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Happy Birthday Roland Barthes. Seriously having fun.

conradbrunstrom

barthes

It’s fair to say that by the time Barthes taken proper time to consider the semiotics of a birthday cake, particularly if he were still alive to count all those candles.  The icing would have been covered with molten wax because I think he was the sort of person who enjoyed watching candles burn down more than blowing them out.

Sometimes people ask me “what do you read – just for pleasure” – and I like to answer – “everything I read is for pleasure. I take my pleasure very seriously.”

I’m not sure I’d have the (possibly misguided) courage to make that response if it wasn’t for Roland Barthes – who would have been ever so ever so old today (not that anything about his lifestyle suggested any kind of determination to live to witness today’s milestone).

More than anyone else – Barthes laboured seriously and frivolously to theorise…

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Cicero’s Philippics. Make me wanna cry. Get me right here.

I’ve been rereading Cicero recently.  A little red Loeb volume fits nicely into a coat pocket and can go anywhere with me.  When reading these philippics, I follow the practice of reading one philippic in English, before rereading it in Latin.  The second philippic I’ll read in Latin first and then in English.  The third in English first and then in Latin… and so on and so forth.

This is in the (probably) forlorn hope that my Latin might actually improve.

Because sadly Duolingo doesn’t seem to do Latin.  They do useful languages like Esperanto, Klingon and High Valyrian, but not Latin.

I do believe that I’ll try to read some Cicero every year for the remainder of my life.  And I wish I’d made this resolution a long time ago so that the phrase “rest of my life” had more of a dramatic effect.

The Philippics offer a sense of history without hindsight.  Thanks to Shakespeare and Liz Taylor, we tend to jump from Brutus’ assassination to the Battle of Philippi in our collective mind’s eye – without thinking about the astonishing events that took place in between.  The philippics of Cicero inhabit this space.   At times, you want to shout at Cicero, especially when he is praising young Gaius Octavianus Caesar to the skies as the true protector and restorer of the Republic.  It’s also fun to read about Anthony’s third wife Fulvia (Anthony was Fulvia’s third husband as it happens).  This Fulvia, of whose death Shakespeare’s Ahenobarbus exclaimed “the tears live in an onion that should water this sorrow”, was one of the most notorious women of the first century BCE, with a biography to rival Cleopatra’s.

When Cicero denounces Anthony, it’s as a drunkard, as a libidinous wastrel, and as someone who can’t keep his clothes on properly in public.  He’s also repeatedly denounced as a gladiator – indeed as a variety of different kinds of gladiator.  It is impossible for Cicero to paint Anthony as a physical coward, so “gladiator” serves as a deplorable expression of martial courage.  His swordplay has no military nobility to it – it’s unworthy of a free citizen.  Ultimately, the cruelty and rapacity of Anthony has a vacancy and pointless to it.  Cicero identifies Arendt’s “banality of evil” in man who is enslaved to his own vulgar appetites even as he seeks to enslave others.

Anthony constantly reminds Cicero that Julius Caesar was but one supreme expression of the Republic’s moral and constitutional crisis.  Cut off one head and a systemic or cultural malaise remains.  Anthony is symptomatic of what happens when the state flatters and nurtures people who have no sense of loyalty to anything bigger than themselves.  When politics is reduced to divvying up imperial spoils among those who are well armed enough to despise the senate – then the Republic is over.

Anthony Trollope wrote a short biography of Cicero that’s well worth reading.  Of course, it tells us more about Trollope than about Cicero – but what it mostly tells us us about Cicero as the supreme expression of an ideal of public service.  For centuries, Cicero stood as the best representative of what a noble politician could look like. Someone who wields read power and responsibility when he has to, for short periods of time.  Somebody who isn’t afraid to compromise where necessary, but also remain in stubborn opposition when stubborn opposition is necessary.  Cicero’s is an exemplary life that is more to be desired than the life of any Caesar.

Cicero’s patriotism is derived from a passionate need to feel part of something that is larger and longer and more cherishable than he himself is.

And as Cicero rages against the dying of the republican light, I feel tears welling up.  Especially as the fourteenth Philippic begins to perorate…

Brevis a natura vita nobis data est, at memoria bene redditae vitae sempiterna.

And if I can re-read Cicero’s flowing periods often enough, he will start to move me more and more often in untranslated Latin.

If Hard Brexit impedes the easy transit of this stuff – how wedded are you really to Hard Brexit?

conradbrunstrom

Milk_Bank_Poster_300px

Human milk, that can help save the lives of premature and low birth weight infants, currently speeds across all thirty-two counties of the island of Ireland.  It is logged, pasteurised and distributed from the milk bank in Irvinestown, Co. Fermanagh, and sent via a variety of means to infants in need on both sides of the (currently) invisible border.

As we speak (assuming we’re speaking), negotiations are taking place to try to figure out to what extent abandoning the principle of freedom of movement between the UK and the EU is compatible with a so-called “frictionless border” in Northern Ireland.

Shamefully, of course, Britain’s moral commitment to the Good Friday Agreement formed no substantive part of the EU referendum last year and no substantive part of political discussions as to the form that Britain’s leaving the EU might take.

EU negotiators have had to prod the British government into taking…

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They Fought the Law and the Law Won. Laurel and Hardy in Pardon Us (1931).

PardonUs12

Pardon Us (1931) is regarded as the first “feature length” Laurel and Hardy movie.  This was not really a deliberate change of direction.  Pardon Us apparently began life as a short that sort of got out of hand, a film that could not be edited down to anything resembling a 2 or 3 reel “short”.

There’s a very nice bit of film editing at the beginning.   We’re still subject to Prohibition in 1931, and the boys are standing in front of a shop window, making a shopping list of ingredients in quantities that can only denote the illegal manufacture of alcohol.  The very next shot shows them being escorted to prison.   Stan had, apparently, tried to sell beer to a cop.

A series of extended sketches emerge while they’re doing time.  A running gag consists of Stan’s dental cavity which ensures that his conversations are interspersed with insulting raspberry type whistling noises.  The boys soon run the gauntlet of familiar Stan and Ollie “heavy” – Walter Long.  There is an extended schoolroom sketch that employs James Finlayson as an exasperated schoolteacher.  There’s no particular reason why this scene should have to have a prison setting, but there it is.  We’re just happy to have Finlayson on board.  Also there is a recycling of some dentistry jokes from Leave em Laughing (1928)

Towards the end of the film, the boys sort of accidentally quell a prison riot, leading to their early release at the discretion of Wilfred Lucas’ somewhat hysterical warden.  The final joke is a good one and is well prepared for.

One thing that Stan and Ollie feature films were able to accommodate to a greater extent was of course song.  And dance.  Make that two things.

Oliver Hardy’s rendition of “Lazy Moon” in this film is so very lovely, and Stan’s soft shoe dance to it is so effective that were it not for the fact it’s performed in blackface it would be a famously anthologised and endlessly replayed sequence.

It’s impossible to watch white people black up “innocently” any more. The long legacy of blackface is far too bitter and complex.  This prison is set somewhere in the deep south, within reach of plantations where African American pick cotton in the fields under conditions which appear not to have changed significantly since slavery.  The very fact that this world is depicted so brazenly and without commentary makes Pardon Us (1931) a fascinating historical document.

This film uses Stan and Ollie blackface not as a way of making any kind of generalisation about African Americans, but only as a very inefficient disguise, as another way of getting the boys into trouble.  So these plantation workers are not subjected to any real “minstrel” type comedy.  Stan and Ollie are in blackface because they’re on the run, not because they’re trying to mock or abuse anybody.

The blackface section, meanwhile, coincidentally offers a record of complete segregation, a world where it is assumed that the colour of your skin is an absolute determinant.  They are eventually caught while attempting to repair the Warden’s car as he drives through a plantation.  Though their disguise seems ludicrous and obvious to the audience, it’s clear that the Warden does not “see” black people in individuated terms at all.  He only sees Stan and Ollie when their white skin is exposed.

Watching the blackface scenes feel strange and disconcerting and invites serious discussion.   These scenes are not to be compared with the awful awful racist joke in Great Guns (1941) – a joke that depends absolutely upon a consensual recognition of racial inferiority and which is only survivable if you keep telling yourself that Great Guns is not really a Laurel and Hardy film because Stan Laurel had no creative impact or influence on the movie.

All in all, when it came to making features, Stan and Ollie would do a whole lot better than Pardon Us.  But they would also do a whole lot worse.

 

 

I have some thoughts about other Stan and Ollie films.

For example:

Laughing Gravy:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/and-now-a-choice-of-endings-laurel-and-hardy-in-laughing-gravy-1931/

The Stolen Jools:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/17/the-stolen-jools-all-of-1931-hollywood-in-2-reels-part-of-why-laurel-and-hardy-is-great-2/

Chickens Come Home:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/everybody-has-a-past-laurel-and-hardy-in-chickens-come-home-1931/

Be Big:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/10/these-boots-arent-made-for-walking-laurel-and-hardy-in-be-big-1931/

Another Fine Mess:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/10/07/the-most-famous-misquoted-catchphrase-of-them-all-laurel-and-hardy-in-another-fine-mess-1930/

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/29/oh-the-grimacing-butler-the-laurel-and-hardy-murder-case-1930/

Hog Wild

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/28/what-price-decent-reception-laurel-and-hardy-in-hog-wild-1930/

Below Zero:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/what-have-they-done-to-deserve-this-laurel-and-hardy-in-below-zero-1930/

Brats:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/child-is-the-father-to-the-man-laurel-and-hardy-in-brats-1930/

Blotto:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/they-should-never-have-ended-prohibition-laurel-and-hardy-in-blotto-1930/

Here is Night Owls:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpres

Angora Love:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/09/01/angora-love-laurel-and-hardys-last-silent-comedy-the-one-with-the-goat/

The Hoose Gow:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/08/23/a-hard-time-had-by-all-laurel-and-hardy-in-the-hoose-gow-1929-reviewed/

They Go Boom:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/08/10/they-go-boom-1929-they-really-do-this-laurel-and-hardy-title-does-what-it-says-on-the-tin/

Perfect Day:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/08/06/perfect-day-laurel-and-hardys-not-lou-reeds/

Men O’ War:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/08/05/men-owar-and-the-dawn-of-doh-laurel-and-hardy-in-1929/

Berthmarks:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/07/30/berth-marks-1929-laurel-and-hardy-and-the-comedy-of-confined-spaces/

Unaccustomed as We are Are:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/unaccustomed-as-we-are-laurel-and-hardys-first-sound-film-in-1929/

Bacon Grabbers:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/07/12/repo-men-original-and-best-laurel-and-hardy-in-bacon-grabbers-1929/

Double Whoopee:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/07/05/double-whoopee-the-laurel-and-hardy-film-set-entirely-in-a-hotel-lobby-and-in-the-street-just-outside-it/

Big Business:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/retributive-perfection-laurel-and-hardy-in-big-business-1929/

That’s My Wife:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/25/the-marriage-of-true-minds-laurel-and-hardys-thats-my-wife-1929/

Wrong Again:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/rich-people-are-different-laurel-and-hardy-in-wrong-again/

Liberty:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/laurel-and-hardy-nearly-plummeting-to-their-deaths-over-and-over-again-liberty-1929/

We Faw Down:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/secrets-and-lies-laurel-and-hardy-in-we-faw-down-1928/

Habeas Corpus:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/24/knowing-where-the-bodies-are-buried-laurel-and-hardy-in-habeas-corpus-1928/

Two Tars:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/21/appetite-for-autodestruction-two-tars-1928-reviewed/

Early to Bed:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/17/will-success-spoil-oliver-hardy-oh-you-betcha-early-to-bed-1928/

Should Married Men Go Home?:
https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/the-golfing-one-laurel-and-hardy-in-should-married-men-go-home-1928/

Their Purple Moment:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/their-purple-moment-1928-dont-you-just-love-it-when-stan-and-ollie-are-all-shy-and-flirty/

You’re Darn Tootin’:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/the-descent-to-trouser-fighting-youre-darn-tootin-1928/

From Soup to Nuts:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/laurel-and-hardy-embarrassing-rich-folk-satisfaction-guaranteed-from-soup-to-nuts-1928/

Leave em Laughing:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/04/03/leave-em-laughing-1928-gas-attack-in-culver-city/

Battle of the Century:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/battle-of-the-century-1927-the-pie-fight-is-sublimely-vindicated/

Putting Pants on Philip:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/25/putting-pants-on-philip-laurel-and-hardy-and-coming-to-america/

Hats Off:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/indiana-jones-why-dont-you-try-to-find-hats-off-the-lost-laurel-and-hardy-film/

Call of the Cuckoo:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/16/call-of-the-cuckoo-1927-laurel-and-hardy-are-bit-players-again-and-their-hair-hasnt-grown-back-yet/

The Second Hundred Years:
https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/12/laurel-and-hardy-in-the-second-hundred-years-1927-it-begins/

Flying Elephants:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/flying-elephants-laurel-and-hardy-were-never-faster-or-crazier/

Sugar Daddies:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/sugar-daddies-1927-laurel-and-hardy-and-finlayson-go-to-venice-beach/

Do Detectives Think?

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/watching-the-detectives-laurel-and-hardy-do-detectives-think-1927-this-one-is-the-real-thing/

Sailors Beware!:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/laurel-and-hardy-in-sailors-beware-1927-the-worlds-first-eisenstein-parody/

With Love and Hisses:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/02/07/with-love-and-hisses-1927-laurel-hardy-and-the-archaeology-of-kickdownism/

Love ‘Em and Weep:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/19/love-em-and-weep-still-not-a-laurel-and-hardy-film-but-say-hello-to-james-finlayson-and-mae-busch/

Slipping Wives:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/slipping-wives-1927-and-yes-i-am-going-to-blog-a-review-of-every-single-laurel-and-hardy-movie-i-genuinely-think-its-a-good-use-of-my-time/

45 Minutes from Hollywood:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/45-minutes-from-hollywood-some-context-for-laurel-and-hardy/

Duck Soup:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/duck-soup-the-laurel-and-hardy-film-the-first-laurel-and-hardy-film-arguably/

The Lucky Dog:

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2017/01/03/the-lucky-dog-laurel-and-hardy-first-meet-on-film/

 

The authentic voice of deepest evil? Pyramids of Mars (1975)

pyramids

Last week on Halloween night, we indulged the boy’s rational and reasonable craving to watch a “real” horror movie.   Erring on the side of caution, we sat together and watched the 1973 Amicus portmanteau movie Vault of Horror – an intriguing bit of film-making in its own way, but not one that frightened the child adequately.

The film does, however, feature Tom Baker in its final segment.  He plays an artist whose paintings have been deliberately disparaged so as to be scooped up for a song and then sold on at huge profits.  By signing a voodoo contract, he is empowered to destroy those who defrauded him through the medium of portraiture.

It occurred to me after a disappointing hour and a half, that our time would have been better spent rewatching Pyramids of Mars (1975).  The production values of this Doctor Who story equal those of many Hammer or Amicus films made around this time and the plot, script and acting is vastly superior.  And of course, you still have Tom Baker.

Despite what Mary Whitehouse thought she was seeing during the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era of the programme (1975-77), there is no gore, really, in Doctor Who at this time.  But gore was never the most satisfying element of a good Hammer or Amicus film production either.  The scariest thing a Hammer film could ever offer was Peter Cushing gathering a group of young people around him and explaining to them exactly why they needed to be afraid, with complete seriousness and conviction.

Just as Peter Cushing could play the Doctor on film, so the Doctor could, on occasion, play Peter Cushing.   The late Paddy Russell had two great resources to play with in Pyramids of Mars, and they are the voices of Tom Baker and Gabriel Woolf.  Baker Booms and Woolf summons up something malevolent from beyond the dawn of time.  So impressive is Woolf’s vocal performance as Sutekh that he was invited, more than thirty years later, to vocalise a suspiciously similar spirit of ultimate evil in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.  When Tom Baker explains to Sarah Jane that the barren wasteland she has witnessed will be an inevitable 1980 unless events in 1911 are sorted out, there’s a peculiar authority and urgency that’s worthy of Cushing.

If it is Tom Baker’s job to explain the fear and Woolf’s to be the fear, then it is Elisabeth Sladen’s job to be afraid.  Some have noticed a disappointing softening in the career of Sarah Jane Smith.  The pioneering feminist journalist who attempted to convert the twelfth century to gender equality on her debut in 1973, perhaps spent more time screaming towards the end of her stint on the show.  But there is extraordinary courage implicit in the visible effort of self-possession she exhibits in Pyramids of Mars.  She is terrified.  She never falls apart.

Pyramids of Mars is one of those adventures which involves a remarkable collaboration of familiar talent.  Baker and Sladen at the top of their game.  Russell, pre-eminently an actor’s director, helps to create tense scene after tense scene.  Robert Holmes offers dialogue that is witty yet economical and never self indulgent.  Dudley Simpson offers a disturbing yet unobtrusive score that uses its Egyptian motifs sparingly but effectively.

The plot?  Well, an Egyptologist is possessed – there’s a mansion house in 1911 (actually Mick Jagger’s house) – there are mummy robots – there’s a pan-dimensional mega-being imprisoned on Mars – there are traps and there are riddles.

The story is not more ludicrous than many horror movies and it does the things that many fine horror movies do better than many horror movies.  But perhaps its real triumph is the way it vindicates a BBC serial genre.  It’s not that it should have been a real horror movie (like a Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy), but that it reminds us of the reality that serialised theatrical television horror can, on the best of days, compete with anything that the big screen has to offer.

Perhaps I’ll try to remember that next Halloween.

Waking up to some bad news for nativists and good news for humans.

northam

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2017-election

I went to bed worried about some electoral contests thousands of miles away.  Why do I do that?

I suppose it’s because nativism is such a global concern right now.  The more Mueller digs, the more obvious this becomes.   There are variants of “nationalism” that are profoundly international.

The more blinkered and parochial the political rhetoric – the more glitzy and cosmopolitan the money funding that rhetoric.  The more obsessively nativist politicians discuss walls and borders and “taking back control” – the more offshored and untraceable the investments behind those politicians.

If this overwhelming fact can be dragged closer to the middle of the stage and have a few more spotlights shone upon it, then there’s a greater chance that more and more people will recognise that the likes of Trump and Farage are not “anti-establishment” at all but rather the establishment on steroids – representative of a tendency to move the world’s most serious money beyond the control of any sovereign accountable body while spouting the rhetoric of sovereignty and accountability in order to promote the politics of kick down.

Here’s my review of the late John Urry’s last book – Offshoring

https://conradbrunstrom.wordpress.com/2016/03/22/pirates-are-running-the-world-a-review-of-offshoring-by-john-urry-2/

Well, the Democrats have won gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey.  The Virginia margin of victory appears wider than recent polls were suggesting, a reflection of higher turn out than expected.  A variety of other election contests across the USA also show strong polling for anti-Trump anti-nativist candidates.   In both Virginia and New Jersey, a racialised fear of “crime” was central to the Republican agenda.  In one corner of New Jersey, attempts were made to frighten voters with the spectacle of cricket fields appearing in their neighbourhoods in response to the growing south Asian population there.

All of that horribleness has taken a knock.  It’s been a particular knock for the idea of Trumpism without the Trump.  Trump himself, who cannot see past personal loyalty, blamed Gillespie for not staying closer to the Great Leader in a tweet that demonstrates his ability to drop people the instant he perceives they’ve failed him. For Trump there can be no “Trumpism without the Trump” because nothing exists without the Trump – without the Trump – the universe has no meaning.

Has the Democratic Party “recovered”?  Of course not.

In some ways the disarray in the Democratic Part is entirely predictably and logical.  Once you look past the clash of personalities you see that the factions attached to the names “Clinton” and “Sanders” reflect a very necessary choice to be made.   The Republican Party has been hi-jacked by a supposed “outsider” preaching nativism.   To oppose him when he falls (instantly) into disarray do you claim the mantle of the establishment, do you declare “amateur hour is over, time to let the grown ups take over again?”  Do you put on a proper suit and say that Saturnalia has run its course?  Or do you develop your own version of populism – do you find a message and a messenger that is as “anti-establishment” as the nativism you oppose?  Do you decide that you need to not just win opinion poll but organise really motivated voters – voters who can be relied upon to show up when and where it really counts?

Imagine if, in the UK, there were no such thing as a “Leader of the Opposition”, and the UK Labour Party were split into roughly equal factions dominated by David (not Ed) Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.  In such a case you’d have a fairly elegant dramatisation of a very real political decision.

I’m from a country in between the USA and the UK where nativism is not yet a loud or a strident political force.  But the global character of nativism means that complacency is never an option.  Paradoxically, the strongest nativists are always those who oppose any attempt by the state to actual secure the resources it can fairly claim to protect its own people.  The EU has censured my country for its refusal to pursue tax revenue that it has a legitimate claim on.  There is no simple opposition between national sovereignty and globalism.  There’s abusive nationalism and abusive globalism and rational nationalism and liberating globalism (or “internationalism” is globalism is too contaminated a term) – and these apparently contradictory tendencies can collaborate in a variety of strategic configurations.

What last night tells us is that nativism can be opposed.  All it needs is for those who oppose xenophobia and kickdownism to be as motivated as those who are consumed by it.  Not only Trump, by “trumpism” will fall.  It will just take a bit of work.

 

Happy Birthday William Stukeley.

conradbrunstrom

300px-stonehenge_stukeley

At a time when everybody’s talking about Trump and Farage and other destructive egomaniacs, perhaps everybody (and I mean everybody) should drop everything and wish a very happy birthday to antiquarian and maker of wonderful books, William Stukeley, born on this day in 1687.

Stukeley became an Anglican clergyman while retaining a fascination with druids.   Without being in any sense a new age Pagan, he was interested in ideas of monotheistic congruence that suggested continuities between pre-historic belief systems and Anglican orthodoxy.

Stukeley dug Stonehenge and Avebury, in both the literal and the colloquial sense.  His importance lies not so much in his theorisation of these sites, but in his careful measurements and calculations.   Indeed, Stukeley occupies a liminal category between the speculative antiquarian and the practical archaeologist.   His method was empirical, even if his deductions were unsubstantiated.   He employed the spade and the tape…

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Dudley Simpson, the man who scored my childhood died yesterday. Goodbye 1970s.

Yes,  a great many of my childhood memories came with a Dudley Simpson soundtrack.  Not just from Doctor Who, but from a variety of other shows as well.

Who can forget the immortal Blake’s Seven theme?  It’s a defiant fanfare of desperate challenge to a tyrannical galactic order.

And of course there’s The Tomorrow People with its highly-strung evocation of untapped energies.

I could list any number of composing credits for this great Australian composer whose music reached more impressionable young people than almost anyone else of his generation. His formative influence on an entire generation is incalculable

I would like to point out that he wrote incidental music for the very wonderful Jane Howell directed BBC Shakespeare Henry VI-Richard III tetralogy in the 1980s.  This powerful and imaginative (and Brechtian) production is underscored by Dudley Simpson’s intuitive ability to create a mood without cloying a mood – to generate atmosphere while still allowing actors to breath and inform that atmosphere.

It’s this ability which makes it impossible to single out any single piece of 1970s Dudley Simpson’s Doctor Who music for special attention.  It should be noted, however, that Dudley Simpson took a while to become “Dudley Simpson”.  His jazzy score for The Chase (1965) is quite unlike the scores he wrote in the 1970s.  Indeed, the music he composed for the show prior to the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era was very varied in terms of its instrumentation and generic referencing

In the 1970s, however, he found a groove and stuck to it.  The groove consisted of horns, clarinet, contrabass clarinet, saxophone, piano, electric organ and percussion.  Unlike the very conservative orchestral swirlings of Murray Gold (I blame John Williams and the prevalent conservativism of most sci-fi scores post 1980), Simpson’s music was discrete yet innovative, menacing yet subtle.

The music is so interwoven into one’s sense of some of those great stories that it cannot easily be separated from them. It’s ambient in the best sense – it creates a mood but it’s never “mood music”.  It surprises and creates unease but it’s never egotistical.

The fact that his music is, in a sense, inconspicuous does not mean that all his 1970s scores were the same.  Far from it.  Deadly Assassin, for example, makes particular use of organ chords to generate an ecclesiastical context for a story about sinister cardinals gathered in conclave.  But the very distinctiveness of such a score is so closely associated with the distinctiveness of the story that’s being told that it’s always unobtrusive.  It is embedded in its proper context.

So saying goodbye to Dudley Simpson means saying goodbye to something which subtly informed much of the 1970s – saying goodbye to intelligent experimental music, designed to enhance dramatic tension.  His was theatrical music, and music that served scripts and actors.

His music will last for as long as people choose to preserve the dramas he scored. That is to say, for ever and ever.

 

 

Unimaginable slaughter. Unspeakable grief. But it’s an ill wind…

All of this again. And again and again.

conradbrunstrom

bay

Someone with no background of violence and part of no violent network (political, religious or otherwise), appears to have decided that he hates humanity and therefore organised a means of killing as many densely packed humans as possible.

Evidence may show up to dispute or expand the above assertion, but right now – that’s the only miserable “explanation” that anyone can offer.  In the meantime, there are nearly sixty dead, dozens of grieving families and hundreds of people whose lives will be permanently scarred.  We don’t know how to interpret such a crime and therefore struggle to imagine how to prevent its recurrence.  Ideological motivations make for political strategies.  Stephen Paddock’s photo stares back at us and gives us nothing to go on.  If a wealthy 64 year old suburbanite can do this – what kind of “profiling” can ever anticipate and forestall yet more tragedy? Who or what are…

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Sexual Harassment and the Theatre. I’d forgotten that I knew more about this than I thought I did.

earnest

When reading about the many allegations swirling round Kevin Spacey, Max Stafford-Clark and Michael Colgan, my instinct was to defer all judgement and defer to people I usually trust to offer some informed commentary – people much much closer to the centre of London and Dublin theatre than I have ever been or ever will be.  I can commend, for example, this careful but incisive piece by my old friend Dan Rebellato:

http://www.danrebellato.co.uk/spilledink/2017/10/21/max-stafford-clark

This morning, however, Fintan O’Toole, writing in The Irish Times,  reminded me that if I have no claim to offer any any special commentary on 21st century London and Dublin theatre, I do know a bit when it comes to 1740s Dublin theatre.

Here is O’Toole’s piece.

https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-if-theatre-is-not-a-safe-space-what-is-left-1.3279126#.Wf1zxunSoS0.twitter

O’Toole writes of the remarkable “Kelly Riots” of 1746 [OS]/ 1747, in which someone with genteel pretensions from Galway got hideously drunk, burst backstage and started to sexually assault Mrs Dyer, one of the most acclaimed players in the company, while threatening others with the same fate.

Here is my book which discusses these events:

https://books.google.ie/books/about/Thomas_Sheridan_s_Career_and_Influence.html?id=qWzRYgEACAAJ&redir_esc=y

Kelly was thrown out of the building by the manager, but he reappeared in the audience to disrupt the performance.  Actor-manager Thomas Sheridan’s insistence that he (Sheridan) was as good a gentleman as Kelly caused riotous uproar and eventually led to a court case which Sheridan won.  As a consequence of the whole affair, Sheridan gained more power to regulate his theatre (and protect his employees) than any Irish or British theatre manager before him.

Of course, readers will instantly identify the obvious difference between these 1740s events and twenty-first century theatrical sex abuse scandals.  The cases we’re horrified by right now involve abuses reported to have been committed by actor managers while Thomas Sheridan emerges as a benevolent and protective employer.  Plenty of people accused Thomas Sheridan (with some justification) of high-handed and autocratic behaviour as manager – but nobody accused him of unwanted sexual advances.

Does this mean that this mid-eighteenth-century example is irrelevant in the context of current revelations?  No it does not.  Firstly and most obviously, O’Toole is right to point out that people did not suddenly start objecting to sexual harassment in the past decade.  It was not “OK in the 1970s.”  Nor was it “OK in the 1740s.”

In the early eighteenth-century, acting was still a thoroughly unrespectable profession.  Leading players (I prefer the gender-neutral eighteenth-century term), were a bit like gladiators in ancient Rome.  They could be megastars with a huge fan base yet could be simultaneously denied the common rights and dignities of full citizenship.    Players were assumed to exist to “serve” the public and in the context of female players, this “service” could be understood in very extended terms.  Genteel members of the audience (usually the worst behaved)  felt entitled to wander backstage, barge into dressing rooms in the hope of seeing some flesh, and to grope at will.

The most powerful man on earth still feels this sense of entitlement and has boasted about it on film.

Thomas Sheridan’s achievement was to set some boundaries.  As a result of landmark court case, he felt able to remove high price seating from the stage (some rich folk liked to actually sit on the stage – so as to be as up close and personal with players as possible),  and create a real but invisible protective barrier between players and audiences.  He also prevented people from paying “part money” to just see the bits and pieces of the evening’s entertainment.  He put people in their place.

It is easy, in some ways, to feel nostalgic for old-fashioned boisterous theatres where rioting was always on the cards, but it’s important to remember that the Harriet Dyers of this world were its victims.

It is also notable that later in life, while working at Drury Lane Theatre in London, employed as a day to day manager by his own son (an arrangement which understandably didn’t work out too well), Sheridan played an important  role in mentoring Sarah Siddons – the most acclaimed player of her generation.   Siddons is important not just as a stage phenomenon but as a consummate professional whose inviolable respectability off stage was as celebrated as her passionate performances on stage (the ultimate transgressive role of Lady Macbeth was her most celebrated).   It is said that the libidinous Prince George once tried something on with Sarah Siddons only to be instantly repelled by her commanding stare.  (“One would as soon try to make love to the Archbishop of Canterbury”).  In other words, Thomas Sheridan and Sarah Siddons worked together to helped establish professional rights and and professional boundaries for (some) women who worked on stage.  Siddons was available to the gaze of those who had paid to see her for a certain amount of time.  Her private life was her own, and was carefully protected.

It is possible that Sheridan would have been far less successful in 1747, without the massive literary success of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740.  As wildly popular in Ireland as it was in England, this tale of principled resistance to sexual harassment in the workplace made its own revolutionary claims – despite its disappointingly submissive marital conclusion.  Later in the century Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro was equally revolutionary (and widely banned) simply because it declared that working people had the right to a space of their own – a territory that could not be invaded at will by aristocratic whim.  Even if this territory were no more than a worker’s own body, the assertion of such a space’s existence represents a decisive political claim.  A claim that could be built on.

So although, the Kelly Riots do not describe what we would regard as workplace abuse (in the theatre or anywhere else) – they do dramatically illustrate the fact that the struggle to preserve a version of the self from the abusive whims of men who feel entitled is a very long one.

One thing that eighteenth-century examples will tell you is that the battle for sexual autonomy and sexual consent was usually defined as a labour dispute.  The real context for all theatrical sex abuse narratives is much larger than the world of theatre, although the uncertainties of theatrical employment incubate certain dangers.  We need to consider the full context of a world in which people work indefinite hours, have poorly defined job descriptions, and are always being urged to “go the extra mile” by their employers.  It’s the context of a working environment where there are no “boundaries”.

A hard-Brexit Britain, incidentally, shorn of “red tape” and worker’s protections, in which zero hours contracts are the norm and trade unions are neutered – threatens the most enabling context for large scale sexual abuse that any nation in the so-called “civilised” world has seen in many decades.

So much for the stuff I actually know about.  Now for a very real and completely naive question?

Where was Equity while all this stuff with Spacey and Stafford Clark  was going on?  Is it beyond the scope of a trade union to protect its members from an abusive employer?  Even a very famous and artistically acclaimed employer?  Is not recourse to the protection and power of organised labour the only fit response to “you’ll never work in this town again?”