God help me, I am reviewing Downton Abbey for the FIFTH SERIES, starting tomorrow. If you want to catch up on the last thing we saw (Christmas special 2013), the review is here — warning: spoilers. Secondary warning; it was the one where we saw Carson’s ankles. Remember? Yes, we would all rather forget. Not that he didn’t have lovely ankles. He did. It was just a very weak and disappointing episode. As so many of them are.
Regular readers will know that I have come to love to hate this strange phenomenon, which has recently morphed into what I described this week in the Guardian as “the UK’s most toxic cultural export.” The new series starts tomorrow night and the review of the first episode goes up as soon as the credits roll. Pass the petits fours.
One person who seems to have escaped at the right time at least is Dan Stevens: I interviewed him about his roles in The Guest and A Walk Among the Tombstones this autumn and his new life in Brooklyn, where he couldn’t be further away from the life of Matthew Crawley if he tried. And where he eats a lot of vegan food and has a military-style fitness regime. I don’t feel Dame Maggie would approve.
I’m working on a couple of new show ideas at the moment so I’m doing new material gigs and impro nights. Some of these are under the radar. (And you would know why if you came to them.) Sometimes they’re on my Twitter feed or Facebook page. I’m performing the last outing of I Laughed, I Cried: The Edinburgh Show at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival on Sunday 19 October, 7.30pm. More news soon of Comedy Royale, a new gig celebrating the best of London’s impro scene, coming to St James’ Theatre on Thurs Nov 27 – save the date! And I can be found every other Friday at Teddington’s rockin’ Dead Parrot Society in our new riverside home, The Anglers (between Teddington Lock and Teddington Studios).
Aaaaargh. 33 shows in 12 days. Highlights: Hanging out in the Green Room at the BBC with Arlene Phillips and Pamela Stephenson ahead of Radio 4′s Front Row. MCing for Zoe Lyons (below), Mrs Barbara Nice and a host of amazing acts at Mary Bourke’s brilliant group show Funny for a Grrrl at Stand in the Square. MCing in a packed 300-seater Spiegeltent (below) at the Book Festival. (Everyone flooded straight out of George R R Martin into our show.) Doing battle with the Tattoo every night in Freestival’s Cowgatehead during my show I Laughed, I Cried: about 15 minutes of it was dominated by the deafening sound of fireworks. (Weapons for fightback, dispersed to audience: balloons, party poppers and Hobnobs.) Loved North Berwick on my day off (below). And became obsessed with the moo yang (sticky pork) at Ting Thai Caravan (Teviot Place).
Not the best kind of Festival person (see Glastonbury 2013, where I wore a white (soon-to-be-brown-with-mud) chiffon dress). But I loved the pink Suffolk skies above Latitude. Busy, packed 200-seater Lit Tent for I Laughed, I Cried (reading from the book and bits from the show) on the Sunday night. Even if most people were lying on the floor asleep. Feared mass exodus halfway through as The Black Keys were playing at the same time. But this didn’t happen. Had to hastily rewrite a whole section in my head as I realised there was a seven-year-old sitting in the front row and I was just about to reference the word “orgasm”.
The paperback of I Laughed, I Cried has landed (order here from Amazon: five-star average OF COURSE). I was on Loose Ends on BBC Radio 4 talking to Clive Anderson about the book and the Edinburgh show on 11 July. See William Leith’s review in the Evening Standard: ”a lovely, captivating account”: “This isn’t just a good book about how to become a comic; on another level, it’s a good book about tackling any life challenge.” I wrote about the change between the two covers (from trade paperback (“Laughing and Crying” cover) to paperback, where I’m picture wearing a great deal of make-up) here. I still prefer the first cover. Said Tracey Beaker.
After Jennifer Saunders and Brian Cox, this season’s Time to Talk sessions at the Rose Theatre, Kingston – where I’m the new host – closed with… BRIAN BLESSED, a man whose name must always be rendered in capital letters. And who, it turns out, frequently refers to himself in the third person. (“BRIAN WILL NEVER DIE.”)
Apart from declaring himself, aged seventy seven, to be immortal, BRIAN BLESSED spoke at length (and it truly was at length) about qualifying for the mission to Mars (including 800 hours of training, some of it at the Space Station in Moscow), attempting to climb Everest three times, his great love for his father and his Yorkshire roots and his career highlights, which included PETER O’TOOLE, PATRICK STEWART and RICHARD BURTON.
Like Brian Cox, he mentioned his irritation with Jamaica Inn (the BBC drama which drew hundreds of complaints for its “mumbling”). “It’s not that they don’t have the talent. It’s the diction,” he boomed. I can honestly report that there were no issues with hearing BRIAN BLESSED LOUD AND CLEAR.
Cover pic: Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina
A rare outing in the FT. On Russia’s literary status and whether the glory days of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are ever coming back again.
‘In rankings of the world’s literary greats, Russia tends to figure more prominently than any other country. Anna Karenina, War and Peace, the stories of Anton Chekhov and Lolita (written in English and self-translated into Russian) are unfailingly on such lists, alongside Shakespeare, Proust, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Flaubert and George Eliot. And that’s without even mentioning Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Pasternak and, of course, Dostoevsky, the writer who did down-to-earth plain-speaking just as beautifully as Tolstoy did lofty spirituality. From Notes from the Underground: “I say let the world go to hell but I should always have my tea.”’
Thrilled to contribute to this series of tributes to funny women in the Times — Caitlin Moran on Judy Garland, Ruth Jones on Dawn French, Ruby Wax on Joanna Lumley… Maureen Lipman chose Lucille Ball. I was away on holiday when this came out and the copy my parents kept for me has got a bit, er, crumpled as you can see below. I’m writing about Sue Townsend, who I have always loved:
Brian Cox in Shetland (with Douglas Henshall).
Brian Cox (the actor not the physicist — I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again…) was on great form at tonight’s Time to Talk at the Rose Theatre Kingston. Favourite audience question: ”Brian, I really enjoyed your performance in BBC 1 crime drama Shetland. But I couldn’t understand a word of it. Please explain why – with reference to Jamaica Inn.” (This is a reference to this week’s debacle about the poor audio quality of BBC 1′s Jamaica Inn, which has had hundreds of complaints about mumbling.)
He had a lot of say about this. There was a “sloppiness to Jamaica Inn, in the structure of the scenes” and “the actors were indistinct.” He seemed quite grumpy about this. In defence of both Jamaica Inn and Shetland, however, he said that he wished the BBC would subtitle programmes so that the dialogue can be authentic: “Look at all these Danish series. Everyone goes cockahoop for these people and their sweaters. Why not use subtitles?” He went on to say that when he was filming Shetland, he tried to get the accent as authentic as possible and would say “aks” instead of “ask” and “shaysed” instead of “chased” — because that is accurate — but the BBC made him change it because it wasn’t clear enough.
This was all fascinating. But most of all I loved what he had to say about his idols Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando: that they were both utterly brilliant but destroyed by the fact that they didn’t really understand that the business of acting was not about ego — it’s about empathy.
Other best bits: describing being on set with Brad Pitt on Troy and realising that Brad had asked for an afternoon off after long scenes with him (Brian) and Peter O’Toole, implying that Brad was kind of out of his depth… “He is from Ohio,” explained Cox. (He is actually from Oklahoma. But we get Brian’s drift.)
He also talked at length about Hannibal Lector and Manhunter – the role that drew the most questions on Twitter when I was prepping – and how he based his psychopathic performance on the teenage mannerisms of his son, Alan (also now an actor), who was educated at St Paul’s: “Because when I was trying to get the character, the director said to me, ‘Do you know anyone at public school?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ But then, I thought, oh yes, I do. My son.” He seemed very pleased to know that people care enough about him to ask questions on Twitter.
Next up on Time to Talk next Friday: BRIAN BLESSED. I don’t think anyone will need subtitles for him. Earplugs maybe.
Previous page, pic credit: Helen Warner for Donmar Warehouse: The Weir
Having just seen him in The Weir — currently in its last few days of a sold-out run at Wyndhams, having transferred from the Donmar — I am a bit in love with the Shakespearean legend Brian Cox. Note: “the Shakespearean legend Brian Cox” and not “the swoonsome physicist Brian Cox.”
I am talking about this man:
Rather than this man:
I have nothing against the latter, scientific Brian Cox. Indeed, I hope he may one day join us for the “in Conversation With…” series Time to Talk at the Rose Theatre Kingston. But this time — on Friday April 25 at 5.30pm it is the turn of the thespian, non-scientific Brian Cox to talk.
I will be asking him what it has been like to go from King Lear to X-Men. How he managed to appear drunk for the best part of three hours in The Weir. And how he feels about being mistaken for the former keyboard player of 1980s “Things Can Only Get Better” pop sensation D:Ream. And other more intelligent things.