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.
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
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.)
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.