Friday, 30 May 2008

Time for a revisionist history of Mary Whitehouse?

One of West London’s most iconic buildings is BBC Television Centre. For those who have grown up with the BBC, it’s home (among other things) to the Blue Peter garden, and many a chat show or comedy has filmed people leaving or arriving from its distinctive curved façade.

One of its most recent appearances was in the docudrama ‘Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story’, shown last Wednesday on BBC2, portraying the rise of the moral campaigner from the start of her ‘Clean up TV Campaign’ in 1964 to the resignation of Sir Hugh Carleton Greene as the BBC’s Director General in 1969. Perhaps ironically for the institution she spent so much effort criticising, the portrayal (ably played by Julie Walters) was sympathetic, even poignant. Equally ironically, in my view, it managed to caricature Sir Hugh (played by Hugh Bonneville): the Director General credited by many as having shaped the modern BBC came across as vain and self-important, obsessed alternately by attractive secretaries and his determination not to engage Mrs Whitehouse.

But more interesting for me is how the documentary has excited a debate about her legacy in the News media. Rather than simply lampooning Mrs Whitehouse – as would have been the almost automatic response until a decade ago – it has inspired an examination of whether her concerns did, in fact, have substance. All of this comes, of course, against a backdrop of the latest news reports of (yet another) stabbing of a young person.

In newspaper commentaries, Julie Walters is quoted as acknowledging her role in establishing the Nine o’clock watershed and with being one of the first to recognise the evils of child pornography. BBC2’s Newsnight featured a thoughtful and temperate debate entitled ‘Did Mary Whitehouse have a point?’, which featured Roy Hattersley acknowledging that – on the question of violence at least – she was right to alert us to the media’s ability to desensitise society.

But to me, the point best made (and eloquently so by Joan Bakewell in to-day’s Independent) is the differentiation between Mrs Whitehouse’s views on sex and violence. On the former, she was defending a stance which arguably created as many ills as it prevented, and which was simply pure bigotry when it came to subjects such as homosexuality. On the latter, however, her views have been given more credence by the passage of time: although violence in our society has a complex set of causes and effects, the pervasive diet of casual violence incorporated into entertainment, and especially the violent role-play in many of to-day’s video games, cannot be healthy.

And that raises a difficult question about her legacy: in seeking to perpetuate her brand of conservatism, what could be regarded as an almost prophetic message on violence in the media was heavily compromised by her prudishness in other areas. Did she ultimately undermine her own campaign?

Perhaps the time has come for a revisionist history of Mrs Whitehouse...

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Not the 'West End'

It's easy to forget when reading about the 'West End' theatre that two of London's most interesting and highly regarded venues aren't in the so-called 'theatreland' at all, nor in some trendy venue in N1, but here in West London.

The two theatres I have in mind are the Lyric in Hammersmith and the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square. And despite the view that West London is a slightly stuffy, conservative place (small 'c', in this case - let's leave politics out of it), both theatres are renowned for their innovative programmes and championing of new writers. At the same time, both have traditional interiors, although the Lyric is rather hidden behind a rather unfortunate and unprepossessing exterior.

The Lyric's programme at the moment features a musical - in fact, 'Love - the Musical'. But this is not your average fare: for a start, it's set in an old people's home; secondly, it features a live choir composed of pensioners (yes, really - all 60+); and thirdly, they are not singing 'Keep the Home Fires Burning', but songs by the Smiths, the Kaiser Chiefs, the Rolling Stones, alongside Michael Jackson, Nick Cave, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Beach Boys. Quite a mix. And yet, it's not a pointless mix of opposites, but a life-affirming challenge to our perceptions of what old age means. (Not that I'd take my 80+ Dad, to see it, but you can't please everybody.)

Meanwhile, back in Sloane Square, The Royal Court delivers challenge to the audience in what may oddly be more familiar ground: Martin Crimp's 'The City', a darkly surreal comedy about three adult's and one child's eerily normal and yet disturbed, and disturbing, middle-class urban lives, given an even more desolate and unsettling feel by producer Katie Mitchell. Hmm, not sure that's one for Dad, either...

Still, both theatres are maintaining substantive and changing programmes over the summer, with ticket prices which are generally more affordable than their Shaftesbury Avenue equivalents (no pre-booked coach parties here), so keep you eyes on their programmes. The Lyric also has a substantial output aimed at younger audiences, too.

Definitely not the West End: better.

Friday, 23 May 2008

London's Hidden Oases

One of the features of London often admired by visitors to our shores, yet so easily taken for granted by those who live here, is its Garden Squares. Whereas many Continental cities have squares which are paved and often populated with pavement cafes (and perfectly nice in their own way), the hundreds of Garden Squares add much needed patches of green to our capital city.

In fact, London is incredibly green: a browse using a satellite map of the city shows just how many green spaces there are. And whilst many of the squares are not open to the public, they are open to their residents, and provide a wonderful green space for recreation to those living in otherwise cramped flats.

But for one week-end a year, many are open to the wider public during the London Open Garden Squares Weekend, which takes place this year from 10am until 5pm on Saturday 7th June and Sunday 8th June. Buying a £7.50 ticket in any one of the venues enables visitors to sample any one of the other 175 squares and gardens participating all over London. And it’s family-friendly – children under 12 get in free.

Reflecting the English tradition, many of the gardens are very traditional: lawns, surrounded herbaceous borders, tall clipped hedges and shaded by mature trees. On the other hand, others are more modern and some even avant garde in their design. Many of the Squares also lay on events to entertain their visitors: my local square, Nevern Square, in Earl’s Court, will have the Hemingford Saxophone Quartet on hand on the afternoon of June 8th to do just that.

So, why not pop along to your nearest square for some green refreshment – or perhaps even organise a tour? Who knows, the British weather may even co-operate and lay on some sunshine!

Full details can be found on the Open Garden Squares Weekend website – helpfully available in six languages. Tickets can also bought in advance via the website for just £6.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Other Chelsea

Forget the Sloane Rangers and Hooray Henries – this week, Chelsea has been well and truly reclaimed for Middle England by that great horticultural jamboree – the Chelsea Flower Show.

It is, unquestionably, the highest profile gardening event in the world, and sets the trends in gardening for the year ahead. But it’s also very firmly rooted in tradition – those young, brash and confident garden designers can still be reduced to quivering wrecks when the Royal Horticultural Society’s venerable judges (and, boy, do they look intimidating) poke and prod around their creations.

As an event to visit, I have to say that it can be something of a mixed blessing: firstly, the site is severely constrained, and is always therefore crowded, despite the organisers’ best efforts to control numbers. As with all such events, getting to the front row to see the most popular gardens takes tenacity and patience, not to say military strategic planning. And, of course, there’s always the British weather to liven things up (although so far this year it has been mercifully benign).

One of the greatest challenges for the exhibitors, be they garden designers or flower arrangers, is trying to get all their blooms in pristine condition at the same time for the few days of the show. This is vastly more challenging than it sounds: many of the plants do not naturally flower at this time of the year, and those forced just a little too much may retaliate by wilting gracefully at the key moment.

Tips of the trade include using flowers like ornamental Alliums (ie the Onion family) which are both robust and dramatic, to ensure that their displays look tip-top. Grasses are always popular too, although this could be regarded as cheating given that they’re not really there for their flowers. Indeed, Tom Stuart-Smith’s winning garden is predominantly green, set off by greys from man-made elements.

Another facet of Chelsea is the media frenzy. This is largely driven by the BBC and Gardeners’ World, who have a substantial team commenting every day, anchored by Alan Titchmarsh, who is fast heading towards National Treasure status himself. But it’s indicative of the strength of gardening culture in Britain which, despite the decline in many urban areas, still holds sway across much of the country. As the programme has pointed out, demand for allotments has never been higher.

And finally, there’s the aesthetics of gardening which, ultimately, this is all about. Forget the high profile stainless steel daisies in Diarmuid Gavin’s gardens: elsewhere, blues, pinks and whites always predominate (and green, of course) – but not yellow. There is a strong tradition that every colour works well together, except yellow. I think this is rather a pity, as I love vibrant yellows and oranges in flowers, but then I don’t make any great claims to be an aesthete or a garden designer. I just know what I like...

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Chocolate, chocolate everywhere… and lots and lots to drink!

Greetings from a hot and sunny Catalonia.

It’s great fun comparing events and such items of interest from such a different place as Spain, and from Catalonia in particular. Partly, it’s because the Spanish are very keen on their fiestas, so there will one taking place in a town somewhere nearby almost every day of the week; and partly, because such things often exemplify what is different between our cultures.

The city of Barcelona in particular has a very active calendar of public events organised to keep itself in the cultural limelight. These include festivals of everything from skateboarding to the most avant garde of art, as well as more classic music and opera seasons. My favourite at the moment is the Chocolate festival – La Fiesta de Xocolata.

Now, the Catalans take their chocolate very seriously indeed. Many start their day with it – but their drinking chocolate is light years away from the weedy equivalent out of a tin we are used to in the UK. Catalan hot chocolate is made with serious quantities of real chocolate: usually dark, only lightly sweetened, and with the consistency of a thick custard. It’s normally consumed with the help of a spoon, or with churros – long, thin doughnut-like pastries – dipped into it.

The other noticeable thing is that the festival isn’t particularly aimed at women, either: here, it is perfectly acceptable for a man to admit that he likes chocolate - although maybe not that he prefers it to sex. The festival includes examples of all sorts of chocolate creations made by Master Chocolatiers, as well as demonstrations of how it is made from the original cocoa bean. Some of the the creations (including savoury ones, in the South American tradition) are simply to die for – and it wouldn’t surprise me to read in the local papers if someone had indeed killed for one of them…

They even take parties of school children along, to learn all about their favourite confection (and, of course, to have some fun making things). Now, there’s a day out from school I wouldn’t have missed!

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Opera in the Park

Well, what wonderfully unseasonal weather we are currently enjoying. I know the water-shortage doom-sayers will soon be having a field day, but for the moment (and after last year's washout summer and this year's wintry Easter) it's quite nice to have some unseasonal warmth. Inevitably, we've booked a short break in Spain, where it is currently cooler and raining, so we'll soon feel like we are at home.

But it's at time like this I am thankful that London has so many parks. The closest proper park to me is Holland Park. Although not actually a secret, it is still something of a hidden treasure as, apart from the short frontage on Kensington High Street, it is entirely surrounded by housing. But it has been incredibly busy the last week or so: lots of joggers, tourists and quite a lot of families, too.

One of the nice things about the park is that, although there are some formal gardens, and the small but delightful Japanese garden, much of it is given over to woodland, with rustic picket fences lining the walkways. The gardens are lovely at this time of the year, as the spring flowers give way to the summer blooms, and everything is still bright and green with spring growth.

Next month also sees the annual summer Opera held outdoors here every year: this year the programme is packed, offering Il trovatore (Verdi), La Fille du régiment (Donizetti), the Magic Flute (Mozart), Tosca (Puccini), La Gioconda (Ponchielli) and finishing off with Iolanta by Tchaikovsky in July and August. All this takes place under the larger canopy installed last year, which makes for a more comfortable experience, although the atmosphere is not quite the same as when the stage was fully outdoors. But it is lovely to stroll through the gardens beforehand, and during the interval.

For those not of an operatic frame of mind, there are plenty of other activities during the summer, including lots aimed at children. My favourite is the wonderfully-named 'Baby Boot Camp' - not, apparently, for diminutive delinquents, but for Mums and toddlers to walk around the grounds together. You have been warned!

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Are you an Egghead?

Where is the world’s highest waterfall?
Name the two leads in the film ‘Brief Encounter’.
In which city would you find Leonardo de Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’?*

Well, if you know the answers to these, then there’s a strong chance you’ve competed in the odd pub quiz or two. This very British phenomenon has now spread across the English-speaking world, and is still growing in popularity at home, as pubs branch out to attract more punters through the door. In some places, you can – if you are keen enough – go to a pub quiz every night.

My other half and I have been going to quizzes for years now, with the team name ‘Zippy and Bungle’ (I’m Zippy, because I’m regarded as a bit gobby...). We’ve recently started going to quizzes in Brighton, and luckily for us we’ve been joined by our friend George, so we’ve been able to expand the team name!! We’re not fantastically successful, if I’m honest: we’re fine on history, geography, science, entertainment and general knowledge, rather rusty on music, dodgy on art and completely hopeless on sport.

Of course, the quizzes themselves vary enormously. Some are nice and straightforward, with enough easy questions to give everyone a chance to compete. Others are fiendishly difficult, attracting semi-professional teams, and some focus on specific areas, like music or entertainment, for example, for those with special interests.

Our worst experience was a local quiz in Kensington, where rounds included sections of horticulture and ‘Name the next line’ from Shakespeare’s plays. The former needed an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants, and the latter seemed to focus on the more obscure plays, like ‘Titus Andronicus’ and ‘King John’ – rather than the standard ‘O’ level favourites. We scored a miserable 8 out of 100, whereas the winning team – complete with an English teacher and several members of the Royal Horticultural Society - scored over 90. (I guess that's Kensington for you).

We have won a few, however: my own personal triumph came in answering, ‘How tall is the spire of Salisbury Cathedral?’ which, for some reason, I just happened to know (404ft). In contrast, my other half astonished one pub by naming all the squares on the Monopoly Board, in the right order! The quality of answers can decline, mind you, as the evening wears on, depending on the quality of the beer...

Brighton has a good selection of Sunday quizzes, several of which we’ve tried. The Prestonville has a Sunday quiz at the trickier end of the scale; the Duke of Wellington has a middle-of-the-road quiz, with a music round (usually 1960s and 1970s rock and pop), whereas the Windmill has a slightly easier quiz, followed by a few rounds of ‘Play your cards right’, which you enter by a draw.

So, why not swot up and try your hand at being an egghead? All you have to lose is your pride...

*(Answers: the Angel Falls in Venezuela; Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson; Milan).

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Model trains and modern trends

I’m one of those people who wakes up listening to Radio 4’s ‘To-day’ programme every week-day morning. Partly, it’s about getting an early morning fix of the news, and partly it’s about not waking up to loud music. (And classical is no good because it send me straight back to sleep).

The downside, of course, is that so much of the news is doom and gloom. Catastrophe and disaster. Wars and recessions. But this morning, the business section was dominated, not by the credit crunch, but by the acquisition of Corgi model cars by Hornby trains.

Now these really are names to bring back memories.

My older brother was the car collector, and had an extensive collection of Corgi cars. Being over 4 years older, these got passed down to me, and I did play with them – my favourite being a Citroen DS, which had a spring-loaded suspension which mimicked the real thing. I could tell it was classy.

But my first love was always trains, and from an early age I began building up a collection based on a clockwork train set I was given when I was seven or eight. Over the years, the little clockwork shunter acquired a fair amount of track and extra wagons – no coaches, of course (too heavy for a clockwork train to pull). But it was inevitable that I would eventually fall under the spell of Hornby trains (then called Tri-ang Hornby).

For years, I would persuade my parents to buy the catalogues for me, with their front covers taken from paintings by the famous railway painter Terence Cuneo, (together with his signature mouse hidden in the painting). Inside, there were all the latest diesel models, and the novelty ‘Battle Space’ rocket trains. But I always hankered after a passenger train set, and a big express steam loco. Eventually, after enough nagging, I finally got a ‘Flying Scotsman’ set for Christmas in 1972.

I remember my father saying that he would have preferred a freight train, as there was more fun to be had shunting trucks than just watching a passenger train going around, occasionally stopping at a station. With hindsight, he was right, of course, but then I had some trucks to play with anyway. I can recall the excitement and glee when I first opened the package, and the impatient anticipation as I waited for us to set it up at my Grandmother’s in Wales, where we spent that Christmas.

Over the years, I added a Great Western 0-6-0 pannier tank to the layout, as well as a station, level crossing, and all sorts of other accessories. Alas, our house was always a constraint, as there wasn’t enough room to leave it permanently out, and setting it up and putting it back down again was such a faff. Also, in my mid teenage years, my interest moved on to real trains, and I began travelling around the country on them. With great reluctance, I put an ad in the local rag and sold the layout to a father and son, with the hope that they would get as much joy out of it as I had.

The story of Hornby is a classic of our times: how the inventor of Meccano spotted the gap in the British market for electric train sets with trains which carried the famous train liveries of the day; how, after a series of mergers in a declining post-war market saw Hornby absorb (and be absorbed by) other toy train companies, until manufacturing had to be shipped out from the famous Margate plant to the Far East to keep costs down; how Hornby bought rival model company Scalextric, and now Corgi.

Of course, all this has been driven by the inexorable decline of the mass market for such toys in the face of computers and computer games. Model trains and cars now have a dedicated but niche market with collectors and die-hard model fans.

However, the IT revolution has come full circle: Hornby has given its name to a computer game where you can built your own layout in an imaginary shed or loft, lay the track, arrange the scenery and accessories, and then add trains. It’s not quite the same, of course. But I still don’t have enough room for a real layout, so nearly 40 years after my first layout, I’m now the proud possessor of a virtual one...