Wednesday 30 November 2011

Art of America Part 3

Andy Warhol - Self Portrait, 1986

 3. What Lies Beneath

In the final part of his United States odyssey, Andrew Graham-Dixon feels the pulse of contemporary America. Beginning in Levittown - the first mass-produced suburb - Andrew uncovers the dark side of post-war consumerism and the role artists have played in challenging the status quo.

He visits New York's Metropolitan Museum to see the most subversive artwork of 1950s America, Jasper Johns's White Flag. Pop art defined the 1960s and Andy Warhol was its greatest artist. Andrew examines Warhol's soup can paintings, meets his former lover Billy Name and interviews one of the last great surviving pop artists, James Rosenquist.
He travels west down the open road, exploring its art, arriving in Los Angeles, an artificial dream world that has inspired the graphic style of Ed Ruscha and the city's own unique contribution to 20th century design - Googie architecture.

Back east, Andrew visits the home of one of his favourite 20th century artists, the late Philip Guston, and gets a private view of his work. He drops into the studio of Jeff Koons to learn how the enfant terrible of contemporary art continues to challenge the boundaries of American taste. Finally, he explores the impact 9/11 has had on America and how a new generation of artists, such as Matthew Day Jackson, have made sense of this tragic event.

Available on BBC iPlayer until Sunday 11 December:

Monday 28 November 2011

Ken Russell RIP

Ken Russell, the British film director, has died aged 84.

Russell, known for his controversial films such as Women in Love and The Devils, died in hospital on Sunday following a series of strokes, his son Alex Verney-Elliott said.

The director, who began his career in television, was praised today as an “innovative” director, who made a “unique” contribution to British film-making.

Russell had been battling illness for many years but died “peacefully” in his sleep with a smile on his face, friends and family said.

Fellow director Michael Winner said: "He had been terribly, terribly ill for some time.

“I've known Ken since 1968. He was the most innovative director.
"I persuaded Oliver Reed to work with him even though Oliver said 'I'm not a TV star, I'm a movie star'.

"His television was in a field of its own, it was absolutely extraordinary. Then he graduated to movies."

Winner added: "He was also a very nice person. He was very cheerful and very well-meaning.

"He had a very good run even though his style of picture-making became obsolete, but that happened to everyone, Billy Wilder and Hitchcock.

"His contribution to TV and cinema in this country is absolutely unique. He took it into areas it hadn't been before.

"They were riveting movies and TV because this strange mind was at work."

Winner said Russell would be best remembered for The Devils.

"What the censor took out of The Devils was almost as long as the rest of the movie," he said.

Mr Verney-Elliott added: "My father died peacefully. He had had a series of strokes. He died with a smile on his face."

Described as the enfant terrible of British cinema, Russell is regarded as one of the most acclaimed and controversial film directors of his generation.

He was born on July 3, 1927 in Southampton and, at the age of ten, was given a film projector which sparked his love of movies.

He was sent to Pangbourne Nautical College at the age of 15, but found the discipline irksome. Even so, he entered the Merchant Navy as sixth officer on a cargo ship bound for the Pacific.

After the Second World War, his fascination with the sea ended, and his family assumed he would enter the shoe business, a prospect which horrified him.

Russell tried without success to enter the film business, but in his early 20s he turned his attention to ballet and classical music.

For five years he attended dance school and toured with dance troupes, before finally accepting that he was not a good dancer.

Then he turned to fashion photography and started to make some black and white silent films. He took one of these films Amelia to the BBC and as a result he landed a job on the Monitor arts programme.

He continued to make movies and his film on composer Edward Elgar became one of the most popular shows on TV and was largely responsible for the revival of Elgar's music.

Overall, Russell made some 32 films for the Monitor and Omnibus programmes and established himself as one of the finest directors in British television.

He was then given the opportunity of directing outside TV and his film Women in Love was not only a landmark in British cinema but for Russell as well.

The sexually-graphic 1969 adaptation of D H Lawrence's novel earned him an Oscar nomination and international recognition with Glenda Jackson picking up the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the movie.

The late actor Oliver Reed, who wrestled naked with Alan Bates in the film, said that Russell "started to go crazy" when he worked with him on the film.

Reed said: "Before that he was a sane, likeable TV director. Now he's an insane, likeable film director."

The success - and notoriety - of Women in Love enabled Russell to cast aside any inhibitions and to embark on outlandish pseudo-biographical films which helped to earn him the reputation which he craved: that of an unconventional eccentric on the wild side.

In the 1970s his talents blossomed and over the next two decades he was to direct a succession of remarkable films, most of them containing his trademark flamboyance.

These included The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah, Mahler, Lisztomania and Valentino. In 1971 he moved from the X-rated The Devils to The Boy Friend which he turned into a homage to 1930s movie musicals.

In 1975 he turned his attention to The Who's rock opera Tommy, but later returned to small budget, but no less flamboyant fare, including Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance and the cult horror-comedy The Lair of the White Worm.

Later, he was to revisit Lawrence for a straightforward adaptation of The Rainbow followed by the gritty, Whore.

The following year he was to direct Richard Dreyfuss in the TV movie Prisoner of Honour. He also tried a music video, making Nikita for Elton John.

Russell was always vulgar and outrageous but seen, too, as a master stylist. He published an autobiography Altered States in 1992 and a broad-ranging collection of film critiques, The Lion Roars two years later.

One of the most unlikely chapters of his career was a stint in the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2007.

He lasted just four days, driven out in the wake of a row about contestants having to wait on Jade Goody and her family.

Russell had earlier started in good spirits, performing Singin' In The Rain as he entered the house. But as he left he spoke about the divisiveness created by being in the house, saying: "I don't want to live in a society riddled with evil and hatred."

In later years his film-making efforts were rather low-budget affairs such as his The Fall Of The Louse Of Usher which was panned by the critics.

Four-times married Russell also took a number of cameo roles in the past decade, appearing in his own films as well as movies such as Brothers Of The Head and Colour Me Kubrick.

The Black Keys - Lonely Boy

Friday 25 November 2011

Art of America Part Two

George Bellows - Stag at Sharkey's (1909)

2. Modern Dreams

In the second part of his fascinating journey exploring American art, Andrew Graham-Dixon gets under the skin of the modern American metropolis. Starting his journey at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, which he describes as a pioneering early skyscraper, Andrew discovers how the ambitions of visionary artists and architects helped America remove itself from the shadow of Europe and become the most advanced civilisation on earth. Andrew travels to downtown Manhattan to explore the grimy world of early 20th century painters John Sloan and George Bellows, and visits Stockbridge in Massachusetts to find out how the world of Norman Rockwell is not as sentimental as it first seems. In Chicago, he explores the visionary mind of architect Louis Sullivan and travels to the decaying outskirts of the city to see the underside of the American dream. He uncovers the impact the Great Depression had on artists such as Edward Hopper and Arshile Gorky, and finds out how this struggle inspired America's first internationally-acclaimed art movement - Abstract Expressionism. He pays a pilgrimage to Jackson Pollock's perfectly-preserved studio in Long Island to discover the secrets of his unique drip technique, before flying across America to take in one of modern art's most moving experiences, Mark Rothko's chapel in Houston, Texas.

Available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 5 December:

Thursday 24 November 2011

The Ukulele Boy - A Friday Night Boys Production

Shelagh Delaney RIP

Shelagh Delaney obituary
Feisty playwright best known for her ground-breaking debut, A Taste of Honey

Dennis Barker
Monday 21 November 2011

Shelagh Delaney was 18 when she wrote A Taste of Honey, one of the defining plays of the 1950s working-class and feminist cultural movements. The play's group of dysfunctional characters, utterly alien to the prevailing middle-class "anyone for tennis?" school of theatre, each explored their chances of attaining a glimpse of happiness. The central character, a young girl named Jo, lives in a decrepit flat in Salford with her mother, who is apt to wander off in pursuit of men with money. Jo becomes pregnant by a black sailor and is cared for by Geoffrey, a young gay friend, until her mother ousts him in what could be a burst of suppressed maternal love or a display of jealous control-freakery.

Delaney, who has died of cancer aged 71, had to endure harsh criticism for her attack on the orthodoxies of the period. Her play was innovative in breaking several taboos discreetly observed by the likes of Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan, in whose dramas working-class characters generally appeared as chirpy subsidiaries and who mostly presented women as either madonnas or sluts. A Taste of Honey showed working-class women from a working-class woman's point of view, had a gay man as a central and sympathetic figure, and a black character who was neither idealised nor a racial stereotype.

The play opened on 27 May 1958, at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in London, where its success owed a great deal to Joan Littlewood, who did much to mother both playwright and play. In Salford, where Delaney was born, the council fumed that the portrayal was an insult to the town — but when it became a runaway success, and Delaney a national celebrity, she was asked for her manuscript copy for its library. The feisty Delaney, who disliked being called a "six-footer" (she was 5ft 11in) called them hypocrites, and gave the original script to Littlewood instead.

A Taste of Honey moved to the Wyndham's theatre, in the West End, in 1959. Delaney received the Charles Henry Foyle award for best new play and an Arts Council England bursary. In the same year, she sold the film rights for £20,000, then a considerable sum. The film, which she scripted with the director Tony Richardson, and which starred Rita Tushingham as Jo, Dora Bryan as her mother and Murray Melvin as Geoffrey, was released in 1961. It won four Bafta awards, including best British screenplay and best British film. Tushingham won a Bafta for best newcomer and received an award at Cannes, as did Melvin.

Delaney was firmly launched on a playwright's career, but her subsequent work never achieved an impact as great as her groundbreaking debut. The familiar difficulty of writing a second hit bore down especially hard on her, not least because her first play had succeeded due to its apparent unselfconscious spontaneity. High expectations were disappointed with The Lion in Love, which was produced in 1960 at the Belgrade theatre, in Coventry, and transferred to the Royal Court in London later that year.

Conservative critics such as WA Darlington did not like this portrayal of another northern family: a hard-drinking mother, a husband lacking the courage to leave her and a son choosing to quit home for Australia. However, a new breed of critics represented by Bernard Levin were more encouraging. "The fact is, Miss Delaney is not only a shrewd and penetrating observer; she is a very delicate artist," wrote Levin.

Delaney's background made A Taste of Honey and The Lion in Love autobiographical, at least in spirit. She had Irish grandparents, one of them an ardent socialist. Her father was a bus inspector and an avid reader and storyteller. He would recount with flair his experiences in the Lancashire Fusiliers in north Africa.

Among the most vivid experiences of Delaney's childhood were going to the Salford Hippodrome and to the cinema, sometimes three times a week. She attended three primary schools, failed the 11-plus and attended secondary school in Broughton, Lancashire, where the headteacher encouraged her to watch the school production of Othello. She was 12 and had already realised that she could write better than the other pupils in the class. Her interest in drama waxed as her interest in school work waned. She made three half-hearted attempts to transfer to the local grammar school but got there only at the age of 15. She left at 17 and had little interest in studying to be a teacher, the most realistic career path on offer. Instead, she took dead-end jobs as a clerk in a milk depot, a shop assistant, an usherette at Manchester opera house and a worker in the research photography department of the electrical engineering company Metropolitan-Vickers.

A Taste of Honey began as a novel but Delaney, as she later admitted, was soon too busy going out dancing and socialising to produce an 80,000-word book. A play seemed better attuned to her impulsive talent, and when she saw Rattigan's Variations On a Theme on tour, she thought she could do better. She took a fortnight off and wrote A Taste of Honey.

Her subsequent career was mercurial and chequered. In 1960 A Taste of Honey opened on Broadway in New York – with Joan Plowright as Jo and Angela Lansbury as her mother – and ran for almost a year, with Plowright winning a Tony award for her performance. In the UK, the short BBC Monitor documentary Shelagh Delaney's Salford, directed by Ken Russell, profiled the author in her home town.

In 1963, a book of her short stories, Sweetly Sings the Donkey, was published. Gradually she began to move towards films and television rather than the stage, a transition which she said was fine when it worked – but it often didn't. Her screenplay for Lindsay Anderson's film The White Bus (1967) dealt with an enigmatic young girl from the north who retreats from her disastrous office life in London to view her home town as a visitor on a sightseeing bus. She also wrote Charlie Bubbles (1967), starring Albert Finney – who also directed – as a writer running out of material and behaving in obsessive and destructive ways; the film became something of a cult movie in its quietly bizarre way. Her television plays in the 1970s included Did Your Nanny Come from Bergen?, St Martin's Summer and The House That Jack Built, a six-parter for the BBC in 1977 that was subsequently staged in New York.

She continued to write new material, including the radio plays So Does the Nightingale (1980) and Don't Worry About Matilda (1983), but her earlier work continued to gain greater attention. Lines from A Taste of Honey were adopted in lyrics by the Smiths and she featured on the cover of the group's 1987 single Girlfriend in a Coma. A Taste of Honey was revived by the Roundabout theatre company in New York in 1981 with a Tony-nominated Amanda Plummer as Jo.

Delaney had a new success with her screenplay for Dance With a Stranger (1985), based on the life of Ruth Ellis, who was hanged in 1955 for shooting her lover. The film was directed by Mike Newell and starred Miranda Richardson as Ellis. Delaney's subsequent work included the films Three Days in August (1992) and The Railway Station Man (1992) and the radio plays Tell Me a Film (2003) and Country Life (2004). She was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1985.

Delaney is survived by her daughter, Charlotte, and her grandchildren, Max, Gable and Rosa.

• Shelagh Delaney, playwright and scriptwriter, born 25 November 1939; died 20 November 2011

Last night's set list (and more)

At The Habit, York: -

Love Song
Is It Only The Moonlight?
I'm Just A Loser
Things We Said Today
Mind Your Own Business

I was drafted in as 2nd substitute host for the evening, Mark Wynn being at a gig in Scotland and Andy Gaines (his partner in crime) having the 'flu. So I kicked off the evening with some songs of my own and a couple of covers. Plenty of players in the end on what threatened to be a very quiet night at one stage. A splendid time was guaranteed for all.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Spine Millington and Pewter Fentner

Steinbeck on the BBC

John Steinbeck: Voice of America

Melvyn Bragg travels from Oklahoma to California to examine the enduring legacy of the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck.

In novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row, Steinbeck gave voice to ordinary people who were battling poverty, drought and homelessness. Travelling the famous Route 66 from the midwest to the Pacific coast, Melvyn assesses how relevant Steinbeck's work is today. He visits the site of the 1930s dust bowl in Oklahoma; the California orchards where bloody political battles were fought between migrant labourers and growers; and the Monterey coastline where Steinbeck developed his ideas on ecology.

Melvyn makes a case for Steinbeck as one of the great voices of American literature.

On BBC iPLayer until 29 November:

Peter Reading RIP

Peter Reading from Neil Astley on Vimeo.


Three times the river has frozen over.
Three times the black sea has frozen over.
Three years I have been here (it seems like ten)
where the solstices seem not to matter,
nights and days being the same to me (long);
where hostile people constantly threaten
rapine and summary execution;
where to venture out is to take great risk;
where living is flimsily established
and atrocities perpetuated;
where the smallholders are afraid to scrape
the stony dirt to achieve their pittance
(one hand ploughing, one clutching a weapon)
or tend their scruffy sheep while they listen
for the approach of hoofbeats and marching,
with nervous glances over their shoulders.


Monday 21 November 2011

Zappa plays Zappa at The Sage 18 Nov 2011

Having opened in York the night before, this was the second of a thirteen-gig tour by Dweezil and his excellent band. They warmed up with Gumbo Variations from the Hot Rats album. This was an ideal warm up jam as what followed was the complete Apostrophe (‘) album played in sequence.

Right through from Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow to Stink-Foot this was a tremendous performance. Frank’s music is anything but simple and the technical virtuosity of the band shone through. They were so tight. Cosmik Debris was awesome and included the first of three ‘jams with dad’ – archive footage of Frank playing a dervish-like solo on this particular song. The packed Sage audience gave the band a deserved ovation and probably expected an interval, but there was none.

So it was straight into What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body? followed by an excellent City Of Tiny Lights. Other highlights included Honey Don’t You Want A Man Like Me? and a wonderful Dancing Fool.

After nearly 2½ hours of jaw-droppingly good music, the evening ended with Baby Snakes and the ever popular Muffin Man.

A standing ovation somehow seemed insufficient to thank the 8-piece band for what was nothing short of a musical triumph.


Lloyd Cole at The Sage, Gateshead - review by Terry Kelly

Lloyd Cole
The Sage, Gateshead

SINGER-songwriter Lloyd Cole may have a grey beard and a bit of a paunch, but he seems to almost revel in his middle-age status.

Accompanied by just two acoustic guitars, Cole ranged far and wide within his extensive catalogue of bitter-sweet love songs before an appreciative audience in the intimate setting of Hall Two at The Sage.

That audience was often more word-perfect than the songs' author, prompting him when the lyrics to this or that song occasionally eluded him.

There were whoops of delight from some female fans when he revived tracks from his bestselling 1984 album, Rattlesnakes, with his old band the Commotions - Perfect Skin, Forest Fire and Charlotte Street included - but his work has continued to mature since those chart-hot days.

Highlights included Late Night, Early Town, Undressed, Like Lovers Do, What's Wrong With This Picture? and Broken Record, the title track of his latest album.

Proving the timely quality of his irony-heavy songs, he revealed that The Young Idealists will feature on a compilation album in support of the anti-capitalist group, Occupy Wall Street.

With a lovely version of Kris Kristofferson's Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends thrown in for good measure, this was yet another Lloyd Cole Tyneside gig to cherish.