox it).  To be “foxed” is also archaic English for being drunk.   Yet, there is one absolutely positive way of using fox.  If you call someone a fox, or foxy, you are telling them they are incredibly sexually attractive.  They will take this as a compliment.  But you will get a very different reaction if you call them a “dog”.  Which is what a fox is.  Confused?  I am.

The key to living happily alongside our wild animals is very straightforward : be sensible.  Vulpes vulpes is classed as a wild animal.   It’s no use getting burgled and then saying “I can’t believe it! Someone came into my house and stole my iPad when I decided to leave my garden door wide open with the lights on.  Oh, the cheek of some people.”  Well, it’s the same with our urban friends.  Keep them outside whatever you do.  And don’t fall asleep with the fire escape door open with a sign saying “Come on in and bite me, foxy”.  In the exceedingly rare event of a fox biting a human being they will instantly back away after the bite, which they tend to only ever consider giving in self defence.  They do not squat there salivating and gnawing saying “Mmmmm….feet.  Lovely.  Do you have any tabasco for this please?” like some Grimm fairy tale.  Some astonished Londoners have left doors open to find a fox curled up on their sofa, having spent the evening eating the cat food.   Foxes are strangely fascinated by children.  They love to watch them play and, although wary of them, can spend hours sitting in hedgerows beside playgrounds just watching what’s going on.  Nutters.

Foxes back away from cats generally, due to the cat’s supercilious, malignantly steely stare and sharp claws.  Plus all cats have superiority complexes and think they are superheroes.  Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about foxes.  Cats will take on anyone.  They love the fox face-off.  The fox will usually turn away.  Dogs and foxes can exist together unless the fox really oversteps his territory, but unfortunately a large number of fox cubs are killed each year by domestic cats and dogs.  80% of fox cubs fail to reach maturity in London.  Oh, and obviously : rabbit, gerbil or hamster? Fantastic Mr Fox thinks of only two things : “YUM” and “NOW, WHERE DID I PUT MY NAPKIN?”

It is legal to shoot a fox but, that’s a bit dodgy because, at the Kensington & Chelsea website helpfully points out on their fox advice page:  “We do not want to encourage people to walk around our streets, gardens and parks carrying and discharging firearms”.  Well, no, quite, Ken & Chelsea, unless they’re aiming at that other ginger, suave and nocturnal fox like creature, H.R.H. Prince “Nightclub Mad” Harry.  This time of year you’ll hear them screaming at each other, as late-autumn is the time for fox family units to break up as the young adults head off to new horizons.  It’s not mating calls.  And it isn’t a fight.  It’s a fox conversation.  It just sounds incredibly violent, like someone is pulling a cat to shreds, but it’s actually a fox shouting “Phone your mother once a month, at least!”  sort of thing.

Another urban myth is that foxes “rifle” through bins, which is something they actually never do.  Badgers are bastards for this, as are cats and sea gulls, particularly if there’s a lovely bin liner to rip.  A sea gull think’s that’s a holiday.  But foxes – very rarely.  An average fox weighs about 6kgs.  Do you think if you weighed 6 kg you could manage to knock a full London Borough of Barnet wheelie bin over?  No.

The idea of separating out the country fox from its ruthless, mangy urban cousin is wrong.  A fox is a fox is a fox.  They are all the red fox vulpes vulpes.   There is no significant physical distinction and they do not vary in hunting practices.  Researchers noted in the 1990s that a family of fox cubs born in central Bristol relocated themselves to rural arcadia and spent their lives grazing on the Mendip Hills. Nor are the numbers of urban foxes on the increase : the fox community has yet to recover from the 1990s sarcoptic mange epidemic which wiped a huge number of them out, and whilst London is home to 33,000 foxes, about the same levels as in the 1980s,  the countryside has got a quarter of a million of them. And thanks to the abolition of fox hunting, they are flourishing.

The finest fox that ever was was Basil Brush.  He was a sort of vulpes Terry Thomas who repeatedly referred to himself in the third person as “fella”.  He had his own television show for 13 years, which is almost unheard of for a fox, and was very good at singing and acting.  He was also the first puppet to win The Weakest Link.

 

Those of your interested in more information about fox protection can have a look at : http://www.foxproject.org.uk/about-us/

Thank you for reading The London Bluebird.  This blog is updated fortnightly so we look forward to seeing you on October 24th.

Review – Wembley Stadium – Robbie Williams

I’m titling this review “Wembley Stadium” first, then “Robbie Williams” second, which is not what I usually do.  But then if you go to Wembley Stadium you go to see Wembley Stadium.  The slightly tubby chap in the diamante morning coat is only a secondary affectation of the evening, flanked by occasional jets of fire, balloons and large screens that show the new Williams teeth in all their chomping glory.  Robbie Williams was the size of half of my little finger.  I really do mean that – I am not referring to the size of anything else.  From the vaulted viewpoint at Club Wembley I could have been looking at a child’s toy, lingering over his falsetto notes and gleefully jumping on stage and naughtily spitting “I’m Robbie Fucking Williams”, as if we weren’t entirely sure what we had tickets for.

Robert Williams likes to sing.  I say this because I’m convinced that not many performers who have been singing for two decades actually like to do it, and if I’d been forced to do the same job for 20 years, I’d be resentful of it too.  But Robert Williams likes to sing – loves to sing, as is evidenced here and, I’ll bet, loves to sing more than flirt tritely with the audience and pretend to eat the edible bra of some choreographed woman who apparently popped up from the audience and then lure her into a bed with a red, silk, Take That monogrammed duvet (more of that later).  His voice is in very very fine fettle.  He has a particularly gorgeous voice. Away on what appeared to my eyes to be a tiny, aspirin sized stage, he vaulted and lurched and strutted about for nearly two hours.  He even told a couple of jokes.  But he looks back too much “Ten years ago today was Knebworth!”  whilst relying too heavily on the machinations of stage props.  Many of his stage props were large models of his own head, which he would then climb into and pop out of the top of, like a children’s party entertainer.  At one point he dropped his microphone from the top of one of his large heads, narrowly missing concussing an audience member.

When he wasn’t inside his enormous head, he was creating new raps to Minnie the Moocher: “I am a blokey from Stokey / A little bit tubby and a little bit cokey….”  But then the rap started banging on about the “3 lions” and how much we should all love them, and I’m afraid it was a repeat of that disastrous section in the Take That Wembley Stadium concerts of 2011 when our Robert went a bit UKIP and demanded we all stand up to sing the National Anthem.  I’m not saying that singing the National Anthem isn’t a rousing thing to do of a summer’s evening, but it sat very badly between “Relight my Fire” and “Babe”.

We had a lovely rendition of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” before I went out in search for white wine with lots of ice cubes.  A couple were brandishing hot dogs at each other in the food and drink zone:  “But I TOLD you that my car was going.  to.  get.  towed.  WHAT did you THINK I would do?! I hate this I hate this.”   The two of them were facing off against each other like cross spaniels in matching Robbie Williams official loungewear.  At the plastic bar with the plastic people and the plastic glasses they had run out of ice.  I was sent to another bar, which was a long walk away, probably West Harrow.  I heard the seasons change.  When I got back into the stadium, Robert Williams was attempting to serenade the woman I mentioned at the start of the blog entry, who was enticingly wearing an edible bikini.  Much raucous whoops and cheers accompanied Williams’s shabby attempts to eat it whilst trying to sing “Everything Changes” to her.  She responded by doing the same choreography as him at the same time, including ducking down with a risible wink underneath the ‘Take That’ monogrammed duvet.  The whole episode was meant to be cheeky, tawdry, a little bit of end of the pier tomfoolery.  Instead it came across as stale, un sexy, over-rehearsed and overwhelmingly clinical.

I am not saying I was let down – his backing band (which he forgot to thank, thanking only his support act, Olly Murs) were a sharp, fantastic selection of musicians, and “Kids” had us all jumping in our seats.  An acoustic version of “Millenium” was particularly poignant.  And this is the thing: When it’s just Robbie Williams, singing in front of a hefty selection of drunk women swaying whilst eating Maltesers, with nothing accompanying him but the strings of his own acoustic guitar, you are reminded what a vocal gift he has.  But the strange physics of Wembley Stadium dictates that the more fluff and crap you have on the stage, the smaller the area of gravity that surrounds it.  When the stage was full of high wires, balloons released intermittently as if to keep children happy, fireworks and makeshift beds, the attention wandered.  There was no focus – in fact, at one point, a fight broke out on the floor of the stadium between one over-excited concert goer and another.  It was so interesting that for a time most people watched that.  It was just as enjoyable a spectacle as the main event.   But when Robbie Williams sings “Angels” and ramps up the audience until they are singing it a cappella back at him, he truly commands a huge stadium such as this, with expertise, showmanship and deft technical ability.

Of course, he didn’t sing his other hit “Engels”, a hymn to the father of Marxism.  “And through it Allllll,  she offers me unionization, a polemic on economic exploitation whether I’m right or wrong…”  but you can’t have it all, I suppose.

After his encore, he sat on the edge of the stage and sang another version of “Angels” without his band.  Alone and singing, with half of the stadium lights turned down, he ramped up the audience to encourage them to join in with him.  People starting singing as they filed out.  Eventually his voice faded and he just watched everyone walk out singing his song in the darkness.  I know it was an end rather more of a whimper than a bang but it was beautifully done.  Next time, Mr Williams, less slap and tickle and props and spiel, just have the faith to know you only have to stand there and sing.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, usually.  But I will be updating next week at some stage with a theatre review.  Oh, and Robbie Williams didn’t really sing a song called “Engels”.  That was One Direction.  Thank you.  The London Bluebird.

Review – Hugh Laurie – Hammersmith Apollo

A period structure, with a pinkish dome and a peculiarly mid century look about it.  Well, that’s Hugh Laurie for you, but what about the Hammersmith Apollo?  I first went there in 1991 when it was yet to be rebranded by Labatts and was still known as the Hammersmith Odeon, even though a film hadn’t played there for many years. I sat three rows from the back and watched Lou Reed, who was so dull I slept through the last hour.   But it is an extraordinary building, with a ceiling in the auditorium that looks like an Art Deco dream of pink blancmange, rippling up and up and adding some delicacy to the acoustics.  Large, conical drop chandelier lights dazzle from either side of the stalls, giving the auditorium the illusion that its wearing earrings.  There is, however a odd, murky episode in Hammersmith’s past , the key scenes of which occurred here, in the glamourous, rose-carpeted confines of the Hammersmith Odeon, which to locals must have been like an exquisite slice of Hollywood magically transported to West 6.

During the last autumn of the Second World War, a dancer and Hammersmith resident named Betty Jones met a US private called Karl Hulten in a cafe in Hampstead.  Both were fantastists who instantly pretended to the other they were someone else.  Betty Jones pretended to be a glamourous rising British film star called Georgina Grayson, whilst Private Hulten pretended to be Lieutenant Ricky Allen of the US Army, and a criminal with links to Al Capone.  She lived in King Street, Hammersmith, and met Hulten outside this Odeon, where she would indulge her passion for exciting film noirs, often viewed with her landlady, Mrs Evans.  In six days in October 1944, Hulten and Jones (both still successfully tricking the other into believing they were far glamorous people) went on a crime spree in Hammersmith.   In his (stolen) army truck they knocked over and robbed a woman on a bicycle, picked up a hitchhiker who they then attempted to murder and threw into the Thames (she survived) and finally after a night of dancing at the Palais, hailed a cab and shot and killed the driver, George Heath, robbing him of a silver cigarette lighter and £8.  The case was sensational and became known as The Cleft Chin Murder.  None of their crimes appear to have had any motive, except the thrill of the crime and so tragic and pathetic seemed the Jones / Hulten case (not least because of their desire for each to see the other as a milk bar version of a glamourous hoodlum and his daring gun-toting “broad”) that George Orwell focused on them in his essay “The Decline of the English Murder”.   Murder – ain’t what it used to be, said Orwell.  These couple of loons lacked the finesse and accomplishment of the proper murder,  appearing so stupid as to drive about in the murdered man’s car for a day or two, as if begging the police to take them in.  They were a putrid, sad, ration coupon, Turnham Green kind of Bonnie & Clyde.   Karl Hulten remains the only US serviceman to be tried and hanged by the British in World War II.

Something of the wartime austerity lingers about the inside of the Hammersmith Apollo.  Somewhere beyond the shard of light reflecting from a plastic beaker filled to the brim with Merlot, you can sense and taste the escape this building must have represented to 18 year old Betty Jones during the last drab days of the war. The period lighting, the pre-war tiles of the ladies loo, the luxurious sense of space,  the leather banquette that draws a large seating circle on the Dress Circle level of the building – and of course the auditorium.  This is a gem, and Hugh Laurie, we know is not a dancer called Betty, nor is he intent on coming to Hammersmith and pretending to be a Chicago gangster before going on an ill-planned killing spree.  What he is intent on doing is bringing something else of America in – the Copper Bottom Band, which he fronts whilst playing the piano and singing the blues for a vastly entertaining 90 minute set.  His set was littered with quips and chats to make the audience laugh, but Laurie seems plagued by the idea that he really shouldn’t be doing what he is doing.  “An actor.  What am I doing?  What am I doing?”  he asked us during the opening section.  “I feel like a Saudi Arabian playboy given keys to a Ferrari that he doesn’t know how to drive,”  he muttered, before proving that although he might not be top drawer at driving Ferraris he certainly knows his way around the piano.

Laurie understands both his own strengths and his own limitations, the understanding of both of which being invaluable.    He knows the Copper Bottom Band are the stars, and not him, and spent as much time as he could championing them, kicking us all off with a “Come On Baby Let The Good Times Roll” singalong.    It was clear that this band were his backbone or, as Laurie preferred to call him “my trousers”.  They are a remarkable cluster of musicians that soon had the place clapping along, although it must be hugely depressing playing raucous blues music to an audience sitting down.  It wasn’t until the end that Hammersmith stood up.  According to Laurie, blues music is nothing short of “America’s gift to the world”, although he did spend some time discussing whether his Englishness (perhaps he also meant his class) acted as being preventative in accessing blues, not in any real terms, but in the public eye.

Half way through we got a particularly delicious, and practially a cappello version of “Up A Lazy River” and were also treated to a guest appearance from Chris Barber, amongst the Bessie Smith songs and the Buddy Bolden covers.  At this stage, women of a certain age, blissfully entranced by Laurie in “House” began throwing red roses onto the stage at him.  Cue humble English, attractive, cringeing.

In accenting his Englishness, Laurie also accents his lack of professional qualifications as a musician : “I can’t join in musical jokes.  I have no musical training”.  But I thought he had had some classical piano training as a child, and why should he, a more than competent musician, single himself out in this way?  Perhaps he is trying to deflect criticism, but I do not see that criticism coming to him.  Hugh Laurie and The Copper Bottom Band are a successful outfit because of the juxtaposition of Hugh’s Englishness against the Southern American sound and style of the band, not despite it, and this was a splendid evening.   They – and he – were brilliant. I don’t think that there is any reason for Laurie to feel he needs to continue the self-effacing act.  He should allow the way he sings and plans to stand alone.  Because it more than did on Friday night, even with the echoes of Hammersmith murderesses standing in the historical wings of this odd venue.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next blog will be on Thursday July 4th.  Thank you!

Review – Barbra Streisand – O2 Arena

Babs

Somewhere, in an exclusive corner of Malibu sat a 71 year old, Donna Karan-draped pensioner,  who decided to give it another small whirl.  So here was Barbra Streisand in London for two nights as part of her mini-tour or, as she joked on stage, her micro-tour, which took in only 7 European locations. On Monday night, en route to the O2, I had some trepidation about my first live encounter with the World of Barbra.  Sometimes I imagine the World of Barbra and what it is. Usually, I settle on the image of a Space Oddity, another planet screeching around the solar system with different gravity laws to our own, a solar mishmash of expert tailoring, shuddering vibrato and French manicure, a place where the walls are different and the words are different and the rooms are colour co-ordinated to match the sweet wrappers.  The stature of her stardom, and the occasional swirling stories of perfectionism, professional control and goldfish in her orchard pond chosen only because their colour matches the tiles in the nearby steam room etc, are in danger of obliterating Barbra the artist.  For reasons that are not clear, people are more interested in gawping at the fish-matching-room-tiles and colour co-ordinated sweets in bowls than they are in the output of an extraordinary star with half a century of singing behind her.   Barbra World is cultivated solely by Barbra, whose tight band of promoters and marketers control her perception in the public eye.  If she was a man they’d call her approach one of dedicated professionalism, but they don’t.  She’s a woman, so they call her modus operandi insane, obsessive and decide she must be a bitch because of it.  Barbra doesn’t give a shit, of course, because she’s so damn Barbra, but what is this constructed image of her and what does she do with it, when presenting only her 94th public performance in 50 years?

The O2 arena is a rather unpleasant place, glued onto the fag end of the Jubilee Line in mawkish, industrial wasteland.  Like Dulwich, it doesn’t matter where you start out from, it will always take you an hour and a half to get there.  Once inside, its a lot like the interior of the Harlequin Centre in Watford; Pizza Expresses jostling for trade amidst Wahacas and sushi bars, the air tremulent with the stench of fried meat and money, the sweeping swoosh of the moving escalators clotted with people who have, in this instance, paid £470 for their peek into Barbara World, toilets that reek with industrial fluid and a host of middle aged people blinking in a distressed way at the toilet signs.  My own feelings about Barbra are pretty deep-rooted but veer off drastically after about 1975.  I grew up watching and absolutely delighting in Funny Girl and What’s Up Doc?  She was, and remains, an inspiration and a beacon of hope for Jewish girls everywhere.  I didn’t encounter the downright perplexing The Way We Were until I was 21 and ended up watching it in my Finsbury Park kitchen one winter night, berating Babs for her lack of get-up-get-over-it-and-move-on sentiment when Robert Redford dumps her.  I was disappointed in this.  Babs is a feisty little number, Babs has steel and molten fluid running through her Brooklyn veins, where other people have doubt and tears, but here she was, fumbling over a 1940s telephone, a mass of scarlet nail extensions and towelling dressing gown, begging that the warty Redford come over and sit with her until she falls asleep.  Yentl I sacrificed, as my brother and I were given the choice of going to see that or Herbie Goes Bananas instead, and obviously opted for Herbie.  I love Barbra Streisand, even for the maddening oddness of The Mirror Has Two Faces.  But I had no idea what to expect.  Had Barbra’s mojo been subverted and destroyed by Barbra World?  I was already disappointed by reviews referring to the entrances on stage of both her sister and her son and, at one stage, her dead mother.  Barbra is now 71 years old, and has spent 50 of those 71 years as a star.  Exactly how much humanity was it reasonable to expect when you take a singer out of Brooklyn and let her live in isolated fame and grandeur for the next 50 years?

Mostly, I feared a plethora of sparkly, boxy jackets, an endless “Woman in Love / Enough is Enough” medley with Barbra gurning at the helm, like someone on a never-ending hen night in Totteridge, all botox and post-menopausal spiritualism.  I worried about the jumpsuit years and the frightening perm.  I wasn’t sure about her judgement, and I, regretfully, prepared myself to be underwhelmed.  But what happened was this:  Barbra sang for nearly three hours, following a rousing medley from Funny Girl.  She emerged, sylph-like, from under the ground in SE10,  with a sleek helmet of milky-coffee coloured hair and wearing a natty black trouser suit.   She was accompanied by a 60 piece orchestra and, in the World of Barbra, this is not extraordinary.  Her arrival was preceded by two large screens on either side of the stage presenting a video montage of the life of Barbra from gap-toothed cross eyed child to uber-superstar.  This, in the World of Barbara, is not extraordinary.  What is extraordinary in the World of Barbra, is Barbra.  The interpretation of every lyric was faultless, and it was the truth of her interpretation of the lyric that went a long way to creating an unmistakeable air of intimacy between her and another 26,000 people in this aircraft hanger type space.  I assumed this would be impossible in the O2.  But she did it.  The true brilliance of Barbra lies in her vocal rawness – she is, of course, largely untrained – and her intuitive phrasing.  This is the mark of a true artist : she sings her songs and not only addresses the sentiment of them directly, but seems to be singing to each individual directly.  I saw Sinatra sing in his 70s and he seemed to have lost the ability to do this.  Streisand has not.  She is as loyal to the lyric as ever, and as technically adept at drawing out an emotional response from the audience as ever.  When she arrived on stage, she launched directly into “On A Clear Day” and it was remarkable.  It was as if someone had tapped you on the shoulder and said, “Watch that : there’s someone who knows precisely how to do this.”

We were taken most of the way through the back catalogue, the first half featuring a tribute to the songs of her friends Alan & Marilyn Bergman (“Nice & Easy” etc), Rodgers & Hart (A vulnerable sounding “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered”, where all the molten steel of Babs got melted down to excitement and the thrill of newfound love) and a duet with her sister, Roslyn, who perhaps is not gifted with Barbra’s true vocal talent.  Roslyn entertained us a bit more whilst Babs went off and got changed into another black dress showing a bit of leg and returned for “The Way We Were”, “Some People”, “That Face”, and brought the arena to a standstill with “Don’t Rain on My Parade”.  This was only the first half.  The second half, which started with another video segment of Funny Girl featuring an alarmingly made up Omar Sharif, showed Barbra in a scarlet dress and cape, with which she stalked the stage during her feature section on trumpeter Chris Botti (a massive error of monumental proportions) and a slightly Freudian duet with her awkward-looking son, Jason, for “How Deep Is The Ocean?”  during which they pledged their love to each other in a decidedly odd way.  The second half lost a little structure, and the Leonard Bernstein song at the end advocating ecological awareness using a 100 strong local London choir felt tagged on the end and, surprisingly, was not at all entertaining.  Alas, I can forgive Barbra this.

Having witnessed the technique of her performance, I think that Barbra Streisand is our greatest living interpreter of popular song.  The voice has mellowed and become richer with age and lost none of its power or control.   In the toilet queue at half time, I spoke to three ladies, all of which had been to see her 19 years before, all of which said her voice had got better since then.  “She hasn’t lost it, has she?”  said a permed lady in her sixties, as we both stood, legs crossed for the industrial-smelling O2 arena toilet.   At the risk of sounding crass, there was some dynamic aspect of her performance which was a little bit like magic.  Certainly, there was a sense that this was a display of a dying art, an indefatigable dedication to the song, rather than the singer.  And that’s the most extraordinary thing – it does not seem unfair to guess over the years that Streisand is a narcissist.  The gurning rumour mill from filmmaking anecdotes of her obsession with her “right side”, the onslaught of stories relating to details of her cosmetic demands and her apparent preoccupation with the projection of her type of image.  But when she starts to sing a song, she does this strange, shoulder shrug and humming thing,as if orientating herself, and then projects herself into the melody.  At this moment, she sort of subsumes  into it and although the eerily long fingers are still there, the even longer nails are still there, the slightly boss-eyed glance is still there, the superstar isn’t.  She sort of disappears, distilling herself down until the singer becomes the song.   And you realise that she doesn’t need to think about her “right side” or her hair, or the Donna Karan tailoring.  She never did.  All she needs to do is stand there and sing.  And I for one feel lucky I saw her do it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we hope to see you again on 20th June.  Thank you!

Plain 1, Purl 1…?

In the last year, the London Cocktail scene has been dragging us backwards, into a kind of inter-war hell.  Whether it be Clipstone Street’s The Lucky Pig, or the imaginatively titled “London Cocktail Club” at Goodge Street, 1930s style lighting and 1930s style drinks have been alcoholically recharging recessionistas batteries in strangely unglamourous quarters of the West End.  We may be in a quagmire of a stagnant economic lunatic cycle, but at least it’s not as bad as the 1930s…. is it?  If you want to feel like a supporting playing in Bridlington-on-Sea’s provincial theatre production of “The Great Gatsby With Ice Cubes” then a London cocktail bar that thinks it is in 1936 will be for you.  Maybe they’ll really shake and stir things up by forcing you to listen to Glenn Miller, or send in someone dressed up as a aristo in a blackshirt for some genuine 1930s total madness.

Enter Purl.  I thought it was a knitting stitch.  Then I read “Our Mutual Friend”.  Many patrons of the Jolly Porters are wankered nightly in this novel on Purl.  It’s gin, spices, ginger and beer.   The Victorians were hardcore.  As well as “purl”, you could sup on a “Dog’s Nose” (just gin and beer) or even flummox about with a “flip”, which was a kind of Egg nog meets Carling Black Label spectacle which made you feel like throwing up after you’d sung six choruses of “Cheer up Mrs Dickens, even though your husband’s balls-deep in an actress!” or similar Victorian musical chant.  But the new Purl has nothing of the louche, casual Victorian city drinker. 

Purl seems to be marvellously cold.  You have to pre-book, usually at least a day in advance and then – here’s the thing – after two hours they ask you to leave.  In a time where most restaurant owners are weeping on street corners begging patrons to sup in their premises, Purl asks you to leave.  Two hours in is a critical point.  This is the stage where people decide whether they are only going to get moderately tipsy, or whether they are going to get royally mullered.  It is the tipping point between a “drink” and a “night”.  The unwarranted surgical nature of the booking process renders the bar owners at worst greedy, at best controlling.  This, of course, defeats the object, when the whole point of drinking a considerable amount of alcohol is the loss of control.    Now, I have not been to Purl.  Nothing from Purl’s website entices or cajoles or encourages me to give them my patronage.  Restaurants of course may have spent many years throwing you out after two hours, Ronnie Scotts throws you out after the first set on a week night, and perhaps this is the natural evolution of London that the bars are following suit?    As the pursestrings of Britain tighten in lieu of the impending Christmas mayhem and the ongoing slog of the economic collapse I shan’t be processing an ornate, antiseptic credit card booking through the delicate gates of Purl’s website.  I shall be pouring myself a Gin and Tonic from the personal Bluebird Bar at home and settling down for another spiffing viewing of The Hour, a second series of which has triumphantly returned to BBC2 on Wednesdays.

That’s after, of course, I’ve done my lengths.  To fight the tikka masala pouch which has been slowly and insiduously developing since 2002, and to tighten up thighs now charmingly mottled by the lack of elasticity apparent in one’s mid-thirties, I have started to swim a mile a week.  This is a huge performance, when I swim this mile divided into three sessions a week, and which involves a bath hat, fake tan, hair shampoo, conditioner, new towels and my bikini waxer.  No stretch of water is too wide for me to cross it.  No splashes from the exuberance of other swimmers is too much to endure.  Sometimes my hat comes off in the pool, but mostly it slowly squeezes itself up and off the top of my skull so I end up looking as if a mole has sat  on my head.  Mostly I swim without disturbing my lipline which is, admittedly, a talent.  It is the old University pool of my old University which means everyone there is seventeen years younger than me but every woman is somehow equal when standing in the changing rooms, naked and perform origami-like foldings of a Primark towel to try to conceal their bottoms.   Nevertheless, despite the humiliations, off I front crawl, readers, to delve into the depths of the ULU pool.  I am destined to faintly smell of chlorine all the time, to have ragged and dry cuticles after the water has butchered them.  But I’m determined to keep going, hat that looks like a mole or no hat. 

Of course, at a mile a week, I’ll have swum 6 miles by Christmas.  That’s the amount of mileage a black cab will happily take you at any time of the day or night from Charing Cross.  Should I continue into February I will have swum 12 miles, which is the distance between Hampstead and St Albans.  Should I still be swimming by this time next year, I will have swum half way to Dorset.  I shall be the Forrest Gump of swimming.  In goggles.  I have no desire to swim half way to Dorset, and I think I may well get into trouble at some point along the M3, but it’s nice to have a talent, eh readers?  Also, I do not get chucked out after two hours, unlike “PURL”.  That’s because I cannot actually be in the pool for more than 45 minutes without having a cardiac arrest.  However, what with the tired muscles after my 16 lengths, I can emerge from the pool disorientated, breathless and prone to my legs collapsing under me at any moment, which is not at all different from an evening in a London cocktail bar.

 See you in the deep end.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Wiltons Music Hall

On Saturday evening, Mr Bluebird and I struck out East.  Beyond the psuedo-vintage tiles and cobbles of Hoxton and Shoreditch, beyond the imposing directness of the Great Tower of London and onwards still, into murky East London-ness, held up only by the crowd of schaudenfraude – seeking tourists who meet nightly at Tower Hill Tube for the bloody Jack the Ripper walk.  Seeking further fields east that Ripper Jack’s heartland, we crossed Cable Street, heavy and damp with history, and swerved into Ensign Street.  From there we turned left into the pedestrian-only Graces Alley, which took us to Wilton’s Music Hall, the oldest grand music hall still standing in the world.

Of course we didn’t.  We are North Londoners.  We took a cab.  We had not a clue how else to get there.

Wilton’s Music Hall stands somewhere between Shadwell and Wapping, and appears as an anachronism; a 1850s building in an alleyway with buildings on one side and Wapping Junior School on the other, a building that is hugged by 1980s neo-Georgian flat developments and passed by quizzical Londoners, some of whom – even the locals – unaware what is inside.  What is inside is a grand music hall founded by John Wilton in 1858, and managed by him until his death in 1880.  Since then it has served as sanctuary, soup kitchen, concert hall, rag sorting depot and community centre. It wasn’t until a long-running preservation campaign in the 1960s, headed by that trailblazer of Victorian architectural preservation, John Betjeman, that the building finally gained listed status in 1971.  One wonders how any near deaths it may have had.  It is now listed as one of 100 “most endangered sites” worldwide by the World Monuments Fund.  Putting an actual figure to the value of the building, both its cultural and financial value, would be impossible.

Some buildings have a power; a strange sense of history, something inarticulable that makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand to attention, and the mind instantly connect to the knowledge that other human beings have walked, breathed, shaken raindrops from coats, kissed and argued in this space before, and they’ve left something of themselves behind.  Well, Wiltons has buckets of the stuff.  The air is thick with knowledge of the past.  The Mahogany Bar within dates back to 1828, when it was originally known as the King of Denmark Public House.  It took the name the Mahogany Bar in about 1839, and was fully incorporated into the concert room (later Music Hall) in the rest of the building in 1850 or thereabouts.  It crouches on the ground floor,  off to the right from the small, flag-stoned entrance hall.  This bar is frequently closed off and redressed for television and feature film shooting, as its interior is alarmingly , evocatively Victorian.  Bare brick seems to be fighting for survival in small grey arches throughout the place, there are free-standing wooden bar tables, not enough chairs and a vast, tall 19th century bar with drinks sold at the kind of cheap prices I have never known in London before.  Going back to the flagstone entrance hall, where the air smells of 1860 and where, at this event, the girl at the ticket desk was dressed in 1920s wig and costume (more of that later), two small corridors run off either side of the central staircase that leads to The Gallery.  Down one of the small corridors is a tiny anteroom, dark and seemingly without purpose.  Down the other are the  makeshift loos, the foundation stone laid in 1858 spied just outside the Ladies, where it was originally lain by John Wilton’s wife.  It is peculiar to come into this building from the strident, modern crush of East London.  To travel past the Gherkin and the glass-fronted grey offices of Tower Bridge, from the Pret A Mangers of Eastcheap and find Wilton’s Music Hall is like falling into a slightly delicious, mucky Victorian alternative reality.  The rooms are elegantly sized, the proportions speak of an eloquence of another age, albeit a shabby sort of elegance.

The evening of our first trip to Wilton’s involved going to see a theatrical production of The Great Gatsby.  The website had suggested the production was “immersive”, thereby encouraging it’s patrons to dress accordingly.  This put another layer of historical weirdness on top of Wilton’s. Over its base of hardened Victorian grime was ladled a series of feather boas, chaps in white tie, ladies out on group outings with other ladies in flapper dresses, in gold T-bar shoes worn over black fishnets, of feather boas, of young Londoners in tweed jackets and innocent bow ties.  In the Mahogany Bar, two young men sat, each in white tie evening dress, spats, with hair slicked back and slowly sipping from Martini glasses, discussing something intently (no doubt, the new Evelyn Waugh or similar) in an image straight out of the 1920s. The narrative of The Great Gatsby, with its accent on the sham under the expensive leather, of the corruption that rich men build themselves on, on the inevitability of the futility of recapturing long ago dreams, suited the building.  Like Gatsby, Wilton’s may tumble and fall at any moment if anyone fired a shot in the right direction, but this evening nothing seemed further from that fact, bravely putting actors outside, two of them, dressed as Chicago gangsters, with great black overcoats slung over their shoulders, carrying ominous looking violin cases and firing menacing glances at the patrons giggling at them whilst gingerly eating their Boston beans, slaw and American hot dogs that the bar had laid on for the production.

Upstairs, things were stranger.  On one side at the top of the stairs was the entrance to the gallery, on the other side – if you turned right and essentially double-backed on yourself so that you were standing above the cramped entrance hall – was a further reception area, selling spats at £10 each, two Charleston dancers, hired for the event, and a “speakeasy” from which Hendricks Gin-based cocktails were dispensed to the crowds of theatregoers, in a dusty, small room which looked more like a Lascar’s smoking den from The Mystery of Edwin Drood than a theatrical bar.  It had, in fact, once been John Wilton’s bedroom, and one can only imagine his confusion had he been here to see blonde ladies in 1920s headbands and fur coats drinking champagne whilst texting avidly on iPhones.  After two gin-based thingummies – cocktails named after one of the characters in the play, and tasting a bit thin and weak for my liking – it was a delight to see the two heavies from outside, laying down their violin cases and starting to put on their own show – shouting avidly at each other in Chicago accents, peering over the tables, showing ladies rude postcards from the 1890s, and exhibiting their card tricks.  The patrons enjoyed this hugely.  The strangeness of this room was evidenced by its context; here we had a series of hatted, monocled, cocktail enthusiasts, sitting in the musty windows of this ancient room and beyond the windows there were 1980s apartment buildings, the ever-present office lights of the City of London, the modern, grey slant of it all – all of which, from here, looked like a theatrical set, rather than reality.

The play was absolutely appalling and the person who wrote it should be shot, but there you go.  These things happen.  Mostly I enjoyed the view; the shabby grandeur of the central music hall was an absolute delight , butter yellow walls were marked by smoky scarring of the first chandelier here, which astonishingly, had 300 gas jets.  This massive chandelier reflected onto walls that were at the time mainly mirrored.  You can only imagine the riot of light that it brought.  I don’t know if the fire that destroyed much of the building in 1877 was down to this massive ball of fire in the middle of the ceiling, though.  The proportions were quaintly elegant – I shouldn’t think the downstairs holds more than 150 people – but the intrinsic beauty of the design shines through the vast patches of damp on the upper right hand side of the auditorium and what must be remarkable lighting and electricity provisions.  The acoustics are shouty and hollow – this is not a room for acting.  This is a room for music, for gallantry, for robust rhymes shouted over flicking gaslights and raucous singing.  The play was so awful that after a while I stopped listening to it and listened to the building instead.  The best part was at the end of the interval (thankfully, a long interval, given the amount of business the bar was doing.  Theatrical intervals usually last for a quick glass of wine and half a cigarette and are never long enough).  At the end of the interval, when bobbed flappers and office boys in pinstripe braces were gathering for the second act, the actors led an impromptu Charleston lesson on the stage, which was instantly filled by 1920s wannabees joining in.  The very act of dressing up in another time was attuned to the spirit of the building, I thought, as youngsters high on chemical consolation of cocktails, flapped the evening away.

This sense of historical theatrical detail has its own pulse and its own majesty.  Considering the violent, scarred and bloody history of the East End, it is nothing short of a miracle that this music hall has still survived.  It is a truly magical place.  However, Wilton’s is a building in great jeopardy, announcing last year that it needed £3million of funding to restore it, damp proof it, secure its foundations, treat its subsidence and generally give it a Music Hall makeover.  Funds of £700,000 were secured from the charity SITA earlier this year, and announced with great aplomb, but Wilton’s needs a further £2.2million to secure the building and undergo critical works to ensure its survival.  For reasons that can only be connected to the bovine brains of our political leaders, Wilton’s receives no public funding.

For those of you keen to support Wilton’s, you could become a “Friend” and pay a nominal annual fee to go towards the restoration fund, but in my mind, the best thing to do is just go there, have a drink, join one of the many tours around the building and shove whatever shekels you can afford to part with into the buckets around the venue.  The first phase of works begin at the end of June, so from that point the music hall will be closed for six months.  But the Mahogany Bar will be open for business.  Pop in for a drink, slip back in time and bask in the peculiar and sublime hues of a Victorian public bar in London, here, in 2012.   Please support this venue.

More information:

http://wiltons.org.uk/

http://spitalfieldslife.com/2010/09/24/frances-mayhew-wiltons-music-hall/

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.