2015: out with “new”

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To paraphrase the Electric Light Orchestra, the big wheel keeps on turning. But before 2015 winds down and 2016 rattles into view, I thought I’d reflect on the old year with a stock-take of new experiences I have notched up since January 1. This may not be a long list, as life tends to solidify into routine when you pass 40 unless it doesn’t, and fresh experiences are rarer. This also makes them more cherishable.

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For the record, these are my cultural roundups of the year, now patted into shape after a few last-minute additions, the incorrigible bean-counter that I am.

I didn’t do the year in theatre or gigs as I didn’t step foot inside a theatre in 2015, and only attended one live show, albeit a splendid one, and a new experience, so let’s start there.

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  • Classic FM Live | I have been to a classical concert before – the then-controller of Radio 2 invited me to a Prom when I was at 6 Music – and I’ve been to the Royal Albert Hall countless times, albeit usually to see rock or pop in the line of duty (Elton John, Echo & The Bunnymen, the Manics), and once, a ballet. This was my first Classic FM concert, and my first time seeing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of their Principal Conductor Vasily Petrenko. It was their 175th anniversary year and a very special night – also, my initiation into the rites of Classic FM, my new employer, who provided a box, and sat me with a selection of Lords (who were the first peers I have ever met). I loved seeing the young pianist Ji Liu doing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, and it was fun to see James Galway playing a selection of favourites, as I had actually heard of him! I would say that the explosive rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture by the RLPO was a musical highlight of 2015. (I also saw my pal Justin Moorhouse live; he was on terrific form in Edinburgh – arguably his best – but this is not the first time I have seen him so does not count as a “new” experience. If I hadn’t been working in Edinburgh, I might have seen a few more shows and chosen them less conservatively.)

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  • Saturday Night At The Movies | One thing I didn’t foresee when this year began was a new job on the near horizon. Since my tenure at 6 Music ran out in 2012, I’ve relied on the occasional Front Row nod to keep my voice on the radio, but the wireless took a back seat. When the eminent Howard Goodall announced that he would no longer be able to present Classic FM’s weekly film programme Saturday Night at the Movies (due to having a West End musical to write and oversee), I didn’t expect to be asked to audition for the gig. I leaped at the chance. And, after a couple of tryouts in late 2014, I found myself royally announced in February as a new, contracted Classic FM presenter. My first show was on March 7, and I’ve been on pretty much every Saturday thereafter, a new experience all round. I’ve been on commercial radio stations as a guest (I’ve even reviewed the papers on Nick Ferrari’s LBC breakfast show, which is in the same building as Classic, and is owned by the same media company, Global), but I’ve never presented on one, and it’s a whole new ballgame, and I feel incredibly proud to slot in between the august likes of John Suchet, Alexander Armstrong and Charlotte Green. My appreciation of classical music, and movie music, has been vastly expanded and refined over the year and the experience has given so much back. I’ve also loved discovering videogame music (which we also cover), and becoming an evangelist for it, and communicating with the listeners and movie music fans via social media. One new thing I’ve discovered is how appreciative composers are when you play their music on the radio – as, frankly, movie music doesn’t get much of a look in. I genuinely feel as if I am offering a public service.

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  • County Cork | I’ve been to Cork before, but it’s not a county I know as well as I know Galway, or Kerry, and this year’s holiday in Glengarriff was a highlight of 2015, and packed with the new! First time in Glengarriff itself, a tidy harbour town, and first time to neighbouring Bantry, a metropolis by comparison, and a surefire spot for picking up the Guardian of a morning. We also visited Garinish Island by boat, saw seals in repose and dolphins at play along the way, and drove through the pretty Bandon, where Graham Norton was raised (and which has named a river walk after its most famous son). The waterwheel in the large photo above is in Bantry.

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  • Nice people | My job, when writing, can be solitary. However, over the last few years, hosting has grown into a more significant string to my professional bow. My fourth consecutive year at the Edinburgh TV Festival, hosting Q&As and screenings both public and industry-only, was another blast, but something of a regular event for me. What’s always new about the job is the sparkling parade of people I get to meet and talk to in the name of work. I’ve upped my work-rate for UKTV this year with events for channels Watch and Dave that have been among my favourites. And among those new people I’ve met and green-roomed with have been: Ron Perlman and the cast of Hand Of God; the band Glasvegas (unexpected stars of the reality show Singing In The Rainforest); Monica Galetti of Masterchef: The Professionals; Roger Allam (pictured, with Barry Cryer, as voluble as ever, at January’s Radio Times Covers Party); Myleene Klass (also a colleague now); Charlie Simpson of Busted; Peter Kosminsky, who I interviewed as part of a BBC staff morale-boosting day in Salford, where I met DG Tony Hall for the first time too, too; the entire dramatis personae of Gogglebox as it stood after series 5 (minus Steph and Dom, who were busy), with special mention for the lovable and witty Giles and Mary, with whom I caroused at the Radio Times Festival before interviewing them in a freezing cold tent in front of an audience who doggedly refused to throw in the towel and seek warmth elsewhere; it was, naturally, a boyhood dream come true when I interviewed Harrison Ford in the flesh for Classic FM, in December – a hell of a way to end my Zelig year.

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  • Such thing as a free lunch | Sky Atlantic invited me, along with other gentlefolk of the press, to dinner at the top of the Gherkin in the City of London (a building that now stands as a paragon of architectural modesty in the gruesome shadows of the Shard and the Walkie Talkie), which was another first for 2015. I also discovered for the first time that the SD memory card in my knackered old phone sometimes erases all your photos for a laugh, never to be recovered. This pic was taken by Charlie Jordan. It was a fabulous evening, with a top view, and we were there to watch exclusive clips from The Last Panthers, which turned out to be one of the TV dramas of the year, luckily. UKTV also kindly invited me to a noisy Christmas press lunch at Mossiman’s, the “private dining club”, my first time there as well, although fine dining is not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s no point putting on airs and graces if you have tacky, framed pictures on the wall of all the celebrities who’ve privately dined there!

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That’s it for the new. It’s already old, so let’s throw it out with the neither new nor old. I’ve totted it up and I saw 140 films in 2015 that I hadn’t seen before, of which 97 were released in 2015. Nothing to trouble Mark Kermode but I pay to the go to the cinema and he doesn’t have to. And in any case, that’s quite a bit of new. I’ve also started to try and pronounce the word “new” properly, having noticed that it still comes out as the flat Northamptonian “noo” on the radio, when I prefer to to hear it exit my lips to rhyme with “phew”. Just goes to show that, even at 50, you’re not finished yet, and there’s more to do, things to improve and refine. I’ve blogged only intermittently this year, but not through want of things that enrage and engage me. May things do both once again in the new year. I am definitely getting more left wing as I get older, which I wholeheartedly welcome.

 

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2014: My Top 50 gigs

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I didn’t see 50 gigs this year. I saw one. It was one of the all-time greats, though, so that counts for a lot. It has been some years since going to music gigs was a regular outing for me. Let’s be honest: a large percentage of the music gigs I have been to since 2007 have been Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine at Brixton Academy. But this one, on November 22, was the Final Comedown, that is, their actual farewell, on home turf, to a home crowd. I was proud to have been among the 5,000 who communed there, some of them (not me) in original Carter shirts, many more (not me) in reproductions, more still in brand new ones for the occasion. (For the record, I wore my only band t-shirt, the Space Cudette one that Cud gave me two years ago when I played the drums with them, when they supported Carter at Brixton.)

I have written before about the almost metaphysical experience of seeing two men fill a 5,000-capacity amphitheatre using only their still fairly skinny bodies, a couple of guitars and some backing tapes, but whatever works. Carter USM have the hits, and a fanbase to sing them back at them at the tops of their ageing lungs. They used to have Jon Beast, whose passing was one of the sadder bits of news in 2014, but whose memory lives on in the chant of “You fat bastard!” We’re all fat bastards now. In tribute. The Final Comedown was less of a gig, more of a loud vigil. It allowed me to queue up for what might have been my last time down the side of the Academy, collect my pass from the little window, and stumble up the stairs in the dark to the “VIP bar”, where bottles of Carslberg or Tuborg sell for £3.80, but where you might, as I did, bump happily into Michael Legge, Danielle Ward and Simon Evans, not to mention Adrian, Carter’s old manager in the days when I was a cub reporter for the NME. I saw the gig itself from the right hand side of the front (where the exit from the backstage bit comes out). I am definitely getting too old for this shit, though, as even amid the unfettered joy and untrammelled shouting and air-pointing, I found myself slightly irritated by people blocking my view and filming everything on phones. But the magic was not destroyed.

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So, that was my gig of the year. I await the official DVD with anticipation. You can pre-order it here, and the company that lovingly make it, Nyquest, kindly supplied all the photos, via Carter’s manager Marc.

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As for other live gigs, well, I went all the way to the Edinburgh Festival for three days but I was working, so I only saw one comedy gig. It is, by definition, the best comedy gig I saw in 2014: Josie Long’s groundbreaking Josie Long show Cara Josephine, which I highly recommend, especially if you think you’ve got her sussed. Depths of honesty and autobiography are revealed in this show which makes it one of her very best, I think. I am glad to say that I saw my only comedy gig of the year at The Stand in Edinburgh, one of the greatest venues in the world.

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I saw two plays in 2014. Do they count at gigs? They are live entertainment. One was Daytona at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in London’s busy West End, courtesy of my friend Harry Shearer, who’s in it. As a very infrequent theatregoer – mainly due to price – I must say I love every minute of any play. Daytona, written by Oliver Cotton, who also stars in it, is set in Brooklyn in 1986 and, through two estranged brothers (wayward visitor Cotton and Shearer, who’s happily married to ballroom-dancing Maureen Lipman), it examines Jewishness down the ages, from the Holocaust to that which exercises modern Jewry. Having met Harry through 6 Music and relaxed into his company ever since, it was a joy to see him act, which is what he does, in such exalted company, and in such an unfamiliar milieu.

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As I always say, I see too little theatre to judge with precision, but I know I enjoyed watching these three superb actors lead me through a story whose outcome was unknown to me.

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Later in the year, we paid good money to see Ballyturk at the National Theatre, inspired to do so, I must confess, by the pleasurable experience of meeting and interviewing Cillian Murphy for Radio Times in Dublin, by which time he had already premiered his longtime confidant Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk in Galway. By the time it arrived in London, we’d purchased tickets, in a moment of fiscal madness. Acting alongside the physically committed Mikel Murfi and – in an extended cameo – the great Stephen Rea, Murphy was a revelation to those of us who’d only seen him onscreen, in films or Peaky Blinders. This is a hard play to pin down, but it seemed to be part hallucination, part something else, set to the great tunes of 80s pop (Living On The Ceiling, The Look Of Love etc.), and set inside the mentally suspect head of one of the two characters, who may have been part of the same head. Murphy’s voice was ragged by the time we saw him (and for which Mike Leigh and Karl Johnson the actor were in separate attendance), but this screechy imperfection added to the dislocated verve of the piece.

That’s it for gigs. I like to see people performing, live, in front of me, but I see this less than I’d like, in a world where money is very much an object.

Into the Valley

TA156HVjAs I type, we’re mere hours away from the final part of Happy Valley on BBC1, brutal and brilliant and one of the landmark dramas of the TV year so far, and featured heavily in this week’s Telly Addict. While animated by ensuing episodes of Sally Wainwright’s fem-centric Hebden Bridge crime saga, I have been let down by the way From There To Here unfolded in its second episode, also on BBC1, and also covered this week, for balance. Plus: the 1950s-Dublin-set Quirke, also on BBC1, which I’m loving, so I am, and Imagine: Philip Roth Unleashed on BBC2, a rare treat for those of us who’ve only read Portnoy’s Complaint. For fun, I cover Four Rooms on C4, which returned for its fourth series and is basically a posh Cash In The Attic, but no less fun for that. Happy Valley! Happy Valley! Happy Valley!

Peat and quiet

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I demand silence from a cinema audience. Within reason, of course. But I despise the rustling of sweet wrappers or crisp bags, don’t get me started on popcorn, and I think talking goes without saying: it’s the original sin. Bravo, then, for Silence. A languid, organic hybrid of drama and documentary from Harvest Films, its very title warns off the noisy and the disrespectful. Even the briefest synopsis supports your first impression: it’s about a sound recordist who returns to the northwest coast of Ireland to capture the sound of silence ie. that of nature unmolested by man-made noise. Do not enter the cinema if you think your stomach may rumble, or that you may nod off and snuffle. It’s quiet. Maybe too quiet.

Co-written and directed by Pat Collins (a documentarian by trade), Silence is not action-packed, nor punctuated with pithy quips. Eoghan MacGiolla Bhríde seems to play himself, an Irish soundman based in Berlin who gets a job that takes him back to the homeland, there to revisit his own past on the remote fishing island with the unfortunate name of Tory. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a hymn to the natural beauty of Ireland, in particular County Donegal, although it begins in County Galway, which happens to be the county I’m most familiar with, and which, to be childish, is my favourite. (I fell in love with Ireland the moment I stepped foot in it, and have returned there most years over the last 20 to sup from its fountain of weatherbeaten zen. This film called me back. I have never even been to Donegal, even though I have displaced relatives by marriage who hail from there and was speaking to one of them only two weeks ago.)

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Silence stands in awe of the landscape, fumbling towards capturing and bottling it, and often places the quietly-spoken, unassuming Eoghan – a dead spit for John Lynch – tiny in the frame. Pat Collins, a native of Cork, understands the relative relationship between man and earth. It’s God’s country; we just live in it. Eoghan’s occasional conversations with locals – who I’m assuming are real people, perhaps nudged into covering certain topics by Eoghan, who co-wrote the film – reveal not just the protagonist’s poetic soul, along with his almost pained sense of longing, but also poetry in the most casual of observer. This may be a comment on the literary soul of Ireland, where everyone’s a taproom poet; even a pub landlord talks about the folk memory of starlings, and a beardy man who gives Eoghan a room for the night comments, “Whenever you sing a song, the first note comes out of silence.”

A bear-like local who approaches our man while he sets up his big furry mic somewhere in the wilds of Connemara, asks what he’s doing. Eoghan explains his brief: to escape man-made sound. “But you’re here?” he comments, not unreasonably. “I keep very quiet,” replies Eoghan, softly. It’s a lovely exchange that gets a quiet laugh (or it did when I saw Silence in a hushed matinee with nine other noiseless people yesterday), but also highlights the self-defeating nature of the quest. How does a man make anything without the man-made?

As he nears his heart of darkness – or at least, the house on Tory that he abandoned to the elements (“grass and nettles and briars”) 15 years ago – the conversations are no longer in English, but Gaelic, with subtitles. It’s easy on the ear, the Irish language, but you don’t hear it enough, and the subtitling has been artfully done with a real instinct for the way the Irish phrase things. A lovely chat between Eoghan and an old feller on Tory about the sound of the corncrakes is especially sympathetic: the birds are described as “being here in strength”, which I can hear the man saying.

With Irish folk songs cropping up regularly (an old reel-to-reel recording begins the film), there is a musicality to the natural soundtrack too, with much birdsong, and rustling of reeds against the Atlantic wind. Dialogue comes at far apart intervals, and the story, as much as it is, unfolds at its own pace, with no conventional “reveals” or resolution. Black and white archive footage adds depth – including a disturbing sequence in which men and women on a boat seem to deliberately drown a dog (this is old footage, so we can be sure no animals were harmed in the actual making of Silence) – and a longer scene in what must be a real museum on the island of Inishbofin is literally wallpapered with local history.

I could watch this film again, right now. It’s restful and evocative and lyrical and gives you room to think. I wondered if my mind might wander, but it only strayed as far as Ireland itself, and made me want to go there – although it’ll be too esoteric and slow and lacking in footage of pub bands playing for Americans in green felt top hats for Tourism Ireland. In many ways it’s a “keep out” sign.

Here’s something I don’t normally do, but John Brennan and Éamon Little clearly deserve a credit for their delicate and intelligent work on the sound of Silence. Fans of recording equipment will get something extra from the film, as we often see devices being set up, and, as with The Conversation, a touchstone for all films about sound, it wouldn’t work if the sound wasn’t conveyed properly. I enjoyed the moment, early on, when Eoghan opens and closes a window repeatedly, muffling then unmuffling the sound of the street below. It is a sort of meta-sonic joke: now you hear it, now you don’t.

It won’t be showing at your local Odeon, I suspect, but if you’re lucky enough to catch it at a smaller cinema, do so. Just eat beforehand.

“… And the last note, when you finish a song, falls back into silence again.”

How now, Brown, how?

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I take the plunge this week on Telly Addict by watching a whole episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys on BBC1, the most successful sitcom on British television, just in time for its third hit series to end; also, back to Utopia on C4, which I can’t stop thinking about, or reviewing; and two recommendations from the Freeview universe: the second season of Suits, on Dave, and the fourth of The Good Wife on More4, both slick, glamorous, fast-talking US legal dramas, as it happens. Oh, and a definitive “Now, If You’ll Excuse Me, Inspector” from Ripper Street on BBC1.