Posts Tagged ‘Dance’

Well, here I am for the Nth time (I’ve lost count) in the August cultural capital trying to work out which of the c.2000 shows I should take in. The more you come the easier it gets, as you learn to discriminate between the best home for new writing in the UK (The Traverse) and the new all female musical comedy version of Hamlet performed in a tree by a cast of 3…..

We started well with Let’s See What Happens by The Scat Pack, which is a bunch of talented (and brave) performers who create a new play each day before your very eyes, with a guest director and audience suggestion. With the fringe increasingly hijacked by ‘corporate comedy’ this is a breath of fresh air and embodies its true spirit……and we weren’t biased because Clive & Julia’s son Henry was in it! The Icelandic contingent was particularly taken with it.

Our visit to see a small Georgian male voice choir became more significant as events had unfolded in their homeland. Greyfriars was the perfect venue for a very varied selection of extraordinary songs – religious, folk, work songs & drinking songs amongst them. The very warm welcome was more than appreciation for a lovely show; it was also Edinburgh showing solidarity with their plight.

A rare bummer at the previously feted Traverse – Fall by Zinnie Harris – a play about war crimes which started at a snails pace and by the time it picked up became preposterous. I’m afraid we left at the interval as (Edinburgh) life’s too short for duds like this.

Arthur Smith’s one-off contemporary art lecture (to accompany his spoof exhibition) was a lovely slice of great British eccentricity and again the true spirit of the fringe. With three guest slots (including a late arriving Simon Munnery who had nipped out the back for a fag!), a couple in an on-stage wendy house throughout and someone called Rupert showing us his diamond prince albert piercing (!) there was never a dull moment. When I eventually caught up with the exhibition, Rupert was on the door, but I think I managed to look like I’d never seen (any of him) before. ‘Head of Security’ Ray Spinks, in his uniform and spectacular false moustache, remembered me from last year, which may be some indication of the exhibition’s popularity (though it did win an IF comedy award). It was even better this year but I still can’t find the words to describe it.

Margaret Edge had recommended Meli Melo, four talented Frenchmen who spoof everything from ballet to competition gymnastics to ice dancing to flamenco, and it turned out to be a real treat. We laughed our socks off and almost wet ourselves (too much information?). This is the sort of show which the French equivalent of the arts council subsidise (as well as opera, ballet etc.)  – can we have their arts council please!

Shakespeare for Breakfast wasn’t up to its usual standard – this year with Macbeth and his lady, Romeo & Juliet, Malvolio and Prospero flitting in and out of The Weakest Link and The Apprentice. It amazes me how many people turn up at 10am for this, but maybe the free coffee and croissant have something to do with it. After 17 years, though, I think it may have outstayed its welcome.


Aluminium is a spectacle on the theme of…..go on, guess….which is highly inventive, pretty spectacular but otherwise a bit cold and pointless. It is a great idea well executed though, so I can’t say it was a waste of time or money. We decided it was for younger folk who have less need for things like narrative, story, plot or depth!


One of the absolute highlights followed (and I’m proud to say it was produced by Sherman Cymru, a good use of Welsh arts council funding if ever I saw any), with a verbatim play about the Deep Cut barracks case. You’re now thinking ‘heavy’ but it wasn’t. It was more objective and less preachy than most in this genre – and beautifully acted. When you live in a world of spin and cover up, you need theatre like this.


The next show also fell into the Verbatim theatre category; this time about the plight of those still homeless after the July 2007 flooding. Their stories were told at close quarters inside a caravan for an audience of less than 10. The proximity made it all the more real and when the actors made eye contact, I found myself nodding and grunting in true ‘active listening’ mode. Another treat.


At 75, Joan Rivers could easily be getting skin cancer in the sun in Palm Springs or standing on stage telling autobiographical stories and smutty jokes. Instead, she creates a play based on a episode of her life when she was fired and steps in and out of it to talk to the audience in the first person as if we were her therapist. It doesn’t entirely work but you can’t help admiring her balls (!) and there are some very funny lines. I felt a bit out of place in a reverential audience of fans, but didn’t regret going.


High culture followed with Honneger’s oratorio Le Roi David, which for 20th century music is surprisingly tuneful! I got a bit lost in the biblical story (despite the libretto) and after a while didn’t really care who begat whom but it was beautifully sung and played and Jeff’s snoring wasn’t too loud.


Tina C is a country singer who’s decide to run for president and practice her campaign rally here in Edinburgh….well, actually she’s the creation of Christopher Green from south London, but you just might believe it. I’ve seen her / him a few times before (without the presidential campaign context) and this wasn’t the best for two reasons – the live guitar accompaniment has been given over to pre-recorded tracks and there were a bunch of drunks in the audience whose loud talking was clearly making it hard for him / her to concentrate (and we eventually conspired to slow handclap them out of the venue). Still worth the effort though and I’m looking forward to another of his creations – housewife Ida Bar – at the Barbican at Christmas.


The badly titled Pornography (it’s not got a lot to do with it) is a brave attempt to weave together stories of fictional Londoner’s (and a fictional bomber) at the time of the 07/07 bombings. I thought it was beautifully written, acted and staged and regret that it couldn’t find a home where it belongs in London. Simon Stephens is a favourite playwright of mine, though I didn’t like his last play – Harper Regan – at the National, so this is a return to form.


At the same venue, the aforementioned Traverse, Architecting was the low spot of the entire festival. This is the sort of pretentious avante guarde tosh NYC’s Wooster Group churned out in the 80’s and I can’t fathom why the otherwise spot-on National Theatre of Scotland decided to involve themselves with it. Maybe it was a jolly to the US for the assistant director…..If I was Scottish, I’d be picketing the parliament.


Old folkie John Redbourn is certainly a guitar virtuoso (though he can’t sing for toffee!) and though a bit under-rehearsed he managed to deliver enough to send you home happy. Unfortunately we followed him with a more virtuosic and on-form Latin jazz guitarist Antonio Forcione and the comparison didn’t help. Forcione and his percussionist were completely original and simply wonderful.


It’s not often you see something completely different, but Slick was just that. I can only describe it as puppets with human faces and arms which look something like cabbage patch dolls. The result was like a crude surreal black comedy cartoon – it was a touch overlong, but I still loved it.


After a spectacular lunch at Restaurant Martin Wishart, any play was going to be a challenge and so it proved with New Electric Ballroom. I think it was another of Enda Walsh’s gothic Irish stories of unfulfilled lives, but you might have to ask Jeff or Ruth who appeared to be more awake than me.


Every year I go to a stand-up and then wonder why I don’t go to more, and so it was with Michael McIntyre. The reason why I’m put off is that you can always see them on TV or back in London, so why waste precious Edinburgh time? The reason why I enjoyed this so much might be because it was a great laugh to end the day – no gimmicks; just a normal bloke who is exceptionally funny.


Our final day started at the Traverse (again!) for Terminus; three interwoven monologues. Though I admired them and they were beautifully told on a stunningly lit set, they were (like all monologues) not really theatre. This sparked a fascinating debate, as the most literary amongst us (Jeff) liked them most and the most visual (me) least. Different people are clearly stimulated by different things and see the same show from a different perspective. To satisfy my intuition, I need characters to interact and changing visual images to accompany them.


Stephen Berkoff’s interpretation of the 50’s (?) Brando film On The Waterfront gave us another highlight. It took a while to take off, but once you were immersed in the highly stylised movement it was captivating, and the terrific ensemble provided some of the best acting of the week.


We’d started with the spirit of the fringe and we ended with the spirit of the international (main) festival – a 70’s English play (Nigel Williams’ Class Enemy) re-interpreted for a 21st century post-civil war Bosnia. Its anger was a bit relentless, but it probably meant more to me just a month after my visit. Whatever you think of it though, it’s what festivals are for and it brought back many memories of better main festival days – Macbeth in Japanese at cherry blossom time in the Shogun period and Greek tragedies in Romanian in a disused corn exchange!


Art has been well represented in recent years, but this year was a disappointment. Though it included some nice paintings, Impressionism & Scotland was really an excuse for an exhibition and only Janet Cardiff & Charles Miller’s six (mostly aural and sometimes moving) installations enthralled (well, me and Clive bu t not Jeff & Ruth!).


Not a vintage Edinburgh, but it’s always a fascinating cocktail. I’m now in the Orkney’s looking at the morning sun over the glass-like Kirkwall harbour from my hotel room and it seems like a million miles away……..

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Well, I never thought I’d end up at Covent Garden watching an adaptation of a 16th century Chinese tale designed by a British ‘pop artist’ with music by Brit Pop’s leader, performed by 38 Chinese actors, acrobats and martial artists…..and what a breath of fresh air it is!

Damon Albarn’s east-meets-west score sounds Chinese but is more accessible to western ears and scattered with beautiful tunes and fascinating sounds. Jamie Hewlett’s designs are spectacular, a kind of cartoon-Roy Leichtenstein-oriental kitsch cocktail.

The cast’s combined skills are spell-binding, but they don’t just showcase them, they create genuine characters – cheeky monkey, charming pigsy and so on.

The final scene was simply gorgeous.

This was an extraordinary idea which turned into an extraordinary achievement.

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This is an article from The Observer on 13th July for which I was interviewed. You’ll have to scroll down to para 28 to find my few words of wisdom, but I’ve hightlighted them for you in case you haven’t got time !
An army of arts bloggers is posting internet reviews on subjects from grand opera to soap opera – instant, global and free. US newspapers have begun to ditch their reviewers as digital alternatives flourish. Could it happen here? On the blog, Jay Rayner asks for your thoughts. Join the conversation
Jay Rayner
Sunday July 13 2008
The Observer

It was a croquette of pig’s head that finally forced me to recognise the threat posed by the blogosphere. It was served at the Westerly, a restaurant in Reigate, Surrey, in April last year. I knew nothing of the place, or its chef, but I had a copy of the menu, and it was full of things I like to eat: Jerusalem artichokes and wild garlic, snails and pigeon and Amalfi lemons. It had the potential to be everything a newspaper restaurant critic dreams of – a genuine find outside London, serving terrific food at a reasonable price.

It was all that and more. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. My companion agreed. Simon Majumdar, a one-time publishing executive, is a food blogger. We had met on internet food discussion boards, which he had left behind in favour of his blog, Dos Hermanos, so named because he writes it with his brother, Robin. It is their account of eating out across the world. A restaurant critic needs a companion, and Simon had regularly been mine. We both adored the gazpacho and the rillette, the lamb with its butter-rich mashed potato and the sorbet made with Amalfi lemons. And of course we loved the pig’s head croquette with sauce gribiche, for we are both men with a taste for the cheaper cuts. At the end I asked for a copy of the menu, paid the bill and we went home.

Within two hours of getting back to my desk, Simon’s review was online. He did not explain why he had been there. He did describe it as his best meal of the year so far. My eye strayed to his mention of the pig’s head, with mounting panic: ‘a large disc of head meat fried perfectly in crumbs to a crisp coating which when punctured gave off a steamy aroma of pork’. Spot on. Simon might not have been paid for it, but he is a good writer. And a lot of people would read him. Granted, not as many as read The Observer. Even today, with the cult of the Dos Hermanos blog fully developed, it rarely gets more than 7,000 readers a week.

The problem was that his readers would be opinion formers: not just chefs, restaurateurs and food journalists but other hardcore restaurant goers. And when my review was printed almost three weeks later they would all assume I was the one who had taken my lead from Simon rather than the other way round; that the real finds were being made by the amateurs. The blogger had beaten me into print. I had no choice. I called Simon and asked him to take down his post until my version had appeared. Ever the gentleman, he agreed. From that point on I concluded I could no longer view the blogosphere as source material or even mere displacement activity. Now it was the competition.

It could be worse. At least those of us in Britain who make our living from our opinions are still gainfully employed. Across America it’s a different story. Paid newspaper critics from a number of disciplines are being laid off or redeployed, their judgment deemed superfluous to requirements in the age of the net. Book review pages are becoming increasingly skinny. Television sections are disappearing. In April, Sean Means, the film critic of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, used his blog to publish a roll call of his movie-reviewing colleagues who, since the spring of 2006, were no longer in the opinion business: ‘Steve Ramos, Cincinnati CityBeat, position eliminated … Jami Bernard, New York Daily News, contract not renewed … Michael Atkinson, Village Voice, laid off …’ At that point it ran to 28 names across the US media but since then it has stretched inexorably on.

Others soon started taking notice, with both the entertainment industry journal Variety and the Los Angeles Times publishing large pieces on the death of the critic. As Patrick Goldstein put it in the LA Times: ‘Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it’s in classical music, dance, theatre or other areas of the arts. While economics are clearly at work here – seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can’t afford a full range of critics any more – it seems clear we’re in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism.’

It appears that consumers no longer feel the need to obtain their opinions from on high: the authority of the critic, derived from their paid position on a newspaper, is diminished. Opinion has been democratised. In the movie world two sites are credited with decimating the profession. Ironically, Rotten Tomatoes, founded in August 1998, was designed to give readers access to the opinions of a bunch of critics. If 60 per cent or more of the reviews are good, the film gets a fresh rating; fewer than 60 per cent and it’s rotten. The site became so popular that in 2004 it was bought by IGN Entertainment which, in turn, was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (which, as a newspaper publisher, also pays critics). Metacritic, launched in January 2001, also combines reviews but across various media and arts, including films, video games and books. It too became so successful it was bought out, by CNET networks. Since then, blogs, written by unpaid enthusiasts, have proliferated to
 such a degree that in some areas of the arts their writers are being courted by the PR machine.

The old media have, predictably, been outraged. After all, their jobs are on the line. ‘People who make these decisions,’ says Sean Means of the host of sackings, ‘get it into their heads that people who want to read about new movies have lots of places to do so, from fan sites, through blogs to critical aggregators, but they are being short-sighted. The reason people buy newspapers is to hear that particular voice.’ So is he saying that the opinions expressed for free on blogs are not of value? Not necessarily, he says. ‘The truth is, though, that there are very few amateurs who are better than professionals. If you really are good at it you figure out some way to get paid for it. At the risk of sounding elitist, everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has an informed opinion.’

The advent of the net has been described as a revolution. If so, one of its most heated battles is being fought over the right to claim expertise. In the US the ancien régime, in this case the salaried critic, appears to be in retreat. The question is what will happen here? We need only look at television criticism, a once-noble calling pursued for this newspaper by both Julian Barnes and Clive James, for clues. In May the Daily Telegraph decided it no longer needed a daily TV review. Regular TV reviews have also gone at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and London’s Evening Standard. Could the same happen to other arts?

The British critical tradition is long and rich and deep: from the pamphleteering of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the early 18th century, through the literary criticism of Oscar Wilde in the 19th to Graham Greene’s film reviews and Kenneth Tynan’s first-night theatre notices in the 20th, we have never been short of confident people to tell us what is good and what is not and why.

‘We have a wonderful tradition of criticism in this country,’ says Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard for nearly 25 years, ‘and it would be a tragedy if we lost it. The onlooker sees most. We are the skilled onlookers.’

But in a globalised world where something posted on the net in Chicago one minute is read in London the next, no trend is ever localised. So how web-savvy are Britain’s crew of professional opinion-peddlers? Are they ready to take on the challenge from the ones who do it for free? There’s only one way to find out: ask them. So we assembled a collection of Britain’s longest-serving and most distinguished paid critics who, between them, have more than two centuries’ experience in telling us what they think, and sought their opinions. It’s what they’re for.

Andrew and Phil have lots of opinions too, and tonight I’m hoping to hear some of them. It is a warm evening in Waterloo and we are at the Young Vic for a preview performance of Berthold Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan, starring Jane Horrocks, a gritty little number full of cement dust, exploitation of the workers, prostitution and discordant, irritatingly Brechtian songs.

Of course, paid newspaper critics do not review productions on previews, but Andrew and Phil – they insist on first names only, to maintain the web-enhanced ‘mystique’ – are not paid by anybody. They write a blog called the West End Whingers, which they set up in June 2006 after sitting through what they regarded as an appalling production of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, starring Juliette Lewis. Both middle-aged, long-time theatregoers, they were fed up with each other’s whingeing so, as they explain on the blog, they ‘decided to whinge at the world instead’.

Their reviews, written under one voice, are sharp and irreverent in a mannered, high camp sort of way. Their destruction of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife at the National Theatre, written for the most part as a play about the imagined receipt of the script, is laugh-out-loud funny – and a damn sight more enjoyable than the hand-wringing from some of the paid critics when they held forth over what was agreed to be a sub-standard work by the revered playwright. (‘[Frayn’s] deliberately repeated bits over and over again,’ they imagine National director Nicholas Hytner howling, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have given him a word count. It’s the oldest trick in the book.’)

As we wait for The Good Soul to start I ask them if they feel they have a responsibility to anybody. (As with the no-surnames rule they also insist on being interviewed as one person, while telling you that they have never been a couple.) ‘We’re only here for our own amusement,’ they say. ‘We have no obligation to sit through it on behalf of our readers.’ Walking out of plays is a speciality of the West End Whingers. If they don’t like it, they leave. After all, their tickets aren’t free. They have paid for almost every one, bar those for Swimming With Sharks starring Christian Slater. ‘We didn’t care for it and we said as much. We haven’t been invited back to the West End since.’

Their beautifully described midway departure from an early preview of the epoch-long Gone With The Wind was, according to a number of people in the theatre world, the first sign that all was not well with the musical. So do they think the mainstream critics have a role? ‘Oh yes. Someone has to stay until the curtain to see what happens at the end.’ Would they like to be paid for what they do? ‘I think if we were paid it would mean we would have to play the game, which would be boring.’

They also have no desire to work for a newspaper. ‘Endure the theatre without alcohol? Locate things in the wider discourse? No. we have no aspirations in that direction.’

There is quite a lot of alcohol tonight: before, during and after as the whingers and their entourage – me, other bloggers, a few friends of friends – settle in to enjoy themselves. Their review, when it is posted a couple of days later, seems to reflect a good night out. ‘Horrocks was great and there were many other performances to enjoy, too,’ they wrote. ‘In fact there were oodles of things to write down: great wigs, a lot of cigarette smoking, rain, wonderful props and signage…’ So no, not exactly a first-night crit of the sort Kenneth Tynan might admire. But – whisper it – it did quietly remind me more of the night I’d had than did the professional reviews I would later read.

Which is all well and good, says Charles Spencer, a theatre reviewer for the Daily Telegraph since 1991. But that doesn’t mean we should mistake what the West End Whingers do for criticism. (Which, for the record, they never claim it to be). ‘I don’t think they’re very helpful,’ Spencer says. ‘Mildly entertaining, I suppose, but that brand of camp humour doesn’t do it for me. They’re not really critics. The last thing of theirs I read was them whingeing about squeaky seats at the Old Vic.’ Then again, Spencer admits to being a bit of a web-refusenik. ‘I look at Wikipedia now and then but until a year ago I hadn’t looked at the web at all.’

Indeed it would be easy to portray many of our leading critics as a bunch of silver-backed elders of the tribe, caught on the hop by technological change. Of course, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. Gillian Reynolds, who has been writing superbly about radio since 1967, and for the Telegraph since 1975, admits she has little time for opinions on the web. ‘I just don’t want to hang around with company I don’t value. Life’s too short.’ Clement Crisp, who has been writing about dance for the Financial Times for more than 35 years, and for whom the word ‘venerable’ might have been invented, is succinct about it: ‘I don’t really understand the beastly internet.’

This is not to suggest that Crisp dismisses what bloggers are doing. ‘The people who are writing these reviews are absolutely splendid,’ he says, letting the last word sing for slightly longer than the other nine put together. ‘They are devoted ballet fans. But it has nothing to do with criticism.’ The point, he says, is that the true critic can draw on a well of experience. ‘I started going to the ballet as a child in 1943, and for the next 20 years I saw everything there was – the creation of the great new companies, the arrival of the Russian, the Danes …’ Only then did he begin to write.

Spencer agrees. ‘You’re supplying a service, one with real authority behind it. There is always going to be a need for expert opinion.’

Don’t even mention the need for the democratisation of opinion to Brian Sewell. ‘I do not believe in the democratisation of opinion. I believe in benign authority. And if we undermine the authority of critics then we shall descend into mayhem.’

Our own Philip French, film critic for The Observer for 30 years, is a little more accepting of the challenge from the bloggers. ‘People should have the right to express their opinions. The right to free speech has been extended, but you don’t have to be elitist to say that not all opinion is of equal value. There is good criticism and there is bad criticism. The risk is that bad criticism will drive good criticism out of business by sheer volume.’

Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre man for more than 35 years, allows that there is a new accommodation to be made. Then again, he works for the publishers of this newspaper which, historically, has embraced the online world with more enthusiasm than others. He has been forced to join the debate on the web. His first piece for Guardian Unlimited (now guardian.co.uk) was about The Sultan’s Elephant, a public art installation involving a huge mechanical pachyderm striding through London in 2006. ‘I wrote a piece attacking it and got hundreds of comments. They clobbered me. I wasn’t used to getting such a response.’ It was a wake-up call. ‘I was suddenly aware that there was an army of people with opinions as strong as mine. Journalists of my generation have to adapt. And we have to accept that the printed word no longer has aristocratic supremacy.’

Of course, some newspaper critics are living the digital life to the full. Both Mark Shenton, drama critic of the Sunday Express, and Ian Shuttleworth, of the Financial Times, either blog or weigh in on other blogs. Norman Lebrecht, arts columnist of the Evening Standard, has long written a blog for artsjournal.com and is an avid consumer of online opinion. ‘What I see out there is quite a mixture. A lot of it is amateurish in a good sense. But I do miss incisiveness, people delivering real information and knowledge.’ He also counsels his brethren to think twice before wading in to online discussions. ‘One has to be very careful of making any comment. Bloggers are as sensitive as any diva. Criticise them and they will attack you.’

Sometimes they will attack without any encouragement. Gareth James is a freelance management consultant who has been writing reviews at whatsonstage.com for six years. There is, he argues, a shift in power towards the consumer. ‘I simply started disagreeing with the critics,’ he says. ‘They are out of step with the audience and that’s because they do it all the time. Most people go to be entertained. We go to have a good night out.’ Critics, he thinks, go for something else. It’s why he believes they write enthusiastically about the works of Pinter or Chekhov which, for the most part, he can’t abide. ‘That sort of thing is put on for the Michael Billingtons of this world, not for Gareth James.’

It was a similar sense of disconnection that got Lynne Hatwell writing her book blog, Dove Grey Reader. A community nurse with a major reading habit, who lives in the Tamar Valley on the border of Devon and Cornwall, she increasingly felt the books pages of national newspapers had nothing to offer her. ‘I had this feeling there was a literary feast going on in London but that I was not a part of it. I also didn’t feel I was being well served by the bookshops, that I had become a puppet of their three-for-two tables. I wanted to know how you find other stuff.’ Now, according to her ‘what I’m reading’ panel, she is working her way through Trauma by Patrick McGrath, Trying to Please by John Julius Norwich and, er, my latest one. Hell, the woman’s far too influential for me to let that opportunity pass me by.

She declares that she is not a literary critic or reviewer. She writes about what books mean to her. ‘There’s nothing objective about what I’m doing. I used to worry about whether what I felt about a book was the same as anybody else.’ Not any more. ‘I feel a responsibility to myself, to be transparent and honest, but also to the readers because there are some who now compile their reading lists solely from my recommendations.’ Is she posing a challenge to the books pages of national newspapers? ‘Absolutely, and one that was long overdue. For too long it was a closed shop.’

But, she says, the project was personal. In the first year she spent more than £2,000 on books. But publishers set up Google alerts, which mop up any mentions of their titles online. Soon she was receiving emails offering to supply her with details of new publications. She now gets nearly all the catalogues and free review copies of books from most publishers (except, curiously, Virago, which ignores her – but probably won’t after reading this). ‘I’ve realised that I could be used as a marketing tool, and I have to resist that. A fundamental rule is that reading still has to be a pleasure.’ Also, she doesn’t do bad reviews. If it’s on her site it’s because she likes it. ‘It’s about my emotional responses.’

Other sources of critical opinion have risen up online, their creators say, because the old media wasn’t able to handle them. Steve Bennett created chortle.co.uk, an online stand-up comedy fanzine, because there was not enough coverage in the press. ‘Even the mags that dedicated space to comedy didn’t give it much space.’ Everybody did Ricky Gervais on tour. Everybody did Bill Bailey and Lee Evans. Nobody did the smaller names. ‘To do a print version of Chortle would be very expensive whereas an internet start-up is cheap.’

Naturally, comedy publicists take notice of chortle, but it’s in film where the real PR action is. Jam, a digital marketing agency, targets bloggers. For Daniel Noy, an executive with the company, utilising their power is a no-brainer. ‘Bloggers are important because of the way the internet started. It’s a community, which means there’s a community of film fans online.’ The challenge, he argues, is to know how to use them. ‘There’s a wariness about bloggers, a sense that you can’t control them. Personally I don’t think that you should control them. Reactions can be good or bad. It’s a risk you have to take, and that’s the power of real conversation.’

Jam has begun blogger-only screenings, starting with Juno. ‘It helped that Diablo Cody, Juno’s screenwriter, was a blogger.’ But the digital marketers have to be honest. Back in 1999, the Jurassic age in web terms, Warner Brothers wanted to hold a test screening for the Will Smith movie Wild Wild West to build buzz on the net, but was so unsure of the film that it told the invited audience of online critics that they were going to watch The Matrix. The audience was furious and helped create the negativity around it that never dissipated. ‘They posted comments slagging it off and it did very badly.’

So does Noy think newspaper critics are now redundant? Not yet. ‘You can’t deny the readership of newspaper and magazines.’ Chortle’s Bennett agrees. ‘A lot of newspaper critics have got the job because they both know what they are talking about and can write,’ he says. ‘Where as a lot of bloggers may only fill one side of that equation.’

I wondered if my sometime dining companion Simon Majumdar agreed. When his last employer went bust he decided to explore the world’s eating opportunities. He came up with an idea for a book, Eat My Globe, which is out next year. He is now a paid food writer. Does he think the democratisation of opinion is a good thing? ‘You can get as many opinions as there are arseholes. Everyone’s got one. There are some good writers out on the web. Then there are some who shouldn’t be allowed to write an address on the front of an envelope.’

So the professionals still have a role? ‘I like reading you all but I don’t think any of you necessarily know more about food than I do. I read you for entertainment. If you’re not entertaining, however informative you are, there’s no reason for you existing.’ In short, he says, we can claim authority only by being good.

Finally, I alight on the killer question. Simon, would you like my job? ‘If I had the opportunity to take your job away from you,’ he says, ‘yes, I would.’ That is a reassuring vote of confidence in old media. More reassuringly, there isn’t a vacancy. At least for now.

Additional research by Maria Garbutt-Lucero and Katie Toms

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited

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The Rest of April

I was invited to a reading of a new adaptation of an Oscar Wilde short story at the Old Vic. It’s a much better adaptation than the 50’s one which I saw in a wonderful production in Aston, Oxon (with a terrific Podger from the relatively unknown but highly talented Martin Havelock!). The highlight of the afternoon though was meeting June Brown (Dot Cotton!) one of the greatest TV actresses whose solo episode of East Enders last year had me in tears.

At the Young Vic, ENO put on a terrific staging of The Lost Highway, a new opera based on a David Lynch film. The trouble was it wasn’t really an opera, the music was incidental to the drama and I left the theatre unsatisfied.

The April Art highlight was Peter Doig at Tate Britain. I’d never seen anything by him before and it blew me over, like the first time I saw paintings by Howard Hodgkin (whose new exhibition at the Gagosian is a bit disappointing). I could take or leave The Camden Town Group @ Tate Britian (another excuse for an exhibition?) and thought the Barbican’s quirky show (a Martian museum showing art from Earth!) was a good idea which failed bigtime.

Finally, to Sadler’s Wells for Northen Ballet Theatre, who have developed a unique style of dance drama. Their Hamlet didn’t work as well as some of their previous pieces, but it was still well worth a visit – even if it wasn’t really Hamlet!

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I’ve never done an e-postcard from here so, as this year’s trips are more frequent but shorter and all European, I thought I’d have a go…..For those of you not ‘in-the-know’, this is the world’s biggest arts festival; in fact, it’s several festivals – the main festival, the fringe, the book and film festivals with the jazz festival preceding it, the TV festival (closed to the public), the tattoo for the tourists and something called the ‘politics festival’ which appears to have no real purpose other than allowing politicians to indulge in even more introspection during their long holiday (in case they get withdrawal symptoms) and a use for the over-priced Scottish parliament – 10 x budget – though this year without using the debating chamber as its roof is falling down already (please note the Welsh Assembly was on time and on budget and was still standing when I last looked).

For me the fringe is the main event – almost 2000 productions in c.250 venues over 3 weeks – theatre, comedy, dance & music and many other things that defy categorisation. They run from 9am to 2am with 20-30 min gaps between shows, so the typical venue has 10 shows. Some venues have as much as 14 performance spaces. It’s a logistical marvel, but it has no artistic policy and no quality assurance, so it’s an anarchic maze which gets easier to navigate the more you do so. This is something between my 15th and 20th year (I’ve rather lost count), so I’m getting better. The city takes on a unique atmosphere, with performers providing samples of their shows on the streets, leafleteers finding ever more original ways to promote their shows, performances in ever more bizarre places – this year including Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a hotel swimming pool and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a tree!

If you go to fewer than 3 shows a day, you’re a festival wimp. Most things are kept at 1-1.5 hours, so this isn’t as hard as it seems. The best things are often ones you haven’t planned. Word-of-mouth (particularly from people you meet in queues) is often more reliable than reviews. At some point you end up in the pews of a de-consecrated church watching a Czech company performing an indescribable show about emigration with east European folk songs, no dialogue but extraordinary choreography and you realise why you keep coming.

For me this year it will be 32 shows and 12 exhibitions over 11 days and it has been a good Edinburgh. It has been particularly good for music – Antonio Forcione, Loudon Wainwright III, Mazaika (Russian accordionist plus English violinist with an eclectic set) plus the two mentioned below. The highlights, in addition to the Czech company above (yes, they do exist – look up their show ‘Sclavi’ on

www.infarma.com), have been many and include:
Mark Thomas’ one man crusade against arms dealers turned into a very funny hour of political comedy. See him on tour (www.markthomasinfo.com) or buy his book ‘As used on the famous Nelson Mandela – underground adventures in the arms & torture trade’
‘Black Watch’; a magnificent play created from interviews with the regiment’s soldiers returning from Iraq. It takes place in a drill hall with bagpipe music and spotlights sweeping the space. It has a lot to say, but it does so in a superbly entertaining (and often very funny) way. Look out for tipped London transfer.

A Welsh comedian called Hugh Hughes, who – with another actor – performs a charming and very funny ‘play’ (with flip-chart, overhead projector, powerpoint presentation, slide-show, film projector and other visual aids!) about the day Anglesey split off from Wales and drifted into the Atlantic. It is as if you are in some eccentric’s front room being told a story. Look him up on

Three Scottish folk singers (Karine Polwart, Annie Grace and Corrina Hewat – have a listen on www.myspace.com/girlytrio) performing a wonderful set (much of it accapella, though with harp, guitar, whistle and celtic pipes too) including many Burns’ songs and a unique version of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t get you out of my head’!

A very original comedy musical about British spys in Ireland during the second world war with the corniest puns you’ll ever hear (www.rough-magic.com)

A recital of English songs, Brittain, Shubert and Brahms by barritone Simon Keenlyside & pianist Malcolm Martineau – sheer perfection (Radio 3 Weds 30th 1pm)

There have to be disappointments, of course; this year’s big one had a promising premise – a show about hairdressing with a limited audience as the show was centred on a live haircut for an audience volunteer. It brought rave reviews from it’s home in Ireland. Well, it will vie for the most pointless hour of my life award and if I was Irish I’d be picketing their Arts Council offices to protest about their grant! Helen thought the best thing about it was the programme and I admired and envied the man who had the nerve to walk out about half-way through.

Exhibitions are often things that fill the space between shows, but this year has been an exception, with a small but fascinating Van Gough exhibition, wonderful Art Nouveau posters (including, but much more than just, Toulouse Lautrec), three contrasting world-class photographers (posed and stylised Robert Mapplethorpe, fashion and style by Albert Watson and documentary photos from Henry Adams), the miniatures of a 16th / 17th century, largely unknown, German genius called Elsheimer and spooky lifelike sculptures by Ron Mueck.

The city is now packing up. The main festival goes on until Saturday, but today is the last day of the fringe. It really is rather infectious and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back next year; which means I’d better reserve the house before I leave – the festival is rather popular too……


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Well, I was having far too much fun in Sydney to write from there…..


Where was I ….Melbourne, if I’m not mistaken……..


Well that ended on a high with a great play – and a wholly appropriate one to see in OZ – a sort of state-of-the-nation play called The Great Man by David Williamson (a bit like David Hare, for those in the know). I wish we saw more of his work at home.


The following morning I joined the Melbourne commuters for a while (two errors meant a while longer than planned) then headed out of the city towards the Snowy Mountains. After a couple of hours on the road

I got too excited for my own good when I saw a sign for ‘Ned Kelly’s Last Stand’. Bill Bryson mentions this in ‘Down Under’ but I didn’t realise I was going to pass it. Well, when I say pass it……for those who haven’t

read the book, it’s billed as a ‘World Class Multi-Million Dollar Attraction’ – a combination of animated models, projections, sound, smoke, gunfire…oh, I cannot begin to describe it; just put it on your own hit list as it is truly awesome. It may have helped that I was the only visitor that morning, so I had a private show with a tour of the owner’s apartment  so that I could see all his Kelly memorabilia (the coffee table, the grandfather clock drinks cabinet, and the waterfall lamp amongst them) and get a sneak preview of the

plans to add a cemetery feature to the existing four rooms. Now that will be worth coming back for !


I stopped overnight on the edge of the Snowy Mountains. The weather had deteriorated since I called them the day before and it wasn’t certain I could make the crossing. I had a bizarre evening as I discovered I was the only traveler at the hotel – the other eight guests were assessors or candidates at an assessment centre for engineers for the local Hydro project. One of the assessors had a business very much like mine based in Sydney, she had been using much the same tools as I do and I ended up as the dinner guest ! The next

morning, the National Parks lady (by now my very good friend Margaret Ryan) called me at the hotel and said she would let me travel but provided I waited until 11.00 am and paired up with another car ‘just

in case’. Unfortunately in the intervening two hours I heard tales of 4WD vehicles coming off the road, trees falling and blocking the road and also discovered it was against the terms of the car hire contract to go above the snow line. So I gave up and took the long way to Canberra – a 150-mile detour.


Canberra was worth a visit but I can’t say it’ll be on my re-visiting list. It is a fully planned city so it’s green and very livable, but it’s made for cars not people so my favorite city pastime of exploring on foot had to be abandoned fairly soon. The High Court is one of the best modern buildings anywhere, the Parliament is great on the outside but not on the inside (I sat in on PMQ and the behavior was even worse than Westminster), the war memorial very moving and it was a gorgeous day, so the photos will probably flatter it.


And then it was Sydney……….well, when I went there in 1991 (?) on business, I fell in love with it. Now I want to move there ! It really is a special place – a magical harbour setting which you never tire of looking at. It was also a cultural weekend as the Olympic Arts Festival had just started. I went to an opera in the Opera House about the trials and tribulations of building the opera house (another very appropriate evening), a great adaptation of The Marriage of Figaro (the play), a very original Taiwanese modern dance piece, and another dance piece which was not so much OTT as re-defining where the top is exactly ! It took as it’s starting point the first Olympics but departed as far from this as I have traveled in the last three weeks. Of course, I loved it…..My hotel room overlooked Elizabeth Bay, the sun shone for three days and it was hell leaving. I took a side trip to the Blue Mountains which in any other country would be considered a major scenic region – here it’s one of so many.


Well, I have to say crossing OZ overland gave me a sense of achievement (even if half of it was on a train reading Harry Potter IV and being force-fed good food & wine). It’s now back by plane with stops here in Cairns and also in Alice Springs.


On the linguistic front, I’ve cracked the ‘bush’ / ‘outback’ conundrum – the bush is the countryside and the outback is the back of beyond ! I have at last got a proper expresso having discovered I was getting

a ‘long black’ when asking for a double expresso. Adding ‘ie’ to everything still amuses me – barbie, veggie etc. Yesterday I heard the Grand Final of the Rugby League tournament referred to as the ‘grandie’!


I may send a final missive from Freemantle next week, but then again I might be having too much fun………



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