Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Man With The Child In His Ears

-- or, How to Completely Squander a Rare Day Off.

Gah, it's a tough life being hardcore. But like most tubthumping militants, my irascible, zero-tolerance exterior conceals a heart as soft as a Munchmallow on a cushion in a petting zoo. A sentimental streak wider than a mile. Oh, sure, Hugh Hughes's art-Bambi act may make me boke my own eyes up faster than you can say "How are you feeling today, Otmar Bauer?" (please don't click on that, please don't), but I only need to see half a dozen frames of the wedding sequence at the end of The Muppets Take Manhattan to be reduced to hopeless tears faster than a gay Squonk in an onion-processing factory. So here, to counterbalance some of my hardline excesses of late in these pages, is a little mixtape that I fear will be all but drowned out by the sound of my heart-strings being given a full-on Steve Vai workout as it unfolds.

This all started a couple of weeks ago when I passed part of a boring train journey listening on my iPod to Nik Kershaw's second album The Riddle, from 1984. Kershaw's an incredibly underrated pop writer -- listening back now it's amazing that he was ever bracketed with such Ready Brek-bland contemporaries as Howard Jones and Paul Young, and I still find his first three albums repay more careful listening than I dare say most people afforded them at the time. The best-known track from his debut album Human Racing, "Wouldn't It Be Good", also still sounds remarkably fine, and was, I think, really, the first (more-or-less) grown-up pop record I was ever really excited by. I'd been interested in pop music before that but what grabbed me by the scruff of my young ears tended to be novelty records, or at least records with an element of novelty about them: kids' tv-friendly songs by Adam & the Ants, say, or Madness, or Shakin' Stevens (eek), or Tight Fit (double eek), that sort of thing.

So I started thinking about the ways in which musical taste, as a part of one's individual identity, is formed; how it is that one comes to like what one likes, and what influences the formation of those likes and dislikes. As a child -- more so perhaps in those days -- you're rather passively soaking stuff up: records you're given, music your parents might be listening to, things that get played on the radio or shown on the tv. I loved music from a very early age, but it wasn't until I was about 10 that I guess I started discriminating in any way between music that seemed rewarding and other music that didn't; started to pick out of that influx of sounds the music I want to buy, so I could listen to it when I wanted to.

That seems to me to make the music that impacts on one's life before that age fascinating. Despite a fair bit of downsizing in recent years I still have comfortably 1000 CDs around the place and 70,000 tracks in iTunes and so it's fascinating (in a wholly self-indulgent way) to think back to a time when I had a little tape recorder and just three or four tapes of my own; when I had half a dozen vinyl LPs but wasn't allowed to operate my parents' turntable without supervision; when I'd sit and listen to music radio for hours on end hoping that a particular song would come on that I liked but didn't know the name of -- and what anyway would I do if I did know it's name? There was a newsagent down the road that sold ex-jukebox singles at 79p a pop, but stuff only turned up there months after it had been in the charts. Eventually, of course, like most 80s kids, pocket money would start going on blank tapes, so that as well as listening to the radio you'd be taping it too, hoping to time hitting the pause button (and, later, sliding the faders) so as to just miss the first utterances of the DJ at the end of the song. I amassed hours and hours of this stuff and have spent a good part of my adult life -- good in both senses, actually -- trying to track down rare and largely forgotten songs that I taped and loved as a kid but had only on homemade cassettes that eventually were lost or got chewed.

Well, look, I won't blah on about all this, but it occurred to me anyway that I'd be interested to compile a little mixtape of the music that was most important to me between the ages of about three and about ten, when Nik Kershaw took my ears to the next level. Obviously this playlist is compiled with adult sensibilities at least partly in mind -- there's no joy to be had now with a lot of the novelty songs and tv themes and so on that I adored at the time. Most of what's here I still find on some level interesting or appealing as music, though inevitably a big component in that appreciation is nostalgia: there is a sentimental aura around most of these songs that elevates them in my mind, and which is unlikely to be there in most cases for most users of this blog. I guess readers of a similar age may enjoy hearing a few tracks they'd forgotten about. Even so this is a more than usually self-indulgent day at Thompson's: I've enjoyed myself, but I also feel like I've eaten an entire packet of biscuits. But then, where there are biscuits, and while biscuits are for eating, what's the truly vivacious alterantive?

I'll append a few drivelly notes to the tracklisting for those who want to weep-a-long-a-Thompson's.

Track listing:

1. Mantovani & his Orchestra: 'Theme from Moulin Rouge'

This is the first tune I ever really remember knowing, aside I suppose from nursery rhymes and suchlike. My mother had a powder compact which played this tune when you turned a little key; I imagine it was a souvenir from my parents' honeymoon in Paris in 1972. After the age of six or seven I didn't hear this tune again until I was in my mid-twenties -- you can imagine the Proustian carnage that ensued.

2. The Seekers: 'The Ox-Driving Song'

The Seekers were probably the first group I became aware of, slightly earlier even than the Beatles. Their signature tune 'Morningtown Ride' would be the Desert Island Discs choice, but there are a number of Seekers songs that are, for me, vividly alive with the incidents and qualities of my five- and six-year-old life, including this uncharacteristically bracing number.

3. John Eyre: 'When A Knight Won His Spurs'

One of those songs that you know intimately as an infant and then never really think about as an adult -- though I think Martin Simpson performs it occasionally. Even as a very young child there was a nostalgic quality to this song -- and not just the lyrics, I think -- that I found heartbreaking. At the risk of sounding preposterous, I'm sure I was always aware, even at that age, of living in the midst of loss, of time and people and stories passing; aware too of the need to find some fixity to counterbalance that otherwise unbearable flow of loss. Religious faith of the kind that's gently advertised in this song was never it for me, not then and not now: but I had a deep apprehension of the need to love people, fiercely and unstintingly; and the need to make things, with the hands and the body and the imagination. The same need expressed two ways. I was always aware too, I think, of how much I identified with the picture of childhood vulnerability and bravery that this song beautifully, concisely gives us: "No charger have I and no sword by my side / Yet still to adventure and battle I ride." ...Ah, twenty-two songs to go and already I'm a fucking mess.

4. Maggie Henderson / Fred Harris / Peter Gosling: 'Ragtime'
5. Toni Arthur: 'Jonathan's Zoo'

I was enthralled by tv as a kid; I'm convinced that pretty much everything I think now about art and entertainment (and rant on about here in such supposedly high-falutin terms) I knew, at some level, by the time I was seven -- learnt it from masters: Oliver Postgate, Brian Cant, Johnny Ball, Tony Hart, Derek Griffiths, Bob Godfrey, Maggie Henderson, Bernard Cribbins, Johnny Morris, Sarah Long. There are so many kids' tv-related songs I could have put in this mix -- I'm still not sure how I feel about omitting Freddie Phillips's amazing music for the Trumptonshire trilogy, especially the justly renowned Camberwick Green musical box; and the intensely redolent theme to Cosgrove Hall's Cockleshell Bay-- but in the end I went with these two.

Maggie Henderson and Fred Harris's Ragtime was always a joy, and its theme tune -- neither melodically or lyrically the most complex song in the hit parade but none the worse for that -- has probably popped up in my head every year since its last BBC transmission in the late 70s, like an oddly welcome ringtone going off. Incidentally, I've had the great pleasure of working with Maggie since, on King Pelican last year and now on Pinter's Landscape in Bath next February: and as a result of getting to know and adore her I am now the inordinately proud owner -- or, I think I should say, host -- of Mr Curry, one of the best-loved wooden spoon characters from the original series. What an honour!

I was a great fan too of the wonderfully warm and playful and sexy Toni Arthur, one of the presenters most closely and fondly associated with both Play School and Play Away; I had completely forgotten this song, "Jonathan's Zoo", but found an mp3 of it, downloaded it out of curiosity, and on playing it, was astonished by the clarity with which it all flowed back to me: I'd have sworn beforehand that I'd never heard it, but somehow, I knew every word.

6. Gunter Kallmann Choir: 'Windmills of your Mind'
7. Frank Sinatra: 'Over and Over (The World We Knew)'

I don't know but I would imagine it's fairly common that most young kids are fascinated, as I was, by their parents' record collection. In my case, although my dad had a pretty large assortment of vinyl, I became fixated -- almost erotically -- on a very small number of albums, because most of his collection was classical, and quite heavy classical stuff at that; I didn't mind classical music but I wanted it in pop shapes, in four-minute packages, and not much of his stuff lent itself to such treatment. So there was this small section of maybe half a dozen easy listening albums, and it was those that I played and grew to know so deeply that, having reacquired them as mp3s in the last couple of years, to hear them is almost spooky.

What's also striking, if not remotely surprising I suppose, is how I was attracted above all to the melancholy and the disturbing. What's happening to make a seven-year-old obsess about 'Windmills Of Your Mind', that uncommonly bleak portrait of post-breakup mental distress? It's given an incongruously perky treatment here by the Gunter Kallmann Choir (singers of the recently retro-popular 'Daydream'), whose album Somewhere My Love also included covers of such eminently bittersweet confections as Mary Hopkin's 'Goodbye' and Petula Clark's peculiarly disconsoling 'Happy Heart': but I certainly don't think I mistook it for anything other than a terrifying glimpse into adult turmoil. And then there was Frank Sinatra, crooning such darkly regretful or furiously cynical numbers as 'That's Life' and, here, 'Over and Over', an odd blend of the sombre and the melodramatic. For someone who was mostly otherwise listening to 'The Laughing Policeman' and the soundtrack to Dumbo -- I mean me, not my dad -- it's a curious tone to be enthralled by. But I think the pull of adult darkness and sexuality was always very strong for me and these songs were fascinating, immense.

8. Terry Scott: 'My Brother'
9. Keith Michell: 'Captain Beaky and his Band'
10. Shelby Lynne: 'Someone's Waiting for You'
11. Gene Cotton: 'Me and the Elephant'
12. Leroy Anderson: 'Forgotten Dreams'

When I was seven I was given my own little cassette recorder, and these songs were on the first few tapes I had. One early cassette was the now almost legendary compilation of children's songs, All Aboard, which practically everyone born in the early 70s seems to have owned. Terry Scott's 'My Brother' -- without the dreary sound effects that have been layered over the version here -- was on that, as well as on a more contemporary-minded cassette tie-in to the radio programme Junior Choice, which was being hosted at that time by Ed Stewart. That same cassette had 'Captain Beaky' and Gene Cotton's luxuriantly maudlin 'Me and the Elephant' on it, as well as the Toni Arthur track above. I've more or less reassembled both All Aboard and Junior Choice Favourite Requests over the past few years, from mp3s picked up here and there, but a couple of Junior Choice tracks continue to elude me. It's good to have something to think about, eh.

I should warn you, if you're reading ahead of listening, that 'Someone's Waiting for You' may well be the saddest song in the world ever, making Don MacLean's 'Vincent' and Purcell's 'When I Am Laid in Earth' sound like, respectively, this and this. It's taken from the soundtrack to Disney's The Rescuers, a film I've never seen and I don't suppose I ever will. (There aren't many Disney films I like very much and I can't imagine The Rescuers would be one of them.) I used to rather dislike this song as a kid, finding it a bit soppy and saccharine compared with the more robust songs that flanked it on my Disney compilation tape, one of which was the satisfyingly raucous 'Everybody Wants to be a Cat' from The Aristocats. Nowadays, I know it's soppy and saccharine, a tearjerker-by-numbers, but there's something magnificently efficient about it that I wholeheartedly love. I mean seriously, without reservation. If I ever get round to doing that 'at the piano' cabaret show in Edinburgh that I've been secretly fantasizing about -- not least because, if he ever got to hear of it, Ben Watson would surely simultaneously puke and shit himself to death, which would make me laugh very heartily and protractedly and with quite enormous pleasure -- I will offer the world my version of 'Someone's Waiting for You'. It will be a little bit slower and a little bit sadder and it will never, ever end.

And, oh, God, Leroy Anderson's 'Forgotten Dreams'. Well this is a tune I got to know from a tape by session flautist Adrian Brett -- the pound-shop James Galway, if James Galway weren't already the pound-shop James Galway; and, again, though I knew it very well as a seven-year-old, I became fond of it -- deeply, lachrymosely fond -- only as an adult. Weird that it should transport me, in such a welter of affection, back to a time when the same piece made me want to kick my cassette recorder across the room. When we started making Longwave, my 2006 show with Tom Lyall and Jamie Wood, one of the tasks we were trying to set ourselves was to use this tune, and a number of other equally hackneyed and sentimental old chestnuts, without any trace of irony or undercutting; although that remained a thread in the piece, 'Forgotten Dreams' was only briefly heard, in the version by Eddie Calvert. Probably for the best, don't you think.

13. Ruby: 'Bart'
14. Gordon Langford: 'A Walk in the Black Forest'

In the old days, kids -- you won't believe this, but -- tv programmes often didn't fit together very well. Moreover, BBC2 sometimes wouldn't start until the afternoon, or would wake up in the morning and then have a little siesta later on. You might spend quite long periods gazing at cards that said "the next programme will follow shortly". These 'junctions', as I believe they're known in the trade, were particularly common between programming for schools, where a circle of disappearing dots or lines would count down the last minute before the programme started, presumably partly to assist classroom teachers in an era where VCRs still weren't entirely commonplace.

The music that was played over junctions, or during test card periods or protracted opportunities to enjoy 'Pages from Ceefax' &c., was often more captivating than the programmes themselves; some tracks would recur quite frequently, so that they became as familiar to their audience as chart hits. As an eight- or nine-year-old, one of my favourite pieces of music in the world was a chugging guitar-based instrumental that featured a chord sequence and a riff in its chorus that snagged on the brain and would go round and round for whole days. I never forgot it and even in my teens I was trying to track it down: in those pre-internet times it was practically impossible to find out what a piece of music was unless you had some prior knowledge to navigate by. (It was trying to find this particular track that led to me buying Santana's Caravanserai as a teenager -- not a very good guess, but a good record to know anyway.) Eventually, maybe five years ago, almost inevitably, I finally found it on the web, on YouTube. It can be almost guaranteed that, if a tune stuck in your head when you were eight, it stuck in other people's heads too. A couple of years ago, I finally managed to get a copy of the track in question -- 'Bart' by the pretty obscure US rock band Ruby -- on CD. I still think it sounds great. And if you want to know what it sounded like over a Schools TV junction: well, here you go. Knock yourself out.

Another common feature of those televisual downtimes in the late 70s especially was a notable (and, to me, delightful) preponderance of analogue synth music: not the sober soundscapes of Tangerine Dream or Jean-Michel Jarre, but the jaunty, ineffably kitsch stylings of the likes of Harry Breuer and Claude Denjean. Music created on synthesizers still sounded incredibly novel, even alien, to my young self; I remember having a blank Pye C60 labelled 'SPACE MUSIC' on which I'd record these fantastically exciting Moogish delicacies direct from the tv through the condenser mic on my portable tape recorder. (Later I impetuously used the same tape to record some more earthbound orchestral testcard music and can still remember the feelings of self-recrimination as I was forced to modify the title of the cassette to read 'SPACE MUSIC (and ordinary)'. Anyway: I've no idea whether Gordon Langford's ARP synth rendering of the easy-listening classic 'A Walk in the Black Forest' was ever used to accompany a Ceefax travel report or "Look & Read follows shortly" card, but it's perfectly typical of the kind of stuff that ended up on my SPACE MUSIC tape, and even in its present-day quaintness it still sounds oddly futuristic to these ears.

15. Pointer Sisters: 'Pinball Number Count'

There were three regular number-based animations on Sesame Street, all of which would normally be featured in an hour-long episode: the amiable Baker series, culminating each time in an ecstatic moment of patisserie slapstick; the slightly terrifying late 60s electric-jazz spies series, bombarding bewildered kids with a near-overload of trippy visuals and a tricky time signature doodled all over by vocals from Grace Slick (who of course would later favour us with the truly atrocious 'We Built This City' et al); and, perhaps most fondly remembered at this distance, the pinball series. Astonishing to think that the slinky, funky music for these was provided by the Pointer Sisters, who went on to record some great 80s singles such as 'Jump (For My Love)' and the sublime 'Automatic'. (I used to know a terrific bit of gossip about one of the Pointer Sisters and a large consignment of cocaine, but I can no longer remember enough of the details to be able to relate it. I'll check and get back to you.)

As a sixth former I started a sort of jazz/rock band and we used to cover 'Pinball Number Count': though, not knowing how it was officially referred to, we informally entitled it 'Dozen Matter', in an early example of the dazzling pun-play for which I am now known and, er, patchily tolerated.

16. Vladimir Cosma: 'David's Song'
17. Gordon Giltrap: 'Heartsong' (edit)

It wasn't only kids' tv that penetrated my consciousness. These two tracks were television themes that, again, by dint partly I suppose of their weekly repetition, became embedded in my musical world, and which I enjoyed tracking down again as an adult.

'David's Song' was the theme tune to a dramatization of Kidnapped -- a Sunday afternoon slot, if I remember correctly; the music is by Vladimir Cosma, who went on to be better known as the composer of the famous (and matchlessly French) 'Promenade Sentimentale' from the film Diva, still frequently pronounced one of the best movies ever made, though exclusively by undergraduates who have only ever seen eleven films. Oleaginous Spanish guitarist Juan Martin had a very minor hit with 'David's Song' and it was later co-opted into the nerve-wracking world of Christian pop, papered over with scary evangelical lyrics. Almost needless to say, I find Declan Galbraith's recording of this version pretty much intolerably moving and unspeakably beautiful: it has had me crying in the street and the supermarket on two separate occasions. Curse the iPod. Death to Christian pop. Had I ever got my shit together to participate in Unlimited's lovely Mixtape project, this is the song I'd have used.

'Heartsong' was of course the theme to the Cliff Michelmore era of the BBC's Holiday programme, back in the day when you could get away with putting nude boobies in title sequences, with electrifying consequences for the nation's family teatimes. I still think this is a great track, propelled by Simon Phillips's marvellous drumming; the launch into the keyboard solo is still one of the most joyous moments I know in 70s music. As an eight-year-old I longed to be able to play piano with such fluency. Eventually I could. It was hollow, I tell you. Hollow.

18. Renaissance: 'Northern Lights'

The radio was often on at home, especially in the mornings before school. A pleasant chap called Roger Bennett hosted a breakfast show on Radio Bristol and I could make you a whole other playlist of songs that I associate with that show and that time. I won't because you'd hate it. Randy Edelman's 'Uptown Uptempo Woman' alternated with Randy Vanwarmer's 'Just When I Needed You Most' in the coveted 'Randy of the Day' spot. (No, that's not quite right.) Anne Murray's 'You Needed Me' seemed to be played every morning, as in fact did every song ever subsequently covered by Boyzone and/or Westlife. I think Louis Walsh must have been a Roger Bennett fan. There was Sad Cafe's 'Every Day Hurts' and Supertramp's 'It's Raining Again' and Andrew Gold's 'Never Let Her Slip Away'. Later there would be Tom Robinson's 'War Baby' and Chris de Burgh's 'Ship to Shore' and Mike Oldfield's 'To France'. Truthfully, I think I learned a lot from these songs.

And I learned especially from this song by Renaissance and a slightly similar one, the still-astounding 'I'll Find My Way Home' by Jon & Vangelis: similar only in one respect, perhaps, but a key quality all the same: they built by stacking, by piling up layers of vocals. It's a rudimentary but effective technique and if you go back over the work I've made, there are often sequences that, one way or another, employ it. If I've ever made you cry in a show, it's almost certainly because when I was eight I heard 'Northern Lights' and 'I'll Find My Way Home'. Like, seriously.

19. Wendy Carlos: 'Scarlatti: Sonata in G major, L.209'

More 'SPACE MUSIC', I suppose, but this reached my ears slightly later. As a toddler I had spent hours sitting with my dad in front of his old four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and he'd record me speaking, tracing my development between the ages of about two-and-a-half and five. My preparation for becoming a professional pain-in-the-ass refusenik started here: the idea, especially early on, was that he would recite nursery rhymes to which I was supposed to supply the rhyme words: but mostly, I was a blighter about it, and much of what was recorded for posterity would go a bit like this:

Dad: "Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you...?"

Long pause.

Me: "No."

Dad: [unperturbed] "Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the...?"

Long pause.

Me: "No."

This format was abruptly ceased when at the age of four I offered a satirical rewrite:

Dad: "Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes, sir, yes, sir...?"

Me: "Big fat fool."

Anyway, the point is, after a while I was allowed to play with the four-track recorder myself, learning to thread the thick tape into the spools and make my own recordings. (Yes, some do still exist, and yes, maybe one day I'll show you some. Unless you send me money. NOW.) At the same time I inherited a half-dozen tapes onto which my dad had recorded other stuff -- more Sinatra, lots of Bach; but also a couple of albums by the great Wendy Carlos. I was really captivated by her Moog renderings of classical pieces by Bach and Handel and Monteverdi and so on, and when they were (expensively) reissued on CD a while back I collected everything I could get my hands on. I still think they're great recordings, great reimaginings of these composers' work. I find them thrilling, the electricity that pulses through them, the meticulousness and sensitivity with which they are crafted, which rather belies the immense difficulty of working with analogue synthesizers at that time -- or at any time, really.

20. Peter Skellern: 'Life'

As an only child, and a brainy kid, by the time I was eight or nine I felt like most of the interesting relationships and friendships I had in my life were with adults. I'd go round to play at other kids' houses and mostly really want to hang out with the grown-ups. Friends of my parents had a record collection that I felt very drawn to, and I loved one record in particular, of which I soon bought my own copy (on my first ever sortie into an HMV store, in Broadmead): Happy Endings by Peter Skellern.

Happy Endings had been a six-part tv series (that I didn't see), a set of half-hour musical playlets, and this album collated the songs from it. Peter Skellern was another immaculate stacker of vocals -- the quality of his voice meant he could create huge swathes of harmonies without any sense of density or stodginess -- and an impeccably tasteful writer and arranger of songs. Through him, and albums such as Astaire and Still Magic, I gained my entry into the songwriting worlds of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael, and through that into becoming a budding (and, eventually, not un-decent) jazz pianist in my teens. I suppose in a way being a teenage Peter Skellern fanatic was one of the first clear signals I ever had that I was not, in the end, going to turn out to be quite like the other boys.

I still think 'Life' is a nicely made song. I played it on the piano at a school concert, aged 10. I bet it was awful, but perhaps it wasn't quite as awful as almost everything else on the bill, and I remember the rapturous ovation still, with a little shameful tingle.

21. John Williams: 'Over the Moon'

From the soundtrack to E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, of course. I hardly think it's necessary to say anything about this one: just a wonderful lesson, perhaps my first lesson -- I think E.T. might have been the first live action film I saw in a cinema -- in the extension that can be made to the emotional ambit of a constructed event by its underscoring. And if you'd asked me when I was nine I'd have said the exact same thing.

22. The Fraggles: 'Our Melody'

I was a little too old for Fraggle Rock when it came out: I remember buying the soundtrack album in W.H. Smiths at the age of nine-and-a-half and feeling acutely embarrassed; I had a (slightly older) friend who was already into Motorhead, for example. But I was already profoundly attached to the universe of Jim Henson and, to a small extent, I guess I already had a somewhat analytical relationship with his work -- by which I mean, I wasn't so much watching the programmes as watching what he was doing with them and why that task might matter. The songs on the Fraggle Rock album were patchy: some were great, some were not: but I felt OK about that because it was clear to me that something bigger was going on: that the album, and the series, weren't necessarily for me but they were somehow about me, they were concerned with me, me as a representative of all of us. This song, 'Our Melody', exemplifies all the strengths and frailties of the Fraggles, and in liking and disliking it in roughly equal measure now, as I pretty much did back then too, I still love what Fraggle Rock is for, and what it's signalling, and I love that puppetry can be a legitimate way of wanting that, and a terrific way of holding it open for children and adults to access together on an equal footing.

23. Sky: 'Watching the Aeroplanes'

Another record which my parents' friends had was Sky 2, the then almost ubiquitous double album by the fusion group led (uncomfortably, it always seemed to me, even then) by the guitarist John Williams. I'd seen them do 'Toccata', their Bach-spoiling single, on tv in 1981 or so and was pretty impressed by it. I find it completely impossible now to know whether Sky 2 is a perfectly OK album or a pile of crap; certainly there is musicianship, of one kind or another, and I suppose I just don't find that sort of competence as exciting now as I did then: but I guess I was still learning what competence meant, and how I might be able to develop my own competence as a maker of things. Whatever: I still think the build on this relentlessly onward-trudging track is brilliantly judged and pretty exciting. Turn it up loud and pretend you're nine, that's my advice. I think I may actually have pretended to be an aeroplane to this track: though not lately -- but who knows, it might help.

24. Rob Fisher: 'Theme from Datarama'

A little curio to nearly end on. Around 1982, I guess it must have been, the local independent radio station, Radio West, started broadcasting a show called Datarama, the focus of which was the upsurge in home computer ownership; the Sinclair ZX Spectrum had been released that year and there was a massive audience for coverage. What distinguished Datarama -- this seems almost impossible to believe now, but it's true -- was that the last ten minutes of every episode were given over to transmitting software. I suppose it's possible that those readers who are younger than some of the posters on my bedroom walls may not know this: at this time, software for your home computer was mostly released on cassette tape. You would connect a tape player to your computer and play the software cassette, which would load over the course of a few minutes. It sounded like this -- and that's the sound that Datarama would broadcast, the idea being that you'd tape the show off the radio and then be able to load the software they'd transmitted.

As a keen Spectrum user I taped Datarama every week, mostly for these free programs (not that they were ever any good), and as a result I got very familiar with the theme music. It took me years -- not trying all the time, I must admit -- to track this music down: I assumed it was library music and I spent a lot of time trying to find it in that kind of context. Then, one day, a few months ago, I casually Googled 'Datarama' to see if any new information might have surfaced, and suddenly there was a web page specifically dedicated to the theme tune -- it turned out to have been written especially for the show by Rob Fisher, later of Climie Fisher; the site had been made partly as a tribute to Fisher, who died in 1999.

It's a neat little track, absolutely of its era, and it's here partly as an emblem of the way in which the web now preserves so much that would previously have been not merely ephemeral but literally impossible to trace. What this does to our relationship with our childhood selves, I don't know. I don't know which is better, more productive: the retention or the loss. I know that the pleasure and sometimes the emotional intensity of re-discovering something, after a long period of having it only in the memory, is huge. I will always remember the end of the eight-year quest to track down the music used in Complicite's The Street of Crocodiles -- when I got that CD home and hit play, it was one of the most emotionally flooring moments of my life. I'm now at a point where there's very little left on my wishlist -- almost everything (at least everything musical) I could possibly wish to recover from my childhood is here now, in front of me, a click or two away. I wonder where I am. I wonder where I am. Know what I mean? ...Not sure I know what I mean, actually.

25. Nik Kershaw: 'Wouldn't It Be Good?'

And this, then, is where we came in. The beginning of something else. I never bought 'Wouldn't It Be Good' as a single: by the time I'd come round to thinking I really wanted a copy of it, it had turned up on Now That's What I Call Music Vol. 2. (Volume 77 is to be released next month, which is another way of saying, I am very, very old.) Compilation albums may have been among the first nails in the coffin of the 7" single and the pop charts as a whole; but it was because of being excited by Nik Kershaw and Matt Bianco that I bought Now 2, and because I bought Now 2 that I heard David Bowie and The Smiths for the first time -- and for that matter, 'Breakin' Down' by Julia & Co., one of the greatest dance tracks ever: and suddenly, it was as if my bedroom had a skylight in the ceiling that had never been there before.

...Well, as ever, that turned in to more of a marathon than I intended. What a way to spend a day. I hope the self-indulgence is excusable just this once. You never know, I dare say a post like this might accidentally do all kinds of things. Maybe.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

National Teatowel Live (for Dan Baker)

What kind of thing is a poem?

This is not, or not always, the almost wholly academic -- bordering on theological -- question it may at first appear to be.

Some years ago, researching an essay (which later appeared in an issue of Edinburgh Review) on contemporary American writers including Harry Mathews, Charles Bernstein and Harmony Korine, I came across an interesting fact: the very nature of a poem had recently changed - at least, in an industrial context. The longstanding Standard Industrial Classification System, a sort of Dewey system for the mapping and analysis of industry, had been superseded by the more up-to-date North American Industry Classification System: and in that shift, a curious (and generally overlooked) reappraisal had occurred. Previously, poetry had been considered to be a kind of manufacture, a subgroup of the publishing industry. Now, under NAICS, poetry was reclassified as a kind of information.

The development of NAICS had happened partly in response to the great boom in what was then being quite newly described as "the information economy". The trade in data had begun to supplant the trade in objects, and in that context, the way that cultural production was perceived inevitably changed to reflect that broader tendency in our industrial and/or post-industrial lives.

As someone who would struggle to think of a poem as any kind of "thing" in the first place -- I feel far less uncomfortable thinking not about poems but about "poetry" as a living practice, a process, with "poems" among its outputs and residues -- you might reasonably expect me to welcome this fundamental reimagining of the poem. Surely a poem shouldn't be thought of as a manufactured object, with all the attendant connotations of commodity and fixity, but rather as something more fluid, more disembodied, more able to occupy a whole range of sites and formats, virtual as well as real.

Certainly it is true that the variety of encounters it's now possible to have with poems would have made no sense to their authors even forty years ago. I might first meet a poem by, say, Philip Larkin in a second-hand Faber edition of one of his collections; or in a big paperback anthology of "The Nation's Favourite Poems"; or I might hear it read on the radio, or discussed on television by Alan Bennett or Stephen Fry; or I might be sent it in a multiply-forwarded email; or read it in a panel on a London tube train, alongside advertisements for vitamin supplements and travel insurance, or in a tabloid newspaper discarded on the same train. I might come across a Carol Ann Duffy poem when I'm given it as a Christmas gift, printed on a teatowel or a coffee mug (perhaps just the first stanza of it). In a world accurately described by NAICS, this is a wholly unproblematic reality. A poem is a data-set, and the data is the same whether I'm reading it in a Norton anthology designed for undergraduate students or on a fridge magnet at my auntie's house.

Do we know that this is not quite true? It doesn't feel right, does it? It's not quite the same poem in all these different contexts, even if the data is identical. Reading is not only an analytical act, it's also an interpretive one: not necessarily at the level of trying to "get" a poem, raiding its language-structures and its symbology for "deeper" meanings; but in terms of how we understand the nature of our encounter with the text. Partly this is about convention and habituation and these things change over time in accord with larger social trends; but it is not only stultified orthodoxy that tells me I may not be taken seriously as a student if I arrive at a tutorial clutching a set of six W.H. Auden teatowels instead of his Collected Poems.

When we treat poems as information rather than as manufactured product, they paradoxically become available for co-option by many more commodifying projects. We are invited to see only content, not form; even if the lineation of the poem as it appears on auntie's fridge ornament is retained with a scholarly accuracy, its form is not the same. A Shakespeare sonnet iced onto a birthday cake is not the same sonnet as you'd read on one page of an Oxford edition of his complete sonnets, even if it still has fourteen lines and the words are in the right order. There is some "thing" to read, but there are also plentiful signs, of greater or lesser clarity, about how we might read, and what we might read against, or in relation to. A poem printed inside a greeting card is telling us all kinds of things about how we might encounter it as readers; the same poem signals differently, is doing different work to different ends, in a hand-stitched, letterpressed chapbook, or on a dirty Kindle. Form is its own meaning, far above and beyond acting as a kind of container for information. Different poets may have different attitudes about whether or not they're happy for their work to be encountered on a t-shirt, or quoted in a self-help book, or spoken at the memorial service for a deceased member of the Royal Family, or used in an A-level exam paper, or borrowed for a sleevenote by Sting, but I think very few would view all of these circumstances as broadly alike and therefore basically irrelevant to careful consideration.

This is all by way of a slightly laborious preamble into a reflection on a conversation I half-wittingly initiated on Twitter earlier. Among the people I follow is Simon McBurney, who had tweeted to alert us to an upcoming opportunity to watch Complicite's A Disappearing Number at the cinema, broadcast thus under the auspices of National Theatre Live. This is an increasingly visible strategy, which I first became aware of a few years ago when a performance by the New York Metropolitan Opera was transmitted live to certain arthouse cinemas in the UK and presumably worldwide. I slightly winced then, but I don't really care about opera on the whole. I do care, if only for lingering sentimental reasons, about Complicite, and I felt really angry and nauseated by their decision to permit A Disappearing Number to be disseminated like this. In my crosspatch tweet I described the whole idea as "greedy, wrongheaded and treacherous", which prompted some equally forceful rebuttals. So perhaps I had better say something about what I meant, and why I feel so strongly about this.

First of all, I said "greedy" because it seems pretty clear to me that it's an arrangement driven by commercial rather than artistic imperatives. As it stands -- though surely this will change as the practice becomes increasingly common -- nobody makes theatre in order for it to be seen at the cinema, even if they themselves would rather be directing movies. Nobody who defended the practice on Twitter earlier was prepared to say it was any better than "second best", a sort of consolation prize for those who for whatever reason are unable to attend a theatre performance in person. In a way I suppose it's like a prosthetic auditorium: we're all used to sitting in the cheap seats in order to attend a performance and having to endure a steep angle or "restricted view"; in this extension of that idea, thousands of additional seats are put in, where the view is so totally and utterly restricted that you can see and hear nothing at all of the live event, but video and audio are relayed via a big screen (and speakers) instead. Tolerable, obviously, as an experience in itself, and perhaps if the experience is tolerable then it doesn't matter that the impetus for it is principally financial. Except that too is not just some negligible element of the context, it's part of the form itself: so, we may choose to accept or deplore that for what it is: a formal decision.

"Wrongheaded" precisely because it treats a piece of theatre as information, as streamable content. This information, it's supposed, can travel to us by any route and arrive intact and coherent in front of us for our reception. It's this that I fundamentally disagree with, more than anything. It is premised on the notion that the content of the work is its most important aspect -- not that the content is there to help us come into a productive relationship with the form --and that by extension it is worth sacrificing the form of the encounter in which the content is principally designed to be shared, in order for the content to reach more people and therefore make more money. Certainly there are plenty of precedents for this that, again, we gladly tolerate. Very few people can attend the finals of Wimbledon, for example, and the event is now staged with the televisual experience, rather than the experience of live attendance, presumably uppermost in the organisers' minds; I might envy those who manage to snap up centre court tickets, but my home viewing experience feels like "second best" only in a pretty theoretical sense. Lots of things are now staged principally in the interests of remote viewers rather than active participants, from political conventions to award ceremonies to acts of war. How we feel about all these different examples need not be too carefully teased out because actually the precedents are irrelevant. Our concern is quite specific: it has to do with the broadcasting of theatre events to audiences outside the theatre where they're taking place: and so we have to ask specific questions about the value of form in theatre.

My contention is that the cultural meaning of theatre is in its form, much more than in individual instances of its content. Personally, I am devoted to theatre as a site of cultural production exactly because of its formal and structural features; and furthermore, I observe that in those theatre works that I most admire and enjoy, the content of the work is ineluctably bound up with -- and helps us to apprehend our relationship to -- its form. There could hardly be a better example than The Author: but I'm thinking here not necessarily about obviously formally innovative and engaged pieces in particular, but the form of theatre more generally. The most significant and characteristic formal elements can be simply itemised, and each on its own sounds (unavoidably, I'm afraid) like a bit of a cliche. Like this:

We gather together in one place, the audience and the performers and other makers; we experience something together that is happening live and is vulnerable to all the unpredictable contingencies of live performance; and when the constructed encounter has been played out, it is gone. Those are the three basic tenets of theatre as presently distinct from other forms. 

Of course there is a fourth. These things matter. They are consequential in our lived experience. That is: they matter during the show, but they also matter before and after the show. They matter in the particular encounter that we have, in the course if the performance that we have gathered to see and make together; bu they matter also more widely, more constantly, in that we use them generally as ways of describing what theatre is and is not, and what therefore it might be in our lives, in the cultural and social situations in which we live. 

And there is, also of course, a fifth. It matters that these things matter. It matters to us, it's important. We want to know, we need to know, when we go to the theatre, that our presence in that space at that time matters, is of consequence. We want to know that if a cat wanders onto the stage, it will be acknowledged, just as if furious pelicans invaded the auditorium, it would have repercussions for the continuance of the performance. If we shout obscenities they will be heard by the actors. If our phone goes off it will be heard, and Richard Griffiths will remonstrate with us picturesquely. It matters to our reading of the performance, and of the situation in which it unfolds, that the encounter in which we're participating is ephemeral and not precisely repeatable -- is not, in other words, an object. Above all, it matters that theatre can have a strong claim to an ethical basis for its activity, simply by dint of its representing a social space that has no fundamental obligation to replicating the power relations that exist outside that space. Those basic elements come together to create a space where we can really see and hear each other, and where that process of seeing and hearing is shaped not only by the content of the work we came to pay attention to, but also by the form that holds us together in its image.

To broadcast a theatre performance to a cinema audience, therefore, is not 'second best': it proposes a fundamentally and wholly different relationship between audience and work, and to be more precise, a fundamentally and wholly antitheatrical one. Theatricality inheres in form and structure, not in content. Content is endlessly translatable (for all that it changes meaning, at least fractionally, with every crossing of a formal gap), but form is distinct. None of the tenets of theatre hold up for an audience in a cinema. The actors do not know and anyway cannot functionally care that the audience is there; the spectators cannot contribute to or participate in any way in the making of the live event -- even their attention on it does not matter, except in so far as they may by various means cause disturbance to their neighbours in the cinema auditorium; their experience is of an object over which they have no control and in relation to which they have no responsibility. People in the Twitmilieu today were saying that cinema broadcasts were to be welcomed because they increase access: but, access to what? Not access to theatre, certainly. Theatre is a set of formal and structural arrangements which are wholly and entirely absent from the broadcast experience. Access, perhaps, then, I suppose, at a stretch, not to theatre, but to an advert for theatre. But a really stupid, deceitful advert, a thoroughly dishonest representation of what theatre is, what it means as a kind of social act. Everything that can be represented by the broadcast package is everything theatre is actually, finally, distinctively not.

So, no, it's not quite theatre, agree my tweeting interlocutors, and no one says it is; it's different, but it's OK. What's happening is a blurring of formal distinctions, and that blurring is exciting and productive and not to be feared. Well, sure, I have a modicum of sympathy for that. Despite all of the foregoing, I don't really like the border policemen who patrol the boundaries of artforms and insist that such-and-such "isn't theatre" or "isn't poetry" or whatever. Now more than ever, the aesthetic life of theatre is one of intense and restless hybridity, of borrowings and cross-pollinations. But to suggest that its formal basis might be similarly blurred is to radically reduce the capacity of theatre to be expressive of a particular ethical programme: the fecundity of the blur is not only value-neutral, it's inimical to precision: and it is this effect that I'm thinking about when I call this reach into broadcasting "treacherous". Complicite's embracing of this means of distributing their work (or, rather, a flat effigy of their work) is not simply a matter for them and their own business model and artistic priorities; it is a betrayal of the sector out of which they emerged, because it endorses the adaptation of theatre practice to market imperatives, not at the periphery where most such compromises are struck (in accepting corporate sponsorship, for example, or selling merchandise), but at the heart of the formal promise that theatre distinctively makes. It has a particularly Blairite quality, it seems to me: an eagerness to reach the widest possible catchment by eliminating, trading away, precisely those elements that defined the message you were entrusted with communicating in the first place. Complicite have long been on this journey, and in a way their work is now in some respects for the remote cinema audience rather more than for the invested theatre attendee. I saw A Disappearing Number from the high-up cheap seats in the Barbican, a point-of-view from which most of its composite images simply didn't read coherently, because they're targeted at those sitting in the expensive central stalls seats; presumably the cinema broadcasts are taken from cameras better placed to see the action than those of us who value theatre but who aren't sufficiently valued by the markets in which we participate to have sufficient disposable income to pay top whack at the Barbican. This plus the heavy reliance on video projection in the content and aesthetic of A Disappearing Number (which dismays me emphatically not because of the absorption of new technologies into the working language, but because of the timecoding this apparatus imposes on the operation of the show and the consequent reduction in the latitudes of its liveness) makes me pretty certain that Simon McBurney has little interest any more in any work-surface other than the screen: which leaves us a sadly long way stranded from the stage language of The Street of Crocodiles, the show from which most of my sense of theatre was initially derived. Complicite, like Robert Wilson, say, signal nothing more now, at least in this case, than a theatre of conspicuous money, power and control. Ditto most West End product, of course, which at least has few ulterior pretences; ditto the antitheatrical performance work of someone like Marina Abramovic: an unusual figure to file alongside the likes of Michael Ball, perhaps, or the cast of Les Mis, but in all of these cases there is an imposition of severe constraint on the relational and contingent aspects of theatre form, in favour of a quite contrary focus on 'performance': on a strenuous, possibly virtuosic, close fidelity to a particular object-like target or template, rather than to the "live" event.

Theatre needs you to be present, and it needs you to examine your own presence, or at least to be actively present, whatever that might mean in any particular instance. That need may often be impossible to fulfil, but that doesn't mean it's the wrong need, or that the need should be adjusted downwards until it's less impossible for more people. Theatre -- as opposed to a perfectly valid outreach discourse around theatre -- is for those who show up; it is not at the craven service of those who don't opt in. Granted, it is certainly true that there are a great many people who cannot show up: who cannot, for example, go to see A Disappearing Number in the theatre, because they live far away from where it's playing, and logistically and financially it's therefore out of reach. And there are all sorts of cool things I'm missing this autumn because I'm away on tour, so I'm not entirely mired in a privileged Londoner's worldview in saying what follows. The answer to access problems associated with geographical remoteness is not cinema broadcasts, it's investment in grassroots theatre-making in those communities, and strengthened support for regional touring networks; the answer to access problems associated with financial hardship -- indeed most access problems, period -- is to minimise economic barriers to entry, not to charge a bit less for access to something so compromised as to be meaningless in theatre terms. Why, in the name of access and audience development, show presently disconnected audiences misleading adverts for theatre experiences that we've already established they're circumstantially unable to participate in anyway? It's -- structurally -- a bit like that retina-burning episode when Baroness Chalker, the then Minister for Overseas Development, visited a Kurdish refugee camp in 1991 and was filmed handing out branded chocolate bars -- Milky Ways, wasn't it? -- to the starving kids. These chocolate bars were food, weren't they?, she said, and anyway, they'd been donated so it was appropriate to distribute them. Nobody on her team seemed to have questioned what certainly appeared to incredulous observers to be a pretty dire failure to connect the content of the stunt with the formal qualities of its context.

The "Live" in National Theatre Live is an absolute cheat, it seems to me, somewhere between a sleight-of-hand manoeuvre and a shallow wank fantasy. The "liveness" that we bang on about as makers actually has very little to do with, for example, the liveness of a live tv broadcast, where you're aware that the image you see is being directly relayed from the event in question. That sense of liveness is an incredibly meagre one compared with the complex of elements and sensations and apprehensions that constitute an alert theatre audience's experience of what liveness means with regard to their own individual and communal presence and the passage of time that underscores their shifting relations with a non-commodity artwork. The problem is, most "theatre", disastrously, doesn't know what to do with that liveness either. The idea of broadcasting theatre into cinemas ought to return what my old ZX Spectrum would have reported as a "syntax error", but it mostly doesn't. Ultimately, the problem isn't theatre being cynically transmogrified into an essentially formless information set for broadcasting on whatever platform, be it cinema or YouTube or teatowel; the problem is, if it can be subjected to that manner of adaptation, it was never really theatre to begin with.

An interesting response to this post from John Wyver of Illuminations (who make arts films) over here.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The theatre is on fire; or, feu d'artifice

Oh, man, I miss running a building; it's been a while, but I still miss it. You might not know: for three years between 2001 and 04, I was director of Camden People's Theatre, a terrific 50-odd-seater studio theatre on the London fringe. I was also, mostly, the venue's only permanent paid member of staff: consequently, 'running the building' meant not only programming and curation (the bits I loved most), and creating new work myself from time to time, but also everything through to changing the lightbulbs and sometimes -- I think we could go so far as to say 'frequently' -- trying to fix the toilets. There was an amazing team of volunteers helping out, and a great bunch of people who would look after the box office and front of house, and I loved working with them too. But quite often, I was there, on my own, all day and on into the evening, adding up last week's takings, not-quite teaching myself web design, replacing the toner in the photocopier (the hardest thing of all, by miles), liaising with the council about repairs, talking to a young performance artist over a cup of tea... Running the building. Running the building. Not just running but jumping too -- and, I'll admit, from time to time, a little bit of standing still. (For all that, the memories aren't of board meetings and flooding toilets, of course: they're of covering the theatre floor with turf for a show, and of dancing to Guns 'n' Roses, and painting parties, and watching Sean Bonney read or Bob Cobbing perform in the foyer or Will Gaines duet with Simon H. Fell, and dragging a burnt out motorbike up the fire escape, and eating too much candyfloss, and -- once, just once -- shagging someone right there in the bar after everyone else had gone home. Those were the days my friend.)

I left when the programming stopped being fun, or the fun was being too drowned out by other things; and at a point when there seemed to be a possibility of a freelance life -- or any kind of life -- on the outside. Running a venue on that small but pressureful scale with those kinds of resources is a young person's game (as my immediate successor Jonathan Salisbury pretty quickly found out, I think!) and even at 31 I was getting too old for it: you have to be prepared to be eaten alive by the gig, and it got to the point where I wasn't any more. But in a way it's that feeling that I miss most now: the sense of belonging so wholly and unreservedly to a project that there isn't a part of your waking life (and often your dream-life too!) that isn't up to its neck in it. To get any pleasure out of running a building like CPT you have to know that it's bigger than you, but you also have to know that, with the help and the love of the people around you, you're equal to it. Partly this means that you have to relate to the building as an idea, or as a set of ideas. It has to stand -- at least in your own mind; ideally, in others' too -- for something more than its own continued success (or the fear of its failure), more even than its own distinguishing features in its sector. At best, there is a chain of ideas and commitments and investments that you're so familiar with, you can ask yourself -- as I sometimes did -- "Why the hell am I cleaning a toilet / stuck up a wobbly ladder / untangling audio leads at 11 o'clock on a Friday night?", and, before you've even finished thinking the question, you know that the answer involves a near-instinctive concatenation of 'because's that ends with the most joyous, life-enhancing hatred of capitalism, and with an absolute certainty that theatre, at its best, can radically and irreversibly change the ways in which we can imagine being able to live together. I still think those things, of course, and I'm not unglad not to be obliged to do those crappier jobs any more, but there's no doubt in my mind that a building can greatly help articulate -- or at least limn -- those loftier idea(l)s, provide them with a form, a narrative, a flow, and most importantly a centre. Even in the margin of the margins, a centre. Put simply: a way of sharing the love -- with friends, and with strangers, alike.

True, there aren't a lot of venues that I necessarily have my eye on -- the work I love most has, at the moment, no really satisfactory base; BAC probably gets closest, but I can't seem to get any closer to it as an idea -- but, oh man, I'd love to be running a building again: to be able to stand -- and speak -- for more than just my own buffeted self as one weeny artist among thousands. I was thinking about this a lot today following Michael Billington's rather brilliant Guardian blog post about the importance of a building (or, as he later qualified it, probably correctly: "permanent institutions" -- though that's hardly a phrase to make the blood go round one's body any faster) in helping directors to develop and describe a distinctive vision, not only for their work but for our work, together. Billington's post is occasioned by the announcement today that Michael Grandage is to leave the Donmar after nine years. I've less-than-zero interest in the Donmar, but Grandage seems to me to really know how to run a building: to say it's an artform in itself is not merely, or not only, a fanciful gesture of unfocused critical largesse.

We're in Bristol this week with The Author and the feeling around the Theatre Royal could hardly be more different to how it's been in recent years; I talked to a young guy called Jack tonight who's been involved with the theatre since he was eight years old and he enthusiastically confirmed my sense that what's emerging under the leadership of Tom Morris and Emma Stenning is a confident, articulate building, a complex of ideas and values that seem both tantalisingly emergent and, from the get-go, thrillingly clear. (Interesting to hear Tom, in Thursday's post-show discussion, begin a sentence with something like: "In this building, what we say is...") To rehearse a phrase I'll wear out soon if I'm not careful: buildings can be what we use to think with. Where that notion meets the (hopelessly old-fashioned and/or hopelessly futuristic) idea of civic significance -- in other words, what it might mean to be a public building, how public buildings and their users can learn from and be shaped by each other -- is right where I'm at on this topic. I've repeatedly talked in recent years about how, despite (or perhaps partly because of) all the perfectly proper excitement around theatre-outside-theatres, the site-specific, the peripatetic, the home-delivery, the guerilla and the wholly imaginary, what excites me most right now is to think about what theatre buildings might be. What else they might be. Not in addition to being theatres (I'm not talking about that route whereby our public libraries have gradually almost entirely transmogrified into internet cafes with a few books lined up for decorative purposes), but by dint of their responsibility to be theatres, to be fully theatres: to be buildings that can respond, sensitively and nurturingly and challengingly and ambitiously, to an artform that wants to be all the things that buildings, and especially big theatre buildings, often can't be: fleet, acute, unorthodox, dissident, liquid, ticklish, erotic, hopeful.

Anyway. Here's something I'm thinking about: and I'm trying to use the idea of the theatre building to help me think about it: so maybe you might like to frame your reading of the following account in the same way.

After a calm and pleasant start to the week at Bristol Old Vic on Tuesday and Wednesday -- the only slight wrinkle was the seating banks having to be further apart than usual due to special fire regulations in such an old building -- The Author has had a much more turbulent pair of outings in the last couple of days. The more recent disruption was the simpler, or at any rate the less extraordinary: someone in the audience interrupted me during my last big speech to raise a question about a scene we'd done a few minutes earlier: she was obviously very angry about it and wanted to ask us, as actors, how we felt about it. It is a scene that often makes people very angry, and in a sense they should be angry about what happens in it; it has quite often happened that people protest about it at the time, but it's unique in my experience for someone to voice their anger about it at a later point. Always we, or I guess I had better say I, have mixed feelings about these moments. It is fantastic that people feel empowered to speak, and the play is enlarged by having those additional voices in it. It is also a shame that the momentum of the play, the tension that has built in the room, is disrupted, because those elements are doing so much work. Yesterday's speaker presented us with a binary: either we wanted an audience that was engaged with the ethics of the piece (and would raise their voices, it is implied), or we actually, deceitfully, wanted a passive audience. Which was it?, was the unspoken question at the end of that thought. Well, I understand the point and where it's coming from, but of course, it's not an adequate binary. We do not want a passive audience, we do very much want an engaged audience, but one aspect of their engagement might be a sensitivity to the fact that they are participating in a constructed encounter, and an appreciation that we can give our best account of the play when the construct is allowed to stand for what it is, and assessed in that light. It was rightly said, by another audience member at a later moment, that we had been asking everyone questions all the way through, for them to answer; it was not quite right that, as he suggested, the woman's interruption had therefore been wholly appropriate. We do ask questions directly of the audience -- I do, especially -- and we are glad to have answers offered; in every case, though, the spoken participation of the audience is solicited by us, in particular instances. Someone who answers out loud a question that has been asked, either specifically of them or of the room as a whole, is not engaged in the same act as someone who speaks up of their own volition in the middle of a speech which has an argument and integrity of its own which their intervention will destroy. I revere, to some extent at least, the indignation that led to the woman speaking up -- and as I said to her, I'm sure many people were feeling the same, and that was a good thing; but at the same time it was, I thought, an unfortunate response to a clearly constructed event. -- I don't mean that how it's constructed is clear, I mean that it's clear that it is constructed. An odd parallel might be drawn with pantomime, which clearly signals that it welcomes certain kinds of participation at certain moments: there is call-and-response, there is booing the villain, there is singing along, and all of this helps to create a lively and engaging encounter. But it is still possible to say that if you boo and hiss heartily at the Fairy Godmother while she's singing "When You Wish Upon A Star", that is a disruptive act, for good or ill, and it may reasonably be thought insensitive.

As ever in these moments, the most awkward thing to deal with is the sudden break of matrix. Our questioner yesterday, wanting to talk to us as actors, was requiring that the play be suspended. "I want an answer," she said: but giving direct answers is the one thing we most want to avoid. Partly -- and Tim said this to her, but she did not find it satisfactory -- the play is already answering the question -- her question and probably almost all the questions in all the heads and hearts of all the people in the room at that moment; to have a commentary on the play demanded of us was to treat both the play itself and its audience as inadequate. (Sadly, of course, once the play is interrupted, it does become less adequate, less able to do the work it sets out to do.) But also we prefer not to answer because, for all the flickering of real and not-real that the play is conceptually fascinated by, in the moments where we are speaking to the audience we are as actors not identical with the characters we play. I suppose because of the arrangement of the seating and our immersion within the audience, it's hard for people to remember that we are actors playing characters; that in what we say, we speak for the play, not for ourselves. This argument boils down to a redundant truism: it's a play, therefore it behaves like a play. In other words: there is a play script, and a play script is its own fourth wall. There is an extent to which this play embeds within its own operations a little room in which we can respond, negotiate, make more direct connections with our audience. But there being a script, there is an obvious limit to these latitudes. The Author begins to give rise to difficult and uncomfortable thoughts and sensations within minutes, seconds even, of its starting -- our earliest walk-out was less than five minutes in; if we made ourselves as actors wholly available for comment, we would never yet have got past page four. (I was saying to someone earlier: if we invited back all the most vocal dissenters from the last few weeks of performances, and did the show they wanted it to be, it would be total, unmitigated shit, and they would hate us and each other even more.)

Look: for sure, The Author is not business as usual: it is blurry, flickery, it is interested in these ambiguities and borderlines and it wants you to feel engaged with them too. At the same time, it is limited, it is constrained -- to wonderfully, powerfully productive effect, in my opinion -- by being a constructed event, a play rather than a discussion group. The authority of the author is one of the most complex and potentially difficult aspects of The Author. (See, we gave you a clue, ha ha.) We are all the victims of that authority, and the parameters of our consent to that near-tyranny are excruciatingly hard to discern. And yet all the time the play treats you with gentleness and care and part of the care it extends to you is to take you, and itself, seriously. Because that care is real, not simulated, and thoughtful, not sensational, the play does not have 'the answer', nor does it expect you to have the answer, the tools for a resolution.

But back to the point of telling this story, which is the fascinating paradox at the heart of that person's intervention. She was able to separate us as actors out from our characters, to the extent that she was quite specific about wanting to challenge us as actors; at the same time, she was unable to treat the play as a constructed fiction, as a crafted piece with an argument, and her discomfort seemed to be located in the idea that as actors we had failed to reject the words we were being asked to say, we had played a distressing scene as if we were insensitive to everything that was appalling about it. We had not signalled, somehow, from the midst of the play, from the thick of it, that we disagreed with it. (Not for the first time in relation to The Author I remember that sublime Derek & Clive sketch, 'The Critics' [NSFW] -- good title for a sequel, maybe? -- which ends with Dudley Moore insisting: "I do not want to say all of the things that I have just fucking said.") By rearranging the furniture as we do, perhaps, or by using our real names, or simply by sitting among our audience, it seems we had forfeited -- for this member of the audience -- any claim to the privileges of art, or fiction. And perhaps it was by relinquishing that claim to the considerable extent that we do that we drew indignant attention to the artifices that remain. -- I do want to reiterate that we have no problem with people talking back to us, we do "ask for it"; equally though it is true that we ask for it on quite particular terms, and those who not only listen but are in a position actually to hear what we're doing will hear when those opportunities to speak out are present, and when, for the sake of the art (which is what, after all, we came to do, and what everyone paid to see), those opportunities are not present in the same way; what will add to the breathable air in the room, and what will use up oxygen.

The incident the day before, on Thursday, was far more disruptive, but can probably be more concisely explained. It is not uncheard of for people to feel physically as well as emotionally or psychologically uncomfortable or overwhelmed in The Author, even in large open relatively well-ventilated spaces like the Studio at the Theatre Royal. When I saw the play for the first time at the Royal Court my companion for the evening felt faint quite early on and had to leave. There's a moment about fifteen minutes in where the lights go down for the first time and on this occasion in Bristol, somebody in the front row of the bank opposite started to feel unwell at this point; he happened to be sitting next to one of the ushers, and said to him, "I'm sorry, I've got to leave." He stood up to go, and the usher accompanied him; we watched him walk quite unsteadily for a few paces, and then, when he was out of my sight round the corner of the seating bank on the way to the exit, he seems to have fainted, apparently hitting his head against the wall at some point, and ended up lying on the floor, not unconscious, apparently awake, but presumably disoriented, looking up at the ceiling.

At this point, things get interesting. For reasons that will perhaps be somewhat understandable to anyone who's seen the play, the usher, seeing that the man had not lost consciousness, began to suspect that this was all part of the play, and resumed his seat. Esther, the actor who was about to speak, in the end got out of her seat and walked over to the man, saying to the usher something like: "We need to do something about this, this isn't part of the show." Lights came up again, Tim went to assist, the show stopped. There was quite a lot of excited chatter, particularly from a large group of students who were in attendance, some of whom had already become a bit wound up simply by the lights going down. After a few moments Tim made an announcement to the audience, explaining what was going on, asking for quiet in the audience while paramedics attended, and reiterating that what was occurring was not part of the play.

It was clear even at this stage that, on the whole, the audience did not believe, despite Tim's announcement, that this was not part of the plan. We were just messing with their heads. At best, many did not know what to think; they certainly weren't prepared to take at face value what Tim had said. The woman sitting to my left, we had already ascertained during an interaction in the opening scene, was a doctor. "Do you think they need assistance?" she asked me; "I imagine they may do," I said, unsure as to what was going on -- and she laughed, and remained in her seat, obviously still thinking that this was all an unnerving fiction. It occurred to me later that probably there were people in the audience who must have been thinking that the doctor, in turn, was a plant -- especially when, eventually, she got up to go and help. Even when she returned to her seat she didn't seem entirely convinced.

The man was OK -- in fact in the end, before he left, he stood up and told everyone he was OK, which probably didn't help with the clarity of the situation for the audience. And of course, even after the play resumed, everyone seemed to be watching it through the wildly unhelpful lens of this extraordinary incident and the questions it had set in motion for them. One woman later reported having heard Esther's first line after resuming -- "Has anyone here ever marched against the war?" as "Has anyone here ever marched into a wall?". And there was further evidence that the whole thing was a put-up job when towards the end of the play it was revealed that, within the narrative, my character had had to be carried out of a theatre performance he was attending because he had had some kind of fit induced by flashing lights.

It so happened, weirdly, that this was the evening of our post-show discussion, and the conversation was understandably, though regrettably, dominated by questions and comments around the incident itself and arising from the state of mind that that left audience members in, a headspace in which they were profoundly unsure about what they could trust and how far we were going to go in confusing and upsetting them. I had old friends in, extremely smart and supportive friends, who were sorry that discussion of the fainting guy had overshadowed the more interesting conversation to be had about other matters arising; nonetheless, I found them afterwards in an astonishingly paranoid state. For them, it seemed, the piece had become much more present as a game, not just a slippery fiction but one in which the rules of engagement were hopelessly (and perhaps abusively -- my inference) unclear. In this state, any detail may become distortingly magnified simply because it seems to confirm one pattern rather than another. Tom Morris, conducting the discussion, concluded by asking everyone not to worry about the show they didn't see, but to continue to think about the show they had seen, which was still, despite everything, The Author. It was exactly the right thing to say in the circumstances, but I kind of wonder, especially having spent a few minutes talking to those friends, whether it was entirely correct. The play itself had apparently receded in my friends' experience -- it had become something more sensational, a bit of a ride, more like (I guess -- I haven't seen it) the Lyric's very popular Ghost Stories -- which, frustratingly, seemed to lead them to underestimate the acuity of Tim's thinking and understanding and the skill of his craftsmanship in The Author -- which, after all this time, is actually the aspect that continues to excite me and inspire me the most: you know, it is the most unbelievably well-made play!

Anyway, so here we are. Two nights, two disruptions, both regrettable in different ways, and oddly mirroring each other. On Thursday, we couldn't get the audience to believe that something real wasn't artificial; on Friday, we were interrupted by someone who wouldn't accept that an aspect of the play's artifice wasn't indicative of a present reality -- to the extent that Tim was forced to state categorically that The Author is a work of fiction.

I'm sure this happens all the time, to greater or lesser degrees and with more or less significant consequences. I suspect at a very low micro-level it is happening absolutely constantly, in everyone's theatrical experience: a kind of background radiation produced by the flickering tension between constructed and unconstructed realities, the interference between signals of artifice and -- as it were -- signs of life. It is obvious that this is a state of emergency, or emergence rather, that is not unique to theatre but is quite particular to theatre's distinction as a medium, and while The Author may be using these conditions in a critical and (seriously) provocative way, they must surely obtain even in the drabbest fourth-wall creakfest or Robert Wilson's latest staged fragrance advert or whatever.

So it follows that among the needs we might have in a dedicated theatre building would be a space or series of spaces that support and enhance our perception of this quintessentially theatrical situation. I suppose what I find most indicative and most alarming in the experiences of the last two days is that an audience was generally unable to accept that an actor saying "This is not part of the show" was telling the truth. Now, as I think I've explained, the context in which this happened was difficult: The Author had already established a formally playful and line-blurring relationship with everyone. But I do wonder to what extent this is only about The Author and to what extent it relates to what we think theatres are, theatre buildings I mean -- what notions, what behavioural systems, become suspended because we are "at the theatre"; and so I wonder in turn what is made impossible, perhaps, what relationships and behaviours are inaccessible and what kinds of art, what kinds of constructed event, become unmakeable, or unthinkable, as a consequence.

This is not a fully-formed thought, I'm not guiding us all towards some penetrating analysis of this, I've only just got as far as the wondering stage, but I thought I'd show my workings anyway. What if theatre buildings can help us (as directors, say) describe a vision larger than ourselves, a vision of society, of artistic and ethical values in a civic context, only for that vision to be interfered with, its articulation scuffed or even outright thwarted, by the associations we make between theatre buildings and a deleterious complication of face value, an assumption of a consequential discontinuity between the zone of the theatre and the zone of the world outside? And if there is such an unhelpful mismatch between these two conceptions of what theatre buildings can even hope to represent, how might we re-engineer the theatre building itself so that it could cause this mismatch to be alleviated: or at least, to be maximally productive?

There used to be a cliche of freedom-of-speech debates about the permissibility within law of causing alarm and potentially injurious panic by shouting 'FIRE!' in a crowded theatre. (I have the character of Edward Lear do it -- for complex reasons, but also, essentially, for the hell of it -- at the very end of my play King Pelican.) What I find I'm worrying about this evening is how close we came to shouting 'FIRE!' in a sold-out auditorium at Bristol Old Vic, only to be greeted by an ironic smirk -- "Yeah, right! We're not falling for that old chestnut!" To be in a space -- both physically and semiotically -- in which the word "FIRE!" cannot be heard for itself is, I would suggest, a much more potentially disturbing curb on the freedom of speech, the freedom to actually say something. One might say that the only thing at fault here is an irresponsible act by the makers and performers of The Author which, in its playfulness and ambiguity, made it impossible for an audience to accept anything it was being shown and told without suspicion. But we can't make plays without playfulness, can we? And we can't make much interesting art without ambiguity. At any rate, what interests me is the question I came in with. How can a theatre building help us to really see and to really hear each other? To understand our own role, our own responsibility, in the making of theatre in each moment: to be discerning: to know when to speak, when to wait, when to act, when to stop acting. How can a theatre building be more like the place that we all know to go to when we want to tell each other the truth, in the knowledge that that truth might take a thousand forms? Sometimes it's wrapped up in a dramatic story of a big old building burning down; sometimes the theatre really is on fire.