Sunday, 29 September 2013

THEATRE CRITICISM/TORTOISES

I don't really call myself as a theatre critic, mostly because it's not my actual job title, party because what the last few weeks have taught me is that OH MY GOD about 75 per cent of everybody who does identify themself as a theatre critic (be it paid print, free online, whatever) seems to have become locked in an almost permanent naval gaze over the issue of their own relevance and What The Future Holds.

There was a conference I didn't go to marking 100 years of the Critics' Circle in which this seemed to be the only subject of discussion, endlessly reiterated. And then there's a near constant stream of chatter about it generally - Mark Shenton's blog on The Stage's website is locked into a permanent state of fretting over this very issue, while a large proportion of the online writing community seem to ponder to excess what 'the future' of criticism should be...

Now, the maddening thing about all this is that it probably will all bear fruit and prove to have been enormously valid and etc. But honestly, I have never come across another profession that's even a fraction as self absorbed, and while I'm possibly in the enviable position of having a reasonably secure job that isn't necessarily saddled with particularly high intellectual expectations (ie nobody really cares what I think), it strikes me rather selfishly that my notional peers would all write a lot more stuff that I myself would be interested in reading if they stopped worrying about their relevance and just got on with it.

If you're not a critic because you think writing about stuff is fun then you're obviously doing the wrong thing, and surely that's all there is to it. I'd consider it a terrible lapse if something I wrote wasn't reasonably entertaining, but JFC I don't sit there fretting about my relevance - too much discourse on that sort of thing puts you one step away from being a fucking brand manager.

The oldest living creature on the planet is a tortoise called Jonathan: he was born in the Seychelles in 1832, moving to the island of St Helena in the late nineteenth century, where he's lived in the governor's mansion ever since. There are photos of him

Here is a photo of him during the Boer War



















Here is a photo of him being sat on by some Edwardians














He's not, in some ways, even the most exciting tortoise - Timothy (below), who died in 2004, aged 161, was a Royal Navy ship's mascot and the last survivor of the Crimean War.














Adwita (below) who died in 2006 may well have been 255 years old, living as a governor's pet in India through the bulk of the British Raj.



















And of course there's the famous Tu'i Malila, the tortoise given to the Tonga royal family by James Cook in 1777 - he died in 1965, and is pictured in his currently preserved form below.















I'm genuinely not just scrabbling for a horrible allegory here because I am genuinely fucking blown away by these creatures, which I only really started reading about yesterday. But it does strike me that these shelled sages have had really much more interesting lives than any of us, but you know, they don't give a shit, they just get on with it, and frankly every critic or whatever who frets about their relevance in this world should consider the fact that Jonathan the tortoise didn't get where he is today by having some sort of big existential mither over what his continued role is in the mid-nineteenth-to-early-twentieth century. He is Jonathan the fucking tortoise.

Friday, 16 August 2013

INTERVIEWS

Future generations and successor species to homo sapiens who study my blog might not remember this, but the dying days of May, 2013, a journalist from the Times did an interview with the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans that did not go terribly well - indeed, it went so poorly that the Guardian has found time to write a series of follow up articles about it, most at least tangentially reflecting on that golden age of the celebrity interview when you got days of unfettered access and got to live in their house and drive their car, adopt their children or whatever.

It struck a slight chord with me, in that among my larger flaws as a journalist is a difficulty in really seeing the point in a celebrity interview, and to some extent interviews in general. Reading all that Guardian analysis about 'the game' of nominally chatting with a celebrity about one subject in order to try and get some information on their personal lives out of them... it just all seems like such a colossal waste of time.

I mean, I do know what the point is, the point is that you help make their project a success and they help you shift some copies of your publication. And beyond that there's something more genuinely worthwhile - at best the interview/profile is as good a piece of written art as any other and it'd genuinely a wonderful thing to have brought into the world.

But still... when I was 20 or so and doing my first interviews as a student music journalist, I did them... I dunno, kind of unquestioningly, almost in homage or imitation of music interviews I'd read in the music press... I didn't exactly stop to question why I was doing them until I went to do one with then up and coming Leeds band The Music, and it was just fucking awful - they had absolutely nothing to say and couldn't say it very well, and by the very act of requesting the interview I'd sort of forced myself into the position where I had to make them seem passable or else why were we running the interview... and why were we running the interview..? People in bands are in a peculiar position where the thing they've done that people love them for is probably one of the single least interesting things on the planet to talk about - people are kiiind of interested in what inspired lyrics, but beyond that... nobody in their right mind gives a shit what influenced a tuning or whatever. And that's not just young bands - when I interviewed Mike Mills of my favourite band of all time ever, REM, he had very little to say, really, and why would he? He was polite and articulate, but the interview was essentially to drum up some publicity for the outdoor leg of the Around the Sun tour, and you know, he's a nice guy who doesn't appear to have any skeletons in his closet, so really all I was doing was talking to a nice middle aged man about some gigs he was going to do and it wasn't very interesting.

And the same with Rhys Ifans, really - he's presumably not a particularly nice chap and probably does have some fruitier anecdotes than Mills, but still - why should he have anything to say for himself? But that accepted, if he doesn't want to talk about stuff, why should he be put forward for a major profile interview? If an actor is happy to actively unburden themselves and chase headlines in order to drum up support for a project that's dear to their heart then that's one thing, but 'the game' of the celebrity interview seems so pointless.

Obviously I'm a monstrous hypocrite here as I do quite a lot of interviews

But that seems like such a depressing use of everybody's time, I just kind of wonder if we'd be significantly worse off if nobody bothered. Not as in, no interviews, but if a celebrity's not doing a project that's close to their heart and they're not prepared to proactively put themselves out there to talk about it, then maybe it'd be fine if they didn't promote it.

I'm aware this is not going to happen, but still, I genuinely think interviews are less of a big deal than is assumed - before Time Out went free we actively avoided celebrity front covers as they tended to sell fewer copies; the irony of the whole Rhys Ifans thing is that in making himself look like such a cunt he has probably both shifted way more copies of the Times than he would have if he'd been nice, but also sabotaged whatever it was he was promoting.

And I know for a fact from Drowned in Sound that in comparison to reviews etc, interviews are much harder to make a success, and I think the reason for that is something wider that reflects back onto the celebrity thing: most people in bands don't really have anything interesting to say... indeed, they're in a peculiar position where the thing they've done that people love them for is probably one of the single least interesting things on the planet to talk about - people are quite interested in lyrics, but very few people are interested in the studio process in anything but the broadest terms. PRs are absolutely mad for interviews, I think they get +20 pr points if they manage to get somebody to do one with one of their band, but honestly, I can't help but feel 90 percent on interviews with new bands are a waste of everyone's time... and what's more everybody knows it, but can't be bothered to admit it.

Errr, you know, I started writing this blog about two months ago, and didn't finish it, and now the events described are really quite distant, but it's an okay first two-thirds of a blog, I'm just going to go ahead and publish it, the moral is I FIND INTERVIEWS A BIT WEIRD WHY DO PEOPLE REALLY DO THEM EH.

Friday, 24 May 2013

THE STAR SYSTEM

I'm just going to write this down on my obscure little corner of the internet and back away, but yeah - I've given out very few five star theatre reviews since working for Time Out, and now that I've somehow blundered my way into the theatre editor role, I realise that I seem to be a complete bastard compared to all the other critics and give out virtually no five star reviews. Which would be fine if I honestly thought there was something noble about that or that I had higher standards than everyone else, but that's blatantly not the case - refusal to given them out has been a weird combination of demanding an unrealistic amount of perfection from a show, but probably also a sort of schoolboy fear of looking uncool by going out on a limb. So anyway, I'm not going to go mad but I'll probably give out some more full scores from now on and it's not a work pressure thing, just I'm bored of only giving good stuff four stars

Anyway, for the record I mostly regret not giving full marks to The Effect and Merrily We Roll Along (basically both for microscopically dragging in places), and I could easily have given the full whack to My Perfect Mind, This House and To Kill a Mockingbird.

So there we go, nobody died.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

WHAT I THINK ABOUT ALL MODERN BRITISH POLITICS WELL SOME OF THEM

Maybe this is a statement of the obvious, but what all the UKIP brouhaha of the last couple of weeks has convinced me of is that for the most part I think it's doubtful that the majority of Tory voters really vote for something they believe in called The Conservative Party, but rather they just vote for the right/for a conservative party.

If you dismantled the entire Conservative Party apparatus, shut the whole thing down, erased all records of their past, mindwiped everybody who had ever heard of them, etcetera etcetera, then what I imagine would happen is that a new mainstream right-wing party would come instantly spring up, quite probably called The Conservative Party. And while I hate to write in these terms, I think that's both a problem and strength they have - the Tory 'brand' doesn't really have very much strength in and of itself: there will always be right-wing (or righter wing) people out there who would like their views represented, and as the oldest rightwing party with decades of power under its belt it tends to default to the Tory party to manifest itself as their representative.

But much as there was a lot of silly chest-beating recently about Thatcher and her blah blah blah legacy, then in terms of reshaping Britain in his own image, Tony Blair's legacy seems infinitely more potent than hers (I think the fact the left tend to be a bit embarrassed by this is why they don't crow on about it), and I think it has been instrumental in creating a breed of right-wing politician that doesn't now necessarily reflect what the big amorphous right-wing blob of voters that wants to vote for somebody right-wing, usually the Conservatives. 


What I am tortuously getting at is this: the influence of Blair and New Labour in general has created a world in which Tory politicians like David Cameron now hold fundamentally liberal positions on things like gay marriage, religious tolerance etc. Which is well and good, but to just stick with gay marriage, has there really been a revolution across the board in terms of how everyone in the country thinks, that means it's a given that  ordinary people on the right side of the spectrum are more likely to be in favour of gay marriage now than they were 20 year ago? There obviously HAVE been certain changes. But given that really there was no more or less reason to approve of gay marriage 20 years ago than there is now, then I think it's a big leap for a politician like Cameron to assume that the amorphous right-wing blob that votes for him will now also be in favour of all the liberal flourishes that his party gathered over the Blair years.

Much as UKIP has a certain position on Europe, it's fairly obvious a lot of its success is to do with the manner in which it embodies 'traditional' conservative values (many of which others might define as prejudices) that seem to have been largely purged from the front benches by Blair. I'm not even sure it's accurate to say that voting for them is a protest vote - it strikes me that voting for UKIP is really just voting for a certain ideal of the Conservative Party. Even if UKIP were to become a genuinely mainstream party, then its wackier views would become moderated as it adapted itself towards what the amorphous right-wing blob wanted (I'm pretty sure normal people are never going to be in favour of a flat tax). Even if UKIP crushed the Tories, the very act of doing it probably make it the Tories, to a large extent.

Even though I'm probably the only one who is going to read this, I am starting to bore even myself here, so I will wrap up, but I suppose my point is that yeah, Cameron appears to be in hot water. But really, I don't believe the Conservative Party - or an equivalent - can ever die while people hold more conservative values than other people. What's perhaps more interesting - and hence I'm not even going to talk about it really -  is what would spring up if you dismantled and erased the history of the Labour Party?

Sunday, 14 April 2013

AFTER SIX YEARS I HAVE CHANGED THE LAYOUT A BIT

It did look pretty awful, I think it would be a bit odd not to think it at least looks 'better' now, if not 'good' per se. I don't really think this constitutes a turning point in my starting to blog more again... in fact I'm a little embarrassed by all those pseudojournalistic sub gonzo 'reviews' of music festivals I did in the second half of the last decade, but I suppose it was a time, a place etc, that's what people in their twenties do. I might still delete some of them.

The pseudojournalistic sub gonzo travel stuff, mind, is all GOLD.

Anyway, I vaguely (very vaguely) based the new look (er, as in the radical mix of black lettering on light blue background) on the cover of New Order's debut album Movement, which is a cool-looking album cover.

About two months ago - having owned Movement for well over a decade - I finally realised the music on it was really good as well. Because this is the internet, I do hereby embed a player containing both the cover art to Movement, and also my favourite song off it, The Him.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Mormon and on and on

When I told a senior colleague that I was ‘only’ giving ‘The Book of Mormon’ four stars out of five, she gave me a look suggesting that my rampant cynicism had gotten the best of me AGAIN. Everyone she knew who had seen it said it was a 5/5 rave; the Broadway critics had given it 5/5 raves (well, the limited number of them that deign to use a scoring system had); to a fair degree its success lay not simply in the idea of ‘have some yuks with Trey Parker and Matt Stone’ but THIS IS ONE OF THE ALL TIME GREAT MUSICALS.

Now I wouldn't even say it's one of the all-time great Parker and Stone creations. But I did like it, and so did most critics (albeit with three tepid reviews from the Guardian, Times and Telegraph) so it’s weird to see ardent fans of the show – not least celebrity fans - suggesting that ‘critics’ had some sort of agenda or didn’t ‘get it’. Few of the grumbles seemed to really address the actual criticisms of the show. And I haven’ especially seen anybody explaining what they think the ‘it’ to ‘get’ was – that was kind of my problem with the show, that it lacked bite and intent compared to Parker and Stone’s other stuff.

While I wouldn’t really want to compare ‘The Book of Mormon’ (which is good) to The Red Hot Chilli Peppers (who are despicable), it always strikes me that the weirdest and most obsessive fans of things tend to be fans of massive, hugely successful entities rather than so called ‘cult’ concerns. The most abuse I’ve ever received for anything I’ve ever written was some NME blog or other in which I suggested in passing that stadium funk dullards RHCP were shit (one of the best responses was from a Polish person who said I made them feel ashamed to be Polish!) And to some extent I wonder if people having – no doubt very fleeting – sour grapes over the reviews not being across the board raves are the same: they want to think that the giant, corporate behemoth they like is the best, is infallible, they’ve put a little something of their identity into that belief and they won’t say ‘no, I see where you’re coming from but for me it’s different’ because that would still shake the belief too much. (It’s probably a bit like religion but I am definitely not going to ‘go’ ‘there’).

But as I say, it’s a funny one with Mormon, as it can’t just be good, it has to be perfect – I'd guess the producers are probably a bit unhappy about the reaction, insofar as this was never meant to be one of those ‘well of COURSE the critics didn’t like it’ shows. 

And part of me suspects that moreso than ego, the reason for that is greed: the top ticket price has now been jacked up to an astonishing £126 (something its vocal ‘sleb fans who didn’t pay for tickets are no doubt totally indifferent to), a shocking amount of money that flies completely in the face of the current vogue for cheap tickets for big name West End drama and is way more than any other West End musical. But I think as with Broadway (where top price ‘Mormon’ tickets are nigh on $500, mind-bogglingly), the idea is in selling a product that is ‘perfect’, and I think any suggestions that this show is not infallible, not the best thing on the West End (and it’s not – of the long runners ‘Matilda’, ‘War Horse’, ‘Jersey Boys’ and ‘Billy Eliott’ are definitely all better) possibly call attention to the fact that that is an outrageous sum of money. And I would think if somebody had paid £250 for a pair of tickets, they really don’t want anyone suggesting to them that that wasn’t a wise investment.



I suppose as a sidenote, the fact that so many of ‘South Park’s UK fans are pretty much forced (FORCED!) to stream it illegally means there may be a karmic debt of sorts being repaid in the average ‘Mormon’ ticket. Still, I can’t help but feel there’s a bit of a savage circle at play here, in that a non-regular theatre goer who enjoyed ‘Mormon’ might have felt inclined to see another play or show if they enjoyed it. But, er, they probably won’t now as they’ll have no money left.

Sidenote 2: After writing the above I got into a very small twitter debate with columnist Deborah Orr, who trotted out the exact ‘the critics just didn’t get it’ line. I probably overtweeted a bit in response, but she did reply to what I thought was a fairly reasoned argument with the line ‘Satire aims to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. That's why the critics didn't like it. They're too comfortable’. This essentially seems to suggest that a) none of the critics who didn’t like it would get any satire, or any satire that might make them feel uncomfortable and that b) all the people who see it and like it are coming from a position of hardship/discomfort when at the current prices I’m sure it’s not exactly going to be the preserve of the huddled masses. She is a busy woman and it was two tweets and I’m not trying to nitpick at a more successful journalist than me, but this does seem like the perfect example of what I’m saying – the ‘critics didn’t like it’ narrative involves ignoring a lot of critics, the ‘critics didn’t get it’ narrative is wishy washy and involves disregarding some pretty thoughtful writing (admittedly from people outside the show’s target audience) and the idea that everyone who does like it is coming from some salt of the earth social position is barmy. Again, I find it odd and a bit maddening that anything less than rapture is considered sneering cynicism, and the reason I find that the most maddening is that this seems to be towing a line laid down by very greedy producers about the show being ‘perfect’.

Sidenote 3: A bit tragic of me to notice, but although the London twitter account for the show hasn’t mentioned the reviews, the Broadway twitter account for the show tweeted a couple of the positive ones and then deleted the links shortly thereafter – it does look like they’re not even acknowledging the four star reviews on grounds it makes the show look fallible…

Anyway, that was all very boring of me, I’ll try not to write about work on here ever again.

Monday, 18 February 2013

EGGS

I can't believe I'm going to make one of my sporadic blogging forays with something so unprofound, but hey ho. So I was in Morrison's today, and experienced several minutes of PERFECTLY UNDERSTANDABLE paralysis as I agonised over whether to buy a £1.99 pack of pastel shaded Duchy of something or other medium size free range eggs, or a £1.69 pack of Morrison's own brand large sized 'normal' free range eggs. (In the end volume and price won out over mild novelty - I have had blue eggs before and there is nothing inherently glorious about them). But, er, yeah: it used to be, like £2.10 EVERYWHERE for a pack of medium free range eggs, and there was almost no choice of brand... what has happened? Is it a thing? Is it to do with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's alarmingly emotional crusade for chicken's rights? (I don't see how that would in any way follow) Or is it a sign of declining chicken living standards via some sort of dubious loophole that means 'free range' chickens are cheaper and presumably less free range than they used to be? (Somebody swore blind to me that this was the case, but if so a) why isn't this more widely known about? b) why are there still non-free range eggs? c) unless technology was somehow involved, why would The Industry have only started exploiting whatever the loophole is very recently? d) wouldn't farms with 'proper' free range eggs make more of an effort to identify themselves as 'better'?) I would like to know. (I mean, have 'eggs' just become more of a lifestyle product, the price ironically driven down by greater competition? There are all sorts of brands now, when in days of yore nobody bothered, really. Eggs is eggs THEY say, but THEY probably weren't aware of a thing called 'eggs for soldiers', a sextet of eggs in a camo-style carton, 20p of the profit of which apparently goes to 'our boys') Eggs.

Monday, 14 January 2013

DAVID BOWIE

I don't normally repost things that I've done written for elsewhere due to some stupid belief that it's vulgar or something, but I was basically going to write this anyway before I was asked to, and the fact I was asked to means I actually did it, so yay. --- David Bowie Outside After the seismic brouhaha surrounding the announcement of the new David Bowie album, a large number of people whose lives were hitherto untouched by the Thin White Duke have presumably headed in the direction of his back catalogue. In 2013 this is extremely easy: you download it, stream it, or play the long game and order it off the internet.

Back in the mid-Nineties, trying to look up Bowie’s former glories was more complicated. As I recall – and it makes me a little teary thinking of how much power music journalists have haemorrhaged subsequently – I was pretty much a fan of Bowie off the back of stuff I’d read about him in the press. The reason there was a lot of stuff about Bowie in the press in the Nineties is that between 1991 and 1999, David Bowie put out six albums of original studio material: Tin Machine II (1991), Black Tie White Noise (1993), The Buddha of Suburbia (1994), 1. Outside (1995), Earthling (1997) and ‘Hours…’ (1999). While the reviews were generally pretty mixed, the newsprint around them gave ample opportunity for writers to rhapsodise about his ’71-’80 purple patch, and let me tell you – the idea of Bowie’s back catalogue was fabulously exciting.

Getting hold of it was a bit more complicated – my parents didn’t own any of his music, Radio 1 didn’t play his old stuff, and – mind-bogglingly – his back catalogue was bizarrely difficult to find on CD until a 1999 reissue.

That was okay, really, because by way of compensation, we actually had David Bowie. Alongside those six albums came numerous tours, interviews, telly appearances and an enjoyably questionable series of diversionary wheezes: offering his fans the chance to vote on whether the album was going to be called Earthling or Earthlings! Holding a competition for a member of the public to write the lyrics for ’Hours…’’s ‘What’s Really Happening?’! The two further Brian Eno-collaborations – including the widely trailed 2. Contamination that were supposed to follow 1. Outside, but never did! The faintly bemusing Nat Tate prank! The fiftieth birthday concert where he eschewed almost all his old mates in favour of hanging out with Placebo, Billy Corgan and the Foo Fighters! His dress sense 1995-7!

Between all this, he was everywhere: Wogan; The Big Breakfast; The O-Zone; TFI Friday; being presented a Brit Award by Tony Blair; in 1996 you literally couldn’t step outside the house without him clopping over in his high heels and emo-dad get up to try and flog you a copy of 1. Outside. But I liked having him there. What he did was always at least interesting. And he’d clearly made a conscious decision not to retreat behind former glories and superstar loftiness – he downsized and did his darndest to reinvent himself not musically, but temporally: he was a current act, or a good approximation of one. Okay, he was a current act who played global arena tours off the back of decades-old songs. But he had the air of a fun older friend who was good company and aware that he was expected to get the drinks in.

The current received wisdom is that following the tour for 2002’s Heathen he fell off the map, but the weird thing about Bowie’s ‘lost decade’ is how little of it was lost. For starters he was on tour until the middle of June 2004, when he had his heart attack. After that he stopped making records, but remained prolific on the New York hipster circuit, appearing live with Arcade Fire in 2005, at the Grammys and a charity ball with Alicia Keys in 2006, and he curated – and gave supporting interviews for - an NYC music festival in 2007. A smattering of guest appearances on his mates’ records culminated in his appearance as a backing vocalist on Scarlett Johansson’s 2008 album Anywhere I Lay My Head and it’s only after that that he disappeared from view.

It’s incredibly tedious when people use this sort of terminology about him, but Bowie’s transition to a ‘recluse’ stands as what may be his last great transformation. Piecing new album The Next Day together in secret, boshing out single ‘Where Are We Now?’ without warning, refusing all interviews and letting the internet do the rest has clearly reaped far greater dividends than trudging around the global chat show circuit ever would.

But I miss my mate Dave, the up-for-it middle aged bloke who’d gamely appear at the opening of an envelope if it’d help him push his latest scheme. If Sixties Bowie was a slightly suspect hippie, Seventies Bowie a fabulously unfathomable genius and Eighties Bowie a faintly repellent MTV megastar, Nineties/early Noughties Bowie was a likeable working musician with an under-appreciated catalogue and a formidable work rate. He made some very good records (Buddah, Outside, Heathen, Reality) and he wasn’t precious about trying new things – many of which didn’t work. He was great, but he was a bit crap as well - during the 1. Outside period in particular, he managed to be both very great and very crap.

For now, profligate Dave has been replaced by the lord of less-is-more. I hold out some hope, though: if Bowie’s serious about more albums after this – and Tony Visconti has suggested he is – then he doesn’t have the luxury of being able to take another decade off to build the hype up again. Maybe he’ll inscrutably drip-drip out the last few records of his life without uttering a peep in public, but one suspects that won’t be the case – Bowie has always enjoyed the limelight and if he wants to hold on to that, the man might have to fall to Earth again.