Sunday, December 21, 2008

It not the occasion grieve and also mourns

Do you hear what I hear? Well, crumbs, if that's "Holiday For Bells" from Bert Kaempfert's Christmas Wonderland (the traditional festive music of choice of the Paternal Thompson Whom God Preserve during the seventies, and therefore the music I associate most in the whole world with this happy season), then it must be time for the Controlling Thompson to bring the security shutters down on the Bank, meander home through chestnut-strewn urchin-bethronged Dickensian streets, and dig out an elderly bottle of schnapps that smells like scented drawer liners. Ho to the ho to the ho. Fa to the la to the la to the la to the la to the... oh, you get the picture. The dear Christ enters in, sits down and starts singing about gold. You can see: the round green door. ...Wait, I seem to have fallen through a portal into Melbourne House's Hobbit adventure game for the ZX Spectrum. Now I'm going to have to hang around here until sunrise, waiting for the trolls to petrify. Again.

Oh, well, in the meantime, I suppose I'd better crack on with the official Thompson's Christmas post. This has come around a bit quickly, to be honest; I've only just started writing another, absolutely yule-free, post, which I'd hoped to have up by now: but other things have intervened. So that one stays in the draft folder for a while. Not sure if there's going to be any internet juice to speak of at the homestead of the Paternal Thompson Whom God Preserve -- he's been fighting an epic battle with TalkTalk (the phone providers, not the superlative 80s band) over, to cut a very long story very short, their colossal incompetence: and as a result is stranded in a kind of communications limbo which, I suspect, he's secretly rather enjoying, but which may cut me off likewise from the warps and wefts of the 21st century for the next week or so. So, my point is, this will certainly be the last Thompson's post before The Big Day; it might be reasonable to expect the post that's currently on hold to appear here towards the close of play on the 29th. Followed in pretty short order, on the 31st I expect, by the year's Furtive 50 of notable albums -- back by overwhelming public demand. (Hi, Nick Jesper, & thanks for the overwhelming demand.) So here follow a few odds and ends in lieu of the All-Star Record Breakers Christmas Special that would in years gone by have cheered us on our way. (Wow, that's the fourth gobbet of gratuitous nostalgia so far, in the space of two paragraphs. I remembered that line of John Berger's the other day: "The past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying." That's what this blog should be called, A Placenta For Dying. ...Hmm. Anyone for trifle?)

Firstly, a couple of recommendations for those who are struggling with their last-minute Christmas shopping. Neither of these suggestions will solve the problem, as both involve mail order and can hardly be guaranteed to arrive in time: but, while you're surveying the walnut cosies and electronic toenail organisers in John Lewis on Oxford Street tomorrow evening, or staring in slack-jawed astonishment at the tumbleweed bobbing lazily down the evacuated aisles of your local Woolworths, you could at least comfort yourself with looking forward to those exciting items that you know will be delivered to you in the early days of the new year. 

Firstly, Rajni Shah has published a really gorgeous book & DVD documenting her performance 'Dinner With America'; it includes a substantial extract from the interview that I did here with Rajni a few months ago -- worth seeing not least for the comedy value of a page that's really just me talking about nudity in performance, with Rajni managing to make only two interjections in my monologue: viz., "[laughs]" and "Mm." Still, the remarkable images by Manuel Vason, and the accompanying DVD with three short films made by Lucy Cash, more than compensate for the effusion of plain text for which I am dismally responsible. The book and the DVD together cost a tenner and can be secured through Rajni's web site or, shortly, at Unbound: highly recommended, whether or not you've seen the piece itself.

Secondly -- and this one arrives in a tube, which surely means I have you at 'hello' -- the estimable Andrew Brewerton (of whose Raag Leaves for Paresh Chakraborty I made a not unhallooing fuss some months ago) is the first poet to be published in a new series of broadsides from force-of-nature Glenn Storhaug's excellent Five Seasons Press. The poem, a gloriously slippery, sexy, tuneful extrusion from certain fragments of Psalm 81 , is thus published on a single large sheet of toothsome paper with a phantom lipstick kiss endorsing its message: think 'Poems on the Underground', but way, way upscale and a fair bit more sensually alive than you'll normally see on the Northern line. The publication isn't yet announced on the Five Seasons web site but I dare say if you email Glenn via the address provided, negotiations might already be entered into. I'm excited to see what else emerges in this series; this is the loveliest imaginable beginning. At any rate, keep an eye on Five Seasons: evidently their relationship with Arts Council England may be at an end, and subscriptions will therefore be sought for future publications. People of Thompson's, this means you.

Another premature manifestation of Noel Baba's giddying beneficence presented itself quite unexpectedly at about ten past three this morning. (Those who fear this is about to lurch into a Sally Jesse Raphaelesque confession about having been molested by Santa can rest easy: it's not, at least not this year.) I was startled into waking by the unexpected sound of the sting that used to end Newsround. [Incidentally, for those who click on that link: I think I'm a little bit in love with Mr James Tye, director of the British Safety Council, who is featured about 1'45" in; seldom can a man have so magnificently emanated the pure essence of safety.] I'd fallen (quite briefly) asleep with the radio on, and missed the start of what turned out to be a whole three hour sequence of programmes in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, of which regular Thompson's readers will know I am a foaming, gibbering, occasionally insensate fan: and which -- specifically, the restlessly ingenious John Baker -- had created that musical morsel for a programme of earlier vintage called New Worlds. I'd heard almost none of this stuff before and it was as exciting to happen upon it (or be happened upon by it) as it was infuriating not to have heard about it beforehand. Happily, I can at least be unto you a sign. (*straightens cardboard and tinsel halo*) All three hours of this Radiophonic programming, including a fabulous opening documentary from 1971 -- cheerily called "Electronic Tunesmiths" -- can be Listened [to] Again at the BBC web site for the next six days. So perhaps while you're preparing your matterhorn of sprouts on Christmas Day itself, or your dad, dressed as Richard Serra, is causing a rivulet of molten brandy butter to trickle down the ramps of a model Guggenheim in your kitchen, you can be whistling imperviously along with -- frankly -- some of the scariest melonfarming music ever created.

More likely, however, you are, as I am, interested only in one crucial cultural item this Christmas and nothing else:

What more is needed? I mean, sure, I've been grappling with what is undoubtedly the Book Of The Year (were we doling out such baleful rosettes), John Tilbury's exhausting -- no, I mean exhaustive; no, wait, stet -- biography of Cornelius Cardew, arguably the most important figure in the British musical avant garde of the past fifty years, and certainly the most fascinating and remarkable in his persistent and intrepid pursuit of a public political role and substance for his work, a quest which took him on one of the most extraordinary artistic journeys it's possible to imagine. Tilbury and Cardew were close colleagues and Tilbury's strenuous diligence in accounting thoroughly and scrupulously for Cardew's life and work in all the contexts to which they are relevant produces a profoundly sober and intermittently inspirational thousand-page volume (edited, incidentally, by holder of the Thompson's Order of Merit, Harry Gilonis) of inexpressible value and importance. ...But when push comes to shove, the Ooh-Aah bird will always get the nod at this time of year.

Now: longtime visitors will know that I have previously posted end-of-year reviews and suchlike, summarising the high points and amplifying (sometimes almost infinitely) on my misgivings about everything else. No such flummery for 2008 (except for the record reviews which will follow in the dying hours of the year): I think I wrote about pretty much everything I wanted to write about, so feel free to trawl back and create your own highlights reel. (You may find it useful to play "A Day Like This" by Elbow for additional auld lang syne brownie points.) The only thing that's missing is a note about Ontroerend Goed's Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen: which I didn't write about at the time, having promised to review it for Total Theatre. I then failed to write that review (in the eerie absence of the usual gentle nagging from the editor), and the invisibility of that show on this blog has become as a consequence a deplorable lacuna -- it's the best, and certainly the most important, thing I saw all year, and I ought to have made here some attempt to explain why. I'd also have liked to post on my most recent experience of (what strikes me -- and others -- as) highly significant theatre work -- namely, the 10th birthday gig of the London Improvisers Orchestra, weirdly on board HMS President -- but that'll have to wait until you and I are having a drink together: which can only be a matter of moments, surely. I'm planning a post for the early new year that will touch on Once And For All anyway. Aside from that, I think we're done. Film of the year was Wall-E, obviously, and I'd have to say the art show I got most out of in 2008 was Tracey Emin at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, though I say that not yet having seen the current White Cube Mason's Yard show by Miroslaw Balka, of whom I am a real fan; I'll be sure to get along to that in January.

As for the more general vicarly musings in which one is tempted to indulge: well, I dunno. The year has ended bumpily, really, though I've been cheered up by some recent conversations: including an illuminating chat about Hey Mathew with Melanie Wilson and, before that, a brilliantly timely and generous pep-talk from Richard Lee at the Jerwood Space; and a couple of meetings about possible projects for the first half of 2010, both of which are making my heart beat a little faster. Also, Time Out says I've had a good year, so it must be true.

Certainly I'm pleased with the work I've done: ...Sisters was a big deal and a worthwhile project; Hey Mathew was, for all the problems around its reception (and some around its making), probably the most potentially important piece of theatre I've yet made, and certainly the most extraordinary process I've ever found myself inside: and though I'm still trying to come to terms with it all I certainly feel nonetheless, at base, a genuine pride and pleasure at having taken the risks we did, at having leapt into that void; and At Home, last weekend, ended up being a quiet joy -- raggedy-ass, seat-of-the-pants stuff, but I relished the informality and the connection, and loved working for the first time as a performer with the extraordinary Lucy Ellinson. There's been some fun teaching, some frightening and exciting poetry gigs... 'S all good.

The moan and/or fret -- because of course there has to be a moan and/or fret -- is the same one as before: the fear, not simply on behalf of my own frustration as an artist but on behalf of the culture we're supposedly trying to build and support together, that I'm more and more bumping my head on the underacknowledged glass ceiling of experimental and, particularly, devised work. Funnily enough (or not), this is exactly the feeling with which I ended 1998: that there was something deeply worrying about how the work I was doing was getting squeezed into smaller and smaller formats. Six actors (and two rabbits) in ...Sisters sounds like a big enough piece but we were crammed (to good effect, and with no discomfort, but still...) into the Gate -- a venue which punches way above its weight and which is currently run by genuinely brilliant people, but is still a wee little space when it comes to being able to make pictures, and especially (and I think this is a crucial technology in theatre) being able to make more than one thing happen on stage at the same time. And then Hey Mathew struggled to breathe at Toynbee, having discovered its perfect size and shape the week before at Theatre in the Mill -- a show with one performer isn't necessarily a small piece spatially any more than it is in its reach and reverberation. And then Lucy and I find ourselves arsing around in a terraced house in Canterbury. Which is great: but all the time, all through this year, I've found myself hankering after more. More space, more time, more people, more attention, more weight, more volume. More. Not because small can't be beautiful and not because small can't also be big, as big as big is, bigger sometimes even than that. Not because profound and important things can't happen in tiny spaces. (I nicked an exercise off James Yarker for my students at Rose Bruford a few weeks ago: make a performance in the palm of your hand. Some of the best stuff I've seen all year.) But: alongside all the arguments about what scale can do, what we can do and make and imply using the multiplicities of bigger space and bigger companies of artists, what other stories become imaginable with that level of access, alongside all of that, and all of the urge to be developing as an artist in ways that aren't only about economy and refinement but are about the ability to occupy less marginal and less constrained situations with authority and passion, alongside all of this, there's a question, isn't there?, about how my generation, the first generation to grow up with devising as a more-or-less mainstream practice, is ever going to come of age, is ever going to be asked to adapt itself to the biggest and most complex challenges that come along with our central spaces and our central concerns as makers and as people. I'm not going to get into this all again but, yeah, I absolutely believe that devising can be as responsive -- no, more responsive -- to the kinds of currents and dialogues that emerge (or used to) in the form of 'state of the nation' plays as more traditional writer-led practices are thought to be. That's a clumsy way of saying, big bold brave relevant stage-filling work shouldn't only be the preserve of top-down playwrights, and the playful and the decorative and the sweetly trivial shouldn't be the horizon of the aspirations of devisers. This is not to say that I'm sick of working upstream. I'm not sick of anything, except feeling like a 6'2" director in a six-foot box. My neck hurts, that's all. What is it Leo says that makes the President rediscover his mojo in season 1 episode 19 of The West Wing? "I'm going where I want to because a man stands up." That's it, that's exactly it. I want to stand up, and I can't, quite.

And then I think of the most intellectually and viscerally exciting experiences I've had of making work this year, and they've all been in the smallest of places, buzzing with ideas and passion and hunger and bravery and the furthest reaches of intimacy and desire: improvising in hallways and bedrooms and the spaces under tables; performing concrete poetry on the top deck of the bus; finding a whole new matrix of possibilities in a piece of clothing or in the space between the earbuds of an iPod. The best thing I did all year took a minute and a half: I sent Jonny Liron an email and said Do you want to come and talk to me about this project I'm doing? Over the last six months, Jonny's turned everything upside down for me in the most exhilarating way, and it's good to keep remembering how dismissive he is, and more than that how bored, of the old models for which I still slightly hanker. He has no use for any of the established forms and contracts and locations, and though I think I'm right to be not, in fact, done with them yet -- while I think I'm still interested in how the fixed, designated theatre space can continue to fulfil a civic function, and how the idea of the scripted play is not yet wholly exhausted, and how stories can be conceived and articulated that don't merely redescribe the same witless redundancies that have churned around our mainstream theatre culture for so long -- it's fantastic to be constantly reminded that, faced with all the weight of Arts Council applications to be completed, and marketing copy to be written as pretty much the first thing in the creative process, and endless hoops to be jumped through at the behest of even the most supportive and forward-thinking organizations, one can simply turn off the computer, head out into the world, meet up with a friend, and make theatre, right there, in the middle of the street, in the blink of an eye, the palm of the hand. I swear to Cthulhu there's more of theatre in a single dangerous kiss than in every performance of August: Osage County laid end to end (which I'm sure is how they feel anyway), for all that play's magnificent girth.

But that's not me talking myself out of wanting to bust out of this ceiling. If by doing so I did nothing more important or interesting than let some air in, that would still be worth it. Ten years ago, in 1998, I felt like this; by the end of 1999 I'd made The Consolations: seven actors, big pictures, the Place theatre, a two and a half hour show. Sure, the guy who with astounding generosity took it on himself to produce it is probably still paying it off (*wince*); and we all worked for four months for no money and I'm not in that place any more, none of us is. And the consequence was, come 2000, we were seriously in the red, and what could we do but go to Edinburgh with a show that could be performed in people's own houses... And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges, or somesuch Festive nonsense. I have no idea what I just talked myself into, or out of.

There's work to do. That's for sure. ...Well, good.

On which note, time for holidays, starting now.

Thanks, though, before I amscray, to everyone who comes here, for whatever reason, and especially to everyone who comments -- I know I'm bad at replying, but I really do appreciate your engagement. As for my regal Christmas message, I hope you'll forgive me for a copy-and-paste job, but I can't do better than the following paragraph, which currently greets subscribers to the oddly named but affectionately regarded Teens Boys World: pretty much the last bastion of artistic endeavour among all the otherwise styleless and tedious sites directed at those of us who like staring humbly at pictures of unclothed 19-year-old boys who appear, illusorily but most kindly, to be pleased to see us. Their eccentrically translated Christmas greeting is my envoi, my little gift to you, in the hope that you'll carry with you these resounding words, and warm yourself by them as the year dwindles to its end. Thus:

Christmas. New Year. 2009 year. We all know, that it will be not the easiest year. Crisis will concern many of you. Very much many. Also there will be many problems. But it not the occasion grieve and also mourns. The life proceeds also it is fine! We wish that your christmas desires were executed. That the pleasure, success and belief always were with you in New Year. Problems and difficulties will pass. You will manage with them. And all will be good. And differently also cannot be. Let smiles of young boys and their charming beauty will help you to live this year adequately and without greater losses. Love to you, happiness, success and pleasure in new 2009 year!

Certes, Tiny Tim couldn't have said it better himself.

Right, I'm off to mount my scooter and sound my hooter in pursuit of yonder star. See you after the thing with the chimney and the fat guy.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"For in his days was the earth divided..."

Every so often I'm asked by someone to trace to its origins my professional interest in theatre. My stock answer to this is that everything changed on the evening in 1992 when, as a student, I saw for the first time Complicite's Street of Crocodiles at the National; I describe how I travelled back that night from London to Cambridge, my companion and I both shocked into silence by the ineffable beauty and the deep emotional impact of what we'd just seen, and how I stayed up till dawn, scrawling frantically on big bits of paper stuck all over my walls as I tried to figure out how the company did it. (I dare say this anecdote has been inflated in the retelling over the years but I'm hoping it'll stick nonetheless, so that when the biopic of my remarkable life is finally made, there's at least one scene in which something actually happens.) This post, however, isn't about Complicite, but about an earlier theatrical experience that on reflection I suspect may have had an equally formative influence on my thinking about the medium and its context. 

It was, to borrow a line, twenty years ago today that the final curtain fell on a production that I acted in at school: a play by the writer and academic Mick Mangan called The Earth Divided. The play had previously been presented at Riverside Studios, under the direction of a young whippersnapper called Stephen Daldry. A springily written piece set mostly in 1607, and full of ribald wit and anarcho-communist musings, The Earth Divided could hardly be said to have 'school play' written all over it -- I mean, I'd been in Hobson's Choice a year or two earlier -- but Mangan's college friend Roland Clare, who was already a pretty longstanding member of the English department at Bristol Grammar School (where he still teaches, these twenty years on), was entrusted with the realization of an expanded version of the work. Looking back on it, it seems a pretty  peculiar thing to have happened at all -- a very adult, deeply political, and in sensibility highly contemporary, fringe play by a Sheffield-based writer turning up on stage as 1988's Christmas show at a relatively conservative secondary school in Bristol.

How much of that oddity I was aware of at the time, I don't know: but I was certainly keenly aware that this was something very different. Different from the usual creaky rep classics that were generally considered appropriate for schoolkids to work on (though Roland had form in this respect -- it's an abiding regret that I was too young to have seen his 1980 production of Strindberg's A Dream Play, which I'm sure was extraordinary); but different as a prospect for me too. I had some interest in theatre at this stage -- I was 15 -- but only really in terms of the license for showing-off that it conveyed; I wasn't serious about it -- though I guess I must have had some inchoate sense of wanting to take it seriously, as I remember feeling a bit indignant when I turned up one lunchtime to audition and Roland said to me, not unkindly: "You do realise this isn't a comedy?" (Likewise I fairly glowed with pleasure when after the audition he observed, with no little surprise: "Actually you're rather subtle...")

At any rate, I was cast, in the toothsome role of a fire-and-brimstone Puritan called Ebenezer Scorton (or, as one character rechristens him, "Ebenezer Scrotum" -- again, heady stuff for a school play; as Roland's then-young daughter observed: "It's very rude, isn't it, that bit about Ebenezer Testicles"). And so that Autumn term became dominated, in my heart and mind at least, by work on the play and everything that went with it.

L to R: Cathie Ackroyd, CG (looking a bit like Jobriath), Daniel Pearce

In fact perhaps the most significant and lasting insight that I gained into theatre-making during those weeks was the crucial importance to the work of that nebulous-sounding "everything that [goes] with it". In other words, that there is the play -- the text, the acting, the design, (in this case) the songs, the physical production, and so on; but critically, there's also a microculture that both arises out of this work and nurtures and to some extent incubates it. Usually that cultural aura is missing in school-level drama -- and, for that matter, in plenty of professional productions: you turn up, do your work, learn your lines, a production is gradually formed: job done. It's sort of necessarily the case, I suppose, in the context of a school play, where work is crammed into lunchtimes and free periods and occasional hours after school or at weekends.

In the case of The Earth Divided, however, we all (or nearly all) shared a sense that something bigger was happening -- not bigger in scale, but bigger in aspiration and more dilated in terms of its receptivity to the richness of possibility around it. In my case I think it mattered very much that, for the first and perhaps only time in my life, I was spending a lot of time with people who were all two or three years older than me, who were either sixth-formers or staff, and who were therefore capable of creating between themselves more equal adult relationships than I'd been exposed to before. Partly this is about a kind of informality that might seem quite trivial were I to try and describe it: but even then I think I was producing out of it a bunch of observations about ensemble, about collaboration, about boundaries becoming fluid and to some extent negotiable.

Dan Balint-Kurti and Mike Davison

The other thing that this connected to was politics. At 15 I was pretty much politically null, save for a vague sense of right-on-ness which might not have arisen in me at all had I not been increasingly aware of the wider ramifications of liking boys. Suddenly now I found myself sitting around a dinner table with people having adult conversations that were inquisitive, sometimes argumentative, and full of information that I didn't know. I don't just mean political information, though that was certainly an element; it was an exposure to ideas about art and its applications. At one level, I was merely having my teenage horizons broadened (in a way that in itself I was very fortunate to experience then -- I think a lot of people probably don't get their minds blown quite like that until they make it to university, if they do). But more importantly (from this vantage), I was starting to make connections -- a process that's political in itself. The semi-overtly anticapitalist politics of the play obviously connected with the sense of ensemble and of fluid hierarchy that I was experiencing; the turbulent free play of ideas was connected with a deeper engagement with certain values and commitments implied by those ideas at an emotional level; all of this, the political life of the play and the political life of the culture that was emanating from our work on it, was threaded through with my profound and unspeakable crush on one of the older boys in the cast; above all, we were all singing together, playing music, travelling together, eating together, and this constant quiet reinforcement of the possibilities inherent in exactly that togetherness was incredibly impressive and exciting to someone who'd grown up an only child and remained, frankly, something of a freakazoid, beset by fear and shyness and overcompensating with a lot of frantic competitive signalling of various kinds. If that competitive impulse remained in me even through this process -- and I know it did -- it could at least express itself not in smug (and self-defeating) one-upmanship, but in contributing to this group experience. For once, it wasn't all about me; and yet nor was it about the extreme self-denial that was the other of the binary states which I had thought were all I had access to.

At the centre of all this was Roland Clare himself, and the sense that he was not only director of the play but also custodian, or perhaps merely curator, of this cultural halo. Roland's one of those set-apart schoolteachers for whom probably everyone, if they're lucky, has an equivalent (I was exceptionally fortunate, I had two such, at different times): the pedagogical figure who makes everything different. A fine musician himself and an ex-member of a touring theatre company, Roland's gifts as a teacher were, and I'd bet still are, the gifts of a natural theatre maker. He makes magical things happen: which is partly to say (as any theatre maker worth their salt will confess), he creates and is careful to preserve a quietly playful space that will attract serendipitous events; and he then behaves as if those events were exactly what he expected to happen all along. (My home theatre pieces, which depend partly on similar technologies, developed partly, I'm sure, out of trying to figure out what made Roland able to do what he did, and it's no coincidence that he's seen all but the last of those shows and many of them have played in his house: indeed, I notoriously demolished his kitchen table -- negligently but not wilfully -- during a performance of The Tempest chez lui.) An example that lodges in the mind: noting that it would be expensive and difficult to create a staircase to join the two layers of the split-level set of The Earth Divided, Roland set out one lunchtime to find such a staircase. He returned half an hour later, mission accomplished -- a local department store was shutting down and happy to donate a staircase that turned out to be of exactly the right dimensions. (It's equally characteristic to find that, in recounting an anecdote about Roland, one starts to wonder whether one actually dreamed it. I'm pretty sure I didn't, in this case.)

It would be easy to write on and on in praise of Roland and in recognition of his exemplary impact on my own self-discovery as a person and as an artist. He certainly deserves thanks as public as these for making me start reading the novels of Russell Hoban when I was 13 -- the perfect age for a queer freakazoid kid to be exposed to Kleinzeit; likewise there should be some record of the instance of his sometimes extremely mordant humour when, visiting me in hospital the day after my suicide attempt (aged 17), he brought me a bag of Leonard Cohen tapes to cheer me up. I also recall frequently and fondly the spelling test he set us, in what would now be called Year 9, in which the answers to questions 14, 15, 16 and 17 were, respectively, "quartz", "quince", "seize" and "dissect". (A joke for the laterally-minded Francophone, which still makes me grin like a loon every time I think about it.)

I'm sure I'm failing in my attempt at a thumbnail portrait of this beautiful man, and I won't extend it, but I want to try and get it right because the more I think about The Earth Divided, as the years pass, the more I understand what Roland taught me about directing: not so much in terms of actually getting the play onto the stage, the details and mechanics of which have not imprinted themselves as indelibly as all that on my memory; but in terms of creating a company out of a sense of company (and out of a strongly but tacitly implied sense that it would be unthinkable to do anything individually that worked against the highest interests of that company), and actually more broadly about how theatre is a place teeming with ideas and alive with the polyvalency of those ideas, sussurating with the electricity that can flow through the connections between them; how when the play or the piece on the inside of the process is perfectly and expansively matched by a working culture on the outside of it -- or, more accurately, facing outwards from it -- the distinction between artifice and authenticity becomes untenable, and drama can then speak directly and compellingly about the relations that we make between ourselves and it, and between ourselves and each other.

I don't know for sure whether Mick Mangan took the title of The Earth Divided directly from Genesis (the Bible-bit, not the baldy band) or from the lyrics to Leon Rosselson's song about the Diggers, "The World Turned Upside Down" (variously recorded by Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan, the Oyster Band, Utah Phillips and others), though I see -- I had forgotten -- that they're quoted in the programme:
...this earth divided we will make whole
So it will be a common treasury for all.
What I do know, and remain grateful for (and awed by), is that the experience of working as a teenager on The Earth Divided was the beginning of a long journey for me -- one that still feels barely begun -- in trying to discover what part theatre can play in securing precisely that common treasury, and the extension of social justice and civic remodelling that that aspiration bespeaks. What's more, it was certainly that experience that led me to start suspecting -- and I remain ever more convinced that this is so -- that theatre is uniquely placed to help initiate and support the great task of the imagination that that programme requires. To the casual observer we would presumably have looked just like a bunch of schoolkids sitting around talking animatedly about Aleister Crowley over pizza, or playing a ramshackle twelve bar blues together (n.b. The Earth Divided is, regrettably, still the only production I've worked on that's spawned its own band -- oh, remind me to tell you about the time we nearly played with Shirley Bassey...), or crammed into a car listening to the new album by some emerging band called R.E.M.; but in fact we were plotting a revolution -- one that seems to become both more urgent and more plausible by the day. I don't know much about what's become of most of the Earth Divided gang, and I don't imagine they all necessarily recall it in quite those overheated terms: but I don't doubt they all remember it with affection; I'm sure they know even better now what we all guessed then -- that we were doing something pretty special; and above all, I'm certain they're reassured to know that, in the twenty years since we last all saw each other, hundreds and hundreds of kids have spent significant portions of their lives sitting in a room with Roland Clare, getting themselves ready to change the world.

Amos Miller and Mike Davison

Monday, December 15, 2008

...but the Controlling Thompson loved him

Only a mildly wonky but ultimately rather agreeable trip to Canterbury to perform (twice) a semi-improvised farrago called At Home with my dear pal and compadre Lucy Ellinson -- and, before that, the few days of preparatory frenzy entailed thereby -- has kept me from dropping in here as soon as I'd have wished to mark the loss to this fragile planet of yet another of the Controlling Thompson's favourite human beings. (Note to Death, if you're reading: put the sickle down for a moment, bozo, I'm running out of heroes here.)

You'll probably already know, then, that Oliver Postgate, creator (or co-creator) of such peerless children's tv animations as Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and Pogle's Wood, and a writer and craftsman of greater ambit even than this top-line resumé describes, died last Tuesday, aged 83. Not all Thompson's readers may, however, be aware of my own brief connection with Oliver, and rather than duplicate the potted obits and encomia that have rightly been published and broadcast over the past few days, it might perhaps be a better use of this space to describe that personal experience. For reasons that will become clear, it might be seen as a rather impertinent blob of divulgences, but I trust that my limitless respect and affection for Oliver and everything he stood for won't for a minute be obscured.

When, in the early spring of 2007, I conceived my solo performance Hippo World Guest Book -- a verbatim piece about a real web site frequented by hippopotamus enthusiasts (and their detractors) -- two things became dauntingly clear very early on. Firstly, that there would be a large amount of expositional material for the front end of the piece, which was certainly indispensible but likely also to be indigestible; secondly, that what I feared might seem a rather drily, or even rebarbatively, 'conceptual' piece might well benefit from being warmed up in some way, so as to make it a little softer and more fluid as it entered its audience's perceptual airspace. Quite quickly I hit on what seemed like the right solution: to get someone, ideally someone with a recognizable and trusted voice, to narrate that exposition, as a sort of taped introduction while I set up my props &c. on stage. Figuring out who the best person to approach would be took slightly longer: not because Oliver Postgate wasn't the glaringly obvious choice -- for almost any British person of my generation, his voice was both as familiar as a parent's and as trustworthy and timeless as God's -- but because one is always nervous of approaching persons who have loomed so large.

Eventually, though, I summoned the courage to send him an email, through his web site. I'd discovered his site a few months previously -- it's still there and still worth visiting, not least because it collects much of his political and polemical writing, some of which had been blog posts for the New Statesman. These pieces can seem surprising at first: their tone is perhaps not as unshakeably genial as you might expect from the inventor of Ivor the Engine or Professor Yaffle, though their titles can sometimes seem to place them in a lineage of affably nonconformist -- and thoroughly, even parochially, English -- light essay: they're called things like "Where Are We Up To Now?" and "Let's Not Go On Being Stupid"... But the analysis and, at times, the language is sharp, and the strength of feeling behind them is unmistakeable. The piece on Trident, from 2006, is possibly the best I've read on that topic. Not everything he says in these essays quite hits the nail on the head but of course in their favour is a certain element of being delighted that they exist, and are published, at all; while we await the release from embargo of Tony Hart's visionary manifesto for a third Situationist International, Postgate's political and current affairs writings -- sane, salutory and wonderfully energised -- are undoubtedly to be celebrated, and have been too little recognized in the obituaries elsewhere.

Anyway, that's exactly the cover under which I made my overture to Oliver in the spring of '07: I wanted him to know how much I appreciated that Trident piece, and happened to mention also that, were he willing, I'd love to discuss with him a project I was working on, etc. etc. He was kind enough to email me back, though to be honest I'd have struggled to be bowled over, exactly, by his enthusiasm for the idea. It was pretty clear even at that stage that he knew that his time was short and he wasn't keen to waste any of it. "Basically," he wrote to me in that first message, "whether I say something depends on what it is I am to say and whether I would be heard dead saying it, which is quite likely as I have inadvertently grown old and variously ill." Nonetheless he agreed to take a look at the text I was hoping he'd read, and a correspondence began.

As our dialogue continued, much of his initial wariness and (gently ironic) curmudgeonliness dissipated, though he was absolutely clear about what was, and wasn't, on. He insisted on making some rewrites to the script: some of which were clear and welcome improvements; others were pedantic but not objectionable; a couple, I thought, were deleterious: and I tentatively but politely said so, and sent him a final version which incorporated those changes he'd made that I thought were OK, but reverted to my original where necessary. This finalised text he received without further specific comment, which I hoped was a good sign.

I'd assumed I'd have to go to Broadstairs to record him, but he had the apparatus to hand to be able to record an mp3 at home, and so in due course he sent me a cd with a couple of takes. It probably almost goes without saying that the version he recorded was not the one I'd sent him, but the one he'd previously sent me. Possibly the realization that he'd quietly ignored my amendments influenced how I heard that first take; at any rate, I didn't much like it, it was a little curt and unmellifluous. I well remember that heart-sinking feeling: was I going to have to go back to him with notes, or, even worse, confess that I didn't think I could use his versions at all? But then, track two, the second take, began: and it was beautiful. Ineffably warm and generous and suffused with exactly the kindness that so distinguished his work for children -- a kindness that necessarily vibrated with a sense of secrecy and mischief, a sort of intimacy that glows in the heart of all the best storytelling and, dare one say it, much of the best political thinking. It was exactly what the show needed.

Even from there, it wasn't plain sailing -- he wanted approval of the music that I intended to layer his voice over (following, apparently, a finger-burning episode from years before: "I once read some Noggin at a ghoulish fiasco in Sheffield and they planted a putative guitarist to accompany me with heavy chords"... -- one can certainly see why he might have been reluctant to let me have my unregulated way with his recorded voice). Moreover, he quite insistently stipulated that he wasn't to be credited: that I was at liberty to confirm to anybody who asked that, yes, it was his voice; but that I wasn't to offer the information unsolicited. This, I suppose, was partly to ensure that we didn't use his name as a promotional device, particularly perhaps if the material of the show itself was not easily compatible with the benign, family-friendly associations his name might be expected to conjure. (His inference on this point was not by any means inaccurate.) Still, it left a curious atomsphere of furtiveness around his involvement, which I slightly regretted, though I quite understood his concerns. -- It's on this point, obviously, that I feel a little awkward about posting this stuff here: but I can't see that it matters now, not really.

At any rate, the end-product was worth every sticklesome moment of our collaboration, and even at my most downcast, when the show itself, during its Edinburgh run, was being kicked almost to death by tin-eared, feeble-hearted critics, I always felt restored, defrosted, to hear Oliver's voice (and Graeme Koehne's music) coming over the speakers, leading the audience by the hand into the strange world of the piece. To hear him was poignant even at the time -- as he himself warned me in his first email, "my voice is grislier than of yore"; listening back to it on the day he died was almost unbearable: but still, incredibly, beautiful and oddly elevating.

Not long after our brief collaboration ended -- and with it our correspondence -- Oliver was the guest on Desert Island Discs. His choices were much as you'd expect: in other words, mostly not at all what you'd expect. As I sat enthralled by the programme, hearing him tell in highly abbreviated form the colourful life story that he narrates with remarkable skill and candour in his genuinely wonderful autobiography Seeing Things (the audiobook version of which is probably the nicest gift you could ever buy for whatever fiddly bits of neuro-string connect your brain to your ears), I felt as if I were listening to a close friend. It made me sad and happy in equal measure to realise pretty shortly afterwards that everyone listening would almost certainly have been feeling the same thing.

After Hippo World Guest Book was put to bed, I wrote one last time to Oliver to thank him again for his contribution: and this time, there was no hint of grumpiness or impatience in his reply -- just delight that I was delighted, and pleasure at having done a good job. Throughout our exchange, and despite my contrary insistence, he had always refused to even discuss a fee. "I will either do whatever-it-is for nothing, or not at all," he'd said at the start, and now, at the end of it all, he said so again. "Just buy your hippo a big bag of good grass for me."

It's difficult to know whether to even attempt a paragraph in which I try to convey my sense of Oliver Postgate's importance, not just to me but to the wider culture, at least during the time that his work was being widely broadcast. One can only sound hyperbolic in relation to what was, nevertheless, an almost indescribable level of achievement. I really think there's no more important work that can be done than telling children stories that unite the virtues of impeccable craftsmanship, the courage of the imagination taken seriously, and the intensely alive, subversive, liberating potential of kindness at its furthest and most virtuosic reaches. For me, Jim Henson and Oliver Postgate are two of the very most important cultural figures of the past fifty years, and the deep impact of their pioneering bravery will still be reverberating years after countless Nobel laureates and Oscar winners have been utterly forgotten.

As I did with Ken Campbell, I thought I'd post a couple of audio clips that you might find it hard to track down in other places. (Lord knows if you need reminding how good Ivor the Engine is, or Bagpuss, there's plenty at YouTube. Worth also taking a look, though, while you're there, at Alchemists of Sound, a 2003 documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, to which Postgate lends his voice. Great stuff all round.)

So here, first of all, is that Hippo World Guest Book intro, in its final version. (The music is from Graeme Koehne's Inflight Entertainment, by the way. So, no big guitar chords there.) And then, an episode from 1998 of Ben Moor's wonderful radio series Elastic Planet, which Postgate narrated. He was a bit dismissive of this series when I asked him about it, but his voice works perfectly in it for all the reasons that I think it worked perfectly for Hippo World too. 'The Shape' is one of my favourite episodes, and features not only Postgate but also another great communicator from what I'm certain really was a non-illusory golden age of children's tv: Johnny Ball.

Please, enjoy these two snippets of marginalia from a truly great man. I'll be back here before you know it.