Thursday 28 February 2013

Last night's set list

At The Habit, York (The Elderly Brothers): -

Things We Said Today
Happy Together
You're Going To Lose That Girl

A night crammed with players meant that everyone was restricted to a maximum of 3 songs. Virtually everyone who played was new - amazing virtuosity and variation in style - original stuff plus covers of Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Bruce Springsteen and Old Crow Medicine Show. A great night, ended off with a trip to Bar 1331 - again!!

Wednesday 27 February 2013

The Tyne Bridge - 85 Years ago...

85 years of the Tyne Bridge: Blueprint for a North landmark
Joanne Butcher
Evening Chronicle
25 Febrary 2013

HIDDEN in the archives for decades, this is the blueprint for Tyneside’s most famous icon.

The fragile plan, drawn in the mid-1920s, shows the design for the river crossing we know now as the Tyne Bridge.

It has lain gathering dust for the past 85 years but today, as the bridge celebrates its anniversary, we shed light on it once again. And we also uncover the designs which the architects shunned.
Archive pictures of the building of Newcastle's Tyne Bridge
The Tyne Bridge’s famous sweeping arch was completed on February 25, 1928.Archive pictures of the building of Newcastle's Tyne Bridge
City leaders had been talking about building a new bridge for most of the second half of the 19th century, but in the 1920s, the Government was keen to back large-scale projects which boosted jobs and trade.

“The idea was to connect High Street in Gateshead and Pilgrim Street in Newcastle,” explained John Clayson, keeper of science and technology at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. The High Level bridge was privately owned so you had to pay to cross it, and the river was so busy that the Swing Bridge was often open.

“Traffic over the crossing was very congested. The Government was backing unemployment relief schemes and it was realised there might be opportunities to receive funding for a bridge.”

Archive pictures of the building of Newcastle's Tyne Bridge
Various designs had been put forward over the years – in the 1880s, planners favoured a cantilever structure similar to the Forth Bridge in Scotland, while archives also show a sketch of a structure similar to the current King Edward VII railway bridge. But as technology developed, a new type of bridge was able to be built. “One of the criteria put forward by the Tyne Improvement Commission was that the river must not be obstructed,” explained John. “That meant they couldn’t put up heavy scaffolding or use a design with a central pier in the river, like the High Level Bridge.

“The design was very much governed by the need to keep the river open.”
Archive pictures of the building of Newcastle's Tyne Bridge
The bridge we have come to know – and which is shown in the blueprint – was drawn up by London firm Mott, Hay and Anderson, based on the Hell Gate Bridge in New York.

The firm had also designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge – and contrary to popular belief, that bridge was already being built by the time the foundations went in for the Tyne Bridge. On April 29, 1924, Newcastle and Gateshead approved the plans, and the Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead (Corporations) Bridge Act was passed on August 7 that year.

Teesside-based bridgebuilders Dorman Long started work in August 1925, employing local labour where possible. “It was really a bridge built in the North East,” said John. “The metals were mined around Teesside and formed into steel in a Teesside factory.”

The bridge was officially opened in October 1928 by King George V and Queen Mary.
The royal opening of the Tyne Bridge in 1928. White horses pull a carriage
It had cost an enormous £1.2m in total, or some £64m in today’s money, but despite the dangers of the building project only one worker, Nathaniel Collins, of South Shields, lost his life during construction.

It was a triumph of engineering, allowing traffic into the city without having to negotiate the steep Quayside hills.
Archive pictures of the building of Newcastle's Tyne Bridge
“It was really designed for the modern age of the motor vehicle,” John said. “And it also catered for public transport, as it carried tramlines. It was strong enough to be used by heavy industry, such as the steel turbines being made in Heaton, so potentially you could have someone riding to work in the tram on the same bridge that saw the products his factory made transported away.”

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein at Tate Modern

In a special programme broadcast on the opening weekend of the Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective at Tate Modern, Alastair Sooke takes us on an exclusive personal tour of the latest blockbuster art exhibition.

Together with fans, critics, artists and those who knew Lichtenstein, Alastair leads an entertaining and provocative discussion about the work and legacy of one of the most celebrated and instantly recognisable artists of the 20th century. Renowned for his works based on comic strips and advertising imagery, Lichtenstein's chisel-jawed action men and love-lorn women made him the hero of the Pop Art movement.

When the pictures first appeared in the 1960s they caused a sensation - but also outrage and controversy, with many questioning whether his re-workings of other people's images could really be called art. As the exhibition reveals, however, there was more to Lichtenstein than simply the famous comic book images and also on display are many of his less familiar works - nudes, landscapes, sculpture and his own take on the work of modern art masters such as Picasso and Matisse.

Offering an in-depth look at one of the year's most talked about exhibitions, Alastair and guests explore the enduring appeal of Lichtenstein's imagery, debate the controversies around his work and his influence on today's generation of artists and tackle the big question - was Lichtenstein a Pop Art genius and one of the defining image-makers of the 20th century, or a one-trick wonder whose big idea was so powerful he could never let it go?

Available on BBC iPlayer until 8:59pm Sun, 3 Mar 2013

Last night's set list

At the Fulford Arms, York: -

I'm Just A Loser
Love Song
I Am A Child
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Broken Arrow
On The Way Home

A thoroughly enjoyable evening of open mic fun including the wonderful Colin Rowntree on his 'new' resonator guitar - a magical rendition of Come On In My Kitchen being the highlight.

Three originals and three Buffalo Springfield songs, must be a first.

Monday 25 February 2013

Ron Sexsmith - Forever Endeavour Review by Terry Kelly

Ron Sexsmith

Forever Endeavour
(Cooking Vinyl)

CANADIAN songsmith Ron Sexsmith specialises in finely calibrated musical melancholia.

His latest album sees him reuniting with producer Mitchell Froom for a collection of songs carrying a considerable emotional punch.

But while the subject matter of the new album is often weighty - including his own mortality after a recent health scare and past misdemeanors - the songs are blessed with Sexsmith's trademark strong melodies and haunting vocal style.

Although the opening two songs both contain the word "nowhere" in their titles, the talented Canadian knows exactly where he's going in his latest offering, with Lost In Thought and If Only Avenue being the equal of anything in his fine back catalogue.

Deepens With Time, meanwhile, is even better and destined to become a Sexsmith standard.

But most of Forever Endeavour feels like a newly-minted classic.


Shields Gazette

Friday 22 February 2013

Edward Gorey...

Today would be the 88th birthday of illustrator Edward Gorey - see today's Google Search page - so it's an excuse, if one were needed, to post some of his work:

Thursday 21 February 2013

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York (The Elderly Brothers): -

Crying In The Rain
The Singer Not The Song
Things We Said Today
You're Going To Lose That Girl
Memories Are Made Of This

A busy night with loads of ace turns. Really spooked them with a Dean Martin song.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

David Bowie - the four faces...

Ziggy Stardust to Thin White Duke – four faces of David Bowie

Sean O'Hagan
The Observer
Saturday 16 February 2013

Ziggy Stardust: 1972
David Bowie in a promotional tour photo Photograph: Masayoshi Sukita/The David Bowie Archive

"I wanted to de-violence the look of Clockwork Orange and evoke the mystery of Japanese kabuki and Noh theatre," David Bowie later said of the stylistic influences behind Ziggy Stardust, his first alter-ego. The Ziggy jumpsuit, designed in 1971 by his friend, Freddie Burretti, was augmented by a stuffed cotton codpiece and wrestling boots from Russell & Bromley.

It was Bowie's wife, Angie, who convinced him to have the famous flaming carrot-top haircut. "Angie was the catalyst for the look and the image," says Woody Woodmansey, drummer in the Spiders from Mars. "He probably wouldn't have gone so far out without her pushing him."

Bowie had travelled to New York in September 1971, visiting Andy Warhol's Factory and Max's Kansas City, home of New York's demi-monde. As biographer Paul Trynka notes in Starman: "The thrift-store decadence and glamour of Max's would become the raw material of David Bowie's art", just as the rock music of the Velvet Underground and the Stooges would become the raw material for the more pop-oriented songs on his breakthrough album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Bowie would later cite Iggy Pop as the prime inspiration for Ziggy. The surname, though, was a homage to an obscure outsider artist, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (Norman Carl Odam) from Lubbock, Texas, a pioneer of what came to be known as "psychobilly" music.

Many years later, Bowie would also namecheck Vince Taylor, a British-born rock 'n' roller from the 1950s, as the original inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. Born Brian Holden in Isleworth, Taylor found brief fame with his hit song "Brand New Cadillac", before becoming a major star in France. After taking LSD in the 1950s, he had a breakdown, later claiming to have been reborn as one of the Apostles. Bowie met him briefly in 1966 on Tottenham Court Road, where Taylor showed him a map he had made of places where UFOs had supposedly landed. "Vince Taylor was the inspiration for Ziggy," Bowie said later. "He always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock 'n' roll. I'm not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become."

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust

Ziggy was unveiled live at the Friars club in Aylesbury on 29 January 1972, by which time Bowie had convinced his group that glitter and glam was the way to go. "It was all very gradual. He had taken us to the theatre and to the ballet to show us how lighting could work," remembers Woodmansey, "and then to Liberty's in London with Angie to buy material for the stage costumes. We all thought: this is either going to work or we'll get bottled off stage. But, we took the risk."

Diamond Dogs: 1974
Promotional photograph of David Bowie for Diamond Dogs, 1974. Photograph: Terry O’Neill/© V&A

Having abruptly killed off Ziggy at London's Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973, Bowie returned in 1974 with a concept album, Diamond Dogs, and an ambitiously theatrical, big-budget touring live show that broke new ground with its use of elaborate sets and mechanical props. The album was a dystopian fantasy based on George Orwell's novel 1984 and featured a cover image by the Belgian artist Guy Peelaert, that depicted Bowie as half-man, half dog. The album's promotional shots also featured a canine theme with an unforgettable image of a seated Bowie in a Spanish Cordoba hat, matching outfit and platform boots, seemingly unperturbed as an enormous white dog leaps towards the camera.

"I had shot the dog first and then a few frames of Bowie posing in his inimitable way – which was at ease but totally in control." says photographer Terry O'Neill. "Then I said, 'What about trying one with you and the dog?' Just as I started shooting, the bloody dog leapt up into the air towards the camera. It was quite aggressive and I was a bit taken aback, but I kept thinking: 'Thank God I'm using a wide-angle lens.' David just sat there throughout. He was totally unfazed."

On the Diamond Dogs tour, which began in North America in June, that quiet composure came into its own. "I watched him every night from the lighting booth," says the show's choreographer Toni Basil, "and it was utterly fascinating. He was a consummate performer: a singer, an actor, a dancer and a kind of silent movie star all rolled into one."

The Diamond Dogs stage set comprised tall monochrome buildings, a bridge that descended from on high to the stage, and an office chair mounted on a cherry-picker crane that enabled Bowie, with the helping of some innovative lighting, to appear to float over the heads of the front rows of the audience as he sang Space Oddity.

David Bowie - Space Oddity

Mark Ravitz was one of the set designers. "I am not your traditional designer, but I was surprised by his ambition. He seemed pretty far out when I met him, with this big entourage, but his ideas were grounded in the songs and the whole concept of the Diamond Dogs album." Did Bowie provide him with a brief? "Oh yes, It was three words: power, Nuremberg, Metropolis."

As the tour progressed, the darker side of Bowie's imagination seemed to take hold. When Alan Yentob met Bowie for a BBC documentary that would become fly-on-the-wall film Cracked Actor, he seemed fragile and lonely. His marriage was on the rocks and he was addicted to cocaine. In one scene, he describes the previous few years as "very frightening".

Young American: 1975
David Bowie performing on the Dick Cavett Show. Photograph: Ann Limongello/ABC

David Bowie's embrace of soul music was the most unlikely sidestep in his musical journey in the 1970s. It began in the latter stages of the Diamond Dogs tour with Bowie's shift in sartorial style to a double-breasted suit and floppy fringe. This was accompanied by a similar shift in the musical register best exemplified by his live version of "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow" by the soul-funk group, Ohio Players. Bowie had hired seasoned soul musicians, such as guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had toured with the likes of Ben E King and the Main Ingredient, and drummer Dennis Davis, who had played with jazz-funk legend Roy Ayers, as well as backing singers including his then-girlfriend Ava Cherry, and the soon-to-be-famous Luther Vandross. He couldn't help but absorb the soundtrack of black America as he toured there.

Not one to do things by half, Bowie booked time in Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios, birthplace of "Philly-soul". Young Americans was recorded quickly, the title track a fusion of images and observational narratives that signalled a dramatic move from the wilfully disconnected imagery of Diamond Dogs. Another unlikely influence was the early work of Bruce Springsteen, notably It's Hard To Be a Saint in the City.

David Bowie performs Young Americans on the Dick Cavett Show.

Though Bowie himself described the style of Young Americans as "plastic soul", he was nevertheless sincere in his homage to the music he loved. "He was so happy doing this," Ava Cherry later told Bowie's biographer Paul Trynka. "It was simply living out what he wanted to be, living out a dream."

The album was completed in New York in December, with John Lennon in attendance. When Bowie found Lennon sitting in the recording studio lobby, strumming a guitar and singing a snatch of a current disco hit, "Shame, Shame, Shame," by Shirley & Company, he misheard the word "shame" as "fame". This blissful accident was the jumping of point for a new song, "Fame", which Bowie knocked off in 20 minutes. "Fame" was an 11th-hour addition to the Young Americans album, but, in September 1975, it became David Bowie's first American number one.

Once again, Bowie had soaked up the inspirations in the air around him and turned them into something else entirely, confounding his fans and his newly gained American rock audience. But the lukewarm critical reception for Young Americans suggested the alchemy of old was not working as it once had. And, for or all its funkiness, Fame is a dark song lyrically. "Fame – puts you where things are hollow…" sang Bowie, reflecting the increasing darkness of his personal life, the sense of alienation that celebrity had amplified. 

Thin White Duke: 1976
The Archer, Station to Station tour. Photograph: John Robert Rowlands

Created during the Young Americans tour, The Thin White Duke was Bowie's last great persona – and his most troubling one. An extension of the blue-eyed soul singer that Bowie had affected for that tour, it initially seemed like he was evoking a kind of stylised showbiz professional in a Sinatra-style suit, white shirt and loosened tie. By the time Bowie had commenced his Station to Station tour, to promote the 1976 album of the same name, the hollowed-out caricature of a cabaret singer had mutated into something else: a character that Bowie would later describe as "very nasty indeed".

Paul Trynka describes Station to Station as "the climax of David Bowie's love affair with Freud's 'magical substance', as well as his definitive statement on his rootless, confused existence in Los Angeles." Grade A cocaine, then, consumed in reputedly gargantuan quantities, and exile in the most unreal of America cities had undoubtedly affected Bowie's mind as much as the relentless touring that attended every shape-shifting album he had released in the previous years.

Nevertheless his behaviour at this time seems extreme even by rock-star standards. Holed up in Los Angeles, he developed his interest in the occult – the Kabbalah, the writing of the English satanist Aleister Crowley– and his fascination with various esoteric writings by obscure Nazi pseudo-philosophers. More problematic still were the views he aired in several press interviews around this time. In a now infamous interview with Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe, he expressed his admiration of Nietzsche and Hitler, and opined: "I'd adore to be prime minister. And, I believe very strongly in fascism… I dream of buying companies and TV stations, owning and controlling them."

The Station to Station live show began with a blast of Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity" and accompanying visuals from Un Chien Andalou, the short Surrealist classic by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. Bowie appeared in his white shirt, black waistcoat and trousers, with a pack of Gitanes visible in his pocket, a cross between a crooner and a Weimar cabaret performer. The visuals and stark lighting owed much to German Expressionist films and the music echoed that sense of fractured intensity. Bowie would later describe it as "the most successful tour I've ever done".

It culminated in Bowie's return to Britain and his now legendary appearance at Victoria Station, where he stood in an open-top Mercedes, and seemed to give a fascist salute to his fans. It was almost certainly a wave, freeze-framed as something altogether more ominous by the click of a camera shutter. Metaphorically, though, it was a wave goodbye to that dark period of provocation and glacial performances, and to the cast of extraordinary characters that Bowie had created and then discarded as he moved with relentless creativity through the decade that he so defined.

• David Bowie is, at the V&A from 23 March 2013, in partnership with Gucci, sound experience by Sennheiser ( David Bowie – Five Years will broadcast on BBC2 in May.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Two more

Tony Sheridan (Anthony Esmond Sheridan McGinnity), guitarist and singer, born 21 May 1940; died 16 February 2013:
With George & John in Hamburg in the early 1960s.

It is generally recognised that the Beatles developed their frenetic stage act during lengthy engagements in the clubs of Hamburg's Reeperbahn district. Less well-known is the fact that a Hamburg-based English musician, Tony Sheridan, was something of a role model in this process, with Paul McCartney referring to him as "The Teacher". While in Germany, the Beatles made their first recording, as a backing group for Sheridan, who has died aged 72 after undergoing heart surgery.

Mr & Mrs gameshow host Derek Batey dies aged 84:
Derek Batey, host of ITV gameshow Mr & Mrs in the 1970s and 1980s, has died at the age of 84. The gameshow pitted married couples against each other in a quiz that tested how well they really knew their own spouse, and attracted nine million viewers during its heyday in the 1970s. Batey presented Mr & Mrs 500 times on TV and 5,000 times on stage after developing a successful theatrical version.
He died at a hospice near his home in Lytham St Annes on Sunday night, following a short illness.

Born in Brampton, Cumbria, the one-time ventriloquist started his broadcasting career with the BBC, then joined Border when it was formed in 1961.

As well as Mr & Mrs, he presented chat show Look Who's Talking.

Richard Briers RIP

Image result for richard briers
Richard Briers obituary
Genial star of the sitcom The Good Life who impressed in a range of roles on stage

Michael Coveney
Monday 18 February 2013 

When he played Hamlet as a young man, Richard Briers, who has died aged 79 after suffering from a lung condition, said he was the first Prince of Denmark to give the audience half an hour in the pub afterwards. He was nothing if not quick. In fact, wrote the veteran critic WA Darlington, he played Hamlet "like a demented typewriter". Briers, always the most modest and self-deprecating of actors, and the sweetest of men, relished the review, happy to claim a place in the light comedians' gallery of his knighted idols Charles Hawtrey, Gerald du Maurier and Noël Coward.

"People don't realise how good an actor Dickie Briers really is," said John Gielgud. This was probably because of his sunny, cheerful disposition and the rat-a-tat articulacy of his delivery. "You're a great farceur," said Coward, delivering another testimony, "because you never, ever, hang about."

Although he excelled in the plays of Alan Ayckbourn, and became a national figure in his television sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s, notably The Good Life, he could mine hidden depths on stage, giving notable performances in Ibsen, Chekhov and, for Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance company, Shakespeare.

The Good Life defined his career, though he spent a lot of time getting away from his television persona as the self-sufficient, Surbiton smallholding dweller Tom Good in the brilliant series – 30 episodes between 1975 and 1978 – written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, and produced by John Howard Davies.

Paired with Felicity Kendal as his wife, Barbara, and pitted against their formidable, snobbish neighbour Margo Leadbetter (Penelope Keith) and her docile husband, Jerry (Paul Eddington), he gave one of the classic good-natured comedy sitcom performances of our time. Briers was already an established West End star when he started in The Good Life. In the same year as the first series, he up-ended expectation as Colin in Absent Friends, Ayckbourn's bitter comedy about death, and the death of love, at the Garrick theatre. Like the playwright, he proved once and for all that he "did" bleak, too.

Briers was born in Raynes Park, south-west London, and educated at schools in Wimbledon. He described his bookmaker father, Joseph, as a feckless drifter. His mother, Morna Richardson, was a pianist. Richard's cousin was the gap-toothed film star Terry-Thomas. While doing his national service with the RAF, Briers attended evening classes in drama. He then worked as an office clerk before taking a place at Rada, where he won the silver medal. He won a scholarship to the Liverpool Rep for the season of 1956-57 and was never out of work thereafter. At Liverpool he met Ann Davies, whom he married in 1957; they spent most of their married life in Chiswick, west London, in a house they bought around 10 years later.

Seasons in Leatherhead and Coventry were followed by a London debut in 1959 at the Duke of York's as Joseph Field in Lionel Hale's Gilt and Gingerbread. He played in Harold Pinter's A Slight Ache at the Arts theatre and went on tour as Gerald Popkiss in Ben Travers's Rookery Nook, before giving an irresistible Roland Maule, the importunate playwright from Uckfield, in Coward's Present Laughter, at the Vaudeville in 1965.

He was back at the Duke of York's in Ayckbourn's first London hit, Relatively Speaking, in 1967, forming a wonderful quartet with Celia Johnson, Jennifer Hilary and Michael Hordern, who inadvertently trod on a garden rake that sprang up to hit him on the nose ("What hoe?!"). He was Moon, the stand-in critic, in Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound at the Criterion in 1968 ("a performance of sharp hopelessness and vindictiveness," said Helen Dawson), and played several roles in Michael Frayn's The Two of Us, with Lynn Redgrave, at the Garrick in 1970. He took over from Alan Bates in Simon Gray's Butley in 1972 and proceeded, he said genially, to empty theatres all over Britain in the leading role of Richard III on tour.

He regained his equilibrium, and his comedy momentum, as Sidney Hopcroft in Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular (set on three separate Christmas Eves) at the Criterion in 1973. So he was well-established by the watershed year of 1975 and The Good Life. His first leading television role had been in 1962 as a young barrister in Brothers in Law, scripted by Frank Muir and Denis Norden. He followed that with five series of Marriage Lines (1963-66) by Richard Waring, in which he was a lowly clerk, George Starling, married to Prunella Scales as Kate. The Good Life launched him on a much more varied theatre diet, including Ibsen's The Wild Duck at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1980; George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man (his was a richly nuanced, physical performance as the battle-weary Bluntschli) in 1981; Ray Cooney's Run for Your Wife (as a bigamous taxi driver, with Bernard Cribbins as his "cover" and apologist) in 1983; and Sir John Vanbrugh's The Relapse at Chichester in 1986, as the hilarious chatterbox Lord Foppington.

John Sessions was also in The Relapse, and his friend Branagh came to see it. This led directly to Briers working with Branagh on many subsequent projects: as a perhaps too likeable Malvolio ("My best part, and I know it," he said) in an otherwise wintry Twelfth Night at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, in 1987, and on a world tour with the Renaissance company as a ropey King Lear (the set really was a mass of ropes, the production dubbed "String Lear") and a sagacious, though not riotously funny, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

He was much more successful as Uncle Vanya, directed by Branagh in 1991, in which his body, said one critic, seemed to be in a state of permanent civil war between his adoration of Yelena and a simmering outrage about his treatment at the professor's hands.

Briers's television work in the mid-to-late 1980s was concentrated on two hit series: Ever Decreasing Circles, again written by Esmonde and Larbey for the BBC, in which he played Martin Bryce, a well-organised fusspot obsessed with law and order; and All in Good Faith, written by John Kane for Thames TV, and produced by Davies, in which he excelled as the Rev Philip Lambe, a caring vicar in a wealthy rural parish, pining for the inner-city hubbub. Reunited with Eddington, who was by then very ill with skin cancer, he played Jack in David Storey's Home in 1994 at Wyndham's, a moving display of forced grins and competitive come-backs. Collaborating with a new generation of theatre-makers, he was a crabbed and susceptible Scrooge in a chorus of black-garbed, quick-changing carollers in Neil Bartlett's version of A Christmas Carol at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1996.

Even more significantly, he and Geraldine McEwan played the nonagenarian couple in Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs, directed by Simon McBurney at the Royal Court (relocated at the Duke of York's during refurbishment). He was magnificent as the mouldy old white-haired janitor, master of the mop and bucket, supervising an invisible gathering to hear the very last message for humanity.

He owed his late-flourishing film career to Branagh, appearing in a string of his movies: as Bardolph in Henry V (1989), Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing (1993), the old blind man in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), a cantankerous old thespian in A Midwinter's Tale (1995), Polonius in Hamlet (1996) and Sir Nathaniel in the musical Love's Labour's Lost (2000).

His bond with the British public was renewed in the highly successful upmarket BBC soap Monarch of the Glen (2000-05): he was Hector MacDonald, best chum of Julian Fellowes as Lord Kilwillie, but was blown up trying to train his dog; he returned in a later series as a ghost.

The Ayckbourn connection was cemented in 2002 in a fine revival of Bedroom Farce at the Aldwych, with June Whitfield as his stage wife. In classic Briers fashion, he entered beaming with a cup of cocoa at entirely the wrong moment. He seemed to bid farewell to the stage as a touring Prospero in The Tempest in 2003, but returned unexpectedly in 2010 as the military relic Adolphus Spanker in Nicholas Hytner's mellow National Theatre revival of Dion Boucicault's London Assurance, alongside Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale. It was sheer delight to be reminded of his natural comic vitality as he rambled on and on, the sound of gunshot still ringing in his ears from the sack of Copenhagen in 1807.

Briers became quietly disillusioned with contemporary television comedy and the cult of celebrity and reality shows, noting that people used to be magical because they were on television and that, now, "nobody's magical because everyone's on television".

He wrote several pleasant, light-hearted volumes, including Coward and Company (1987), A Little Light Weeding (1993) and, with his wife, A Taste of the Good Life (1995). He was made OBE in 1989 – "And I suppose you're getting this for making people laugh?" said the Queen, a great fan of The Good Life – and CBE in 2003.

He is survived by Ann and their daughters, Lucy and Kate.

• Richard David Briers, actor, born 14 January 1934; died 17 February 2013

Monday 18 February 2013

Roy Lichtenstein's Studio

Inside Roy Lichtenstein's studio
Roy Lichtenstein's pulpy, dot-covered paintings may look as if they were mass-produced by machines. But nothing could be further from the truth

Lucy Davies
Daily Telegraph
05 Feb 2013

Black paintwork, white brickwork, in tree-lined Greenwich Village. We’re spitting distance from Bleecker, whose elongated vowels once made music for Simon and Garfunkel and Steely Dan. When the floodwaters of the nearby Hudson inched upward and east during Hurricane Sandy, they ceased their creep yards from the steps outside.

Inside are the wood floors and fireplace of the area’s typical brownstone, but the cosy effect ends when an alcove ‘bookcase’ turns revolving door, stairway leading downwards. It’s straight from the pages of Agatha Christie, even Indiana Jones.

This is one of two entries (the other far less thrilling) to the cavernous room beneath that was once Roy Lichtenstein’s studio. The house above was used as a bolthole for visiting friends and family, ensuring he could work undisturbed, day in, day out. His watch was rigorous: 10 to 6, with 90 minutes for lunch.

Torpedo...LOS! (1963)

The building is now home to the Lichtenstein Foundation, where every reference to his work, even wrapping paper, is assiduously filed away alongside the artist’s sketchbooks, scrapbooks and working materials. The studio is set up as it was when he was alive. Charts by the sink show dots and lines in every size, colour and combination. The walls have wooden racks designed to tip forward, preventing paint drip. One of his vast murals still hangs there – an incongruous combination of Etruscan meets Henry Moore meets a slice of Swiss cheese.

Aside a scalpel-scored table worktable stands the paint-splattered stool at which the artist whilst drafting and redrafting his compositions. And this is the thing about Lichtenstein. His finished works look so effortless, so without their maker’s mark that we rarely think of the hours, methods and materials that went into their producing. He sought to erase all trace of the selective artist engaged in difficult work. He is as apt to slip through our pressing fingers, as one observer put it, as drops of liquid mercury.

Jericho Compositions

Roy Fox Lichtenstein had a long, uncommonly successful career, even if he did spend most of it in his studio rather than out basking in its rewards. With a retrospective of his work – the first since his death from pneumonia in 1997 aged 73 – opening at the Tate this month, comes the chance to assess the painterly approach behind the Pop inspired sheen, and it isn't so hands-off after all.

Lichtenstein, born and raised in 1930s Manhattan, began his creative career at a time when Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme, emotional work predicated on a belief that each work is impossible to repeat. Artists sought to impress upon their public a unique signature that would reveal their inner sensibility. Brushwork, the hand-drawn line – these were the lauded aim.

Now, exiting the woodwork, were artists like Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol, using banal subjects to skewer such bloated clichés. The Pop crew drew plugs, step-on trash cans, dollar bills and Don Draper’s fizzy saviour, Alka Seltzer. But while most still used a grainy, obviously hand-drawn hatching or line to convey realism, Lichtenstein went a step further.

“I’d always wanted to know the difference between a mark that was art and one that wasn’t” he said, “so l chose among the crudest types of illustration – product packaging, mail order catalogues.” It provided the type of drawing that was most opposite individual expression and its lack of nuance appealed greatly. “I don’t care what a cup of coffee looks like” he said. “I only care about how it’s drawn.”

Still Life with Glass and Peeled Lemon (1972)

The five surviving composition books in his studio reveal pages of kitsch clippings organised by theme: pressure cookers, alarm clocks, rolodexes, jars of apple sauce, heads of lettuce, open fridges. He liked typography, especially numbers, and baby boom phrases like “No Money Down!” The cartoons he plundered were pulpy, grimy, all eyes and tears and camera zoom. He liked a lot of emotional charge – disappointment in love, the heat of battle.

He adopted their unique lexicon for things like shine (a star) and shading (‘Benday’ dots). In early works he used a dog-grooming brush covered in paint to make the dots, filling in blotchy patches by hand, but over the years he switched to metal screens and eventually custom-made stencils.

In contrast to his machine-made sources, his paintings involved time-consuming processes. His daily routines were observed by assistants who remember his sense of humour “he liked tricks, bad jokes… he had a lovely giggle… But he was very serious about [his] orderly, separated, rational procedure.”

Whaam! (Study) (1963)

Like most artists, he began with drawings, and his preserved sketchbooks show the changes, and variations necessary to create something that looked mass-produced. Next he would create a collage, using sheets of paper painted in his trademark colours. “I collage over and over again” he said, “so I’m really working with it in the same way you would with an Expressionist work, but I don’t want traces of all that activity going on.”

At dusk, he would project it onto canvas, transferring in pencil before outlining with black tape, clarified with a razor and guitar pick. Once the structure was complete, he would collage various sizes and densities of dots and diagonal stripes. Throughout, he would use a rotating easel – his own design - that ensured the painting’s power operated in all orientations. He finished off with multiple coats of acrylic colour, a layer of varnish in-between, to achieve the uninflected surface colour that replicated machine-printing to a tee.

Lichtenstein spent half a century effacing his efforts from view. In the later works it is almost impossible to find his trace. Perhaps the most exhilarating conclusion to his mission though, came a little earlier in his career, when he painted a series of mirrors. They are little known works, among his most abstract and employ all of the tricks associated with pulp printing – dots, diagonals, waves of white – to convey a silver surface. They are missing one thing though: a reflection. The artist has removed himself entirely from the picture.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ is at Tate Modern, London SE1, from February 21 until May 27

Sunday 17 February 2013

Saturday 16 February 2013

At Long Last Love...

Valentine's Day: let's hear it for Hollywood's odd couples
Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine – romcoms used to be anything but bland

Lucy Ellmann
The Guardian
Saturday 9 February 2013

With this year's Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook, Hollywood is attempting to get down and dirty with real people and real problems. But US films are notoriously bad at this. I Give It a Year is a British comedy about falling out of love – not a romcom, more of a romp-incomp. But whatever happened to the simple idea of the innocently zany finding love?

Being abnormal used to be normal. In movies such as The Apartment(1960), it was redemptive. CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) are outsiders who've missed the boat, careerwise and hopewise. She's wasting her time on a married man, while Baxter is caught in a sexual vortex established by his superiors, who have clandestine trysts in his apartment while "Buddy Boy" gets nothing but colds and TV dinners. It's when they both decide to ditch the self-hatred and take more of a risk that things start looking up, romancewise.

There are a million films in which the staid and stable (but wrong) choice of mate loses out in battle with the dynamic and volatile. As in Cinderellaand Jane Eyre, in these stories the hare, not the tortoise, wins. Some hare escapades tragically fail: in Brief Encounter (1945), Laura (Celia Johnson) relinquishes Alec (Trevor Howard) for the sake of her amiable but dull husband and children. But in screwball comedies, risk-taking often pays. In Bringing Up Baby (1938), Cary Grant is swept off his feet by zany Katharine Hepburn, and thereby saved from a sexless marriage to a woman interested only in dinosaur bones.

We try to formalise it with weddings and His and Hers towels, but love is a childish, dreamlike state and that's what's so good about it. Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Holiday (1938) – all starring that odd pair, Hepburn and Grant – are comedies of mismatch, in which oil must be separated from vinegar, in that the childlike hero or heroine must be prevented from collapsing into the arms of some treadmill adult. In these plots, conformity is a cul-de-sac that can't accommodate real emotions. The supposedly stable alliance falls flat on its face, while the farcical candidate from leftfield emerges as the winner. "Our relationship has been a series of misadventures from beginning to end," Grant tells Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. But we want him saved, essentially from adulthood – all work and bank balances and Gradgrindian facts.

In The Philadelphia Story, it's Hepburn who's about to marry the wrong guy, having divorced Grant out of pique. But at the start of Holiday, Johnny (Grant) is in a pickle, newly engaged to a creep. He rushes over to tell his friends, Nick and Susan, whose own eccentricity is displayed in their unAmerican reluctance to answer the door (in TV shows devoted to conformism, Fred MacMurray and Mary Tyler Moore always answered the door). "She's sweet, intelligent, the perfect playmate," he tells them. No she ain't. The first thing his fiancee Julia does is scold him about his hair and his tie. She's rich, self-satisfied, conventional, and in love with money, not him. It's Hepburn as Linda, Julia's aimless sister, the black sheep of the family, who perfectly comprehends Johnny's aversion to business, security and stolidness, his aversion to America itself. Their love is celebrated by leaving the country. Catastrophe averted, they catch a boat with Nick and Susan, creating their own Fun Squad. It's a triumph of eccentricity over the perversity of normal.

In the more kindly form of romcom (none of them very recent), looks don't count and weirdness wins the day. Green Card (1990) has the "nice" Brontë (Andie MacDowell) confront with distaste the French "oaf", Georges Fauré (Gérard Depardieu). At first, she's all effortful serenity: a beautiful NY apartment, charitable gardening work, occasionally seeing her "nice" vegetarian, environmentalist boyfriend. Salvation comes when she relaxes and takes on the chaotic and unpredictable, in the form of the more human, if ungainly, Georges. One of the thrills of this movie is its plea for foreignness, even making the case for economic migrants in search of green cards. But mainly it's about francophilia – the solution to much American ennui has after all been to head for Paris.

France feeds Julie and Julia (2009) too, that misshapen movie about Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her culinary stalker, Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Compare these two marriages. Julia Child's is a late-in-life pairing, but happy. Child talks funny, looks funny, is very tall and awkward – but every day after lunch she and Paul jump into bed (the secret of marital happiness). In Paris. "What if you hadn't fallen in love with me?" Julia asks Paul sombrely at one point. "But I did," he answers.

Julie Powell and her husband in Queens never convincingly congeal; they're just playing house. Because they're in their 20s and have been brought up on bad movies and no books, they have no emotional vocabulary. There's something objectionable about the dime-store morality of Julie French-cooking her way out of her job in a call centre helping victims of 9/11. The only proper response to other people's tragedies may well be to stuff oneself with butter, but at least have the grace to do it in France.

Powell's self-improvement route to fulfilment is also promulgated by Eat Pray Love (2010). In this abysmal Julia Roberts vehicle, Roberts, as Elizabeth Gilbert, checks out gurus all over the world in a quest to regain her joie de vivre, leaving quite a carbon footprint behind her in every anorexia-ashram she visits. Never mind the film's obnoxiousness about religion, paternalism and, most shamefully, Italy. The worst thing about it is the implicit instruction that, to deserve a man, women must now transform themselves spiritually and psychologically, as well as physically. Gilbert's mystical retreat is really just the latest form of charm or finishing school, like carrying a book around on your head. But what are the men doing to make themselves acceptable to Gilbert? Drinking beer and crashing cars. As usual.

Two recent French films differ in their interpretations of eccentric love.Delicacy (2012) offers a skewed, cruel adult sphere in which everyone misconstrues what's important, and pursues their offensive goals in a confusion shared by the audience; The Fairy (2012) dumps notions of conformity for a surreal, childlike, more innocent world where love is not barred to the unprepossessing. In the first, an ordinary-looking man woos a pretty girl. Big deal, you'd think. But oh the consternation this causes. The friends of Nathalie (Audrey Tautou) express horror about her going out with someone they regard as not handsome. Isn't this the sort of adolescent nonsense we all try to leave behind as soon as possible? But there's no real questioning of the status quo in this movie. We're left as perplexed as her pals about Nathalie's choice.

Delicacy chooses to address the issue of male beauty, but we all know the pressure is on women in terms of beauty. Now everybody's supposed to be beautiful. So we're stuck with plastic surgery, sun beds, cosmetics bills, sadness and disappointment. Whatever happened to love among the real?

The Fairy takes a more compassionate look at the rights and desires of the funny-looking. Fiona Gordon, as the fairy, displays her long, sinewy legs as if the human body – any human body – were beautiful, a revolutionary idea in this age of artifice. All seems comically dismal at first. A miserable hotel receptionist (Dominique Abel), down on his luck, nearly chokes to death on a ketchup bottle top hidden in his sandwich, and is saved by a strange woman (Gordon) who may have just escaped from the mad house. But their love is transformative, as you see when these two sad sacks suddenly start to dance – underwater. And the jokes keep coming: at one point, Abel is in the foreground moaning about a cut finger while Gordon is in the final stages of giving birth to their baby in the background; just as a Bandaid is applied to Abel's wound, the baby pops out, as if the two torments are equivalent.

At the end of Some Like It Hot (1959) gender no longer seems a relevant concern. Another endearing relationship is depicted in Harvey, an anthem to eccentricity and probably the first and last American movie in which the pleasures of alcoholism are given their due. James Stewart plays Elwood P Dowd, and Harvey is his love object, an invisible 6ft white rabbit sometimes described as a "pooka", a sort of sprite who can make your dreams come true. There isn't a single character, whether confined to the asylum, or working there, or driving a cab, or singing an aria at a tea party, who doesn't display an array of unusual behaviours. In the midst of trying to get her brother Elwood committed, Veta (the wonderful Josephine Hull) is constantly readjusting her girdle, flirting with a judge, and wondering when she can go upstairs to bed and just "let go". Her spinster daughter, Myrtle Mae, finally attracts the attentions of a psychiatric orderly on the strength of her egg and onion sandwiches. The head of the hospital wants to avail himself of Harvey's magical powers so he can have a three-week break in Akron, Ohio, being patted on the hand by a mysterious young woman. But as the Laingian shrink in Bringing Up Baby says, sporting a startling facial tic, "All people who behave strangely are not insane."

The heroine of my new novel, Mimi, is plump, middle-aged and menopausal. She has hot flushes, big feet and a big mouth. She's not the narrator Harrison's type at all. He's a New York plastic surgeon fully persuaded that physical appearance can be usefully adulterated. Despite all this, he and Mimi fall in love. I offer this improbable romance, in contravention of all the crap that our culture tries to instil in us about who deserves love.