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.
Congratulations to Donna Tartt for her Pulitzer Prize! Here’s my original review of the book from Red. I really love it — but of course it can’t be as perfect as The Secret History, which is why, I think, there has been some carping about it. Plus, a lot of people didn’t like The Little Friend and can’t quite get over that. I really liked that too. But this is the problem when you write a really outstanding book. Even if you write several genius books afterwards, people are going to get grumpy. It would be a shame if people kept away from The Goldfinch — it’s completely addictive. (And, as I suggest in this review, a must-read if you hold a torch for Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved.)
I enjoyed reading J. Randy Taraborrelli’s new biography of the Hiltons for the Sunday Telegraph. I had no idea that the founding father of the dynasty — Paris’s great-grandfather Conrad — had such a fantastic back story. He started with nothing, encouraging his parents to open up their ramshackle family home in New Mexico as a down-at-heel B&B when he was just sixteen. Like so many entrepreneurs, he had a series of jaw-dropping ups and downs (and several near-bankrupcy moments during the Great Depression) before “Hilton hotels” became something special. Of course, Paris is the icing on the cake. And she really does do everything with Peter Pan (her chihuahua). Unless that’s just for the cameras. Which I suspect it is. She’s all about “the brand”…
My first outing as the new host of Time to Talk, the “In Conversation With…” series at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. (Next up: Shakespearean legend (and not physicist) Brian Cox on April 25. And Brian Blessed on May 2.) First victim was Jennifer Saunders, talking about everything I could make her talk about (which genuinely was pretty much everything) and about her best-selling memoir Bonkers. Waterstone’s had a high old time as the (new) paperback was folded into the ticket price and we had an audience of over 600.
High points: Saunders saying that she wanted to present Top Gear: “Move over, Clarkson.” Admitting that she had turned down Strictly Come Dancing but would not mind appearing on Great British Bake-Off. (“I also love the Sewing Bee.”) She talked a lot about the anxiety she has around writing, which has prevented her from tackling the long-overdue script of the movie of Absolutely Fabulous: she’s been seeing a hypnotherapist for procrastination. (“I put off going to him for three months.”)
Low point: Part of the show was a series of slides depicting Saunders’ childhood and career. I was in charge of clicking through them. As we reached the end of our time, I said, “Let’s look at some of your career highlights…” and clicked onto a picture depicting her chemotherapy. Jennifer Saunders laughed. No-one else did.
Thanks to Woman and Home for their shout-out here. Which resulted in this attractive selfie:
From today’s Observer: Meet the Author. Joseph Connolly is definitely one of the most bearded people I have ever interviewed. He’s also amongst the most charming (and that is a serious accolade as I have encountered Dame Judi Dench and Alastair Campbell who are charm personified). He’s an interesting character: a prolific novelist and non-fiction writer whose books sell as well as Martin Amis and Julian Barnes in France. He has expressed disappointment in the past that his work is not quite so appreciated at home.
He was talking about his new novel Boys and Girls, which is about a woman who decides that one husband is not enough for her — she wants an extra one too. And the two of them had jolly well better get along.
On the subject of his lavish facial hair, Connolly says: “The amazing question is not ‘Why do you have a beard?’ but ‘Why do 99.9% of the male population shave every day.’ It is quite unnatural.”
I love by the way that his Guardian url is “joseph-connolly-each-gender-requires-exclusive-company-own-sex-food-critic-beard”
From the cover of today’s Observer magazine: “Since the Ukraine crisis, London’s growing Russian population has been faced with a major identity crisis… “There are two sides to this story. And they are both right.” Galina Pentecost sighs. People like clean-cut, easy-to-follow narratives. This isn’t one.”"
Well, that’s certainly an understatement. Over 300 comments and counting… A hard-won cover story for the Observer magazine on the view on the Ukrainian situation from Londongrad and the 150,000 Russians who have made Britain their home. Obviously there’s a nod to the situation involving the high-profile incomers who are often in the headlines (like Abramovich and Usmanov). But I really wanted to make this story about the cultural effects on Russians who have been here a long time (many who are married to Brits and hold British passports). It wasn’t an easy story to tell and I’m really pleased with the response.
The 150,000 figure is the best estimate around. Fox TV’s reality show Meet the Russians put the estimate up at 300,000 but I couldn’t find anything else that backed this up so I stuck with the more conservative estimate.
I really wanted to get in a mention of Vitali Vitaliev’s new book for children, Granny Yaga, based on the old Slavic fairytale — but it didn’t make the edit. Shame because it’s a great parable: in the original story Baba Yaga “may either help or hinder travellers” and it is hard to work out whether she is heroine, villainess or just ambiguous. Sound familiar? A situation where it’s hard to work out who is evil and who is going to save you? For a lot of the people commenting, it’s obvious which way round it is. But for Russians, it’s not so clear-cut.