You sexy thing

 

From fatterolder.wordpress.com

 

When I saw the headlines a day ago about ‘Prince’ being ‘dead’, my first thought was that the 67-year-old Prince Charles had popped his clogs.  And he’d done so with impeccable timing.  Expiring on April 21st was the perfect way to upstage the celebrations going on in the UK for his mother’s 90th birthday.

 

Alas, the dead person in question turned out to be Prince Rogers Nelson, i.e., the singer and musician Prince; who for a time used the moniker ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’ and who was sometimes represented by this squiggly symbol, half-tomahawk and half-bugle:

 

From www.wikipedia.org

 

People around the world have reacted to news of his death with shock, but personally I’m not surprised that Prince has passed away.  The wee man just didn’t seem to sleep, which can’t have been good for him.  Rather, he spent 24 hours a day living life to its creative full.  And then some.

 

By this year he’d composed and recorded enough songs to fill nearly 40 albums, and I’m sure he’s left vaults crammed with enough unreleased material to keep a posthumous Prince-albums industry going for decades to come.  And he played most of the music on his songs – it’s said he had mastery of 27 musical instruments.  And he produced records.  And when he wasn’t toiling in the studio, he was on the road, doing 28 tours in 37 years, playing gigs that lasted for hours at huge venues like London’s O2 Arena and huge events like the American Superbowl (where his 2007 half-time gig was hailed as the best ever) but also in tiny late-night clubs and bars.  And he was writing his memoirs, and doing the odd bit of acting and directing, and chapping on doors on behalf of his local branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and funding public libraries in black neighbourhoods, and partying, and, ahem, possibly indulging in some heavy duty love-action with the ladies – such as Vanity, Sheila E, Kim Basinger, Madonna and Sherilyn Fenn from Twin Peaks.

 

Yes, in human years, he was only 57 when he died.  But in Prince years, he must have been well into his nineties.

 

(c) Paisley Park Records / Warner Brothers

 

It seems unlikely that someone with my musical tastes and outlook on life could get into Prince’s funky, soul-infused brand of psychedelic pop music in the 1980s, but that was the pint-sized Minneapolitan’s charm – he could appeal even to people like me, whose idea of bliss was to sit in a darkened room with a crate of Newcastle Brown Ale listening to Happy When It Rains by the Jesus and Mary Chain.

 

And I did get into him for a time.  He was responsible for great albums like Purple Rain (1984), Around the World in a Day (1985) and Parade (1986) and great songs like Let’s Go Crazy, Pop Life, Raspberry Beret and Kiss.  In 1987, he reached his high-water mark with the release of the double album Sign o’ the Times, whose title song is one of his best – it remains splendid despite the fact that Simple Minds did a cover version of it.  The album also featured the salacious If I was your Girlfriend, the belting Housequake and the rocking U Got the Look, which is splendid too despite the fact that Sheena Easton sings on it.  Thinking about it now, Prince did well in the late 1980s to survive this conspiracy by duff musical acts from Glasgow to ruin his reputation.

 

It couldn’t last, of course.  Lovesexy (1988) and Graffiti Bridge (1990) suggested that things were getting wobbly, though I really like Thieves in the Temple and Melody Cool from that latter album.  And in between the two, in 1989, he released the Batman soundtrack album, which was, frankly, pants.  No wonder that in Shaun of the Dead (2004), while they’re rifling through his vinyl record collection in search of some anti-zombie ammunition, Simon Pegg gives Nick Frost permission to chuck a copy of Batman at an advancing ghoul.

 

(c) Working Title / Universal Pictures

 

Thereafter, Prince never stopped churning the records out and I kept buying them: Diamonds and Pearls (1991), The Black Album (1994), The Gold Experience (1995), etc.  It seemed I couldn’t avoid buying them, as there were so many of the bloody things and they turned up everywhere, including at the second-hand music shops and record fairs where I did so much of my musical shopping.  Their quality was variable, but there was always something on them that I liked – for example, Pussy Control on The Gold Experience, a song so lewd I suspect even AC/DC would have turned it down on grounds of taste.

 

When someone dies, we’re usually urged not to dwell on the sad fact of the person’s death but to celebrate their life instead.  And that’s actually easy to do with Prince, because he lived such a hectic, endlessly-creative and no-second-wasted life.

 

He talked the talk and he walked the walk.  Which is important when your songs are mainly about bonking.

 

Who is the Macbeth-est of them all?

 

(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television

 

In response to some big anniversary celebrations going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, I have just succumbed to the urge to watch a movie about regicide.

 

No, the celebrations that made me do this weren’t those marking Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, which has predictably caused epic levels of shameless bowing and scraping, toadying, grovelling and brown-nosing in the British media.  To give just one of many examples, the Daily Mail’s Chris Deerin tweeted a photo of the Queen posing with various grandkids and great-grandkids accompanied by the message: “It’s all about a family.  That’s why it works.  It’s beautiful.”  Oh, pass the sick-bag.

 

I’m actually referring to the festivities marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on April 23rd.  And the film I have just watched is the Justin Kurzel-directed version of Macbeth, released a year ago and starring Michael Fassbender as the king-stabbing, crown-grabbing title character.  It’s left me with mixed emotions.

 

On the negative side, the drama feels subdued at times, thanks to the amount of low-volume muttering and mumbling going on that rather takes the fire out of Shakespeare’s lines.  I suspect the reason why the cast, which includes Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as Macduff and Jack Reynor as Malcolm, downplay things is because the main actors are Irish, French and English and they don’t feel terribly comfortable doing the required Scottish accents.  The film contains a couple of hardy old Scottish character actors as well, David Hayman and Maurice Roëves; but, playing Lennox and Menteith respectively, they’re well down the cast-list.

 

There’s also much that’s been chopped out of this version of the Scottish play.  It runs for an hour and fifty minutes, which is forty minutes less than the stage production scheduled for the Globe Theatre in London this summer.  Out goes the post-regicide comedy relief with the porter; and most of the “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” hijinks with the witches.  There’s no murder scene in Macduff’s castle, which deprives us of the first murderer’s cry of “What, you egg!” followed by the pun, “Young fry of treachery!”  There’s no sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, though she gets to utter her “Out, damned spot” line elsewhere.   And I don’t recall hearing Macbeth intone Act 3 Scene 2’s “Light thickens and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood. / Good things of day begin to droop and drowse / Whiles night’s black agents to their prey do rouse,” though maybe it was just buried low in the mix.

 

On the other hand, the film looks lovely – and that’s in spite of the post-Braveheart quantities of dirt, mud, blood, woad, facial hair and scar tissue on view.  I’m sure Visit Scotland won’t complain about the free advertisement that this Macbeth provides for the Isle of Skye, where many of its outdoor scenes were shot.  Mind you, a good part of it was also filmed in England, at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.

 

(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television

 

And the final sequence, where Macbeth squares up to Macduff, is stunning.  Their swordfight takes place against an infernal and almost hallucinogenic orange-red backdrop while Birnam Wood burns off-screen.  For yes, the scriptwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso have cooked up – and ‘cook’ is the operative word – a novel way of bringing Birnam Wood to the castle on Dunsinane Hill.

 

One element that Kurzel and his writer add to this Macbeth, as opposed to cut out of it, creates an interesting motif.  They preface the drama with a scene where Macbeth and his wife bid adieu to their only child, whose body is laid out on a funeral pyre.  Their subsequent childlessness is contrasted with the situation of Banquo, who has a son, Fleance; and that of Macduff, who has a brood of kids.  (The little Macduffs aren’t put to the sword by anonymous assassins, as in the play, but are tied to stakes on a beach and set alight by Macbeth himself.)  Even the witches here have a couple of offspring — one of them is nursing a baby and there’s a little girl-witch who turns up to help Fleance escape when his father gets murdered.

 

Indeed, the childlessness / fecundity ironies come thick and fast.  We see Macbeth press a dagger against his wife’s womb at one point and inflict a nasty-looking crotch wound on Macduff at another.  And when Duncan fatefully arrives at the Macbeths’ place to stay for the night, his hosts lay on a choir of little children for his entertainment.  Though it has to be said that Duncan and his entourage watch the show with as much enthusiasm as parents having to sit through a primary-school nativity play.  No wonder Duncan’s bodyguards get so drunk afterwards.

 

(c) Caliban Films / Playboy Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Maybe my real issue with Justin Kurzel’s new Macbeth is simply that I kept expecting Fassbender and Cotillard to suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke and be replaced by Jon Finch and Francesca Annis – who were the stars of Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth back in 1970, a movie that made a big impression on me.  I was 16 when I saw it, so no doubt one reason why I took to it was because the film’s qualities – its simultaneous bleakness, bloodiness, bawdiness, gothic-ness, gorgeousness, rebelliousness and sophistication – mirrored the mix of emotions and hormones seething in my teenaged head and body at the time.  And also, at 16, I probably felt a connection with the film because Finch and Annis were both so young when they made it.  In fact, their youthfulness suggests they have little power to control their destinies.  They’re swept along with events, propelled by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth was disliked by many critics who were upset by its violence and were disturbed by the fact that Polanski’s recent past had been pretty violent too.  In August 1969, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were butchered at his home in Beverly Hills by followers of the hippie-cult lunatic Charles Manson.  Pauline Kael, the film critic for the New Yorker, even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murders of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had authored in his own life.  Famously, the film’s screenwriter, Kenneth Tynan, challenged Polanski about the amount of blood shown in this scene – to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

One other cinematic Macbeth I know is the 1948 production directed by, and starring, Orson Welles.  I watched this on TV a long time ago and wasn’t impressed by its apparent staginess and melodramatics – by then I was in thrall to the Polanski version.  However, lately, I’ve watched a few parts of it on Youtube and revised my opinion of it somewhat.  Yes, it’s cheap.  Welles made it for Republic Pictures, a studio that normally specialised in low-budget westerns, had to shoot it on some of Republic’s leftover western sets and had only a 23-day shooting schedule.  But scenes like Act 3 Scene 4, where Banquo’s ghost shows up at the feast with ‘no speculation’ in his eyes and shaking his ‘gory locks’ at his killer, are surprisingly well-staged.  Though I suppose you’d expect that from Welles.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9BUg7WG2Z4

 

There are problems, however.  Though he was only 33 at the time, Welles was already getting portly and resembled Falstaff more than Macbeth; and it doesn’t help that he appears in an eccentric costume that, he grumbled later, made him look like the Statue of Liberty.

 

(c) Republic Pictures / Mercury Productions

 

And then there are the accents – dear God.  Welles’s American cast dial the fake twee Scottish-ness up to 11 and roll their ‘r’s for minutes at a time.  Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth gets shrill and hard to listen to and even Welles himself, during his more excitable moments, ends up sounding like Scottie in Star Trek.  Meanwhile, the witches’ accents are so piercing that they remind me of Molly Weir in those advertisements that she used to make for Flash, the household cleaning agent, back in the 1970s: “Flash cleans baths without scr-r-r-r-ratching.”

 

So all respect to Orson Welles and Justin Kurzel.  But at the end of the day, it’s Polanski’s Macbeth that’s the Macbeth for me.

 

Nessie found!

 

(c) Compton Films / United Artists

 

The Loch Ness Monster has returned.  I’d been getting worried about this particular monster – Nessie as she’s popularly known.  She’d been out of circulation for some time and I was starting to think something had happened to her.

 

In fact, the last time she got any coverage in the media, it wasn’t even because she’d been sighted in her native habitat of Loch Ness in Scotland.  Rather, in 2012, she surfaced in the pages of a new textbook distributed among Christian schools in the southern US state of Louisiana by an outfit called the Accelerated Christian Education programme.  Though the schools involved were private ones, they’d been given public-school funding by the state’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal.

 

Nessie is commonly believed to be a plesiosaur, making her a leftover giant reptile from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.  And the textbook claimed Nessie’s existence was proof that dinosaurs have lived on earth at the same time as humans, that Charles Darwin had got his timelines mixed up and that his theory of evolution was wrong – with the (not necessarily logical) consequence that the Bible’s account of creation of life on earth was right.  In other words, Nessie proves that God did it.

 

http://www.scotsman.com/news/odd/loch-ness-monster-cited-by-us-schools-as-evidence-that-evolution-is-myth-1-2373903

 

Now I don’t want to argue with the finest scientific minds that the American Republican / religious right has to offer – you know, like Sarah Palin.  But there is a flaw in using Nessie to support an argument of this sort.  It’s unlikely that a small, cold-watered loch, one only about 10,000 years old, could be big enough or warm enough to support a breeding population of huge cold-blooded reptiles whose last appearance in the fossil records dates back more than 66 million years ago.  Or to put it more bluntly: Nessie doesn’t actually exist.

 

I can imagine Sarah Palin reading this – that’s assuming she is able to read – and squawking in goggle-eyed astonishment: “Whaa-aat?  You mean the Loch Ness Monster isn’t real?!”

 

Anyhow, last week, I was startled to see headlines declaring that Nessie finally had been discovered in Loch Ness.  For a giddy moment I wondered if plesiosaurs did still exist and if Charles Darwin and his evolution theory had been wrong all along, while the Bible and the American religious right’s pseudoscientists had been right all along.

 

(c) Compton Films / United Artists

 

But no, it turned out that the ‘Nessie’ referred to in those headlines was actually a 30-foot-long monster-shaped prop built by special effects man Wally Veevers for the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes back in 1970.  The prop sank into the loch’s waters while the movie was being shot there.  It’s said that director Billy Wilder took a dislike to two humps on the prop’s back and insisted on having them removed, which had the effect of fatally jeopardising its buoyancy.  So down it went.  The fake monster, minus its humps but with a long, plesiosaur-like neck, has now been found on the loch’s bed by an underwater robot operated by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-36024638

 

If you’ve never seen The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, you might be wondering what the Loch Ness Monster was doing in a movie about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.  Well, her presence in it may sound incongruous, but as the film is such a glorious hodgepodge of elements – by turns sublime, ridiculous, humorous, bizarre, romantic and melancholic – Nessie fits into it quite nicely.  The film has Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, played by Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, investigate a case that takes them to Loch Ness.  There, in a steampunk twist, it transpires that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes, played by Christopher Lee, is busy testing a prototype military submarine on behalf of Britain’s secret service.  In a Scooby Doo-style attempt to keep the project secret, the submarine is disguised as Nessie.  It sports a monstrous neck and head to make sure the fearful locals keep their distance.

 

The writer, actor and comic performer Mark Gatiss has written fondly about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, saying of Wilder and his scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond that they “gently take the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way that you can only do with something that you really adore.”  He’s also cited it as an influence on Sherlock, the popular modern-day reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories that he and Stephen Moffat have helmed for the BBC since 2010.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/nov/07/mark-gatiss-sherlock-holmes

 

Indeed, in the TV series, Gatiss plays Mycroft Holmes to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock; and his portrayal of Holmes’s older and possibly smarter brother clearly owes something to Christopher Lee’s performance in the 1970 film.  Though both Gatiss and Lee, tall, sleek and lean, are far removed from the Mycroft Holmes of Conan Doyle’s fiction.  In the story The Greek Interpreter, for example, he’s described as “absolutely corpulent” with “a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal.”  And while both Lee’s Mycroft and Gatiss’s Mycroft are depicted as sinister, high-up operatives in British intelligence, the literary Mycroft was apparently something of a layabout.  Holmes dismissed him as having “no ambition and no energy”, content to hang out in a dubious institution called the Diogenes Club, which accommodated “the most unsociable and unclubable men in town.”

 

(c) Compton Films / United Artists

 

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is also, possibly, the first movie to suggest that something homoerotic is going on between Holmes and Watson – an idea that Sherlock-the-TV-show has had fun playing with.  But it gives Holmes some heterosexual romance too.  It shows him falling for a woman called Gabrielle Valladon, played by Geneviève Page, who gets him involved in the case and who later turns out to be a German spy.  The film ends on a mournful note when Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft informing him that Gabrielle has been executed by a firing squad.

 

Another thing that makes me feel a bit sad watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the knowledge that both Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, splendid in the lead roles, suffered misfortunes that stopped them reaching the heights of stardom they deserved.  Stephens already had an impressive cinematic and theatrical CV when he made the film and was even touted as the successor to Sir Laurence Olivier.  Later, however, the break-up of his marriage (to Maggie Smith) and alcoholism took their toll on his career.  He got his mojo back in the early 1990s with roles in heavyweight theatrical productions of Henry IV, Julius Caesar and King Lear; but he died in 1995, less than a year after being knighted.  Meanwhile, Northern Irish character actor Colin Blakely seemed ubiquitous on TV when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, but he died in 1987, in his mid-fifties, from leukaemia.

 

Anyway, here’s a photo of that rediscovered Nessie from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.  Take a good look at it, all you American right-wing religious nut-jobs out there.  It’s the only monster you’re ever likely to see in Loch Ness.

 

(c) BBC

 

Dr Dee’s in the house

 

 

It’s a chilly afternoon in February and I’m wandering through a London neighbourhood north of Great Portland Street tube station, in search of the Royal College of Physicians.  Not only is the RCP the oldest medical college in England, but it’s also England’s oldest named museum.  The college’s history as a museum dates back to 1656 when William Harvey, the first man to describe the systemic circulation of blood, donated his library and collection to it.

 

Finally, on the edge of Regent Park, I encounter this imposing and historical-looking statue.  I sense that I’m close to the college; which, presumably, is housed in a similarly imposing and historical-looking building.

 

 

It turns out that I am close to the RCP, but I’m surprised to find that this glass-and-concrete, big-box-on-top-of-a-small-box structure serves as its headquarters.  The current RCP building was opened in 1964.  It was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun, the uncompromisingly modernist architect responsible for the campus of my one-time alma mater, the University of East Anglia, and for the National Theatre building on London’s South Bank.  In 2001, the year of Lasdun’s death, Prince Charles remarked that the latter building was “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.”

 

 

Lasdun’s RCP building, with its brutalist lines and angles, is not where I expected to find an exhibition devoted to the sixteenth-century mathematician, astronomer, bibliophile, cartographer, numerologist, alchemist, astrologer, teacher, traveller, ancient historian, amateur physician, royal advisor and reputed occultist Dr John Dee.  Mind you, when Dee was in his early twenties, he lectured at the University of Paris about the geometry of Euclid; and as a geometer he might’ve admired the starkness of Lasdun’s lines and angles.

 

Like many a learned man from the medieval and Renaissance eras, Dr John Dee got a bad rap.  Because in spite of being a brilliant scholar and scientist, he ended up with a reputation for being a magician.  In fact, thanks to popular culture, he’s regarded these days as a black-magic badass – so badass that he’s been namechecked in songs by Iron Maiden and the Blue Oyster Cult.  No doubt he’d be dismayed to know it, but poor old Dee is now in the pantheon of occult greats, alongside the usual suspects: Nostradamus, Robert Fluud, Helena Blavatsky, Grigori Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner and Anton LaVey.  (And possibly Jimmy Page.)

 

 

In Dee’s time, the majority of people were uneducated and to them magic seemed indistinguishable from science.  It was probably inevitable that he got the reputation he did.  And actually, for the educated elite, the situation wasn’t that different – for back then the likes of astrology and alchemy were viewed as legitimate sciences.  Insatiably curious about all strands of knowledge and inquiry, Dee naturally applied himself to areas we now see as pseudo-scientific or mystical; as much as he did to areas still seen as properly scientific.

 

Also, as an unquestioning Christian – and Christians were unquestioning in the 16th century – Dee wouldn’t just have believed in God.  He’d have accepted the whole belief system of Christianity, about an afterlife, the soul, angels, demons, miracles, etc.  No wonder Dee spent as much time poring over cabalistic angel magic or peering into crystals trying to communicate with the spirit world as he did writing treatises on the geometry of triangles or giving navigational advice to mariners wanting to travel to the New World.

 

Still, it probably didn’t help Dee’s reputation that the privy council of Queen Mary I had him arrested on charges of witchcraft.  When Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne, however, the establishment’s view of Dee changed.  He became a courtier and was so trusted that he was allowed to give the first Queen Elizabeth advice on her health.

 

What I like most about Dee was his love for books and the fact that, for a time, he owned a library of 3000 books and 1000 manuscripts.  Late in his life, he wrote, “The divers bookes of my late library, printed and anciently written, bound and unbound, were in all neere 4000… of my getting together… from divers places beyond the seas, and some by my great search and labour gotten here in England.”

 

 

I can imagine the anguish that Dee felt when, after journeying in Europe in the 1580s, he returned home and discovered that his library had been decimated.  He’d entrusted its keeping to his brother-in-law, Nicholas Fromond, who’d promptly started selling it off.  A number of his books ended up in the library of Henry Pierrepont, the Marquess of Dorchester, which was donated to the RCP after Pierrepont’s death in 1680.  Presumably it’s those items from Dee’s once-massive collection that form the core of the exhibition today.  (Some even bear Dee’s annotations on their page-margins.)

 

As well as showing the books, the RCP exhibition tells Dee’s story with a series of information-panels, timelines and pictures.  The sober tone of the written information is at odds with the pictures, which are the work of artists and illustrators more interested in the idea of Dee as a magician than in the idea of him as a scientist and book-lover.  Hence, you see the famous drawing – atmospheric but wildly sensationalist – of Dee and his long-time associate Edward Kelley raising the spirit of a dead woman in a nocturnal churchyard.

 

 

You also see Henry Gillard Glindoni’s painting of Dee performing a magic ritual in front of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I.  Recently, it was reported that x-rays of Glindoni’s painting have found a circle of human skulls around Dee, which were depicted on the original work but were then painted over.  Possibly Glindoni covered the skulls at the request of a squeamish Victorian customer. 

 

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/17/john-dee-painting-circle-of-human-skulls-exhibition

 

Dee’s books are fascinating to look at but inevitably, during my visit, it was a section near the exhibition’s end that attracted the most attention and the most taking of photographs.  On display here are some of the more esoteric items associated with the learned doctor.  For example, there’s Dee’s ‘magic mirror’, through which he allegedly ‘called his spirits’ – though evidence that the mirror, which was acquired by the historian, antiquarian and gothic author Horace Walpole in 1771, really belonged to Dee is thin on the ground.  Then there’s his magical disc, used to attempt to communicate with angels.  This “Is engraved with the ‘Vision of the Four Castles’, seen by Dee’s medium Edward Kelley on Wednesday 20 June 1584 while travelling through Poland with Dee.”  Also used for contacting angels is a crystal ball, although again it isn’t certain that this was once in Dee’s possession.

 

 

The bulk of the exhibition is located on the RCP’s first floor, though it continues to the second floor too.  And upstairs you’ll find a section entitled The Afterlife of John Dee, dealing with his legacy in popular culture.  Indeed, barely were Dee’s remains in the ground – he died in 1609 – when William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest (1610-11), which may well have drawn on Dee as inspiration for the character of Prospero.  Among the other artistic works with a Dee influence that are shown here are Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic-book series (1989-1996) and Damon Albarn’s 2012 rock opera Dr Dee: An English Opera.  I was surprised, though, that Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee (1993), the novel that first introduced me to the man, wasn’t featured.

 

 

Neither did I see any mention of the two pieces of Dee-related literary trivia that I find most fascinating.  Firstly, in H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories about Cthulhu and the Elder Gods, Dee has the dubious honour of being the person who translated into English the Necronomicon, the fabled and fearsome grimoire that informs the whole mythos.  Secondly, it’s been claimed that Ian Fleming got the idea for using 007 as James Bond’s code number from Dee, who wrote the same three numbers on correspondence meant only for the perusal of Queen Elizabeth I: 007 signified ‘for your eyes only’.  That makes Dee the missing link between H.P. Lovecraft and Ian Fleming.  What a star!

 

But Dee, I imagine, would have preferred to be remembered as a star of science, learning and books.  The exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians goes some way to celebrating his role in those things whilst reclaiming his reputation from the world of the occult and supernatural.  It continues until July 29th.

 

Algiers of a clown

 

 

Late last summer I had an opportunity to make a second visit to Algiers in northern Africa.  The first time I’d been there was early in 2014.  Several things seemed to have changed there during the 16 months between my visits.  One change was that on Fridays – the holiest day in the Islamic week – more places were open and more things were happening.  Back in 2014, Algiers on a Friday had been a quiet city indeed.

 

One Friday morning, for instance, I wandered into the city-centre end of Rue Didouche and found it bustling with people, especially kids.  It had been closed off to traffic and a series of activity-areas had been set up along it.  From what I could see, these were designed to get children interested and involved in different sports and pastimes.  There was a giant chess-set in the middle of the road, with tables arranged on either side where folk were playing chess on normal-sized sets.  There was also a makeshift open-air gym, mini-basketball and badminton courts, a small go-karting track, a small archery range and even a little arena where two masked youngsters were fencing.  And for the more sedentary, there was a place where kids could just stand and throw darts at a dartboard.

 

 

Just as I’d taken all this in…  Behind me, I heard several brass instruments tooting and parping and I turned around assuming that a brass band was approaching along Rue Didouche.  But it turned out that the music came from some trumpet and trombone-players who were accompanying a parade of clowns.

 

Yes, clowns.  With baggy shirts and dungarees, patchwork-patterned jackets, stripy socks, super-long shoes, bulging-toed boots, giant bowties, joke flowers, bowler hats, tapering bobble-hats, polka-dotted top hats, white face-paint and bulbous red noses.  Now I hadn’t expected to see this in Algiers, not on Friday nor any other day.

 

 

I suppose I should interpret this clownish spectacle as a welcome sign that Algeria – which, during its civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s saw about 150,000 people killed by Islamist groups and government forces – is returning to normal.  Slowly, the country is recovering from that trauma.  No longer are its citizens haunted by so many nightmares from that decade of conflict, turmoil and slaughter.

 

Instead, they can have nightmares the same as the rest of humanity.  About clowns.

 

 

The last Ronnie

 

(c) BBC

 

The death the other day of the diminutive comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett dominated Britain’s TV news broadcasts, which prompted one truculent commentator to complain on Twitter about the media’s ongoing trivialisation of current affairs.  (Yes, Gerry Hassan, I’m looking at you.)

 

Well, I’m as against the trivialisation of current affairs as much as the next humourless curmudgeon.  But in the case of Ronnie Corbett I’ll make an exception.  I’m glad that he dominated the news.  He deserved to.

 

By his life’s end, Ronnie Corbett occupied a unique position in the British comedy world.  He was part of the old-fashioned, golf-playing light-entertainment establishment that includes such venerable personalities as Bruce ‘Brucie’ Forsyth, Jimmy ‘Tarby’ Tarbuck and Michael ‘Parky’ Parkinson.  But he was adored by younger and more anarchic comedians too.  (Though I use those adjectives subjectively.  I’m referring to any British comedian who became famous after about 1980.  And come to think of it, some of them aren’t so young, nor so anarchic, anymore.)

 

What’s often forgotten is that Corbett and his long-term comic partner Ronnie Barker (who died in 2005) were involved with another strand of British humour, the Monty Python one.  Both men worked with John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman on The Frost Report, hosted by journalistic legend David Frost from 1966 to 1967.  And various Pythons wrote sketches for them in subsequent years.  Indeed, I’ve read that Corbett and Barker first gravitated towards one another because they felt slightly out-of-place among Frost and the Pythons, who’d all been educated at Cambridge University.  Although Corbett and Barker had grown up in big university towns, Edinburgh and Oxford respectively, neither of them had attended university.

 

(c) BBC

 

That maybe fed into The Frost Report’s most celebrated moment, the Class Sketch, which has the towering John Cleese, the average-height Barker and the tiny Corbett standing in a row, respectively representing the upper, middle and working classes.  The three of them extol the advantages and disadvantages of their social positions, whilst physically reinforcing what they say by turning to look down on, or up at, their neighbours.  Of course, Cleese has all the advantages and does all the looking down; whereas Corbett is confined to delivering the regular punchline: “I know my place.”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VxkltwS9g0

 

Corbett and Barker revived the sketch for the BBC’s Millennium Show in 2000, with Stephen Fry standing in for Cleese.  It sounded like it was going to be pants, but given a charming historical twist – now Fry is Modern Man, Barker is Renaissance Man and Corbett is Medieval Man – it works rather nicely.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JSahEDRjvw

 

It was in the 1970s and 1980s that Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker made waves, with their comedy sketch show The Two Ronnies becoming a mainstay of the BBC’s Saturday-night schedule – a schedule already packed with massively popular shows like Doctor Who, The Generation Game and Match of the Day.  Okay, it also included Jim’ll Fix It, but let’s not talk about that just now.

 

Though The Two Ronnies sometimes got astronomical ratings – 17 million on one occasion – the duo never received the critical acclaim they deserved.  The critics of the time seemed to consider them a tad too bland and showbizy in comparison with the era’s other big TV comedy double-act, the more character-based and idiosyncratic Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.  It wasn’t until 1987, when the show was shelved because of Barker’s failing health, that, belatedly, people realised how good it’d been.

 

While Morecambe and Wise had fixed personas – Morecambe was the anarchic buffoon and Wise the harassed straight man – the Ronnies were malleable.  Both men could play funny or straight and during those 16 years they essayed many different characters.  And like another Saturday-night BBC staple, Doctor Who, I think I appreciated The Two Ronnies so much because it was, at heart, a writers’ show.  Among The Two Ronnies’ writing talent were Cleese, Idle, Palin, Jones, John Sullivan, Barry Cryer, David Renwick, the brilliant but deranged Spike Milligan, and David Nobbs, author of the sublime and subversive sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

 

Because they didn’t have to create their sketches around established personalities, the writers were able to experiment – and they and their two performers had a lot of fun playing with the English language and exploiting its paradoxes and absurdities.  (They also, it has to be said, crammed in a lot of good-natured smut.)

 

(c) BBC

 

The most famous example of Two Ronnies-style wordplay was the Four Candles sketch, which was written by Ronnie Barker.  (Nobly, Barker kept his writing identity secret and submitted scripts to the show under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley, wanting his work to be considered by its own merits and not by who he was.)  Four Candles has the proprietor of a hardware store – though for joke purposes it also sells peas – being driven mad by a series of misunderstandings with a near-monosyllabic customer.  It revels in the peculiarities of English pronunciation and their potential for misinterpretation: for example, H-dropping (‘o’s’ mistaken for ‘hoes’), homophones (‘p’s’ mistaken for ‘peas’) and juncture (‘fork handles’ mistaken for the titular ‘four candles’).

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cz2-ukrd2VQ

 

Also clever was the Mastermind sketch, a piss-take of the BBC’s relentlessly-interrogative quiz show.  Corbett plays a contestant whose chosen subject is “answering the question before last each time”.  This leads to such surreal exchanges as: “What is palaeontology?”  “Yes, absolutely correct.”  “What’s the name of the directory that lists members of the peerage?”  “A study of old fossils.”  Although the cultural references (Dean Martin, Len Murray, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Bernard Manning) have dated, it’s still very amusing.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0C59pI_ypQ

 

The format of The Two Ronnies also allowed both Ronnies to perform individually.  Critical opinion once had it that Barker was the more talented of the duo, but time has proven kind to Corbett.  There’s now much admiration for the technical skill he showed during his regular solo slots when he’d sit on an armchair and tell the audience a long and rambling joke.

 

Admittedly, you’d normally see the punchlines to those jokes on the horizon, five minutes before they arrived; but their telling was glorious.  Corbett delivered masterclasses in cadence, digression, self-deprecation, innuendo, comic timing and mutual performer-audience conspiracy.  (You know that the joke’s going to be rubbish.  He knows that you know that it’s going to be rubbish.  You know that he knows that you know…  Etc.)  All came in the inimitable Corbett package of chortles and catchphrases: invariably, “Now I know what you’re thinking…” and “I was having a round of golf with the producer the other day…”

 

Come to think of it, he was probably the closest thing Britain had to a practitioner of rakugo, the venerable Japanese art of comic story-telling.

 

A decade after The Two Ronnies, and at a time when Ronnie Corbett’s profile was much lower than it’d been, Ben Elton – one-time doyen of Britain’s alternative comedians – persuaded him to dust down the armchair and appear in a regular guest-slot on 1998’s Ben Elton Show.  Prior to his first performance, Corbett was dreading how Elton’s young and racy audience would react to an old fogey like him.  But, needless to say, when he materialised onstage on the armchair and in the trademark glasses and golfing sweater, a cheer went up; and lo, a star was reborn.

 

Of course, it transpired that the younger generation loved him too – having watched The Two Ronnies as kids.  So started the Ronnie Corbett revival, which probably peaked on Christmas Day 2010 when the BBC aired a special called The One Ronnie, which had Corbett appearing in a series of sketches alongside such modish comic talent as Miranda Hart, Catherine Tate, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Harry Enfield and Rob Brydon.  Incidentally, Brydon is something of a Ronnie-obsessive: he seems to have spent half his career doing impersonations of him.

 

The same year, he appeared in the comedy-horror film Burke and Hare alongside another slew of modern comedians and comic performers, including Simon Pegg, Reece Shearsmith, Bill Bailey and Jessica Hynes.  (And the other day, both Pegg and Shearsmith showed their respects by tweeting pictures of themselves posing with him during the movie’s making.)  Directed by John Landis, Burke and Hare was set in Corbett’s native Edinburgh and had him playing the head of the city’s early-19th-century militia.  The American-but-Anglophile Landis is a big Two Ronnies fan, by the way.  He’d even wanted to cast Ronnie Barker in An American Werewolf in London back in 1982.

 

(c) BBC

 

But Corbett’s greatest late-career moment surely came in 2006, when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had him cameo in their showbiz satire Extras.  The show depicts him as an unlikely drugs fiend who entices Gervais and Merchant into a toilet cubicle backstage at the BAFTA Awards Ceremony to snort cocaine.  They’re caught by security.  The ensuing scene has the three of them lined up in front of a disgruntled security chief: “Corbett…  It’s always bloody Corbett!”  With Corbett standing next to the medium-height Gervais and the gangly Merchant (who looms over him like Chewbacca looming over R2D2), it’s reminiscent of the Class Sketch with Barker and Cleese forty years earlier.

 

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2qzdkd