Thursday, November 27, 2014

the ukulele orchestra of great britain

Ruth+I went along to Colston Hall last night to enjoy a wonderful evening of music+fun with the brilliant Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. It was the second time I’d seen them and I just love their quirky “take” on songs. Over their 29 year history, they’ve obviously established a large repertoire of favourite tunes which were duly acclaimed by the knowledgeable, enthusiastic audience (you got the firm feeling that almost everyone there had seen them before!). They're brilliant musicians and singers... and very funny. 
One of those lovely, happy evenings of live performance where you just knew you could relax – safe in the knowledge that you were in the hands of supreme professionals.
Photo: quick snap from last night’s concert.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

the imitation game

Moira and I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Morten Tyldum’s acclaimed “The Imitation Game” – the story of how the Nazis’ WW2 “unbreakable” Enigma machine codes were cracked at Bletchley Park. Actually, it’s the story of Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) – the brilliant, but troubled, fragile mathematician and cryptanalyst - who was credited for the success of what must have seemed, at times, like an impossible mission… and how, subsequently, his wartime achievements counted for nothing when his homosexuality came to light. You probably already know how the story pans out, but it’s probably best if I say no more…
I thought Cumberbatch was quite, quite magnificent. Simply stunning.
In my view, it will take an absolutely exceptional performance to prevent him from winning an Oscar.
Although I was familiar with the basic, fascinating story (and the outrageous and sad way in which the authorities in the UK used to treat homosexuals less than a generation ago), I thought the overall film was excellent too – high drama, humour and very good all round performances by all the cast (although I felt Keira Knightly was probably a bit too glamorous to play the part of Joan Clarke!).
So, accept no imitations (gosh, that’s clever isn’t it!).
As far as I’m concerned, you can forget Timothy Spall and “Mr Turner”, Benedict Cumberbatch and “The Imitation Game” is probably the best individual performance and best film I’ve seen this year!
PS: But, of course, what do I know? I’ve just checked out some reviews and they’re pretty mixed (except that there appears to be a general consensus that Cumberbatch was brilliant) – The Independent gave it 4 stars, while The Guardian and Telegraph both only gave it 3 stars.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The kingdom of dreams and madness

I went along to the Watershed yesterday evening to see this fascinating documentary (by Mami Sunada) about Studio Ghibli. Although I’d only come across Studio Ghibli fairly recently (yes, I know… I really DO need to keep up), I’d been familiar with their graphic images for some time – without actually knowing anything about their source. Studio Ghibli – just in case you didn’t know – has made several iconic animation films over the past 30 years or so (eg. “Spirited Away”, “My Neighbour Totoro” and “Porco Rosso”). This is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their Tokyo studio. It might sound like a strange subject for a feature film (rather than a TV documentary), but I found it absolutely compelling and really rather inspiring. I thought 72 year-old Miyazaki came across as a particularly interesting character – charismatic, impish, melancholic, creative, entertaining – working six days a week, 10 hours a day (he’s involved in river clearance on the seventh day!). Wonderful to watch him (and other members of his team) actually DRAWING images and storyboards. I loved that Miyazaki spent time, EVERY day, on the studio’s roof garden – and encouraged other staff to do the same – just looking at the SAME views but SEEING changes, different skies, nature, different seasons, roofscapes, people moving etc etc.  
Miyazaki announced his retirement earlier in 2014 and, as a result (in August 2014), the studio has temporarily halted other film production pending restructuring.
It might only appeal to a minority audience, but it’s an absolutely captivating and encouraging film.
Photo (left to right): Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli director), Toshio Suzuki (producer and former Studio Ghibli president) and Isao Takahata (Studio Ghibli director).

Saturday, November 01, 2014

mr turner

I went along to the Watershed yesterday lunchtime to see their first showing of Mike Leigh’s film “Mr Turner”, starring Timothy Spall in the title role (I managed to avoid queuing for the special Halloween showing of “ET” just along the corridor!!).
Joseph Mallard William Turner is certainly one of my favourite artists and so I went along with high expectations. But, I have to say, I actually found it all a little disappointing - unremarkable even. Yes, the acting was excellent, the cinematography was beautiful, the pace and the direction were perfect and the film was enjoyable, but that’s about all. Timothy Spall is always good value but, actually, his portrayal of JMW Turner was exactly as I’d imagined it would be (ok, so this means they judged the casting to perfection – but, if I told you he was playing an ageing Turner, you’d probably be able to conjure up the same image too… a rather rougher version of Lord Emsworth in “Blandings” combined with a bit of his Winston Churchill in "The King's Speech" for example?). Yes, I appreciate that he won the “Best Actor” award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in this film, but I thought it was all just a little predictable. As far as the scenes showing him painting and sketching, I found them totally unconvincing.
However, I’ve just read a couple of reviews of the film and, once again, I’m out on a limb (so what’s new?)… Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) and Robbie Collin (The Telegraph) have both given the film a five star rating… I would have only given it a three, or a four at best!
Oh dear… but, what do I know!?

Friday, October 31, 2014

more october 2014 books

more book stuff:
On Liberty (Shami Chakrabarti): Chakrabarti is one of my heroes and this is a passionate book about how our hard-won individual and collective freedoms have been eroded and are now in unprecedented danger. She highlights, amongst lots of other things, how some senior Tory figures (under what they no doubt see as pressure from UKIP) are pressing for the Human Rights Act to be abolished and for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. She makes a very powerful and compelling case pointing out why this would be SO wrong and the folly (and huge risks) of allowing politicians make up the rules just to suit themselves. It’s chilling stuff (but, hey, I was already on her side!) and underlines many of my own concerns about current politics in this country.
Norman Foster: A Life In Architecture (Deyan Sudjic): Another one of my heroes (of a different sort). Foster (born in 1935, near Manchester) comes from a working-class background and only decided on an architectural career (very much against his parents’ advice and following a conversation with a work colleague who’s son was studying architecture) after a frustrating time working in Manchester Town Hall Treasurer’s department as an office junior. After obtaining his degree at Manchester University’s School of Architecture, he studied at Yale, in the USA, for his MA (where he met Richard Rogers). Over the past 50 years or so, thanks to inspirational teachers (all keen advocates of the Modernist Movement), his ability to draw, think “outside the box”, explore and communicate ideas, Foster has become one of the leading figures in world architecture. Author Sedjic first met Foster over 40 years ago and this book provides a fascinating and detailed backdrop to Foster’s career and the people with whom he has worked. Foster now employs a staggering 1,400 people worldwide! He’s an amazing visionary with huge determination to succeed – he has a frightening intensity and attitude towards his work. As you might imagine, Foster is also VERY ambitious, incredibly competitive, egotistical and enormously inspiring. I read the book with a mixture of awe, sadness and envy (I had a successful architectural career, but maybe I should have pushed myself further?)(I obviously didn’t have Foster’s talent!)… but also an acknowledgement that my chosen path (ie. leaving the profession aged 55, after over 30 years in practice) was right for me, my family, my lifestyle and my aspirations.
Crow (Ted Hughes): This is a short book of 67 poems (mostly written during 1966-69, but not published until 1972) which provide a mythical narrative/epic folk tale (myth, animal metaphors and dark sub-conscious seem to have become increasing fascinations in his life). It’s a very strange book - sometimes funny, but frequently very dark and harrowing – and it no doubt reflects, amongst other things, Hughes’s interest in the Occult. I’m afraid I REALLY struggled with this book and found myself frequently reflecting on the fact that the book (with its harsh treatment of human relations, religion and morality) was written after his wife’s (Sylvia Plath) suicide in 1963. The book’s completion was delayed by the tragic deaths of his second wife Assia Wevill and daughter Shura (Assia Wevill committed suicide in the same way as Plath, and also killed their 4 year-old daughter) – more darkness and despair! Many people regard “The Crow” as one of Hughes’s masterpieces… I’m afraid I’m probably just not clever enough to “get it”. Sorry!
Queen Lucia (EF Benson): Only my second Benson “Lucia” book (I bought two complete volumes from the National Trust’s Lamb House, Rye – on which the fictional “Mallards”, Tilling was based and where Benson lived for a time - for a bargain £4!). The principal character is Mrs Lucas, who liked to called herself “Lucia” in her ridiculous and snobbish way, effectively rules the “toy kingdom” of Riseholme village. Written in the 1920s and beautifully observed, it’s an outrageously pretentious and excruciatingly farcical account of one-upmanship and class in a society where all the main players don’t need to work for a living. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, amusing and very readable.
Daughter (Jane Shemilt): I read this on the recommendation of my old school friend Les (partly because it’s a “good book” and because it’s partly based in Bristol). The story is every parent’s nightmare. A 15 year-old daughter fails to return home after a school play and the family is left distraught and in pieces as they try to establish what happened. Told through the eyes of the mother, it’s a haunting, tense story and one of those books you just HAVE to keep reading – it’s 400 pages long (ok, quite large font!) and I finished it within 2 days. It’s very skilfully written and I would thoroughly recommend it.
Footnote: my one slight reservation was that I thought it was probably more of a “woman’s book” (blimey, doesn’t that make me sound un-PC!). After I’d written the above, I googled “Goodread” reviews… and only found ONE “bloke review” in the first 60 reviews.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

martha tilston again…

I went along to see/hear Martha Tilston perform again at Colston Hall last night (I saw her February last year)… and she was SO good! Once again, she was on stage for nearly two hours – usually with her supporting band “The Scientists” but, for 20 minutes or so, on her own – and she completely captivated her enthusiastic “full house” audience. As well as being an excellent singer-songwriter (her voice is quite, quite beautiful), she’s also a brilliant all-round musician – as she demonstrated last night on guitar and grand piano.
Lots of passion, humour and just a hugely enjoyable evening.
Her latest album is called “The Sea” (although born in Bristol, she now lives in Cornwall) and features traditional folk songs about the sea, collected, sung and played “with family+friends, kith and kin” (each of which she performs alongside individual family members). Last night, she played these songs without the support from family members but, from what I’ve heard listening to the CD this morning, it’s really rather lovely. Among the featured family members are her father, Steve Tilston (whose music I knew well before I came across his daughter – and who, I know, my brother Alan will have come across from his Birmingham days) and her uncle, Kevin Whately (of “Lewis”/”Morse” fame etc and he’s got a great voice)!
Photo: Martha Tilston from last night’s concert.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

october 2014 books

more book stuff:
Cain (José  Saramago): As you might know, Portuguese Saramago was the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature (he died in 2010). He was an atheist and this short novel is told through the eyes of Cain as he “witnesses” various Old Testament passages from the Bible (from Adam+Eve, to killing his brother Abel, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to Mount Sinai, and eventually ending up on the Ark with Noah) that add to his increasing loathing of God - Cain even intervenes when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac. It’s thought-provoking, provocative, often witty… and challenging.
Elgar: The Erotic Variations and Delius: A Moment with Venus (Ken Russell): I bought this book on a whim at the £3 Bookshop. I enjoy biographies and knew very little about the lives of these two composers so, despite the title (and Russell’s film reputation as a director who seeks to titillate at every opportunity!), I gave it go. I should have known better. He’s made something like 15 biographical films on composers and is convinced that most of his chosen composers have a dual personality (of course he does!). In fact, the flysheet of this book reveals another two Ken Russell novels in a similar/identical vein: “Beethoven: Confidential  and Brahms: Gets Laid”!! The two novels (ie. Elgar+Delius) read rather like Russell screenplays (or what I imagine them to be like) and, frankly, I found them tedious and somewhat irritating.
The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga): This novel, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize, is our book group’s latest book. It’s set in India and tells the story of Balram Halwai – the uneducated son of a rickshaw-puller, but also a servant, a liar and a philosopher (among other things). The book’s title is the name Balram gives himself, as a budding entrepreneur (“the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation”). It’s a depressing, savage (and yet also funny and strangely noble) story about globilisation, politics, corruption, freedom, immorality… and about the poor and underprivileged who cannot even meet their bare minimums… and about wealthy businessmen, politicians and others who shamelessly exploit them. It’s an angry book which points to all that is going on in a country that has become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and bluntly asks “how can it be like this?”. I thought it was an exceptional, powerful book.
Deep River (Shusaku Endo): After various references to the Ganges in “The White Tiger” (see above), it seemed somewhat weird that my next book should also feature the sacred river – it’s funny how these coincidences KEEP happening! This novel traces the story of four Japanese tourists on a tour to India; they each to go there for different purposes and with different expectations, but each of them, in a way, finds their own spiritual discovery on the banks of the Ganges River. I suppose it’s a book about the “meaning of life” - although it certainly doesn’t attempt to give answers. It’s a wonderful, challenging book which touches on Buddhism, Christianity/Catholicism, reincarnation, faith and faithlessness – certainly more food for thought on my own rather haphazard spiritual journey.
A Life of Privilege, Mostly: A Memoir (Gardner Botsford): Another book from the £3 bookshop. I’m always attracted by biographies and, although I’d never heard of Gardner Botsford (1917-2004), I was suitably intrigued by the title of the book and the brief details outlined on its flysheet. Botsford was the editor of The New Yorker magazine for nearly 40 years and the book, published in 2003, tells of Botsford’s early life of privilege in the Depression years of the 1930s (his family of five had five live-in servants plus four other staff, a whole host of cars and enjoyed separate summer and winter residencies… as you do!); his WW2 experiences (part of the D-Day landings, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was wounded and decorated); and his fascinating career with The New Yorker. Beautifully written and observed and a mixture of tense conflict and humour.