Friday, 23 January 2015

Cucumber Banana ...Russell T Davies is back

Russell T Davies is back writing for TV. When I first heard this last year, followed by the news that he was writing a series of new gay dramas, I was excited. And luckily good old Uncle Rusty didn't disappoint.

I affectionately call him 'Uncle Rusty' we are, I should say for legal reasons, unrelated. I should be so lucky. (Lucky Lucky Lucky...see Russell I can do a good Kylie joke too) But Russell T Davies feels like my favourite TV uncle. The one who has always been around, and the one who somehow gets what my brain needs.

It's no surprise to anyone who knows me that what my brian needs is gay drama and Doctor Who. But does in fact my brain need this because that's what Russell T Davies has provided at key points in my life? That's all a bit philosophical, but I will say that Queer as Folk and Doctor Who have formed a significant chunk of my TV watching (and fangirl) life. This 'review' of sorts then comes with the disclaimer that I unashamedly love Russell T Davies and his writing.

Before looking at Cucumber it's important to pause and think of its predecessor, Queer as Folk. So much has been written about it out there, probably far more eloquantly than I'll manage. But it was so important, for both gay drama and representation and for British TV drama-it pushed boundries. In the days where channels were still limited, to have something like Queer as Folk on one of the 'main' tv channels was innovative and groundbreaking. That it showed and talked about any kind of sex at all, never mind gay sex was pushing TV into new territory. Added to that it was a programme about gay men. A vareity of gay men (and a couple of lesbians now and then) it was about young men, and teenagers and their lives were front and centre. And this when Cucumber and Banana aired last night is still rare.

For me Queer as Folk, as with a lot of Rusell T Davies' writing is so real as well. The people are so normal. They aren't glossy London people with shiny media jobs, or fancy lawyers who don't seem to do any work. In Queer as Folk Vince managed a supermarket, his workmates went to the pub after a shift and talked about Corrie. Yes Stuart had some kind of flashy advertising job, but that was part of his character. Everyone else had 'normal' jobs, lived in 'normal' houses. People talk a lot about representation (rightly) of gay characters, but for me equally important was having a variety of characters, which included, people like Vince who worked in a supermarket. Not all gay people are Stuart, or the cliches of fashion designers and actors seen in other gay characters. Gay people manage supermarkets, work in shops, work, as in cucumber in insurance or deliver the post. And that angle is what I loved.

And they don't live in London! Rejoice! You'd think looking at TV in general that people in the UK only live in London, or in small towns where murders inevitably take place. Instead Russell T Davies gives his work (Queer as Folk, Bob and Rose and now Cucumber/Banana) a Manchester home. How many teenagers, gay or otherwise wanted to run away to Manchester because of him I wonder?

All of this was marvelous, in the late 90s Queer as Folk was breaking boundaries. But it was also bloody good drama, and bloody, bloody funny too. And Cucumber/Banana doesn't disappoint. It was laugh out loud funny, and already has laid the groundwork for being incredibly touching. What it also does so well is walk a line between being a 'gay drama' and yes focusing on issues that affect the gay men, show their perspective of live as gay men, but also doesn't leave out the world around us. Already we're seeing the wider families involved and their issues and stories that aren't 'gay issues' they're just connected by these gay men. What I was also seeing in Cucumbers new 'maturity' is actually in showing how so called 'gay life' is just in fact, it's jobs and houses and promotions and debates over getting married, and relationship issues...and possibly a midlife crisis. Yes it's a drama about being gay, and yes there are issues there I can see Davies teasing out that are important-in Banana the young guy coming out to his parents (and lying about their reaction) in Cucumber actually the issue of being able to get married and how that now sits with older gay men who always assumed it was off the table. There's a lot going on under some riotous humour, and yes a fair bit of sex. And we need the sex still, we need the men snogging each others faces off and having sex because it's still so taboo and maligned and gay characters are still de-sexualised on tv.

It's a great start, 1 epsidoe of each in. And the crossover with the younger characters to the shorter 'Banana' on E4 is so far brilliantly executed. And frankly who doesn't like seeing Freddie Fox on tv? And the trailer promise some lesbian storylines (something that was missing from Queer as Folk, and still missing from TV in general) so bring on the lesbians Russell, and bring on the Cucumbers and Bananas. I can't wait.

I have to add, as a postscript, that while watching this last night a friend tweeted me joking that his diet had gone well until he ate that cucumber yesterday. So in fact, biggest laugh of the show actually went to him, for unintentional brilliant comic timing....

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Films about Scientists...The Imitation Game & A Theory of Everything

As my last blog post notes, I'm notoriously crap at seeing films. I enjoy films a great deal, I am just appalling at getting to the cinema to see them. That said this week we have (drumroll) a post about films.

There has been much chatter about the Oscars this week, and not least of the chances of two British films and their stars 'The Imitation  Game' and 'A Theory of Everything' having actually managed to both these films, and having far too many thoughts to contain in even a long line of tweets, I decided to blog about them.

In many respects these are very similar films, in terms of subject matter, production and the people involved. British (ish) films, based on non-fiction books, relatively low budget, starring (again arguably) some of the best acting talent that Britain has between them. The films themselves are about British scientists who have both changed the way we think about their fields, both defying personal obstacles to do so.

There's naturally been a lot of buzz about which of the two leading men will end up with the Oscar (of course, it could be neither I wouldn't bet against that). Both performances are of course excellent, In some ways Redmayne has an edge in illustrating his acting prowess having the bigger physical challenge of portraying Hawking-and not straying into a  caricature, which he does impeccably. Of course with Hawking also most of us have an idea of what Professor Hawking looks and sounds like. When Benedict Cumberbatch took on the role in the BBC film version ten years ago, this version stopped before the major physical changes-being wheelchair bound, facial paralysis, loss of speech, took hold. Redmayne's version goes from the able-bodied Hawking to the version we're familiar with today.  And that familiarity is an added challenge that Cumberbatch in depicting Turing doesn't have. Tragically so in fact, most people wouldn't even know what Turing looked like, never mind how he carried himself, how he spoke. Hawking on the other hand we could all describe.  To some degree Redmayne has to create two versions of Hawking also, the man before and after the illness takes hold. Because although, as the film shows wonderfully in fact, Hawking remains the same man inside (such is the tragedy of in some ways MND in fact) but Hawking and so Redmayne needs to find different ways of communicating this with the audience. It's a challenge, and the performance he gives certainly meets that challenge.

The physicality of Redmayne's performance also illustrates some of the difference between the two films. In 'A Theory of Everything' the emphasis is on showing us what we don't usually see of Stephen Hawking, the personal struggles with his illness that happened behind closed doors before his PhD was published, before his Brief History of Time and away from the public figure. In contrast everything about Turing's life was secret, from his work at Bletchley Park during the war, to his own personal battles behind the scenes, in his case with his sexuality, and eventual chemical castration. If A Theory of Everything is about showing us what we usually don't, making Hawking's physical struggles as a result of his illness clear to the audience, showing his physical suffering that we normally don't see, then 'The Imitation Game' plays an opposite hand by still keeping much hidden. We don't see Turing's relationships or sexual encounters, we also don't see the battles, the bombs or the lives saves as a result of his actions. What was hidden in history is still slightly out of sight in the film but it becomes forefront in everyone's minds.

'The Imitation Game' doesn't hit anyone over the head with the issues it deals with-war or sexuality, but it doesn't shy away from them either. We are never left under any allusion about the importance of the work at Bletchley park, we're told early on how many lives a minute are being lost, and this urgency never feels far from the surface of the film. Likewise, Turing's sexuality is noted, known and clearly a prominent part of the story. Neither the war, or Turing's sexuality exist in explicit detail on screen but they are no less powerful for it. More so in fact. Likewise Cumberbatch's performance matches the tone of the film. While Redmayne is required to 'show' everything, Cumberbatch like the film is more reserved in his performance.

Although both films are about scientists, it's fair to say that in A Theory of Everything the science takes a backseat to the narrative about Hawking personally. What I liked about The Imitation Game was that the work Turing did was placed front and centre. The war and the work Turing was doing drives the narrative, because this is the story that needs to be told. The issue of his sexuality, and the torment and eventual tragedy is secondary in the narrative not to diminish it, but in fact to give it power. Had the filmakers decided to make a film about Turning's sexuality, allowing the work to take a back seat, then they do no better than those who arrested and castrated him-disregarding the genius, the accomplishments of the man in favour of his sexuality. Instead by showing an audience just what Turing accomplished first and foremost, by illustrating just how much Britain owes him for his achievements in ending the war, and what the world at large owes him for his contribution to computer science, then does the tragedy of not only his loss but his discrimination become apparent.

I think both films are important. We don't talk about disability enough, and certainly MND (even despite the Ice Bucket challenge craze of the summer) is a little known disease. Hawking is sadly a rare case, surviving as long as he has, but still any narrative that shows disability while an obstacle may not halt a life or achievements is a good one. If I were a betting person I'd also be inclined to say this film has the edge in the Oscar race-playing a disability, and playing a loved real life character (and non-controversial one) are always a plus with the, lets face it, conservative Oscar voters. And it's a brilliant, film, and important in its own way.

But I think The Imitation Game is a more important film. I'll admit I was aseptically. There had been so much hype, and when I came out of it I felt something was off, that I'd not seen the film everyone else had. You see everyone else told me they were sobbing, it was so very tragic, upsetting. I wasn't sobbing at the end, I was angry. In part I put this down to years of watching, reading, thinking about stories of tragic gay men for work (those who may read this who don't know, I wrote my PhD on the cultural depictions of the AIDS crisis) And that's when I realised, this film isn't for me in many ways. This film is for all the people who don't know who Turing is, what he did, and the tragedy of this death. For so many it seems (through my wholly unscientific scouring of the internet for blogs, articles and social media posts) for many that sign at the end, describing how Turing took his life, is a shock. And so these are the people who are sobbing, because the character they've seen triumph over the last two hours, being an unsung war hero, is now cut down. And I say good, well done, to the filmakers, make these people upset, but then like me make them angry. Angry that it's taken this long for Turing to get a Royal pardon, and angry that he's still not rewarded, revered among our other war heroes. And even more so that his life and work were cut short so we never got to see what else he was capable of.

Both films are brilliant pieces of cinema. Both men involved are worthy of immortalizing on film. Both actors involved do sterling jobs. For me though Turing's story is the story that needs to be told, to be heard again and again. And if the awards manage that, and if through this recognition of the film we move towards the recognition that Turning himself deserves then the film has done its job.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My top 5's for 2014

Yup it's that time of year. I've decided to do a top Theatre, TV and film. Mainly as my reading was restricted to work stuff or stuff I'd read before because my brain can't take any more. So I missed much of the new books of the year.

I'm going in reverse order of my knowledge/investment. So firstly film, there's no top 5 because...well I'm struggling to name 5 films I saw this year...

Gone Girl 
Controversial. People loved it or hated it. Admittedly 2 and a half hours was bum-numbing (and not enough of Affleck's bum to compensate. That said as with the book I fall into the camp of it being an interesting observation on the way women are viewed in society (while also falling into the category of ridiculous thriller)

12 Years a slave 
Had it not been for the two films that follow this would be my top film of 2014 (admittedly there were few to choose from) I loved this harrowing, historical work that managed to tread the line of disturbing without feeling voyeuristic or indulgent. Astounding performances all round (with the excpetion of Brad Pitt's 'Canadian' accent...)

 The Imitation Game 
I have a lot of thoughts about this that I may put into another post. I have thoughts as a historian, I have thoughts as someone who has spent a lot of time working on depictions of gay men in film/theatre/tv. With regard to the latter, I think my time spent up to my eyeballs (and crying my eyeballs out) at tragic stories of gay men across the ages, left me slightly less moved than the majority of people. That doesn't detract from the importance of this film, or the fascinating insight into the cracking the Enigma code. As historical films go, and I'm a fussy one with regard to those, I couldn't have asked for anything more. And again I couldn't point out a weak link in the cast, particular mention in fact toMark Strong's head of MI6.


I could write for days about this film. The story of LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) and their support of a small Welsh mining village during the miners strikes. It's one of those films that hits the perfect balance of humour and heart. It's laugh out loud funny but incredibly touching. For me it was an incredibly personal feeling story being set in the era I've spent years researching, and being set just up the road. (If anyone who doesn't know me personally is reading this, the accent the Welsh folk have is what my 'real' accent sounds like...but I don't sound like that anymore) All of the actors are incredible, but particular mention to Dominic West (sporting the best perm/dye job and best dance moves possible) Andrew Scott (whose simple 'Nadolig Llawen probably reduced every Welsh person to tears) and Rusell Tovey who is in it for less than 5 minutes and is heartbreaking. See it.


A fairly easy 'top 5'

Was it really a year ago already? yes the thrid season was 'difficult' and perhaps felt a bit 'transitional' but it's still head and shoulders above a lot of offerings on TV. It's still stylishly produced and some of the best writing and directing on British TV.

Doctor Who
As above it was a tricky year for Who, but for me again, it's still up there. Capaldi, Capaldi, Capaldi. What can I say? The man was born to be the Doctor, and he's had many years of being a fanboy to get ready. He's brilliant. He knows what he's doing even when the writers perhaps don't. I found the series overall a bit lacking, but I'm holding it up to the standards of Who, past, if I put it next to television across the board it's still a seriously high in the ranking. May Capaldi's reign be a long one.

I have loved the Hannibal Lecter stories since I was young (probably a bit too young) from the books to the early films. But Hannibal continues to be hands down my favourite version of the suave cannibal. Mads Mikkelson makes cannibalism strangely sexy, and convincing. The intertexuality of the show is masterfully done, and the whole thing is so beautifully shot it makes disembowelment look like art. And it's funny. Who knew cannibals were so funny? Also did I mention the combination of Mads Mikkelson and Hugh Dancey?


 The 'baby Morse' series was a highlight of 2014 tv for me. Improving on the first series and dare I say it improving on the originals a bit too. While Morse and Lewis are charming (the latter still being a favourite in its new series) they can both be a little, well slow. The 60s set Endeavour is pacier in its plots, and its leads in Shaun Evans and Roger Allam are wonderfully engaging. (let's just hope Allam makes it to series 3...)

The Fall
I was late to this party, catching up on series 1 just before series 2 aired (slap my Gillian Anderson fan hand) but this is without doubt the best thing on TV this year for me. Gripping, grown up drama with gripping grown up characters. Anderson's DI Stella Gibson is a fascinating character brought to life impeccably (well I would say that) not afraid to take down the men, call them on their sexism and unafriad of her ow sexuality, while also being humanly flawed. Oh and rocking a silk blouse or ten. Jamie Dorman, soon to be busy in 50 shades of Grey is creepier than the creepiest of serial killers.


It was a slower year for theatre for me, with less time to travel to theatre and less funds meaning I was less willing to take a chance on things. No longer working in theatre as well meant distinctly less came my way.

Honourable mention to David Tennant's Richard II and Coriolanus at the Donmanr, which I did see in 2014 but technically saw first in 2013 so I've discounted them.

Miss Saigon
I love this musical. Maybe a little more than I should. So the chance to see it fully staged instead of the tour I'd previously seen, and revamped a little from its 80s glory was too much to pass up. Sometimes loving something in it's recorded form for so long can prove a let down 'in person' Miss Saigon was not. It was big and flashy yes, but sometimes that's what I need in a musical. I loved it.

My Night With Reg 
I nearly didn't go to this. I was in London for a conference, and just about done with AIDS plays. I'm glad I did because it's actually one of my favourite AIDS plays. And after years of American AIDS plays to have something so very very British as a response was just the antidote I needed. Also honourable mention to seeing a LOT of Julian Overden.(Downton Abbey that Sunday caused me to yell 'Lady Mary you don't know what you're missing')
Review of it here:

The Crucible 
I toyed with whether this was in my top 5 or not. But it is. I wondered if I would like it too, having suffered 'death by GCSE drama' (by the way if I ever see my GCSE drama teacher again I'm telling her I went to RADA and got a PhD in drama, even though she said I was no good) But this hauntingly good production  (if a bit over long) was engaging and fascinating and more than enough to blow the cobwebs of productions past away. Richard Armitage and his booming tones and commanding presence is something that stuck with me for a long time. It felt stripped back to its essence and was haunting, and fascinating to watch.
Review here:

A Streetcar Named Desire
I was always going to be biased of course, with Gillian Anderson as Blanche. But, the production and her performance were steller (Stella. Sorry) It also re-ignited for me the love of all things Tennessee Williams. The overall emotional punch packed by this one overrode niggles with the production I had and the last five minutes entirely were swept along by Anderson's performance.

The Drowned Man
I almost feel it's unfair to put this in the same category as everything else. The Drowned man was something else. Running around an old sorting office chasing characters from a Hollywood dream. Walking into dark spaces terrified and enthralled. The dancing, oh the dancing. Oh hell I've written two blogs about it already, I won't wax lyrical anymore. The Drowned Man shifted my theatre perspective in 2014 and my personal perspective a bit too.
Two review links here:

Honourable mention in theatre this year also goes to 'Sunny Afternoon' for doing a jukebox musical right (and giving me a love of 'The Kinks' that I never knew I had) to 'Seminar' for pure unadulterated Roger Allam gloriousness and finally Andew Keates' wonderful production of Dessa Rose. Martin Freeman's Richard III may have mad it in had I not been sorely disappointed not to emerge covered in blood.

So that was 2014, what I saw I loved, I saw less than I would have liked but what I saw was defiantly worth it.

Monday, 29 December 2014

The world's dirtiest sofa, and what it taught me about family and Christmas.

I spent far more of this Christmas moving sofas in and out of the house, and scrubbing sofas than I'm sure if strictly necessary or normal. My arms ache (and this from someone who enjoys lifting weights at the gym a bit too much) and the skin on my hands peeled off from cleaning solutions. And at the end of it all we have the same sofa as before. In the process I learned a thing or two about people, family and Christmas.

Twas the night (well mid morning) before Christmas and several creatures were stirring including a very put out dog. My Uncle arrived with a pick up truck and his cleaning lady (yes, he has a cleaning lady, more on that later) and a very large, very blue sofa and chairs. Which as it turned out was also very, very dirty.

Backtracking a bit, he'd mentioned my cousin had rejected a sofa (because frankly she's a bit of a princess that way and ridiculously expensive sofas are nothing to her...)  that she had and left it in his basement. My Mum decided that as it was going spare it might be the thing for the newly decorated living room. So on Christmas Eve the sofa arrived. Merry Christmas! Have a giant filthy sofa! Oh also it's blue! Very Blue!  I'm allowed to say now that I hated the thing on sight. It was massive and blue...and well frankly ugly. But Mum wanted it so I kept my mouth shut. The sofa came in, It was still massive and blue and far too big for our living room. But wanting to make the best of it we (both it later transpired) decided to let it grow on us. It's safe to say it didn't.

This sofa turned out to be the worlds dirtiest sofa as well as one of the ugliest. We're talking Channel 4 documentary dirty. We're talking dog hairs forming an extra layer underneath, we're talking water turning black after scrubbing it . I cannot overstate how filthy that sofa was. Think of the worst student accommodation you can think of, add to that about 6 dogs and never being cleaned (despite having a cleaning lady...) basically, Channel 4 documentary dirty. I spent 3 hours on Christmas Eve and another 3 on Boxing day attempting to clean it. And still it's filthy. Merry Christmas everyone!

So what has this to do with people? to do with family? Christmas? Several things.

Firstly the sofa came from my very wealthy Uncle/my cousin (as it was her daughter) firstly she's enough of a spoiled brat just to throw out a sofa because she was bored with it. (if it wasn't so filthy/ugly it's perfectly serviceable and she must have liked it to buy it) and in bringing this sofa it actually turned into an exercise in 'hey loser relatives' the sofa has ended up symbolizing everything me and Mum don't like about most of the people we're related to. And about rich, entitled relatives.

Backtracking a bit, I was already growing weary this festive season with looks of either bewilderment or pity when I say it's just me and Mum for Christmas, even when I say that's exactly how we want it. No, I don't have a big family, and the extended family I do have, well I don't have anything to do with them. When pressed about this I'm tempted to quote Rachel from 'Friends' "Nooo they aren't very nice people" Also, not everyone wants that kind of life, or Christmas. That said I'd never look at someone with pity in my eyes and a sideways head tilt and say 'aw you poor thing big family Christmas' Though, as I'm sat on my sofa drinking gin and shouting at Downton in peace..I might think it. Also, and this revelation will no doubt send some of you reeling in horror...I don't even know how to play Monopoly.

In terms of family my Mother often says to me, 'Is it us?' meaning is it us that are weird. To which I (fitting) quote Sherlock  from the Sherlock episode, at Christmas day, in a mortuary saying 'Do you ever wonder if there's anything wrong with us?' to his brother Mycroft. Much like the fictional Holmes brothers, there probably is a certain amount of dysfunction but it's a dysfunction that works (yes, I realise that's a contradiction)

And in the course of bringing us this sofa, my Uncle had managed to insult both of us, repeatedly, while also rubbing in (perhaps inadvertently as such people do) the amount of money he has that we don't. He told my Mother, made redundant at the age of 68 when the company she worked at for 15 years went bust, to get a job in the Morrissons down the road. He accused me of taking all of our money in 'trips to New York twice a year' (erm no.) When I told him I'd gotten my doctorate all he could say was that I could finally get a job '15 years after you should have' I pause here to say I was working at his livery stables at the age of 15, I got my first actual job (in a supermarket ironically enough) at 16 and have always had a job (or 3) since. Unlike I might add certain sofa-having-cousins of mine. Again Merry Christmas everyone! You're both lazy and need a job, isn't it cute how you have no money? Oh and while we're at it that dog's pretty old shouldn't it be dead by now? Merry Christmas, here's a filthy sofa.

Anyway back to the sofa. So it's been scrubbed, it's been scrubbed again and it's been moved. Eventually I said "I've tried really hard but I'm sorry I hate it" And we decided it was going the next day. Luckily we still had the old one. Because despite having a pick up truck with him on which he brought the other one. And we live 5 minutes from the rubbish tip. Anyway. It's a good thing he didn't.

The next day the two of us. Me, admittedly quite strong (if I say so myself) and my Mum, who is 68, fairly fit but still 68. We struggled to get the giant sofa out. We got it and the chairs into the car port, and with much ado, got the old chairs in. In the process of getting the giant ugly sofa out, Mum fell backwards the chair landing on top of her. While we were struggling, not particularly quietly, in the garden (getting them out that was was easier) our neighbour, a 6ft something, policeman walked back and forth to his garage twice and pretended not to see us. How anyone can ignore people struggling like that and not offer to help is beyond me. We got help from a dog-walking friend, who incidentally ran into another dog walker on his way who also offered to help. Lesson learned, actually it's the people and the community you choose over the family or neighbours who are forced upon you who will help you if you need it.

And this actually ties into the biggest lesson I've learned this year, and something I was thinking about over Christmas. This year there were three fewer people to buy Christmas presents for, three people who were previously good friends, possibly some of my closest. I won't rehash old stories but suffice to say I was betrayed/hurt in ways I never would have expected from people I call friends. I know that I'm better without them, but at Christmastime when saccharine images of friends and families are all around its hard not to wonder 'what if' or to think 'should I get in touch' before scolding myself, knowing my life is far far happier without such toxic people.  The people I have around me now are grown ups (in the ways it counts) brilliantly mad (in the best ways) trustworthy and kind. What I learned most of all this year is it's ok to step away, and to cut out people who do bad things to you, or make you feel bad about you.

And what I want to say too is, that goes for family too. Just because someone is related to you doesn't mean they're a good person, it also doesn't  mean that you have to like them. It certainly doesn't mean you have to spend time with them. I have a very small circle of people I'm related to now that are really in my life, my 'Cousin number 2' who is kind, generous and mad-in-the-best-way, and her family, and the only relative on my Dad's side who frankly even knows who I am. And that's fine. Because I don't need to live in a John Lewis advert of a Christmas, or any other time of the year.

My Mother does things like this (admittedly I bought the sign so I asked for it

This is as John Lewis as we get

Seriously, even the dog is at it-she tolerates a hug long enough to headbutt don't get this crap with Monty the Penguin....

But I also don't need to spend Christmas scrubbing an ugly sofa. Sometimes things are better left as they are. So the old sofa is back in, and we'll go on pretending we aren't related to some people and ignoring our neighbours. It might not be a John Lewis (OK low budget M&S) advert, but it works and me, the beastie and the Mother (and the old sofa) are quite happy thank you.

Anyone want a sofa? 

Monday, 22 December 2014

525, 600 minutes and then some; Rent and me nine years later.

December 22nd, 8pm, Eastern Standard time....wait that's not quite right.

Nine years ago, 22nd December, 8pm (Eastern standard time) I finally saw Rent on Broadway. It's fair to say that night changed my life, and changed me. A fairly bold statement, but after 4 years and one PhD that is (half) about Rent, I think that's fair. It also cemented my love of theatre and musical theatre.

We Mark says in the opening monologue...

I don't actually remember finding Rent, it just feels like from the moment of musical theatre obsession being born it was there. I do remember when I finally got the Original Cast Recording. I was desperate to play it on my CD walkman (remember those kids) and playing it on the bus home in Montreal (where I was living by this time) but at this point Rue Sherbrooke (yes I remember what bus I was on) was far too bumpy and 'What You Own' skipped and skipped the whole way home (remember skipping CD's kids?) Once I had that recording I was obsessed. These were the days before YouTube and bootlegs were harder to come by, so all I had was the recording. The recording and internet message boards. I spent a great deal of time of Broadwayworld, taking in details of shows I hadn't seen and talking about those I did. The internet at this time was a wonderful resource for my theatre-starved life, and it's where I found out all about Rent.

Eventually I made it to see Rent. In my head I remember it being sooner-that winter that I was living in Montreal but my fastidious record keeping tells me in fact it was the Christmas after, when Mum and I returned to New York. I remember having to persuade her to see it, that it wasn't something she thought she wanted to see. In the end we saw it again four days later.

(What You Own has always been my favourite moment in Rent, Roger and Mark's friendship being as important as the love stories to me. And I love the staging too) 

I actually don't remember the first time that well. I was really jet-lagged having flown in the day before. We were sitting close by, about row C, and there was a man explaining the plot to his teenage daughter behind us. The current Mark was also infamous for not being particularly engaged with his character, which in retrospect I see was right. It was still magical, wonderful, enchanting. And on Boxing Day, having no show booked for the matinee we went back.
This moment forever ingrained in my mind (forever flicker on the 3D imax of my mind...) 

This is the show I remember, this is the Rent I'll always remember no matter how many versions I see. There was a bit of a kerfuffle and an understudy Mark was put on after a delay (turns out not so engaged Mark forgot he had a internet gossip mongers told me later). The show was electric. I wish I knew that understudy's name, but it came to life in a way I never imagined. I loved it four days earlier, I didn't quite have words for what I felt that day. There was a moment, in the song 'Will I' always an emotional song, I felt like I'd be struck by lightening. It's a strange analogy, but the best one I can come up with even now. It wasn't so much the moment on stage, more this wave of emotion unlike anything I've experienced in theatre before or since.

When talking about Rent in my PhD, I always compared it to my other key text 'Angels in America' by describing them as 'head and heart' Angels is my head, the philosophical political intelligence driven text. Rent is my heart, the emotional core. I'd actually argue that they need each other and work so well because the other exists in a way. But that's another argument (or book)  what that means to me is just that, Rent hits a part of my heart in a way that no other musical or play does. Original cast member Anthony Rapp told me that whenever he sees a production of Rent, if it makes him cry then they've done it right. That for me sums it up.

Rent has become a part of me. In part because of what it stood for. Rent is anarchic and rebellious and also political. It's political in that it instills an idea of an alternative. All of Rent is alternative. Maybe not so much looking back now, maybe not even so much when I saw it nearly ten years after it opened. But it was different, so different to that which had gone before. With it's mix of races (as a British person I didn't even know the word 'Hispanic' or 'Latino' before Rent (and that isn't racist before anyone attacks me for it, but another cultural frame of reference) To see a drag queen/transvestite who wasn't either Eddie Izzard or a pantomime dame on stage, integrated as part of the play, to see gay couples as a natural part of the narrative. To see non-traditional love stories. To see couples who took drugs and were strippers and who lived outside what Larson called 'the mainstream' and see them not be punished for it. All of this was and in some respects is, revolutionary.

More than that though Rent was always about friendship and love And it was friendship and love that I could recognize. Although I had begun a love of theatre and musical theatre, the people on stage were always a million miles from my life. I was never going to be a nun running away with a naval officer, I wasn't an opera protege, I'm not a dancing cat. The characters of Rent were people I recognized, even if they were glossed with the sheen of exotic Manhattan. They were rough around the edges, they didn't live in, or in some cases come from the 'good' parts of town. The actors too, weren't cookie cutter theatre graduates. They weren't the pretty girls and boys who always got the leading roles, they were normal looking people, they looked like people you might know. The characters lives weren't a fairy tale either, yes things end (relatively) happily but nobody runs away with a Prince, life is, to some degree still the same, if you think beyond the musical, the characters would still struggle in their lives. It feels real, despite the bit of artistic license.  And that's what connects people to Rent. The idea that you could know these people. As someone who grew up in the 90s particularly these looked like people I might have known if I was older. They looked like people I wanted to know despite their problems.

Viva la vie boheme 

Rent also shaped my life in that way something you're a fan of always does. It took me back and forth to America in fostering my love of all things Broadway. It's taken me to concerts and different performances. It's taken me to TV shows, it's taken me to other Broadway shows and plays. It took me to my PhD, and hopefully beyond. It took me to meet Anthony Rapp and share with him some of this experience. Oh and it's allowed me to be able to say to Frozen fans 'Kids I've loved Elsa since before you were even born' (I'm a delight with children really) Rent, to quote my PhD counterpart has taken me to places I never dreamed I'd go.

And I still love Rent. I love it in the fond way you love something that's been a part of your life for so long, but I love it for what it is. I still believe it's among the greatest musical theatre works of the 20th century. It's not perfect, even without analyzing it beyond what is normal I know that. It's rough around the edges, it's an unfinished work. Who knows if Jonathan had lived what it would have been. I always feel sure things would have changed, but what he left us with is something pretty special anyway.

Ah Jonathan. For any Rent fan, Larson's story and legacy are as significant as the musical itself. For those who may not know Jonathan Larson, composer of Rent died the night of the final dress rehearsal from an aneurysm, at 35 years old. He never saw the phenomenon his musical became.  For me, and I'm sure many others, discovering Rent coincided with, and was responsible for, my love of theatre and later my decision to make some kind of life in that world. In that too Jonathan became an inspiration. Rent was his big break, he'd worked for years-working at a diner in New York to support himself, having bits of work produced here and there-none of it happened overnight. In the autobiographical musical 'Tick Tick Boom' which didn't see a full production until after his death, he talks of his struggles with giving up on the art he loved for an easier life as 30 loomed. It's an idea that's been particularly poignant this year as I approached and passed 30 wondering what I was doing with my life, and if I should still be hanging on to dreams or growing up and being sensible. But actually, having been instilled with the bohemian rebellion of Rent, and with Jonathan's 'never give up' story, I've kept going.

 Rent taught me many things. It has brought me so much in terms of career, in terms of knowledge, life experience, friendships and a million little things that are connected to it. And as I look back, nine years later, firstly I can't help but be thankful that I found it. Thankful that it changed my life. I also can't help but think if Jonathan Larson knew all the thousands of stories like mine, the ways in which Rent changed lives in big ways and small, that he'd be beyond happy.

At the end of every Rent performance he was part of Anthony Rapp used to sent three claps upward to Jonathan, thanking him for what he had done. Tonight, nine years after that first night, I'll do the same.

There's one thing every Rent fan says at some point, and I don't think I've ever said it publicly, so i will now, it's simple really: Thank you Jonathan Larson.

I picked the film version to end, because it has most of the original cast. Seasons of Love. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Should I stay or should I go...

I always believe using a Clash song title improves, well almost anything. Particularly when coupled with a video involving David Morrissey and David Tennant drowning each other in a swimming pool:

Musial interlude aside, this 'should I stay or should I go' mentality is something I've been stuck in for a while now relating to academia, and where I go next.

Putting aside the continual questions of 'What are you doing next' and 'So does this mean you have to get a real job now?' (and just, FYI the next person to ask me, particularly the latter will get punched in the nose. The nose. Hard) Putting aside the 100 plus job applications I've sent in the past year (yes, 100 plus and no I am not exaggerating, I wish I was) which includes a wide and varied amount of jobs, from academic jobs (ranging from teaching to research and ranging from full time to 1 day a week, permanent to hourly paid work. I've applied for theatre based jobs of many kinds, and other 'heck it's nothing like I want to do but it's money' jobs. I've had several jobs (often at once) and still have one. But not one that I want to do in it's current form long term, nor would it sustain me financially. But that actually less relevant. Because now that the PhD is finished I'm now thinking about real steps forward. And I'm not entirely sure what direction they should take.

Firstly, to consider the option of continuing in academia. It's no secret I've had a terrible PhD experience. But I know that not everywhere would bring similar experiences, nor would there be the same experiences once working elsewhere within academia. That said, it's left me riddled with insecurity and paranoia around my place at the academic table, something that is difficult to shake off.

On the plus side, I did love teaching courses, I loved working with students and I enjoyed the challenge of working with them. I enjoy research, and the chance to research would be a key motivator to stay. However, I cannot help but doubt myself in both of these areas. And in academia in general. But I constantly fear my inadequacy. I feel like nothing I've done to date is enough, so I'll constantly be playing catch up and possibly never excelling  at anything. Is that frustration, that insecurity worth it? I don't feel quite the same doubts in my teaching ability, I've always been confident in the classroom, in short I survived the PGCE Secondary, I can survive University teaching. But things are changing, students are increasingly powerful customers rather than participants in education. And I question my place as a teacher in that.

Linked to that is the cold hard fact that there simply aren't the jobs in academia. I know people, far more talented, more advanced in their careers, with publications and experience far beyond mine who can't get a job. And after four years of struggle,  working multiple jobs and barely scarping by, I can't and won't carry on that way indefinitely. The trouble is to stand a chance at an academic career I'd probably have to. Currently, there isn't a single suitable job to even apply for in the UK, though these things come in waves the ratio of jobs to applicants is maths I don't even want to think about too hard.

Which leaves me questioning is it worth it? is it worth another year, 2 years, 5 years before getting a "secure" job (that turns out not to be secure because then the department's funding gets cut...) And perhaps more importantly I'm asking myself is that the life I want? After back to back PGCE and PhD, I'm frankly exhausted. It's hard to explain the kind of cumulative tiredness that comes as a result. I'm mentally and emotionally drained from the hardest work I'll ever have to do, and the juggling of jobs and life to get there. And that's the other thing, I'd kind of like my life back. Even when finishing I was straight back to (paid) work and unpaid work. There's always a book chapter, conference paper, journal article to write. Right now I've a list of calls for papers to hash together abstracts for that I just don' have the energy to think about. I have things I should be researching, writing, doing all the time. And even in a full time job, that's always there and 90% on top of your working hours. And that is the job, and the life. And part of me loves the research the chance to do that kind of work, but also I want a life. I want a weekend that doesn't involve frantically trying to catch up on work, or a guilt free one that doesn't. And lets not forget all that academic publishing is for free, particularly for those destined to spend years as independent scholars while waiting for an elusive job to appear. Spending 100s on conferences, hours of precious free time between jobs on writing articles that may or may not make it publication and earn you nothing.

And so I'm asking myself, do I want that? do I really want to stay. And it's hard because in some ways I love it more than anything I've ever done, Lord knows I couldn't have stuck it out this far if I didn't . But perhaps I don't love it enough, perhaps I don't have that fight in me anymore.

So what instead? That's the other question. Last week I had some interesting and thought provoking meetings with someone who said to me 'I wish you knew what you wanted to do' so do I. And to feel like it could work out.

But what could work out? what are my options? Well, I could stay teaching or academia adjacent. I could go back to teaching in schools (ok not even I believe that one, with love and respect to my teacher friends because I couldn't do it) I could teach in some other capacity. I could carry on with my Student Services related work, I genuinely love it and for someone with zero maternal instinct I genuinely care about the little monsters. But somehow I'd feel like I'd failed, given up somehow not to 'use' my PhD in the 'right way. Which is where all the anxiety about making the call to step away from Universities entirely comes from. But maybe I'm not supposed to, maybe I just need to use my experience in a different way? or maybe after 5 long years in various roles I need to run, far, far away.

There's theatre, the obvious choice and possibly (no possibly, defiantly) as hard to get a start in as academia. I could take my theatre knowledge, my various skills and do something...useful somehow, feel productive and creative and that would be amazing. It would actually be a dream come true to do something anything theatre related. It probably involves moving to London, and at the grand old age of 30 maybe that's not something that is practical anymore, student style living again isn't something that appeals to me anymore, I've done that far too much. But I'm also mindful of not throwing away the best opportunities to develop a career. Again it's how much of a trade off between a life (such as it may be) and career (such as it may be)

I could also take my writing skills, another dream come true, and do something useful with the extra four years of writing work that academia has given me. Some day even I could actually get paid for a piece of writing (nobody is holding their breath on this one)

Or maybe, maybe it's something else entirely that I haven't even thought of yet? Maybe I'll fall into something (I am very good at falling both metaphorically and literally). But I doubt it. It's decision time.

So universe, or at least a particular corner of the internet, send me a sign, send me advice, hit me over the head. Or offer advice. Offer wild suggestions. I'm open to ideas.

And academic friends in the same situation, it's hard to know, hard to make that call between sanity and security, and pursuing the thing you love. But I think it's really about knowing whether you still love it enough. No job is perfect but sometimes I wonder if any job should be this hard. Which actually sounds more like a Coldplay song....

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Watching Michael Palin makes me common (apparently)

I've lately taken to summing up how terribly "common" I am with the following analogy: I watched Michael Palin travel documentaries growing up, not David Attenborough ones. This may seem like a strange analogy, but around a year ago, while visiting a friend, it was made clear to me that my upbringing was terribly remiss for not being raised on the velvet voiced naturist's work.

In terms of the documentary makers the analogy doesn't actually work, both come from fairly well to do backgrounds, and both went to Oxbridge. But actually the point was about what 'nice families' would watch. Or what 'educated people' have grown up watching. Probably a better analogy for my life would be my love of Paul O'Grady, working class Birkenhead drag queen extraordinaire. Or indeed Ant and Dec (or Ant or Dec as I'm fond of calling them) Both of whom, I have it on good authority, are markers of a distinctly common upbringing.

Well good. Much like O'Grady I'm proud of my roots. I don't see anything to be ashamed of in coming from a working class background, and much like O'Grady I see nothing wrong with the popular, or feel a need to hide who I am behind.

So there you have it I'm a working class populist. The idea of class, or indeed what I liked or didn't like being a defining characteristic of my upbringing or intelligence never really occurred to me until recently.

Yes, when I moved schools for sixth form to a much more well to do area of the city I was acutely aware that many of the other students were from far wealthier backgrounds than I was, but I never felt particularly judged for it. When I went to University in Nottingham, again I was well aware of contingents of ex public schoolboys, but aside from registering that they were mostly utter twats, this failed to affect my life in any way. When I went to London to do my Masters, being at RADA was my first experience of feeling like an uncultured swine. At the mixer for the start of the course, several of us were asked what our parents do. Not myself actually, which is a shame because I relish the day anyone asks me specifically what my Father does and I can answer 'Not much he's dead' which at least puts a halt to such idiotic lines of questioning. Why does it matter what my parents do? Ask me what I do.

Things from here on got worse on the class warfare front. Not only was I from a) a University that dared not be in the top 5 of the Times listings but b) I was clearly an uncultured urchin who somehow wandered into the hallowed halls.  I had, forgive me dear Universe, at this point, never heard 'The lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock' until this point in my life. I had also not read 'Metamorphosis' and probably about 20 more things I'm forgetting. Bearing in mind I didn't' have a degree in English Literature like most of my classmates, but in History and American Studies. I never felt more like an extra from 'Oliver' in my life. Oh and lest we forget that being something of a mass-market commodity, musical theatre is also indicative of my social standing or intellectual ranking. This is something I battled with across my PhD, the idea that musical theatre is somehow less 'worthy' of analysis than 'proper' theatre.

It seems to happen a lot more in English Literature in fact, this judgement based on what you have read or know (or say that you've read or know) as to your value or status in life. In my history degree it was kind of a given that nobody knew all the history. Therefore if you started a module knowing next to nothing about the Cultural Revolution in China it was just assumed that it was an area of history you hadn't yet studied in detail, so you did some reading went to some lectures and there you go, you are informed, on to the next. Which strikes me as how education is supposed to work. I see the same in the sports students I work with currently, nobody passes a moral judgement on them for not knowing a great deal about a particular sport, it's just assumed they've never come across that sport, everyone learns about it, we move on. Why then in English Literature and Drama are we so judgmental? why does what you have or haven't come across in personal reading or education a marker both of intelligence and social class?

This element is one of the many things that feeds into my questioning of my place in academia, for several reasons. Firstly I feel I am and will always be too working class for academia. Perhaps it's centuries of working (Wo)Man logic in me, that I am deeply practical and pragmatic at heart. This is in many many ways not a skill that academia favours.  I also have no time for pretentious nonsense (that I actually wanted to write 'pretentious wankers' also I believe betrays another flaw in my  suitability for many an academic role) I also have a overriding fear that once anyone in academia discovers  not only am I the only person in my family to go to University, but that my parent held no academic qualifications at all to their name, that I would be swiftly ejected from the building, doctorate or no doctorate.

I refuse to bow down to, or hold any pretense about what I do and do not like. Frankly I don't care if something is considered 'classic' literature, it doesn't mean I have to like it. It also doesn't mean I can't appreciate it but the two aren't one and the same. Example, personally I loathe Jane Austen, I have no logical or intellectual reason for this other than I have tried and failed many times to enjoy her work, I just don't. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate the literary or indeed socio-historical value of Austen's work. Not liking it, simply put, doesn't mean I'm too thick to understand it. Also not having read, or even encountered a person's work (literary or otherwise) doesn't mean a person is either stupid or uncultured, we all have different encounters with the room dependent on so many factors is it really so surprising that we don't all encounter the same works of literature film and art? and must we use that as a judgement of intellect or social class?

Another example, I wanted to cry and possibly never return to my choir a month or so back. I read music in the most basic sense, but again it's something I never learned as a child and had no reason to learn as an adult (despite being in choirs and other musical productions for the last 10 years or so). But explaining this, and explaining in a song that has the same words and notes repeated over and over meant I got lost following the music, well I felt like I'd said I couldn't read at all. I felt judged, as though somehow my ability to follow dots on some lines was a marker of my intelligence and upbringing. The fact that I bet nobody before then would know based on my ability to produce the right notes with my voice, is apparently arbitrary. Not reading music just served as an illustration of my distinctly common and therefore intellectually deficient upbringing. Well as my Mum said when I told her that story, Michael Ball cant' read music and it hasn't done him any harm.

Uh-oh am I betraying my working class roots again? We like Mr Ball in my family. Pretty sure he's not highbrow enough either, am I right?

Because linked to class or some other intellectual ranking, there is so much judgement around what we do or don't like. We're supposed to like watching Scandi dramas and The Wire, not Downton Abbey and The X Factor. We're supposed to like quirky sketch shows and pretend to find them hilarious and no American sitcoms are allowed.  Of course nobody is supposed to like big budget American films (except for some reason The Hunger Games). In books it's ok to read young adult if it's now a film, but not under any other circumstances, basically any book that makes it onto Supermarket shelves must be terribly common and not intellectual enough. And I can't remember am I allowed to like Taylor Swift and Benedict Cumberbatch this week?

Now I jest (a little at least) and there are always culture snobs, who will try and dictate what is in or out or cool or hot. And that's just white noise. I've never been one to follow fashion in any sense, but that what we like or don't like is seen as not just a marker of good or bad taste, but of intellect, upbringing and class, even now in 2014, that makes me sad. What makes me angry is that people will pretend that class and the associations of upbringing and intellect that come with it no longer exists. But they do.

I'm not someone with an accent that gives away my roots (unlike the delectable Mr O'Grady mentioned above) that's more by default than design, I'm a natural mimic who has absorbed a multitude of accents so nobody can tell where I'm from anymore. There's little comfort in that though because as the years go on I'm more an more aware of the little 'tells' that give away my working class roots. That betray me as possibly uncultured, uneducated, as something other.  Despite being highly educated in some respects, my cultural background and tastes still mark me as something.

And you know what, I'm starting not to care. Not least because in terms of things I enjoy, nobody will tell me not to enjoy them on the groups on taste or what is proper or common. I don't care if it's more intellectual, more middle class to enjoy certain things. I'm going to watch, eat, drink and enjoy what I like. And I know the reasons we like or don't like what we do are far more complex. I've felt judged for not knowing the rules to Monopoly or having never played other board games that nice families play at Christmas time. That's not because I'm common it's because I'm an only child and it's pretty difficult to play board-games by yourself. My weird tastes are because I'm weird, not because I'm common or stupid. And isn't it sad how the two are still so inextricably intertwined?

My problems with class and academia are a discussion for another day, but it's no coincidence that several of the friends who I've quietly (or not so quietly) let go from my life in the last couple of years are those who made me feel this way. That somehow my background, is somehow something to be ashamed of something deficient in me. And I say it's not. My upbringing, what I watched on TV, what I read or didn't read, where I went or what I wore made me who I am, made my brain what it is. I like my brain, I like me. I like Ant and Dec. None of it has done me too much harm so far.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's Sunday night and I'm re-watching some Michael Palin travel shows...