The Boys in the Band. February 2017.

Dear Rowley,

If you can get to town in the next couple of weeks do sneak a couple of tickets for The Boys in the Band at the Vaudeville theatre. Though headlined by Mark Gatiss and his real-life husband Ian Hallard, Mart Crowley’s 1968 play is a viciously crafted ensemble piece about a gay birthday party in New York written pre-Stonewall Riots. The occasional critic has called The Boys in the Band a stereotypical period piece but we could say that about Shakespeare couldn’t we?

I was invited by Miss McCarthy and we were both sold the minute we walked into the auditorium to the strains of Dionne Warwick’s theme from The Valley of the Dolls. The open set – a loft-living apartment filled with Scandi furniture and lightbox portraits of Judy, Bette and Barbara Stanwyck – made one breathless for the party to start. Michael (Hallard) owns the apartment. He’s a writer and a drinker (natch) planning a birthday party for Harold (Gatiss) who doesn’t make his bad witch at a christening appearance until the end of the first act.

As the guests arrive, the dialogue and the camp ricochets between the characters; flawlessly paced and crisply enunciated. We meet homeboy Donald who seems content to have retreated from the crossfire of New York gay life. Emory (James Holmes) is what used to be known as the Nelly of the group who attaches women’s names to everything and minces with limbs like wet spaghetti.

Teacher Hank (Nathan Nolan) and fashion photographer Larry (Ben Mansfield) are boyfriends with differing opinions about fidelity. Bernard (Greg Locket) works in a bookstore and indulges Emory by amiably playing Mammie to his Miss Scarlett. The surprise guests are the young, dumb and full of cum hustler (Jack Derges) who is Emory’s gift to Harold and Michael’s debonair, straight college chum Alan (John Hopkins).

Alan’s arrival while the boys are doing an impromptu flaming dance number learned on Fire Island is a charming moment that makes it obvious that any attempt at straight acting would be futile. It also opens the door for the flirtation between Alan and Hank. The Boys in the Band is a game of two halves: a camp, light comedy of manners and errors in the first half that takes a decidedly darker turn when self-styled ‘thirty-two year old ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy’ Harold arrives in a fug of marijuana and Michael hits the bottle.

Glancing at the audience in the interval, it was biased towards gay men of my age and older who grew-up looking for a gay family and found characters all too similar to those in The Boys in the Band. We used camp as a defence mechanism between ‘just us girls’ and lived in a climate of silent hostility and, on numerous occasions, physical and verbal abuse. I’d urge the younger gays to watch The Boys in the Band if only to appreciate how fortunate they are to live in kinder times.

That said, the questions being asked by the play, the insecurities that are revealed and the venom when fangs show are still as pertinent today on what it is no longer PC to call the gay scene. Larry’s defiant belief in his right to an open relationship despite loving Hank is shared by the countless married or partnered men on and off Grindr.

Michael’s fur coat and no knickers existence keeping up appearances while quietly dying inside is also a familiar story. The desire to impress that eats at his soul is good old fashioned fear and self-loathing beautifully played by Hallard. The only character you could call happy with his lot is the hustler dressed as a cowboy; Mart Crowley suggesting ignorance is indeed bliss.

I particularly enjoyed Gatiss and Hallard hurling acid drops at each other: Harold scoring the hollow victory of being inured to any discernible emotion at all. His inability to feel hurt appeared to be the worst case of self-harm at the party. I won’t spoil the subplot about the increasingly drunk Alan’s evening in the homosexual shark tank but it isn’t without incident.

Of the second act, a critic wrote it ‘offers such an unremittingly bleak portrait of gay men -stereotypically bitchy, corroded with anxiety and self-hatred – that at times it is uncomfortable to watch’. If I were director Adam Penford I would take that has a huge compliment. Uncomfortable to watch? Imagine how uncomfortable it was to live as a gay man in the late 1960s. The line that rips your heart out is when Michael breaks down in Donald’s arms and says ‘show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse’.

Actually, Michael didn’t have to look too far for two happy homosexuals. Larry and Hank, having declared their love for each other, are left off-stage presumably making passionate love. So, no, I don’t think The Boys in the Band is an unremittingly bleak picture of gay men. As in life, some find happiness and some don’t. I’d like to think Harold searches for his heart, gets Michael into the Betty Ford Clinic and they decide to turn their fire on the rest of the world as a couple.

Watching The Boys in the Band on the night before Valentine’s Day made me think that we’ve come a long way, baby. We have gay couples on billboards advertising national banks, we have the gay marriage that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime and we have gay couples with kids. Without those Boys in the Band – some of whom I could imagine participating in the Stonewall Riots in 1969 – arguably none of this would have been possible. Go see the play, Rowley.

 

 

 

 

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Prize Giving. February 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Didn’t the Duchess of Cambridge stand out like a mile of style at the BAFTAs last night? The off-the-shoulder, floor-length Alexander McQueen evening dress was a couturier’s eye view of how to dress an HRH when meeting Hollywood. I wasn’t remotely surprised to read that the ever-regal Emily Blunt was also dressed by McQueen’s creative director Sarah Burton.

Interesting, isn’t it, that dressing actresses for the more senior red carpet events is rather high risk these days. Can’t even begin to say how ghastly I find Alessandro Michele’s Gucci collections. I adore Naomi Harris but that bloody Gucci lampshade she was wearing had t’Internet buzzing like wasps in a jam jar.

If all of the worst dressed forums name actresses kitted-out in Gucci then you’ve got to question the wisdom of stylists risking their fees suggesting it as a red carpet option. You almost long for the age when actresses conspired with the Hollywood costume designers to hone a public image. Meryl Streep has done just that but cut out the middle man. A black pant suit in an auditorium full of meringues and sequins is a smart move.

Do you think Meryl Streep ever gets fed-up of giving her awards face when platitudes rain down on her like manna from heaven? It is a quizzical, amused ‘you guys!’ sort of expression expertly deployed on Stephen Fry last night who was presenting the BAFTA awards at the Royal Albert Hall.

Meryl is a miraculous actress and one of the most decorated in the industry. She was pipped to Best Actress by Emma Stone in La La Land but, let’s face it, Meryl can afford to be magnanimous with a trophy cabinet gleaming with gongs. Like her Julia Childs, I thought Florence Foster-Jenkins was a mad half hour for Meryl Streep that was a joy to watch presumably because it was a joy to act.

La La Land has struck such a chord with Hollywood because it harks back to the days when the studios were known as dream factories. The golden age of the musical began during the Great Depression when cinema spun dreams that took people away from their sepia toned lives. It was Dorothy going from mud-brown Kansas to the glorious Technicolor of Oz.

A lot of films today are didactic ‘message movies’ hammering home an agenda. These are particularly popular with BAFTA and the Academy. I’m glad these films are made but I also feel a need for escapism: movies that make you leave the cinema with a warm glow of satisfaction and happiness rather than a rictus grin of the deeply traumatised.

Don’t know about you Rowley but I have always loathed horror films. Evidently there’s a huge audience out there who want to be scared out of their wits. I have never understood the desire to have images of chainsaw massacres, stalkers and supernatural terror hard wired into one’s brain. The world is quite frightening enough as it is.

Escapism has been much on my mind of late apropos of which I think a holiday is a matter of urgency when the Louis Vuitton London Guide 2018 and Sartorial Treasures: Jewellery for Gentlemen are in the can. I’m racing through Vuitton and have just completed the second of three shoots for the jewels.

It wasn’t without irony that tens of thousands of pounds worth of fine jewellery has passed between my paws in recent weeks. Gemstones truly are nature’s miracles perfected by man. My poor photographer Andy Barnum had to practically rip the jewels from my hands because I was so busy staring at these masterpieces with a dazzled, hypnotic smile on my face.

I’ve said it a million times but when I see a jewel set with white diamonds my brain turns into champagne. It’s like a cat watching a canary. The urge to own is that of the Gollum with ‘the Precious’. Needless to say, I can’t afford Claire’s Accessories at the moment never mind antique Cartier but it is a privilege to be able to photograph such beauty.

Have you ordered the postman that back brace for when he delivers all the Valentine’s cards tomorrow? You and I are old romantics at heart and I think we both still genuinely believe the dark knight on the white charger has merely been delayed along the way. Sometimes it is the only explanation.

Actually, I find the thought of sharing a restaurant with mooning couples like The Lady and the Tramp most unappealing. The sense of high expectation is not dissimilar to New Year’s Eve. And if the evening doesn’t end in a champagne-fuelled fireworks display of lust and chandelier swinging someone is bound to be disappointed. When a love affair is good, every night is Valentine’s.

High expectations are the bain of many a life. As you know, I was schooled on life expectations by Hollywood musicals. So when an evening doesn’t involve a carriage ride through Central Park and a slow waltz like Astaire and Charisse in The Bandwagon I am down of mouth.

I suppose the lesson is in La La Land. The dancing might not be the best in the world and the singing sometimes weak. It might not even have a happy ending in the last reel. But if the one you’re dancing with is the one you want, then nothing else really matters.

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Nobody’s Perfect. February 2017.

Dear Rowley,

I am merely curious but what, precisely, has David Beckham done to unleash the attack dogs of the tabloid press? From what I understand, old emails between he and a PR have been leaked suggesting that Beckham wanted a knighthood, intimated dues had been paid with charity work and called the honours committee ‘unappreciative c***s’.

Citing self-appointed nation’s sweetheart Kathryn Jenkins getting a gong despite a cocaine-fuelled past, Beckham called the honours system ‘a f****** joke’. As far as celebrity honours are concerned, I happen to agree entirely. I always thought people in show business – and make no mistake David Beckham is in show business now not football – got the K or DBE at the end of a distinguished career.

Instead, the understanding is that should ‘slebs’ press their services on Help For HeroesUNICEF or Children of Courage then what Beckham calls ‘the halo effect’  will be rewarded.  To be brutally frank, I don’t think anyone with a brain would be moved to support a charity just because Cheryl Cole has been flown into Africa, hugged an orphan, shed a tear and left. But charities must think otherwise or they wouldn’t recruit famous people to the cause.

I don’t know about Kathryn Jenkins’ drug-taking but she did give the nation hours of fun lobbying for a gong. No matter the occasion, come rain or shine, if there was a member of the royal family in attendance up popped Miss Jenkins in a strapless frock warbling the National Anthem. I should think you’d need a toot or two if you’ve got to sing I Vow to Thee My Country next to the winning post at the Grand National.

One can’t blame celebrities if politicians use them to pep-up the honours system and hide the fact that the list is riddled with party donors who have bought not earned a knighthood. The inference that David Beckham did all of that charity work since 2005 with UNICEF merely to get a tap on the shoulders, a medal and a title seems very far-fetched to me.

Though there’s no doubt he’s a grafter, fortune has favoured David Beckham. The urge to acknowledge that life has been kind by helping those to whom it has not is admirable. Surely one would rather fame was used positively than not at all and I am sure Brand Beckham has enough in the coffers to close the doors of their mansions and live privately should they so wish. Naturally, I doubt they so wish.

Perhaps we should view the conspicuously charitable with a degree of suspicion. The secret good samaritan is above suspicion whereas the bombastic fame monster holding a giant cheque on Children in Need is clearly not the soul of altruism. However, having seen footage of Beckham travelling for UNICEF, he would have to be a better actor than Mark Rylance if his empathy was feigned.

Whatever you or I think of football (I know, we don’t), David Beckham is one of the greatest ambassadors for his sport in the world. I don’t doubt the effect of bringing a hero to a deprived community has the power to work magic. To repeat the exercise countless times for the charity is Beckham’s compliment and I’m not surprised if – like Orville – he expects a prize at some point.

The backlash against David Beckham has been startling in its smugness and venom. Journalists and broadcasters have lost no time in taking a pick axe to his feet of clay and bemoaning the fact that he really was too good to be true. To quote Some Like It Hot, ‘nobody’s perfect’ and if David Beckham did begin to believe in his sainthood then who’s to blame? People who keep him in the headlines.

I did scent hubris when the then Sam Taylor-Wood filmed David Beckham asleep for a video installation commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery. I thought it was creepy that she had the idea and unsettling that he agreed to it. As iconography goes, the passive portrait of a sleeping beauty took David Beckham far beyond the realms of sport. His choice of edgy fashion magazines and photographers had already deified DB.

I’m with the Greeks and Romans. All gods are monsters on some level. H0w can they not be slaves to ambition when the rewards are so great? You have to be a particular character to power on through the careers that made you famous  and still hold the world’s undivided attention. What’s to say about Victoria Beckham’s career in fashion other than it is endorsed by US Vogue editor Anna Wintour? It doesn’t matter what we say. She’s made it.

There will be much said about David Buckram’s position in the celebrity Pantheon after the email leaks. It wasn’t coincidental that the news broke within a week of Beckham having been chosen as the 75th anniversary guest on Desert Island Discs. I did hear a rather breathless, star-struck Kirsty Young interview him and was struck by how Beckham went out of his way to sound humble and be liked. If that was a crime I think we’d all be serving time.

The crowing about David Beckham not being a charitable, metrosexual family guy we all like and aspire to be is rather distasteful. The only false note in the whole affair is Beckham declaring that he never wanted a knighthood in the first place. I am sure the copper plates reading Sir David and Lady Beckham were already struck at Smythson. But when you consider the undeserving oiks who have been given gongs in recent honours lists, one can sympathise when David Beckham calls the committee ‘unappreciative c***s’.

 

 

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Statuesque. January 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Forgive the radio silence, I’ve been contemplating the burning issues of the day such as what we should make of Theresa May holding President Trump’s hand as she led him down the White House steps like a PG Tips chimpanzee. Trump has already proved that his premiership will be no laughing matter but it is times like this when laughing matters most of all.

I don’t know what to make of Tresemme as she is known on Gogglebox. Britain thrives under a strong female leadership but one does wonder whether winning the race to be first to press the Presidential flesh might not backfire. If the Illuminati did exist you could imagine their high council rubbing their hands in glee at the mischief that President Trump might unleash on the world.

God only knows how The Queen will endure Trump’s State Visit. I am sure the Duke of Edinburgh will charm Milania and don’t doubt that HM will be at her diplomatic best. But will climate change ambassador Prince Charles resist stabbing Trump’s palm with a fruit knife over dinner at Buckingham Palace?

Speaking of the royalty, I was rather touched to hear that the Princes William and Harry have commissioned a statue of their late mother Diana, Princess of Wales to stand outside Kensington Palace. Statues of ladies are terribly hazardous, don’t you find? A long skirt is the sculptor’s friend as the countless statues of Queen Victoria dotted around London prove.

Less successful was the looming bronze of Lady Thatcher that now points accusingly in the corridors of power at the Palace of Westminster. Lady Thatcher is a sculptor’s dream and yet her coquettish bronze looks as though the Lady has been caught mid-Macarena at a Conservative party fundraiser. Cilla Black didn’t fare much better with the bronze erected outside the Cavern Club in Liverpool this month. Quite liked the mini skirt and the backcombed hair but the open mouth is an open goal for mischief making Scoursers.

Diana Princess of Wales was a gift to the camera. I wonder if her beauty and her elegance can be captured by a statue. I would recommend a figure-hugging Catherine Walker evening gown and The Queen’s Lover’s Knot tiara as a terribly good start for a statue. I would also think about echoing the gleaming white marble Coronation statue of Queen Victoria that sits outside Kensington Palace that was sculpted by her daughter Princess Louise.

Whatever the committee employed to commission the Diana statue decides one sincerely hopes that it is a million times better than the Dodi and Diana statue commissioned by Mr Al Fayed that still wafts around the basement of Harrods. It could be cast out of solid gold but for all the world looks like one of those plaster of Paris efforts that decorated the palaces of Saddam Hussein and his ilk: for all the world waiting to be smashed by a revolutionary rifle butt.

I happen to be a great fan of Diana’s and thought the Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park that resembled TellyTubby land was not an appropriate commemoration of a remarkable woman. Like Madonna and Lady Thatcher, Diana was a strong woman at large in my formative years. Her death was a profound shock that left us as a nation wondering what magic and havoc she might have weaved had she lived.

Another formative grand dame of my youth died this week: John Hurt. I recall vividly going upstairs to my bedroom in Derbyshire to watch The Naked Civil Servant in which Hurt gave a devastatingly honest and poignant performance as Quentin Crisp. Why there isn’t a statue to Quentin Crisp on Old Compton Street is anybody’s guess. Crisp was a gay, fey young creature with lavender hair and painted nails in an era when such behaviour was vilified. How a man could be so true to himself contra mundum was an inspiration to me as a teenager.

It won’t be mentioned that much in the obituaries but John Hurt was a hero to homos because of his performance as Quentin. He specialised in roles as the outsider be that the pitiful Elephant Man or the despicable Emperor Caligula in I Claudius. John Hurt was a truly sensitive actor who brought out the best in the worst and seemed to act on the edge of his nerves. So it is sad to see another one gone when so many boring, untalented people seem to show a remarkable talent for endurance.

What do you think will be our achievement that makes people sculpt statues to us? I am a great believer that ‘what do you do?’ is not the question. No, the fundamental question is ‘what are we for?’ Over the years I have found crusades that made me feel worthwhile as a writer. I have taken-up causes and believed I could do good things for, say, Savile Row, London, English heritage or local politics in Bloomsbury.

At present I don’t have a cause. I am  not entirely sure what I am for. Hopefully a point will manifest itself before the why overwhelms the why not. There has to be a reason to live in the absence of a nearest and dearest who makes every morning a reassuring happiness. Anyway, maudlin thoughts aside I am determined to live for love as well as for work. The real question might be ‘what am I for?’ but it is also ‘who am I for?’ Until next time…

 

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La La Land. January 2017.

Dear Rowley,

It is always a mystery to me why it comes a shock to movie producers that musicals score like Reinaldo at the box office. Director/writer Damien Chazelle’s  La La Land  is a case in point. London in January is as black and cold as a Victorian chimneysweep so department of no surprises that Curzon Soho was sold out for last night’s showing.

Musicals are how we dream life is supposed to be. Sad? Face the music and dance like Fred and Ginger in Top Hat. Falling in love? Waft round Central Park at twilight in a diaphanous dress like Cyd Charisse in The Bandwagon. Disappointed with the crap life throws at you? Plant both feet wide apart in your highest heels and belt like Mama Rose in Gypsy. Whatever emotion humans feel, the great songwriters of Broadway and Hollywood have already orchestrated it.

Is it any wonder that musicals broke box office records during the Great Depression? We naturally want cinema that takes us into a world where endings are happy and blues are shaken away with song and dance numbers that lift the spirits and gladden the heart. Over Christmas I watched Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin’ in the Rain, The Pirate and The Wizard of Oz in moments when I needed eight bars of bliss.

La La Land does blow a kiss to aficionados of the great Hollywood musicals. There’s a bit of Bandwagon in the flying observatory dance, a nod to Sweet Charity when Emma Stone and her girlfriends sashay through LA, a complete visual steal from Singin’ in the Rain towards the end of the picture and not a little Hairspray in the opening number.

By casting Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as the romantic leads Chazelle has taken an executive decision to go for cute and charming over blinding musical talent. Both can hold a tune and sell a dance but neither could touch the MGM triple threats Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell, Frank Sinatra or Anne Miller.

I am sure it was a conscious decision to make the singing and dancing in La La Land impulsive and instinctive rather than allowing every number to stop the show and make it difficult to ease back into the story. Personally, I like the artificiality of the golden era musicals when the ridiculously talented stars are allowed to show their chops in one major production number after another.

The musical La La Land reminded me of was Scorsese’s underrated New York New York starring Robert de Niro and Liza Minnelli. This is a story of two creative people trying to balance their relationship with their ambition. New York New York was made in the 1970s and yet Scorsese gave Minnelli  a lavish production number that told the audience why her character became a star. Lara Stone needed this in La La Land.

I do have a soft spot for Ryan Gosling. Like Gene Kelly, he has those dimples that we all dote on and can sell a number. Lara Stone’s big Bette Davis eyes are striking but the choreography made her look like Bambi on Ice.  The public have been going potty for the dance number where Stone wears a yellow dress and dances with Gosling high above Los Angeles under the stars.

It all started with promise: that classic park bench prelude to a romantic waltz. Then Stone removed her heels and put on a sturdy pair of block-heeled correspondence shoes. It was like Leslie Caron putting on a pair of galoshes to dance the ballet in An American in Paris. All I could hear when watching the number was Craig Revel Horwood drawling ‘leg extensions darling? A disaaaaster’.

My major beef with La La Land was the forgettable songwriting and lyrics. A big Hollywood musical guaranteed genius writing from Rogers and Hart, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein or Irving Berlin. The melodies lingered on long after the songs had ended. I don’t remember a single note from La La Land.

I hope La La Land sees a slew of romantic musicals going into production. The most successful musicals in recent memory for me were the dark, cynical Chicago and the exuberant, camp and knowing Hairspray. Both films subtly sent-up the genre. What I loved about La La Land was that it committed fully to being unashamedly romantic and musical even though there was a huge dry spell in the middle without anyone singing a note.

On reflection, Gosling and Stone could have done with support from ‘second leads’ like Anne Miller and Peter Lawford in the Judy Garland/Fred Astaire classic Easter Parade. The greatest MGM musicals produced by Arthur Freed were a showcase packed full of talent. Nobody really got a look-in apart from the leads in La La Land. 

The genius of the old Hollywood studio system was that all of the talent was tested and supported by the best in the business. Can you imagine how many all-time-great musicals Catherine Zeta Jones, Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore might have made by now had they been in the hands of Freed, choreographer Hemes Pan and vocal coach Kay Thompson?

We know from Strictly Come Dancing that intense training can turn a novice into a pro so it is disappointing if the stars of a movie musical don’t knock the song and dance numbers out of the park. Clearly this hasn’t hurt La La Land at the box office. The film is a very sweet musical but it does not show off the most talented singers and dancers in Hollywood today. Maybe that’s not the point but I so wish it were.

 

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