Heads Together. April 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Do you think we’ve reached the tipping point with cookbooks? To quote Kath & Kim, we’ve had Nude Food, Crude Food and Rude Food. We’ve endured Helmsley sisters, Simply Allsopps, Deliciously Ellas and now (God forbid) the Midlife Diet to add to the Clean Diet, Mean Diet and Green Diet. Of course what it all boils down to is the same old nuts, kale, mackerel and birdseed that came in on the Arc: that and don’t be such a lardy load of greedy fat guzzlers.

Now H is around I am much more guns-ho about wielding the old Le Creuset every so often and throwing another slab of sirloin onto the grill. Hand on heart, I’d much rather devour a dozen oysters on a bed of shaved ice at J. Sheekey’s any day of the week but it is rather nice to cook again. That said, I think the last cookbook I bought was Mrs Beeton, darling. And don’t get me started on baking bores…

In other news, I have written endlessly that Mrs May should call an election and now she has. For all the opposition politicians calling foul because Mrs May has chosen to go to the people when the Labour party is an abject chaos I have one thing to say. Wouldn’t you? It seems incredible t0 me that ex-PM Tony Blair feels compelled to whip-up tactical voting amongst the Remainers. Hearing Mr Blair trying to manipulate the country to undermine Mrs May is like the gurgling of a U-bend as political credibility is flushed down the lavatory.

Still, we can’t be complacent. Much mischief will be made in the lead-up to the General Election not least from that gurning can of Irn Bru Nicola Sturgeon. I loved the photo op when the kittenish Sturgeon – who is let’s face it about as kittenish as Les Dawson – had her stocking feet tucked under a pencil skirt on a sofa in imitation of Mrs Thatcher. It was like watching John Prescott do a Betty Grable over-the-shoulder swimsuit shot.

I do believe Mrs May has the moxie to outwit the opposition from within and without her party. Panic over that Mr Osborne has decided to stand down and concentrate on his other more lucrative contracts. If I were Mrs May, I would be concerned to see Osborne at the helm of the Evening Standard: a tactical appointment if ever there was one on behalf of Mr Lebedev. If only Evelyn Waugh was alive to fictionalise it.

Now, what do we think about the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry’s Heads Together campaign to promote awareness of mental health? Today they waved-off Heads Together runners in the London Marathon. Both Princes William and Harry have spoken movingly about the emotional maelstrom following their mother Diana, Princess of Wales’s death. The Duchess has spoken about post-natal anxiety.

So trust all the ghastly Wednesday Witch columnists in the tabloids and broadsheets making snide remarks about the Duchess living in palaces surrounded by servants and having no right to mental health issues. Well, anyone who has lived with mania and depression can tell you they have no respect of class, culture or circumstance. The removal of financial difficulties can of course ease depression but good God should’t the princes and the duchess deserve credit for highlighting an illness that is no less of a killer than cancer?

Despite the press needling Heads Together it has been made known that The Queen approves of her grandsons’ charitable activities. Good for Her Majesty taking care of the Windsor cubs. Inevitably Heads Together has brought back the spirit of the late Diana, Princess of Wales who made no secret that she suffered from crippling anxieties, bulimia and self-harming episodes as a young woman. I was a big fan of Diana not least for her work with HIV and AIDS and her candour about mental health. The Duke and Duchess and Prince Harry are continuing her legacy.

Well, what else is new on the Rialto? I’m off to New York for the first time in about a decade on Tuesday to interview David Yurman creative director Evan Yurman. I am so looking forward to New York and will hopefully catch-up with friends, see a bit of Broadway and revisit some old haunts in the West Village. I love New York if you have a purpose for being there and tonnes of friends to see. I never thought the Jewellery for Gentleman book would take me so far this year. Can I get an Amen in here?

It is miraculous to me that after some very lean years, life has suddenly gone from black and white to Glorious Technicolor. H has a lot to do with this breath of fresh air and renewed lust for life. I’ve also had something of an epiphany about putting work in its place. It’s not that I care less but rather that there is so much more to happiness to be found elsewhere. You can’t curl up with a career on a cold night as Bette Davis wisely said.

 

 

 

 

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Diana: Her Fashion Story. April 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Happy Easter darling. I had a delightful pre-holiday lunch at Sheekey’s this week with Mum and H then dashed over to Kensington Palace to see the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition. I actually think Historic Royal Palaces was incredibly generous to include the exhibit in the ticket price for the KP tour. The twenty-five pieces are staged in the purpose built costume galleries with minimum tech and a small collection of the delicious Mario Testino Vanity Fair portraits.

Did the exhibition tell the late Diana, Princess of Wales’s story in fashion? On balance I would say curator Eleri Lynn expertly traced Diana’s stratospheric path from ‘Shy Di’ to fairytale princess then onward to power-dressed working woman and finally  the transformation into a glamazon.

The pale pink chiffon ruffle blouse with a satin bow at the neck designed by the Emanuels for the then Lady Diana Spencer could have been made for a Victorian china doll and thank goodness we were spared the earliest formal day dress Princess Diana wore when she was imitating the senior royal ladies and looking desperately uncomfortable.

Vogue’s Anna Harvey introduced the princess to the best of British fashion: David Sassoon, Catherine Walker, Bruce Oldfield, Jasper Conran, Murray Arbeid and Victor Edelstein. It was a thrill to see Edelstein’s ruched black velvet off-the-shoulder evening dress that Diana wore dancing with John Travolta at the White House in 1985. As the designer said, she wore that dress rather than the taffeta princess frocks that smothered her.

Walker’s skin-tight pearl encrusted column dress with a high collared bolero is the star of Diana: Her Fashion Story. Debuted in 1989, who could forget Hollywood Diana in her Elvis dress with the Lover’s Knot tiara anchored into a blonde halo of hair? Diana christened the dress ‘Elvis’ but I see parallels with the Jean Louis nude dress made for Marilyn Monroe in 1962 when she serenaded President Kennedy.

Chapeau again to Lynn for showing the working wardrobe of neat skirt suits Catherine Walker honed for Diana when she finally decided to use her power for her causes and carve out a role for herself having been endlessly criticise upstaging the Prince of Wales. The elegance of a pale pink wool crepe short skirt suit showed a lady who meant business.

Catherine Walker’s ombre blue chiffon pleated goddess gown was reminiscent of Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief and reminded me of Princess Grace of Monaco mentoring the then Lady Diana Spencer after she wore a strapless taffeta evening gown designed by the Emanuels that left little to the imagination.

Should you ask where such famous gown might be, it appears the Emanuels auctioned the dress having found it in their studios. So no criticism of the curation for such omissions. Had the wedding dress been included in the exhibition I think it might have overwhelmed the small selection that served as timeline of Diana’s evolution as a fashion icon.

Yes, I’d have liked to see the blue Colona skirt suit that Lady Diana wore when her engagement was announced and the exhibition did cry out for the red hot little black cocktail dress Christina Stambolian designed that Diana wore in 1994 at the Serpentine party while her husband was admitting his infidelity to the BBC. The ‘Revenge Dress’ was a game-changer in the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

I would also like to have seen the skirt, bolero and blouse that Diana wore when she posed alone in front of the Taj Mahal in 1992 but perhaps it was not available to Historic Royal Palaces. Buckingham Palace has a much clearer run when curating fashion exhibitions for the summer opening. For one thing The Queen’s diamonds can be displayed. I rather longed to see some of the jewels Diana wore displayed with her dresses and, perhaps, the hats, handbags and shoes to complete the story.

The last room in Diana: Her Fashion Story is arguably the most poignant because it featured a collection of dresses she auctioned at Christie’s in the final year of her life. The standout piece was an eau de nil strappy silk column dress embroidered in the Egyptian style. The princess, now minus her HRH, wore the Versace dress on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

A major part of Diana’s fashion story was the permission post-separation to wear international designer fashion. I recall her triumphant solo trip to New York when Diana first showed off the slicked, shorter hairstyle in the company of Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis wearing a midnight blue Galliano lacy slip dress. Lord knows where that dress has settled its feathers.

On reflection, removing Diana’s HRH was rather a low blow from the Royal Family comparable only to denying the Duchess of Windsor an HRH as a sign of utmost disapproval. I don’t know whether Diana dismissed her protection squad or that the Royal Family took it from her. But I do recall seeing Diana in Harrods one afternoon in the twilight of her life being hunted by the public.

Diana: Her Fashion Story is a celebration of the late princess and the advance ticket sales prove that she remains a figure of fascination and great affection from the public worldwide. The white garden planted in what was the Italian water garden outside Kensington Palace is in Diana’s honour and a much more suitable tribute than that bloody fountain in Hyde Park.

 

 

 

 

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It’s Showtime Folks. April 2017.

Dear Rowley,

As you know I am a pushover for the divas so it was with high excitement that I heard Bette Midler had broken Broadway’s advance box office records for her Hello Dolly at the Schubert theatre co-starring the dishy David Hyde Pearce. The show is still in preview but already there are tales of a queen fainting in the aisles during the first act, being advised to go to hospital only to reply ‘and miss the second act?’

i rather sympathise. Seeing Bette at the O2 a couple of years ago was one of the best nights of my life. I should think Old Compton Street and the synagogues of London were a ghost town that night. Actually, it was Lee who insisted I got the ticket. Well, since I’ve been stepping out with H I’ve had the privilege to see rather a lot of divas.

Handel’s Partenope at the English National Opera was one of the best stagings I’ve ever seen: a 1920s Parisian Surreal dream inspired in no small part by Man Ray and the Left Bank intellectual and sexual demi monde of Cocteau, Gertrude Stein and Nancy Cunard. Christopher Alden’s production design for Partenope’s palace was a minimal Le Corbusier Art Deco apartment that both H and I rather fantasised about owning.

Handel’s music works like a tranquilliser on my mind and I was hypnotised from the first scene when Sarah Tynan’s Partenope slowly stacked both arms with ebony bracelets a la Cunard. The Twenties Parisian theme worked perfectly for the ladies in trouser roles Patricia Bardon (Alsace) and Stephanie Windsor Lewis (Rosmira) and I learned to love the sound of a counter tenor.

But Jon Morrell’s costumes for Partenope quite stunned with their beauty: bias cut silk lounging pyjamas, beaded Lanvin gowns and a marvellous Marlene homage of white tie, top hat and tails that actually owed more to Madonna’s Dietrich than the Blue Venus herself. I do hope there will be another revival of the production before too long. Next up is Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins in Carousel which I’m rather looking forward to.

Now ordinarily when someone suggests five hours of Wagner at the Royal Opera House with a standing ticket I would suggest they do something anatomically impossible. But this being H, I tagged along for the last act. We’re getting terribly good at spotting empty seats and on the night of Die Meistersinger ended up in a box in the Grand Tier: the level that Americans nicknamed the diamond horseshoe because of the blaze of jewellery worn at the turn of the 20th century when white tie was still the form.

Though there was an awful lot of recitative at the beginning of the act, there was an exquisite quintet that brought a tear to the eye that rather distracted from the aching bum having sat through two hours of Hitler’s favourite opera. But on balance I’m game for an encore of Wagner even if I won’t be making the pilgrimage to Bayreuth any time soon.

Wagnerians can be bores can’t they? There was a scene where someone intentionally played a harpsichord badly and sang flat which had them rolling in the aisles in the Opera House … presumably to prove to the  neighbouring box that they got the joke. How we all laughed! I only laugh inappropriately in the Royal Opera House. La Farmer and I were in fits watching the mermaid ballet Ondline. I leaned over and whispered, all we need is Dolores Delago, Bette Midler’s mermaid in a wheelchair…

Do you know what has given me most pleasure this week apart from the nights when H comes for a sleepover? The BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I’ve had rather a crush on Jack Whitehall for quite a while now and he has proved to be a cracking little actor as well as a comedian. His wide-eyed, nervous niceness as Paul Pennyfeather is spot on.

Writers who read Decline and Fall tend to wonder where to go to surrender. Waugh was twenty-four when he published his debut novel. Waugh is the master of black comedy and he was writing at a time in world history that gave him great material: the rise of Fascism, the triumph of Communism, the decline of the British aristocracy and the shifting of the moral tectonic plates.

But back to the Beeb. The story of aspiring Oxbridge cleric Paul sent down because the Bullingdon Club riot boys stripped him naked in the quad sets up a corrupt and morally bankrupt England. Paul is farmed-out to a tinpot public school in Wales presided over by the egregious, snobbish Dr Fagan played with relish by David Suchet who, incidentally, gave a marvellous Lady Bracknell on the West End stage.

It was inspired to cast neat, petite Eva Longoria as Margot Beste Chetwynde the doll-like mother of a pupil with eyes like knives. I won’t spoil it for you but Margot (pronounced Beast Cheating) significantly contributes to poor Paul’s downfall. I so look forward to the concluding two episodes.

I will be in New York at the end of April but don’t hold out much hope for getting tickets to see Miss M in Hello Dolly. Then again, someone always leaves their handbag at home don’t they? Until next time…

 

 

 

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Treasures. April 2017.

Dear Rowley,

To Paris this week as a guest of Cartier to tour the workshops above the original boutique on the Rue de la Paix and view the Al Thani Collection of Mughal to Maharaja jewels at the Grand Palais. As you know, my travel hasn’t extended much beyond Mayfair and St James’s in the past few years  so it was an absolute treat to travel with Cartier and the British jewellery press.

Now I have had rough times in Paris but have come to the conclusion that you always take the weather – be it actual or psychological – wherever you go. On this occasion, the sunlight over Paris was like a Manet and the view of the gilded Opera Garnier set me thinking that the Emperor Napoleon III deserves a statue for his work beautifying Paris in the Second Empire.

As you can imagine, we saw diamonds as big as the Ritz in Cartier’s workshops but what impressed me most was watching one of the craftsmen painting a hand-carved maquette for a Panthère jewel and placing every pavé set diamond and sliver of onyx that will describe the big cat’s markings.

Cartier is preparing its 100-piece collection of Haute Joaillerie that will be shown only to private clients at a stupendous event in London later this year. One of my favourite Cartier designs of all-time is the Art Deco, Indian Maharaja-inspired Tutti Frutti that mixes a delicious palette of carved emeralds, rubies and sapphires peppered with white diamonds.

Cartier is making a Tutti Frutti bracelet for the new collection and it was fascinating to learn that – contrary to popular belief – the quality of the stones and the craftsmanship in Cartier’s workshops today is higher than it ever has been.

This gives the lie to all those nay-sayers who believe yesterday was inevitably better. It’s the same with Savile Row. If you look at pictures of Victorian and Edwardian gents you’ll see their suits look as if they’ve been cut with gardening shears. The make on the Row today is the best in the craft’s history. But back to Cartier.

You’ll recall that the V&A hosted the Al Thani collection a year or so ago. Well, London couldn’t hold a candle to the way Paris displayed over 200 magical pieces of Indian royal jewellery; much of it made for men hence my place on the trip and much with provenance to the 20th century Maharajas of Baroda, Indore and Patiala who feature in my Jewellery for Gentlemen book.

Life is sometimes rather spooky as Dame Edna would say. Only last week I found an Art Deco portrait of the dashing Maharaja of Indore in white tie and an opera cloak. I researched it and was disappointed to read it was in private hands. Well, what was the first exhibit that caught my eye in the Grand Palais? The portrait of Indore standing beside a cabinet containing his ruby ring displayed in another portrait.

The Grand Palais had been blacked-out then lit with pools of spotlight. A cascade of gold leaves hanging from skeins of thread created grottos and rooms within rooms. A walkway with windows displayed magnificent carved emeralds, pink diamonds and world famous whites belonging to the Al Thani family.

Though it is unusual for me to say so, I most enjoyed a collection of contemporary jewels made in the Indian fashion by the great JAR. You know my passion for diamonds is second only to my love for Liza Minnelli but my take-home-for-mother jewel was a festoon of natural pearls set so each row sat on the decolletage with immaculate precision.

Of course one wouldn’t say no to the fabled Maharaja of Patiala festoon diamond and ruby necklace that is arguably more extravagant than the diamond necklace that caused Queen Marie Antoinette one of many public scandals. Even Cartier must have seriously had metal tested balancing such heavy stones in a design to sit on the Maharaja’s chest rather than hanging like an albatross round Patiala’s neck.

Cartier made the audacious bib necklace to frame a yellow diamond roughly the size of Delhi. The Patiala necklace disappeared in the 1940s presumably broken for the most valuable stones. However, Cartier’s man found the platinum cage denuded of stones in a London antique shop. It was reset with a citrine replacing the yellow diamond and the major stones replaced by cubic zirconia.

The jewellery editors and I were pondering whether there was a larger privately owned collection of crown jewels and came to the conclusion that the Al Thani family probably had that one licked. We did concede that HM The Queen’s private jewellery collection minus the Crown Jewels would quite possibly constitute the most magnificent collection of diamonds in private hands.

There wasn’t an awful lot of time to maraud around Paris after hours but quite frankly when you have a dinner in Lafayette’s Hotel Particuliar in interesting company a trip to the Lido can wait until next time when H and I go to Paris. There is a new show at the Lido and I have to say my happiest memories of Paris usually involve a seat at the bar at the back of the auditorium drinking in the feathers, glitz, rhinestones and tits. Then of course there’s the Lido boy dancers. Woof!

 

 

 

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An American in Paris. March 2017.

Dear Rowley,

One of the all time favourite quotes about the acting profession comes courtesy of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.  It likens actors to mushrooms ‘because you’re kept in the dark most of the time and every so often somebody throws a bucket of s*** at you’. But comes the production when the joy of performing explodes over the footlights and embraces a whole audience. That show was the final preview for An American in Paris at the Dominion theatre on Monday.

When Patricia booked tickets for this reinterpretation of the 1951 MGM musical, I secretly whispered ‘good luck’. An American in Paris is not just any musical: it is up there with Singin in the Rain, Carousel and Oklahoma! as arguably the greatest musical film of all time. It was the love child of three of Hollywood’s legends: producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli and star Gene Kelly with music by George and Ira Gershwin and a book by Alan J. Lerner. No pressure there then.

One would imagine director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was the fool who rushed in where angels fear to tread. But I have to tell you he has found talent as original as Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild and Royal Ballet School-trained Leanne Cope as leads Jerry Mulligan and Lise Dassin.

Leanne Cope is uncannily similar to Leslie Caron (who was there for the opening night) with her elfin black bob and delicate body exquisitely dressed in a series of swirling, simple New Look dresses. Look at the poster, clock the yellow dress and get back to me about La La Land by the way. But I digress. Cope is a sublime, expressive dancer as lithe as a cat and light as a feather. We were in Row D and I can tell you her face was a picture of passion and joy for the entire production.

The Gershwins gave Wheeldon an embarrassment of riches to bestow on the principals and I have to say as a very particular musical queen the orchestrations for I Got Rhythm, The Man I Love, S’Wonderful, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Liza, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise and the final ballet were the best I’ve ever heard. Mrs T, Scott and I were a bit perturbed by Fidgety Feet – a number lifted from Oh Kay! – but that’s a rare dud from George and Ira that doesn’t travel well into the 21st century.

Without spoiling the surprise, Wheeldon sensibly leaves Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris Toulouse-Lautrec dream ballet sequence where it belongs on film. His choreography and the Kandinsky sets and costumes had the audience on its feet. Unlike the movie, Lise is given the starring role in the ballet but there was spontaneous applause when the dashing, dishy Robert Fairchild performed a series of grand jetes around Cope that reminded me of Nureyev never mind Gene Kelly.

I could have kissed Wheeldon for giving us a Stairway to Paradise that almost knocked Vincente Minnelli’s version into a cocked hat. Those white ostrich feather fans could have been a bit more swishy but that’s what a RuPaul’s Drag Race addict would say isn’t it?

Let’s get the nonsense out of the way. The plot is as creaky as a 70-year-old chorine’s knees and the sub-plot whereby Lise is romanced by a lugubrious pianist (David Seadon-Young) and an ostensibly gay Parisian (Haydn Oakley) with aspirations to be Charles Aznavour isn’t Madame Bovary. Jane Asher’s Madame Baurel was channelling Dame Edith Evans and she was clearly having an absolute ball.

In many ways the book got in the way of the dance. I sometimes longed for An American in Paris to be danced through in the spirit of a Matthew Bourne interpretation of a classic ballet. I genuinely didn’t understand the lavender-tinged Henri Baurel character either. If I were Wheeldon I’d have given him one of the waiters in the cafe with buns of steel to run off with at the end of Act 2. But it is churlish to criticise such an overwhelmingly life-affirming display of song and dance.

An American in Paris is a terribly busy show with a cast of thousands dashing from wing to wing dressed as gendarmes, riding onion-strewn bicycles wielding umbrellas while huge mirrored flats on casters whistled past. The chorus must have the reflexes of Ninjas not to topple like skittles with all that scenery flying. This is the cast’s compliment.

 An American in Paris will be as big a hit in the West End as it was on Broadway and in Paris. How the cast can sing and dance eight shows a week is beyond. You really want to see Fairchild and Cope dance the roles they created but, that said, I’ve got a fairly good record of ‘star is born’ productions when the understudy goes on what with Sunset Boulevard and Funny Girl last year.

So cast and crew of An American in Paris, we salute you for taking on the Minnelli-Freed-Kelly MGM triumvirate and producing an original work that gave so much pleasure to the Dominion audience. The standing ovation was deserved and the smile on Leanne Cope’s face could have powered the national grid.

H and I have four hours of Handel at the ENO on Friday. Wish me luck.

 

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