My Pop Life #201 : The Banner Man – Blue Mink


The Banner Man – Blue Mink

…and the Banner Man held the banner high he was ten feet tall and he touched the sky and I wish that I could be a banner man…

 This was, I can finally reveal, the first single I ever bought with my own money.  I suspect this money was from doing a paper round, or helping the farmer baling straw, or selling eels to Mr Catchlove, or maybe – just maybe – my mum gave me some pocket money and I saved it up.  The Regal Zonophone label, red and silver 45rpm single in a square piece of paper with a circle in the centre so you could see the label.

This would then be placed in the singles rack at home alongside the record player.  It would join my mum’s singles – Simon Dupree & The Big Sound, Joe South, The Casuals, Guy Darrell (see My Pop Life #181) until I bought a record player of my own for the bedroom, but even then I wonder if I didn’t leave it downstairs in the pop section.  The bedroom singles were religious artefacts for the shrine of Jimi Hendrix – 45rpm singles on Track records, Gypsy Eyes, Long Hot Summer Night, Burning of The Midnight Lamp, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).  What was Blue Mink doing with these inspirational songs?  It was like a throwback to my childhood  and I still can’t really explain it.  Taste changes fast when you’re 14.


It was May 1971 when the single first charted.  It reached Number 3 on the 20th June, two days after my 14th birthday.  This therefore becomes a fairly accurate indication of how cool I was as a teenager.  No older brother or sister to look up to, take taste from.  A mum who had her own particular taste, from Dionne Warwick singing a cover of The Rascals (My Pop Life #17) to The Kinks (My Pop Life #147).        I liked all of the above, and when I look at the charts of 1971 I think that mum must’ve bought Your Song by Elton John and Double Barrel by Dave & Ansel Collins for there they were in the singles rack.  Gosh the Proustian rush is too much, and  I’m in too deep now to walk back – or as Macbeth would say :

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er”

which means that, since 1971 is my year of sentience, I have to dive right in and indulge in that vivid musical touchstone of my life.  So with no further apology,  Here Is the Top 30 on my 14th birthday :

  1.    Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep          –     Middle Of The Road
  2.    Knock Three Times                         –     Dawn
  3.    I Did What I Did For Maria           –      Tony Christie
  4.    Banner Man                                     –      Blue Mink
  5.    I’m Gonna Run Away From You   –     Tami Lynn
  6.    Lady Rose                                          –     Mungo Jerry
  7.    He’s Gonna Step On You Again     –     John Kongos
  8.    Heaven Must Have Sent You         –     The Elgins
  9.    I Am…I Said                                       –     Neil Diamond
  10.    Indiana Wants Me                           –     R. Dean Taylor
  11.    My Brother Jake                               –     Free
  12.    Rags To Riches                                  –     Elvis Presley
  13.    Oh You Pretty Thing                        –     Peter Noone
  14.    Malt & Barley Blues                         –     McGuinness Flint
  15.    I Think Of You                                   –     Perry Como
  16.    Brown Sugar                                     –     The Rolling Stones
  17.    Just My Imagination                        –     The Temptations
  18.    Don’t Let It Die                                  –     Hurricane Smith
  19.    Co-Co                                                   –     The Sweet
  20.    Mozart Symphony Number 40       –     Waldo De Los Rios
  21.    Jig-A-Jig                                               –      East Of Eden
  22.    I Don’t Blame You At All                  –      Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
  23.    Lazy Bones                                         –      Jonathan King
  24.    Hey Willy                                            –      The Hollies
  25.    Rain                                                      –      Bruce Ruffin
  26.    Joy To The World                               –      Three Dog Night
  27.    Pied Piper                                            –      Bob & Marcia
  28.    Un Banc, Un Arbre, Un Rue             –      Severine
  29.    It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie                       –      Gerry Monroe
  30.    Double Barrel                                     –      Dave & Ansel Collins

It was, even to my clearly biased ears, a fairly fecund picture : plenty of irritating bubblegum at the top end, a decent smattering of pop reggae (Greyhound‘s Black & White was about to rise into the Top 30), some genuine originals in John Kongos, Hurricane Smith and East of Eden (written about in My Pop Life #141), some great Motown, some lovely bluesy stuff and a few songs for grandma.  For me the whole of 1971 imprinted itself on my ears, for it was when I learned what I liked, and what I didn’t like, and maybe even what the difference was and why.   Now, aged 60 as I write, I can find merit in all of these songs, yes, even the number one, which grated on us all at the time with its defiance of any kind of grooviness.   I bought Banner Man and brought it home, and now I’m wondering if I bought Jig-A-Jig at the same time, because it was a big song in our house and there it is travelling down the charts from a high point of number 7.


Blue Mink in 1971

Banner Man is terribly catchy, a genuine earworm.  Simple lyrically, a song about a marching band…

So we waved our hands as we marched along
And the people smiled as we sang our song
And the world was saved as they listened to the band

who march up to the top of the hill,

So we reached the square, on the top of the hill
And the music stopped and we stood quite still
And a few were saved and the people said

I also note that the the Banner Man had “an Allelujah in his eye” and that the chorus goes full gospel :

Glory, glory, glory
Listen to the band
Sing the same old story
Ain’t it something grand?
To be good as you can
Like a Banner-Man

It’s a brass band song, a kind of 2-step oompah rhythm, and the trombone does that cheesy slide down (glissando!) on “grand” and “can” .   I spell it all out like this because it is something of a mystery to me even now – what was I listening to?  What did I hear?  It is like a child’s nursery rhyme (rather like a fair section of that top 30), but I was 14.   There is something endearing in the fact that both Blue Mink and East of Eden (Jig-A-Jig) were crossing musical genres and spinning pop gold out of old forms, but I knew nothing of this at the time, I just liked the tunes I think.  Maybe something primal in that brass band sound though that gets under the skin – the New Orleans funeral march, the Second Line, the celebration of life after the body is interred.  The sound of something ancient, churchy but celebratory, harking back to “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” a popular song from 1907 :

I do like to stroll
Upon the Prom, Prom, Prom,
Where the brass bands play

and “76 Trombones” from 1957 which echoed through my childhood.   The Beatles of course made use of the brass during their psychedelic period, from Yellow Submarine through Sgt Pepper to Martha My Dear on The White Album.  Other brass band songs that made hit records include Peter Skellern‘s sublime You’re A Lady from 1973 and Mike Nesmith’s Listen To The Band for The Monkees from 1969.  And really that’s it, aside from The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band‘s single The Floral Dance in 1977.  The number of pop brass band songs can be counted on one hand pretty much.


Madeline Bell & Roger Cook

I remembered Blue Mink from their first single in 1969 “Melting Pot” with its call for racial harmony mixed up in racist language :

Take a pinch of White man
Wrap it up in Black skin
Add a touch of blue blood
And a little bitty-bit of Red Indian boy

Curly Latin Kinkies,  mixed with yellow Chinkees
If you lump it all together
Well, you’ve got a recipe for a get-along scene
Oh what a beautiful dream
If it could only come true you know, you know
What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take the world and all it’s got
Keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee-coloured people by the score

This song with Madeline Bell, a black American and Roger Cook, a white Englishman taking alternate verses reached number one and was part of a brief English soul boom in the late sixties which included mixed-race groups such as The Equals, The Foundations, Geno Washington’s RamJam Band and Hot Chocolate.

clockwise :  The Equals, The Foundations, Hot Chocolate, Geno Washington

But Blue Mink were different.  Formed by a group of session musicians, they were professional players working for a day-rate on other people’s music, like the famous Wrecking Crew out of Los Angeles who played on everything from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys, the Funk Brothers who played on every hit record from Motown or another mixed-race group Booker T & The MGs, the house band at Stax records, on all of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave’s records.


Herbie Flowers, Roger Cook, Maddy Bell, Barry Morgan, Roger Coulam, Alan Parker


Roger Coulam on keyboards hooked up with bass player Herbie Flowers, guitarist Alan Parker, drummer Barry Morgan and vocalists Madeline Bell and Roger Cook in 1969.   Bell, an American from New Jersey, had come to England with a gospel show in 1962 and stayed, met Dusty Springfield and had some hits herself.

By 1969 she already released three solo albums including her debut Bell’s A Poppin’ (1967) which had Dusty Springfield on backing vocals repaying her friend’s debt after Bell had backed many of Dusty’s blue-eyed soul hits.  Roger Cook had a successful songwriting partnership with Roger Greenaway established after they’d written You’ve Got Your Troubles for The Fortunes, and continued later with I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (and sell Coke), and Softly Whispering I Love You among many many others.  He now lives in Nashville.


Disc Jockey Tony Blackburn takes the place of Alan Parker in this shot

After the success of Melting Pot, the band stuck together for five more years 4 LPs and released a handful of decent, musical hit singles, including the vibrant Good Morning Freedom (1970).   They all continued working as session musicians in-between Blue Mink gigs and appearances on Top of the Pops, notably on Elton John‘s first LP.  Most of Blue Mink were also in C.C.S. (Collective Consciousness Society) another band which charted in 1971 with Tap Turn On The Water, and a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love which became the Top of the Pops theme music for years to come.  Flowers played on Lou Reed’s Transformer and Bowie’s Space Oddity, Labi Siffre’s It Must Be Love and was later a Womble and on David Live!  He now lives in Ditchling.  Bell sings on Rolling Stones & Dusty singles, and with Tom Jones, Elton John, Joe Cocker and Scott Walker.  Parker plays the riff on Rebel Rebel, Hurdy Gurdy Man and No Regrets among countless others, and now writes theme music for film and television.   Drummer Morgan played with Elton, Tom Jones, Nilsson and many others while Coulam played on iconic Serge Gainsbourg single Je T’Aime and the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and died in 2005.


It was in 2012 that I started work on a documentary project about session musicians.  I felt drawn to them as if they could help me to understand my own strange career as a character actor, a self-styled Lee Van Cleef, the hired gun, forever getting on my horse & leaving town clutching my fee after helping to kill the bad guys.  I called the putative film Red Light Fever and we worked for a good solid week, interviewing a group of players from the Brighton/M25 area – legend Chris Spedding, who sat in the guitar section of the GAK (Guitar & Keyboard) shop for his interview, Barbara Moore – voice of The Saint and Bedazzled and arranger of The Sign Of The Swinging Cymbal – Alan Freeman’s chart countdown music, Alan Parker and Herbie Flowers from Blue Mink, legendary drummer Clem Cattini (Telstar, much of The Kinks early stuff, Hurdy Gurdy Man, hundreds of others) and bass player Les Hurdle (Foundations, Donna Summer) who we talked to in Fatboy Slim’s shoreline studio (thanks generous Norm!).


Before we started shooting, one of my first interviews, with guitarist Big Jim Sullivan, was abruptly cancelled after he passed away.  I attended his funeral outside Worthing and saw many of the old session faces there, (including Chas Hodges).  There was a sense of time slipping away, an urgency to complete the project before it was too late.  I wanted to record a new piece of music which Barbara Moore would write and using all the old faces from the 60s and 70s London sessions, record it at Maida Vale Number One Studio, filming the whole get-together.  Maybe even a gig too like that great film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.  It was like a detective story piecing it all together, great fun and a proper buzz.  Sample joke : when I asked who played the trumpet on It’s Not Unusual about 50 musicians claim to have been in the studio that day, record-keeping was poor, and royalties are like gold-dust.   We shot enough for a decent trailer – here it is :

Red Light Fever Promo

you’ll need the password which is :  rlflatest

That is because my buddy David Cuff was working at Latest TV in Brighton in 2012 and the boss of that young channel Bill Smith liked the idea and generously agreed to front £500 to pay for the promo.  It all went on the camera crew.

I cut the promo at home on Final Cut and took it to Luke Cresswell’s brother Addison and he hawked it around the industry (see My Pop Life #183 for the full terrible story).   I didn’t have much money at the end of 2012 but I thought something might break for us, and the trailer was decent (despite all the Super-8 footage being out of focus so that we couldn’t use it).  I was still working on the interviews.  Just before Christmas Madeline Bell finally relented to meet and chat while she was visiting from Spain.  Jenny and I had lunch with her at The Delauney on the Aldwych.  She was great company, very funny and warm.  She promised to grant us an interview if we got over to Spain with our camera and we parted on very positive terms.  The film would not be finished though due to tragic circumstances already described in the above link to Elton John’s Rocket Man.

If I find a spare 10 grand I will finish that film in my own time.  The musicians deserve the accolade after all these unsung years, just as the Funk Brothers did with their film.

Meanwhile 1971 will forever glow in the dark like a lighthouse to my soul.  My friend Martin Steel (father of Paul who opened this blog (My Pop Life #1) has been trying to link me up with an audio version of writer and broadcaster David Hepworth’s book Never A Dull Moment : 1971 – Rock’s Golden Year.  It feels like it was written for me and I look forward to disagreeing with its contents while saluting its general premise. (I strongly suspect that it is rockist i.e.) Perhaps he values album statements over 45rpm pop singles too, which will be seen in years to come as an historic mistake.  The pop single is the late 20th century’s highest form of popular culture as any fule kno.  I know Simon Price is with me on that one.  They are also, in particular, spangly dayglo markers for our emerging personalities.  Every one of us has this sentient musical moment, and commonly it will be our early teens, probably coinciding with puberty.  Awakening. The chrysalis unfurls and there we are in all our contradictions.


Trust me : make a playlist up from your year of musical sentience, say the moment you turned from 13 to 14 and then listen to it in pure joy as the waves of discovery once more wash through your soul, and you rediscover that you know every lick, every drumbeat, every intake of breath for they are forever imprinted upon you like rhythmic & melodic DNA.  Almost as if, as you grew into your body and the cells expanded, the music you heard then got into the cracks and became part of you.


I wonder if I liked Blue Mink because of Madeline Bell ?   I married a black British woman some years later and we created our own mixed-race band, me, Jenny, two different breeds of cat.  Very open-minded, inclusive.   But the mystery at the heart of this blog though is why that song?  One’s first single purchase is supposed to be an indicator of something. Some tribal moment, some groove, something that will not be denied.  Perhaps all this is blurred by my mum’s pop purchases, after all she was only 34 at the time, and our musical tastes crossed over considerably.  It wasn’t just me – thousands of people bought the single and it reached number 4 eventually.  Maybe we all wanted a bit of Glory Hallelujah dressed up as pop music – Oh Happy Day with a brass band, or a hippie Salvation Army?  Or… maybe… when I was a wee child in Portsmouth, Mum had taken my brother Paul and I in the pram down to Southsea where the funfair was, where you could see the Isle of Wight and the giant ships coming in and out of Portsmouth Harbour, where H.M.S. Victory stands in dry dock, where a bandstand hosts the occasional concert.   A very early childhood memory.   Did we like to walk along the prom prom prom to hear the brass band play tiddly om pom pom?

Well I’ve been reluctant to press the “Publish” button on this post for over 24 hours now.  Something beyond a mystery.  Looking back at My Pop Life #84 which is set in 1970 and which precedes this by a profound 9-month period of my life, it is starting to become clear that my memory is unreliable.  The Hendrix era had been the previous year, and surely I had bought those single already.  Why this song always pops into my head as “first single” I do not know, but it cannot be.  It doesn’t matter.  I definitely bought it, and Jig-A-Jig, and All Along The Watchtower.  I’m glad I did.


My Pop Life #200 : Hello, Goodbye – The Beatles

Hello, Goodbye   –   The Beatles

I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello


  • This blog celebrates my 60th birthday crossroads weekend, which was epic on almost every level.   Indeed it was also a living embodiment of this entire series of blogs, both musically and as a representation of the people in my life.  So this will be the fulcrum of it all I suspect.
  • The result is the longest and luvviest post of the 200 so far written.  Enjoy.


On June 18th 2017 I was 60 years old.  It crept up on me like a hungry lioness, but I was ready for it, for I’d known for some time that it would be there, all six decades of it, shined up and sharp-toothed with a big zero on its pyjamas, an undeniable signpost to my future & inevitable death, an achievement, a relief, a triumph, a moment in time, a landmark, a shock to the system, a meaningless profound number.   Everyone has their own version of what this means, I certainly had mine.    Whatever lies, untruths and kind little stories I’d told myself up to this point, after June 18th I would be old.  OLD.  I was crossing a portal into another world.  It was to be celebrated with a party.  I needed my people to hold my hand and help me cross over.  I have always chosen to celebrate the big zero numbers.   I planned this party for the best part of three years.  As I mentioned in my speech on the night, the original celebration was to be a live gig, with all of my favourite songs, sung by me.  Like a massive indulgent splurge : “Of Me“.  As the months went by and I started to narrow down a playlist of sorts, the idea began to pall, to ever-so-slightly turn at the edges and discolour, until a faint whiff of hubris started to come off of its glittering carapace.   Each time I returned to plan the dreadful occasion it had gone a little more mouldy.   It was, in short, a rotten idea.  So bad was this idea indeed, that I felt embarrassed for having had it, and hoped that I hadn’t talked to too many people about it.  Me sing at a 60th birthday party !?  The utter gall.  The shame.

Brighton fam : Millie, Scarlett & Skye, Thomas, Delilah-Rose, Kerry

I decided to celebrate the big Zero of Six in Brighton, East Sussex, England, my home town, home of my football team, my band, my political party, my friends, where I’d lived for 20 years before moving to New York in 2014.   Some of my friends who ran the percussion ensemble and hit West End, Broadway and touring show Stomp have their HQ in Brighton in a lovely old venue called The Old Market (Hove Actually).  I chatted with dear Loretta Sacco who runs the company and it was fixed with ridiculous & welcome ease.  Loretta is married to Steve McNicholas who is half of Stomp along with my friend Luke Cresswell.  I had a date, and a venue.

Guest vocalist Lucy Jules with her sister Natasha

But I still wanted to hear the songs, so I came up with a marvellous plan B, seriously superior in every way to the first idea : to get other people to sing the songs TO ME, and then watch them with the rest of the party.  Now here was an idea I could run with, over the hills & far away.  But how to find the guest vocalists?  My first stop was family – my wife’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #134 ) and my nephew Thomas Jules (see My Pop Life #57  and  #129).   I wasn’t sure which song to start with but it was good to have a couple of great singers to kick things off (or close the show).  Then I hoped Pippa Randall would probably agree to sing me an Amy Winehouse song since we’d played in an Amy tribute band together (see My Pop Life #65).   And I dreamed that Lisa Abbott, who sings a wonderful Kate Bush tribute ‘Hounds Of Love‘ with most of my band mates from the Brighton Beach Boys : (Stephen Wrigley, Glen Richardson, Charlotte Glasson etc, ) would be agreeable to singing a little Kate for me…

I drew up a list of songs and shared it with Jenny.  She was polite but firm.  “Ralph my love,” she said, or words of similar joy, “it is going to be a party.  These songs are all depressing vibes.”   I looked down at the partial list :

Goodbye To Love  (Carpenters)

Too Far Gone (Bobby Bland) (My Pop Life #28)

My Old School  (Steely Dan)

Man With The Child In His Eyes  (Kate Bush)

We Will  (Gilbert O’Sullivan)

Stardust  (Nat King Cole) (My Pop Life #100)

Something  (Beatles)

Back To Black  (Amy Winehouse)

All Is Fair In Love  (Stevie Wonder)

I must admit I’d watch that set and clap loudly after each song, but I could see with my host hat on that she was right, too much sad ballad, so I had another think.  Meanwhile I worried about catering and invites.  Of course the two are interdependent.  I invited 300 people, perhaps 350.  Would they all come?  Would they fuck.   I had to guess on the catering numbers then.  People who know about these things told me that half the invitees turn up.  Slightly depressing statistic isn’t it?   So I catered for 200.  Better not to have hungry people wandering around.   Then I went back to worrying about the setlist & singers.  I’d promised to myself, and told the folk in the band that I would pay for rehearsals – initially imagining I think a whole week of rehearsals.  Naïve.  There was one rehearsal in the end on the Thursday before the party.  By then I’d emailed and phoned around and the setlist & singers had been finalised, and some of them were there in the rehearsal space, meeting the band for the first time.   So, here’s the final setlist and the beautiful brave singers who sang that night, some chose their songs, and others had songs thrust upon them.  Each song is either a showstopper, or gives me a lump in my throat, or both.  I love all of these singers, each & every one, forever :

  • Beatles : Hello Goodbye – Glen Richardson (My Pop Life #200!!)
  • Beatles : Getting Better – Glen Richardson
  • Rascals : How Can I Be Sure – Stephen Wrigley
  • Joni Mitchell : My Old Man – Meera Syal
  • Simon & Garfunkel : America – Tom White & Kit Ashton (My Pop Life #130)
  • Procol Harum : A Salty Dog – Leon & Hereward Kaye  (My Pop Life #37)
  • Herb Alpert : This Guy’s In Love With You – Lee Ross (My Pop Life #49)
  • Nina Simone : Ne Me Quitte Pas  –  Maureen Hibbert
  • Kate Bush : Moments Of Pleasure  –  Lisa Abbott
  • Cilla Black/Dionne Warwick : Alfie  –  Lucy Jules
  • David Bowie : Life On Mars  –  Glen Richardson
  • Monkees : Pleasant Valley Sunday  – yours truly (My Pop Life #168)
  • Ian Dury : What A Waste  –  Cush Jumbo
  • Amy Winehouse : Valerie  –  Pippa Randall
  • Ike & Tina Turner : River Deep Mountain High  –  Lucy Jules (My Pop Life #160)
  • Stevie Wonder : I Wish  –  Thomas Jules
  • Bruce Springsteen : Born To Run  –  Glen Richardson
  • Beach Boys : And Your Dream Comes True – the band

Me giving Paul a piggyback in 1961

The whole weekend was extraordinary in so many ways.  My brother Paul Brown had flown in from Shanghai where he lives.  He was staying in the Pelirocco Hotel, where Jenny and I were staying.  Regency Square.  It’s a self-consciously “rock’n’roll hotel” cliché with themed rooms but no fridges & weak wi-fi but after a rough teething period, we ended up loving it a great deal.  So great to see Paul after a couple of years.  He had a marvellous beard.

Breakfast with Paul

The Hotel Pelirocco reception area

Then Lynn Nottage and Tony Gerber and  their beautiful children Ruby and Melkamu arrived (from Brooklyn!) & checked into a seafront hotel near us.  They’d  told me the name of it in New York & asked me what it was like.  I’d said “it’s on the seafront“.  When I saw them a few weeks later in Brighton I asked how the hotel was.  “Wellit’s on the seafront…”  said Tony.  See what I mean.

Pippa & Jenny in Alfresco

Ralph, Paul, Tony in Alfresco

On the Friday Jenny, Paul & I hooked up with Pippa, Lynn, Tony, Ruby and Mel in Alfresco which is a lovely Italian restaurant above the beach.  About 4pm.  It was almost empty.  Perfect.  We drank wine and so on.  Ate food.  Walked along the seafront past the West Pier ruins,

West Pier : Ruby, Lynn, Pippa, Paul, Jenny & Melkamu

past the Fortune of War public house & the Victorian carousel up to the mighty Palace Pier and walked out into the sea on the boards.  Took some cheesy pictures.  Stretched out a bit.  It was a heatwave.  Sunblock and T-shirts.  It was very special to have my New York family there with my family in Brighton.  Fam.  So much love.


Embracing the cheese on the Palace Pier (Albion got promoted in May)



We started to make a habit of landing at The Regency Tavern across the square for a late-night pint.   Harveys, naturally.

Brighton Pavilion : Ralph, Tony, Paul, Lynn, Jenny, Ruby

Lulu & Jide arrived on Saturday after we’d shown Lynn & Tony the Royal Pavilion and took us to a lovely restaurant in the Lanes called 64 Degrees.  Rather movingly, the waitress there was Neil Cooper‘s daughter Sunny who we’d met in 2001.  Neil – or Spiderman as he called himself – had production-managed Jenny and I’s wedding in 1992 after working on my play Sanctuary with Paulette and I, then had taught me how to water-ski and generally been a very good friend over the years until he suddenly died about 15 years ago. Shocked and sad, we had gone to his funeral in Golders Green.

Alex Major-Brown with his father, Andrew Brown on Brighton Beach

Later that afternoon Andrew Brown my younger brother arrived from Bournemouth with his 15-year old son Alex, known as Bootsy to us all although he now prefers Alex I understand (see My Pop Life #138) and Alex and I walked up to The Old Market to fix some necessary arrangements for the following day.  We chatted together about school, music and his dad.  It was rather great to be an Uncle once again.

As fate would have it, The Brighton Beach Boys had a gig at the Open Air Theatre (aka BOAT) in Dyke Road that night, a Bowie tribute, and I’d agreed to take part.  Well, I was 59 still.  That has to be for another blog…but I will mention that Paul, Lynn, Tony, Ruby and Melkamu all came to the park (Jenny had a date with Lucy) and witnessed the strange truth : Britain is in thrall to a secret David Bowie cult.

Vintage Brighton Beach Boys photo with Theseus on drums

Another late-night pint at The Regency ushered in June 18th and my 60th birthday.  We sat on a table – Paul, me, Jenny, Lynn and Tony.  Suddenly a fracas occurred next to us, a dog had growled at a tough guy & suddenly he wasn’t looking so tough.  He was acting tough though.  “Fucking keep your fucking dog under control.”  The dog owners were a group of young hippy types who immediately decided to leave the pub.  The geezer was right next to us and Paul shielded Jenny from any aggro instinctively.  The very camp bar staff intervened and asked the pant-wetting guy to leave and after some more noise and the prospect of the police being called he went into the gents, smashed the mirror (symbolic!) and left with his girlfriend.  Happy Birthday!!

Next morning in the Dollywood room I was showered with gifts and cards from my darling wife.  We had breakfast downstairs with a glass of champagne, then hooked up with the gang again for a good old-fashioned Sunday roast in Kemp Town at the Thomas Kemp pub, near our house.  Tony drove us up there in his rental and we piled into the walled garden, bathed in sunshine and shadow.  Lulu & Jide were there looking bonny, then Indhu Rubasingham arrived from London. Indhu directed Jenny in Lynn’s play Ruined at The Almeida (My Pop Life #180).  Kerry appeared, dear Kerry.  Even though Paul was there from China and didn’t know half of these people I somehow felt that he was guiding everyone through the day with grace and ease and charm, a natural facility he has with celebrations.  Very happy to have him there.  Beyond happy.  Then Scarlett arrived with her parents Maggie Flynn and Rob Pugh, warm, lovely people, (Rob greeted me in Welsh and Scarlett said “Dad!  Ralph, do you know what he just said to you?” I didn’t and still don’t !)  With them was Skye our 3-year old beauty with Thomas Jules my precious nephew.   We had a bench table or three and out came the meat (not for me), the potatoes,  yorkshire puddings & gravy and what we insist on calling “the trimmings“.  Then I had to run for a soundcheck & get-in at the venue.

I’d played The Old Market not three weeks earlier in Brighton Festival.  Magical Mystery Tour v Sgt Pepper.  I’d seen stuff there over the years.  Drank beers there.  Enjoyed Luke’s birthday fairly recently, rented out our house to one of Loretta’s staff, Helen at one point.  It was all very familiar and friendly but I was already feeling disembodied.  I had created a giant crossroads made of my life.  It was like a living breathing giant figure made out of all of these blog posts, music pouring from every orifice, made of love but still a giant puzzle, a huge inchoate emotional time bomb – 60 years of life ready to explode at any second.  I’d essentially invited everyone that I deemed myself to have had a proper relationship with, obviously they couldn’t all come, but nevertheless it was a daunting unknown test I appeared to have set myself.  All those plans, those hopes and fears – the desire beneath everything else to simply bring people together in a musical event, using the 60th as a hard-to-refuse invitation to a party, probably most likely, the biggest party I would ever throw.

The band arrived and started to unwrap gear, erect stands, plug in amplifiers, organise their sheet music at their stations, exchange pleasantries about the songs that they felt they didn’t know well enough.  Adrian in particular had a worry about one or two of the songs, and didn’t like to wear glasses on a gig to read the chord charts.  Oh well !  Tom White was setting up the drum kit, Jono the keyboards stage left, Glen the keyboards stage right.  The woodwinds were to the left of the drums, the strings to the right.  Stephen Wrigley the Musical Director, the co-author of this band with me, the genius who made everything possible, the man who had scored all of my favourite songs for this event, arranged for a 16-piece band and rehearsed on Thursday evening, Stephen was arranging his guitar sculpture in the centre of the stage.  I loved him so much that I couldn’t say it.

Stephen Wrigley

I popped out for a cigarette outside the back door – where the pub was which used to be called The Conqueror.  Theseus Gerrard was there, drummer for The Beach Boys and Bowie gigs but not for Beatles, and he wasn’t on the kit for this gig.  Almost a founder member of the group, a great rhythmist and free spirit, he divides the band because he is so dependent on the kindness of strangers, and such an itinerant addict, and so bad at learning new songs.  Unless he’s in the mood.  We have tolerated a lot from Theese over the years because he brings so much to the show, particularly regarding our relationship with the audience.  Theseus is a natural showman and communicator, whereas the rest of us are more nerdy and muso, staring at our instruments in order to get it right, engaged in some private musical examination, whereas Theseus is always aware that the gig is a relationship.  Audiences love him.  In the Sgt Pepper shows he is on percussion, but moves around the stage drawing focus onto whoever is singing, playing a solo or enacting some part of the song.  It really works.  He is a conundrum in many ways, a challenge to each and every one of us.  But then I think we all are like that to each other, in different ways.  Theseus sat there on the bench smoking a fag and looked at me, then said “Ralph – what do you want me to do in this gig mate?”  I think it was the year before when he’d sung me the Stones “Miss You” in another pub for my birthday, which was the highlight of that year.  I’d been in Brooklyn for nearly three years and it was touching.   I looked at him.  “You know what to do” I said.  He held my arm.  We were cool.  Although I partly wished I’d asked him to sing Miss You again, it also felt like an indulgence swerved.

I’d given my ipod to the bar -one mix.  And my computer to the main hall – another mix.  They couldn’t connect the two sound systems.  I’d made a rule – only one song per artist in each mix.  That was fun.  I remember hearing exactly one song at the party – It was a Rufus Wainwright song “I Don’t Know What It Is“.  Weird.  I asked the bar staff to turn the sound system up but it was playing at top volume apparently. I’d gone temporarily deaf for the night on top of everything else.  They were busy cutting oranges and cucumbers for the Pimms jugs which were to be free all night.

The band ran through a few numbers and now after the nerves and nail-biting and list-making, engineering party-organising, forgetting and mental-ness there suddenly appeared a moment of calm.  Music.  I wasn’t playing on most of these songs because I intended to be in the audience for most of the night.  Lisa sang Kate Bush, magically. Pippa went through Valerie.  So exciting.  Venue staff came and asked me stuff now & again, but I was suddenly peaceful.  Lucy sang Alfie, wonderfully.   The tears pricked me suddenly.  Something about that song.


And so the party.  It was all so completely overwhelming seeing everyone who came and missing all those who did not.   Jenny looked extravagantly beautiful as ever, I knew she had my back, all night, and would make people feel welcome and loved even if I’d only spoken to them for a few moments.  She is my rock, my guiding star.  We walked up the stairs and looked briefly at each other and smiled a kind of “see you later” kind of smile.  Dressed in my gorgeous black & white puppy-tooth Jump The Gun suit with black & white short-sleeved shirt, loafers, I greeted my guests as they arrived, some carrying presents despite the urgent Red Cross Appeal Not To Bring Any Presents because I’d only have to leave them behind …I’d only brought one suitcase…

Of course the biggest and heaviest present came from Lucy & Graham.  A fully gigantic encyclopedia of hip hop made of some kind of stone or granite.  It is amazing !  But they weren’t the only ones.  Cards, books, all kinds of things.  There was even a book for people to sign.  Some did.    There were surprise arrivals to balance out the no-shows, Simon Korner brought his wife Leonie bless her, and his grown-up son Asher who had french girlfriend in tow.  Lewis MacLeod, Simon Lester, Norman Wilson, Dona Croll, Susan Kyd, Jo Martin, Eamonn Walker and Sandra Kane – I’d asked Eamonn to sing & he’d never answered so I didn’t know if he’d be there, my brother from another mother.  Catherine Walker came from Paris, and the Brighton gang were reunited in force.  Great turnout.  None better than Johanna Francis who’d just flown in from New York, our fairy godmother who’d sheltered us from the winter storm in 2014 just after we arrived in Brooklyn.  She’s become our homegirl.

Brooklyn gang – me, Sean, Johanna

On the night I knew that I would hardly get to speak to anyone, basically being magnetised by each new arrival for as long as it took until another one appeared over their shoulder and stole my attention.  Then they would start to leave and each moment would be just a moment.  Everyone, hopefully, would get a hello and a goodbye.  I knew this.  I mentioned it in my speech “Sorry I haven’t spoken to any of you yet.  I’m not going to speak to you later either.”  Got a laugh.  I alluded to the turnout being likely to be the same for my funeral, except that I would be dead, and therefore wouldn’t enjoy it as much.  Also got a laugh.  Also mentioned all the last-minute “sorry” texts & emails I’d received in the days leading up to the party as ‘little stabs‘ … ‘which didn’t hurt’.  Got a 3rd laugh!  Probably the biggest.  The speech finished with the greetings & partings acknowledgement which bled perfectly into Hello Goodbye as an opening number.   Because 2017 was the 50th anniversary of Magical Mystery Tour (the EP & the LP) we were all up to speed on this song, one of McCartney’s finest moments, an apparently simple song with simple lyrics, astoundingly well performed and produced, clear and clean and HAPPY.  I love it.

It was the perfect opener for the gig, the perfect hinge on my year and my evening.  We then played Getting Better from Sgt Pepper because it’s an uptempo positive song, and a 50th birthday for that album AND it was a party 😉  And then the first special request song – How Can I Be Sure – chosen by me for Stephen Wrigley to sing because I knew he loved it as much as I did.  I prefer the David Cassidy version to the original by The Rascals, but he prefers that one, so that was the one we did.  Fair enough.  Then I left the stage and watched the remainder of the show from the audience.

I’d waited for Paulette & Beverley to arrive before I started the entertainment.  They were drinking with old reprobates David & Eugene in the Pelirocco in the porn-themed room.  I was so happy that they’d all made it to the party.  Absurdly self-conscious as I had been onstage making my speech & participating in a few songs, I became positively opaque sitting in the audience, like a hair-trigger of emotion awaiting release, whilst knowing deep in my floppy sweet liquorice bones that I could not afford to plumb those depths, not here, not now, don’t cry, shut it down fella.

Meera Syal

Meera Syal was first up, singing Joni Mitchell‘s My Old Man from Blue – our joint choice.  We’d chatted about the key it should be in, but she’d only been able to make today.  She stood in front of the microphone and announced :  “Ralphy, I want you to know that you’re the only person I love enough to sing this song without any rehearsal“.  A ripple of excitement and expectation ran through the guests – oh, wow, no rehearsal.  The bravery, the love.  A little like watching a live X-factor gig where the band are fully rehearsed, safe group of hands, but the singers are all walking the tightrope.  Woop !  Meera was stunning of course, nailed the song and the emotion of the song with aplomb.  I helped her offstage and kissed & thanked her.

Ralph Brown, Andy Baybutt, Tim Lewis : Friston Forest

JennyTim Lewis were doing the MC honours, announcing the guest singers in turn.  Jenny had, as ever, been my right hand, my guiding star, my heart & soul and over half of my brain all weekend.   Next up were Tom White our drummer & Brighton musical genius in his own right (having played with his band The Electric Soft Parade since being at school with his brother Alex; also Brakes, The Fiction Aisle and many other outlets).  He has music running through his veins.  He teamed up with another Brighton musical legend Kit Ashton.  I’d hooked up with Kit when he was running his “Songwriter” gigs – he’d do one a year at Hanbury Ballroom with guest vocalists and one year he’d asked me if I wanted to sing a couple of Elvis Costello songs and I’d bitten his hand off and performed Alison & All Grown Up.  The following year he did Bowie and I got Glen involved, I did Station To Station and Glen did Drive-In Saturday and Life On Mars,  another memorable night since legendary bass player Herbie Flowers turned up to play his parts on Rebel Rebel & Space Oddity.  Tom and Kit got all acoustic together and sang me the Simon & Garfunkel classic “America” (see My Pop Life #130 ) which is deeply symbolic because Jenny and I walked off to look for America or something.  Such a beautiful song.

Hereward Kaye

Next up my old buddy Hereward Kaye – the man who taught me Good Vibrations for the Rock and Roll Shakepeare sci-fi extravaganza Return To The Forbidden Planet at The Tricycle Theatre in 1985 (see My Pop Life #190).  Herry took to the keyboard with his son Leon on vocals and tore into the prog-rock masterpiece known as A Salty Dog (see My Pop Life #37).  Leon fair took the roof off with his voice, rising to the occasion and the massive challenge of singing Gary Brooker, Procol Harum‘s lead vocalist and one of the great rock singers.   It was all getting a bit serious and intense, but here came Lee Ross my beautiful friend to give us a rendition of a Bacharach song This Guy’s In Love With You, originally sung by Herb Alpert (My Pop Life #49).

Lee Ross

Dear MC Tim Lewis had to improvise a story because Lee was having an emergency pre-stage leak in the gents downstairs.  He related how, in the early days of our friendship we had been on the phone organising something, and he’d ended by saying “Thanks lovely Ralph“.  I misheard him, and after a slight pause replied “I love you too Tim“.  Dear Tim didn’t have the inclination to correct me, but now took the opportunity to say that he loved me too.  Awwww.

Lee was unintentionally hilarious, his hat slightly askew, his lyrics sheet had a life of its own & kept leaving his hand or jumping off the music stand with every slight gust of breath.  He brought the house down and delivered the tune with great joy, cracked the atmosphere, now it was a party.  I wrote about Lee and Jo McInnes in My Pop Life #192 .

Jenny Jules, Pippa Randall, Maureen Hibbert at the party

Next up was Maureen Hibbert who deserves her own blog and her own story for I cannot do it justice inside this piece.  And I have to mention her daughter Chloe, my god-daughter who had travelled from Zanzibar (I think?) to spend the evening with me, to be there for me.  Maureen and Chloe ended up sleeping on our couch!  Mo sang, with huge courage and soul, the amazing Jaques Brel song Ne Me Quitte Pas, in the style of Nina Simone, in French.  Wow.   This was the most dramatic part of the show, easily.  In verse three she wasn’t happy with a vocal mistake and held up her hand “Wait wait, hold on!” she said.  The band stopped playing.  “I want this to be right for Ralphy” she said, “can we do that part again please?”  Stephen raised the baton “top of verse three?” And.  The bar kept being raised.

Lisa Abbott

Somewhere in the hall Scarlett’s dad Rob Pugh, writer of Reg which I’d filmed in 2015 (My Pop Life #119) muttered to Luke standing alongside him “here comes another piece of hippy shite“.  He is 100% Welsh of course.  I’m a mere 25%.

He was right too : The darling hippy Lisa Abbott took the microphone for my favourite Kate Bush song which never fails to bring water to the eye : Moments Of Pleasure from the Red Shoes album.  It was both uncanny and magical listening to Lisa sing for me on my birthday.  She just inhabits Kate Bush totally.  Her voice is quite exquisite.  I’d seen her sing the whole of the Hounds Of Love LP one night two years earlier in this very venue and it was nothing short of extraordinary.   I could see the people in the party who had yet to sing looking at her and thinking “Shit! I’ve got to follow that.

Lucy Jules

But it was Lucy Jules up next, singing Alfie.  The Bacharach arrangement, Steve conducting.  A string quartet, a woodwind quartet, a band of great players.  It is a great band and it was lovely to showcase them for my friends who had never seen us gig.  I really am so proud of this part of my life, and I miss it a great deal and try to get back to England as often as possible to play with them.  By now I was sitting down, Simon Korner to my right, Conrad Ryle to my left – Simon had joined me after America, Conrad after A Salty Dog.  My mates from school.  My surrogate families who rescued me in the 1970s.  My North & South Poles.

Lucy sang the first line :  “ What’s it all about, Ralphie?” and I smiled.  It was funny and bold and lovely & it stopped me from weeping once more.  Everyone in the room smiled I think.   I can’t really put into words what it meant, what it felt like.  She kept it up for the entire song.  “And if life belongs only to the strong Ralphie…” and each time she left a miniscule pause before the name as if deciding anew each time to change the name of the person she was talking to, and each time it was funny, witty, affectionate, very moving.  Especially in a song about love…

Brought the house down of course.   I was grateful to her for changing the song from Alfie to Ralphie.  Stopped my meltdown in its tracks which she later told me was why she’d done it.  Some people are very wise aren’t they?  I still feel like a young soul, like a 25-year old learning how it all works.  I look at people like say Bruno the Brighton & Hove Albion captain and I think “look at that old guy, he’s doing all right”.  Bruno is 37 years old.  I still feel, without thinking, that he & others like him are older than me.  This is a kind of psychic dissonance, a denial of time passing, arrested development or simply genius.  Does everyone feel this strange emotional eternal youth inside?  Only mirrors give me a shock –  Gulp : who the fuck is THAT??  Adjustment, temporarily.  Then I’m back, 25 years old, dealing with the next minute, then the next.

Lucy received a standing ovation for her performance and a thrill ran through the room.  It was a good gig all right !  I was thrilled to bits by now and had decided to go through with my song – I almost swerved it, but then also felt in one way that the singers who had yet to perform would be encouraged by watching me struggle a little musically, that I would bring the bar back down and that Cush and Pippa in particular would be imbued with renewed courage.  Maybe. I looked over at Cush and she raised her eyebrows at me like WOW.

our lead vocalist Glen Richardson

Who followed that emotional centrepiece ?  Why David Bowie of course in the eminent shape of Glen Richardson singing Life On Mars.  He and the band absolutely smashed it to pieces.  I then jumped back onstage fortified by ales and love and sang a rendition of the Carole King/Monkees classic Pleasant Valley Sunday which I dearly hoped we were all inhabiting by that point.  I then made my way to the horn section where my trusty alto saxophone was nestled on its stand and honked my way through the remainder of the set : a massive error on my part here, since I didn’t get to see the surprise package of the event, namely, Cush Jumbo singing What A Waste, unrehearsed, never met the band, just like Meera, apparently extraordinary…

Sean Griffin & Cush Jumbo

OK I’ve now seen the footage and Cush was outstanding.  Especially changing the chorus final line from “rock’n’roll don’t mind” to “my mum don’t mind” !!  Genius.  These two are our newest dearest friends, both English, moved over just after we did, they live down the road from us in Brooklyn and we try to hang out with them as often as we can.   She’d given a little speech before the song about how much she appreciated me befriending Sean in America and taking him to the dirty bar to play pool and get horribly drunk.  Aw.

Cush was followed by Pippa Randall singing Valerie with true relish, what a star she is, accompanied by Joe Kaye plugged in next to her, at which point Conrad & Gaynor and a whole bunch of other people decided to get up and dance (hooray!).  Maybe we’d gone on too long, but I love Conrad and Gaynor for always dancing !!!  Then Lucy came back to scale the mountaintop River Deep Mountain High with Lisa, Meera, Cush, Maureen & Pippa on backing vocals which apparently tore the roof off the sucker, and the throat out of dear Lucy, and finally darling Thomas who’d had a sore throat all weekend stepped up to sing Stevie Wonder‘s I Wish with Lucy on chorus high notes.  He was absolutely flipping amazing.

Thomas Jules

I missed it all, because the sound at the back of the stage was poor, only climbing back into the audience for Born To Run which Glen sang.  But my friend Steve McNicholas was filming it all, so I do believe that I will get to see these magic moments one day soon.

Charlotte Glasson, Danielle Flarty, Adrian Marshall

At the end of the gig we sang the Beach Boys acapella lullaby And Your Dream Comes True to Scarlett, who was heavily pregnant and about to DJ for the dancing part of the party with Thomas.  Yes, a Beach Boys song and a sad ballad but I felt it was a sweet way to end the set and serenade mum-to-be.  The beautiful Lua Blue Jules Pugh was born 20 days later, somewhat overdue but perfect in every way.

Mum Scarlett & baby Lua Blue 4 months later

end of the party : Alex, Ralph, Rebecca, Andrew, Paul

At the end of the party the gang split into two fact-finding groups –

group A) people who had to leave including my sister Rebecca Coleman and her kids Ellie and William who rode off into the night with her dad Alan Sully;  Jenny’s mother Esther Jules who was driven back to Wembley by Jenny’s sister & Thomas’ mum Dee, who then returned to Harlow, Essex with nephews Jordan and Jamie;  Uncle Lee who took Auntie Mame and Tete Sica back to Ramsgate (!);  the families Randall & Kaye with Roy & Robbie, Herry & Pat, Pippa & Joe, Tia & Lucy;  and plenty of others who’d booked babysitters…

and group B) people who hadn’t finished getting fucked up.  Well that group all walked down to the Pelirocco Hotel and drank until dawn.

Dawn : Kit Ashton, Ralph, Tom White, Paul


Much later I wrote an email to those who had participated including the band themselves :  Steve, Glen, Adrian, Charlotte, Theseus, Tom, Brian, Jane, Joe, Rob, Danielle, Jono, Simon.

First and most importantly, Thank You for helping me through the great gates of 60, daunting and aged though they were, an ancient stone portal which loomed ahead casting a shadow over the earth for the last few years, during which time I planned this event to avoid facing the tremendous fear beneath the celebration.  The numbers do not lie, and I am 60.  So thank you once again for holding my hand, bringing yourself and your love.  I felt it.  I was overwhelmed and did not surrender, but now I thank you.  You have o’erleaped the rest into my personal pop charts.  You are a Golden Great.  I may never do that again, but I will always cherish it.”   Lots of love, Ralph, aged 60


if anyone has any photos from the party, please send them to me !!


My Pop Life #185 : Between The Wars – Billy Bragg


Between The Wars   –   Billy Bragg

Call up the craftsmen bring me the draughtsmen build me a path from cradle to grave     and I’ll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage


I wrote the piece below in the Spring of 1985 as this song was released. I was 27.


Blackpool.  Monday afternoon,  a wet October,  1984

Six actors, a director and a writer meet each other in the lounge of the Pendale Hotel (just off the town map) and plan their assault on the Labour Party Conference :  the largest collection of journalists to be found outside of a Fleet Street pub.  Our mission: to explore their world, their obsessions.  We have (valued possessions) press passes saying ‘Joint Stock’ pinned to our clothing, currently providing simple entry to the Winter Gardens.  We are naive, optimistic, nervous, brave.  We move in.

A fringe meeting upstairs from the bar is getting underway.  Entrance is through a sea of leaflets thrusting at you from Nicaragua to the Kent coalfields.  Inside, a large surreal Spanish galleon of a room is filling up.  TV cameras at the front, lights.  A sense of excitement.  The speakers tonight are Livingstone, Benn & Scargill.  I am looking for journalists.  What do they wear?  How do they talk?  Who do they vote for?  Why are they journalists?  Will they even talk to me?  I see two, identifiable by their press passes, and sit down next to them, a youngish woman and an older bespectacled man.

Hello,’  I offer boldly.  ‘Can I talk to you?‘  They look at me.  I launch in.  ‘My name is Ralph Brown and I’m up in Blackpool with Joint Stock Theatre Group and we’re researching a play about journalists and we don’t know what it’s about yet, and can I talk to you?’   They are both from The Sunday Times, covering the conference – she is on the Insight team, he is the local man in Lancashire.

‘We set the agenda for this conference’ he claims, ‘Three weeks ago our front page said Kinnock would be in trouble on three fronts at this conference – the police, the miners, the local authorities.  And that’s the way the conference will go.’  He evidently felt that this was the legitimate role of the paper, but perhaps feeling he had said too much started to move away.  ‘Talk to Ros,’ he said, ‘she’s the expert on the miner’s strike.’  Could I meet him later I asked, at the Imperial Hotel perhaps?  He smiled and nodded and moved off. The woman grabbed my arm. ‘Do you know who that is?’ she whispered.  ‘He’s the one you want to talk to. That’s Michael Jones, political editor of The Sunday Times.’  I was going to have to be a little smarter over the course of the next three weeks.  There was a stirring at the front of the hall.  Scargill was entering – he timed it well, and the room erupted as their hero moved onto the platform. The feeling was quite extraordinary. Suddenly the press became noticeable leaning against walls, slouching in chairs, bored. Even so, notebooks were produced, pens from inside pockets, and attention brightened a little: the studied boredom of their poses couldn’t quite smother the sense of history.

Arthur Scargill, leader of the miner’s union at the Labour Party Conference, 1984

Later, the bar and foyer of the Imperial Hotel provided the true flavour of the conference. The place was full of journalists and politicians, and Joint Stock valiantly camoflauged within.  Peter Hillmore (Observer) peered at my press pass suspiciously, exchanged a sentence with me and decided there were more important people to talk to. Sir Robin Day was decidedly the worse for wear and tottering on the steps with a young woman in black. I cornered Mick Costello, industrial editor of the Morning Star, smoking cigars and hobnobbing happily with capitalist comrades from the Telegraph and the Express. In fact there was an awful lot of hobnobbing going on. I think everyone there was drunk. I met Michael Jones again, he welcomed me with open arms, told me the play didn’t have a hope of understanding “the relationship between me and the office”, confessed to always having had ambitions to being one of the opinion-forming elite, and wished me the very best of luck, young man.  ‘Of course, it’s very different when the Tories are here,’ a wobbling hack confided.  ‘Last year it was wonderful though, Parkinson – you remember?’ Little did he suspect that the Tories would provide the best story for a decade only ten days later.


    It was Scargill’s week, undoubtedly. Adulated by conference, hated and adored by the press, ‘Coal Not Dole’ stickers everywhere and buckets being rattled at every door.  Quite a time.  We all had our adventures.  Simon Curtis followed a Sun reporter for one afternoon hoping to catch some juicy bit or other, and was spotted trying to listen in on a conversation.  I was finally confronted by this man, a stocky Scot, who told me that if my friend didn’t lay off he would receive a crack on the head.  I talked to him.  I was getting quite good at asking the right questions.  He told me how he’d always wanted to be a policeman and had fallen into journalism at a Spencer Davis concert in Glasgow.

The Joint Stock method meant that observation was crucial.  Each morning, we would present, one at a time, a character we had encountered the day before, with close attention to detail: accent, hand movements, figures of speech etc. Sometimes we would write notes. I found it easier and more accurate to rely on memory. If more than one of us had been there, we could present the group with a ‘scene’.  We slowly discovered which questions and lines of conversation gave the best ‘results’, but it was always the unexpected, the surprising, which caught the imagination of the group. It was for me a wonderfully exciting way to work.

Robert Maxwell, Mirror owner in July 1984

My final memory of Blackpool was a Daily Mirror press conference called by Robert Maxwell to present a granny from Essex with a huge cheque for one million pounds for winning Mirror bingo.  The scene was grotesque, and made its way into Deadlines – the play which resulted from this workshop – in all its surreal horror, with myself playing the elephantine Maxwell. I remember the poor woman standing there, with cameras clicking, TV arc lights, microphones and questions, a glass of champagne glued into her hand, a frozen smile on her bewildered face.  She turned to Marge Proops (Mirror Women’s Page) standing next to her and asked if it was all right for her to have a sip. Later, Kathryn Pogson and I spoke to her daughter. ‘ You’re not from The Sun are you? We’ve been told not to answer any questions.’   We explained that we were actors doing research and suddenly the woman recognised Kathryn: ‘You were on TV weren’t you?’  She immediately relaxed and took us into her confidence. ‘They’ve been ever so good. We’ve been to four hotels in four days. We had the phone call saying we’d won, and they just said pack a suitcase. We left the washing in the machine.’  Her son was whimpering. ‘Shut up,‘ said his dad, ‘I’ve bought you loads of things today.’  They had just won a million pounds. Mirror men were gently ushering people to a photocall with the trams. ‘Let’s hope we’ve got more friends than enemies’ was the daughters final thought as Kathryn and I left for the Big Dipper.

The local Sheffield paper : me, Paul Jesson, a journalist, Stephen Wakelam, Tricia Kelly, Alan David

The company left for Sheffield, the heart of the miner’s strike, and spent two days at the local paper – the Morning Telegraph and the Sheffield Star the evening version, who shared the same office, again asking questions and listening.  I suggested to the industrial editor (‘a close friend of Arthur‘ someone whispered) that being a local reporter was something of a luxury, being able to be accurate and honest and truthful. ‘No,‘ he said, ‘I just have to live here.’  It was becoming increasingly difficult to parry the obvious question: “What is the play about?”  We really had no idea, and the people we talked to, especially the journalists, couldn’t accept this.  ‘You’re going to expose us, aren’t you? All the drink and sex.’  And in truth we were beginning to behave more and more like journalists: finding ways of making people talk, being persistent, looking for angles.

The most famous photograph from the 1984-5 miner’s strike

Director Simon Curtis and I visited some picket lines at Maltby and Silverwood collieries and spent one afternoon talking to two miners who were on strike, one of whom, Jim, became a character in the play.  Throughout the two and a half hour conversation, Simon had been fingering a five pound note in his pocket, preparing to give it to the fund before he left. ‘Do you have a collection?’ he asked the young miner. ‘Sure, just give it to me, we’ll mek sure it gets t’ reght place.’  Simon pulled out his note and offered it. They both looked at it.  It was a twenty pound note. (more like a hundred pounds in today’s money). ‘Oh’ said the miner.  Simon’s eyes glazed over. ‘Oh thanks a lot’ said the miner. Simon’s fingers released the note, and he smiled weakly.  We drove off, Simon in some shock.

The company then moved to the hustle and bustle of London, Fleet Street, the TV Studios and radio stations.  The journey was important. The people we’d talked to 200 miles north were filtered and made into ‘news’ down here in the capital.  Stephen Wakelam (the writer) was particularly affected by this geographical change, and the play’s sweep covers the quiet of the South Yorkshire countryside to the claustrophobic newsrooms of London.  My favourite place was BBC Newsnight. ‘We’re doing a play about the media’ I offered as an introduction to Howard, sleeveless-jerseyed, Guardian-reading type. He swung round in his typical journalists swing-round chair. ‘Media!’ He glared at me, managing to look totally harmless. ‘Don’t lump us in with the bloody Express, Mirror and Beano.  This is a television news programme.’ 

   Presenter Peter Snow (right) had an SDP poster up in the room where he was working. I desperately wanted to ask him if it was his, but couldn’t find the words. It was very very difficult to ask journalists about their politics. They pretended they didn’t have any. Or they said ‘I’m nosy’ or ‘I’m an observer.’  Others were more approachable, notably those at The Express, where a considerable number of the writers are members of the Labour Party!  I was devastated by this disclosure, although the Express journalists I spoke to found it totally normal : ‘It’s the same at the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph. You’ve got to earn a living.’ I suggested the two things might be incompatible. ‘I’ve never written a word against the Labour Party in twelve years on the Express.’  The man seemed proud of this, as if his principles were still intact.  Fiona Millar, one of the few women on the paper had an even worse situation, surrounded by pin-ups, being given the Royal stories or the animal stories because of her gender.  ‘My generation is terribly disappointed in the profession we’ve joined,’ she told me.  She is in her late twenties, and moved from the local paper to Fleet Street just as it was going down the drain : bingo, tits and circulation wars.  She was consoled by the fact that the Express was ‘a writer’s paper’ rather than a subeditor’s paper.  Subeditors – the back bench – are a strange group of men (invariably) who sift the paras, reorganise the stories, and in many cases rewrite according to the paper’s politics.

The Sun was more difficult.  We trooped up to the office and were told to wait by the door.  We huddled there, feeling like intruders. A nervous face told us about The Sun glancing over his shoulder now and again. One of us was escorted to the toilet and back. We were not allowed to talk to any journalists.  The face we were talking to had a plastic smile which it kept putting on to reassure us, and only succeeded in totally unnerving us. ‘We are a family newspaper. We never print anything unless it’s checked. We write for an average reading age of eight.’ He did, however, tell us the name of the cabinet minister whom the whole of Fleet Street knew was fucking small boys. And somehow, this one rather sordid point was a believable oasis in the desert of his insincerity.

And so to the Tories.  We took it in turns to visit the Tory Conference in Brighton (only had two press passes) and Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves on the train down just hours after an IRA bomb had wrecked the Grand Hotel.  There was security everywhere. The atmosphere inside the conference hall was extraordinary. Resilience, survivors. Thatcher got an emotional standing ovation just for being there. Tricia and I felt like enemies of the people in the midst of the mob, protected by the legitimate neutrality of our press passes. It meant we didn’t have to applaud. We could look cool and detached and professional. This was a relief. Thatcher was finally introduced as ‘a great statesman’ and she spoke for the whole hall about Tebbit’s bravery, property, owners and earners, and got a massive, absurd standing ovation at the end. Tricia made our way to the door and stopped to watch this display of political football hooliganism.  We were ushered out by a rather embarrassed man, as if this was a private Tory moment not to be witnessed by the unfaithful.

Grand Hotel, Brighton, the morning after an IRA bomb, October 1984

   We moved out onto the beach.  The Grand Hotel had a huge hole knocked out of it, the beach was roped off, police were everywhere. Earlier, I had tried to have a few words with  of the Observer, one of our contacts.  ‘Haven’t got time,’ he said, rushing away. ‘Best story for twenty-five years.’  There were journalists everywhere.  Every paper and TV station had quintupled its Brighton staff. By now, we Joint Stockers were behaving like journalists ourselves, moving towards huddles of people instinctively for titbits trading information, becoming strangely distanced from the event. The process was not dissimilar : the workshop, the story.

I remember the feeling standing on Brighton beach, so clearly. An exhilarating sense of history. It was all happening around me: the strike, the conferences, the bomb. I felt at the centre of the universe.


Jenny Stoller, Tricia Kelly and Amelda Brown in Caryl Churchill’s ‘Fen’


Summer 2017 – Brooklyn

The piece above was the last chapter in The Joint Stock Book, published by Methuen in 1997 and reprinted here for information. I do not claim copyright.  I think the book is now out of print.  Subtitled The Making Of A Theatre Collective, the book is a tribute to the working method of Joint Stock, a unique theatre collective in the UK as I was starting out in the 1980s.  It started around 1974 and had built a formidable reputation for itself as a producing house for new, often devised work.   The company operated as a self-managing collective with only one permanent member of staff, the administrator, everyone else was invited to meetings and made decisions, on a collective level.  I met a lot of very good people over the three years that I was involved with Joint Stock, including my next girlfriend, Rita Wolf, who had been in Borderline written by Hanif Kureishi and was thus on the collective.  The book contains contributions from members of the collective about the work of the company, ranging from Max Stafford-Clark to Roger Lloyd-Pack to Bill Gaskill to Caryl Churchill to Kenny Ireland to Danny Boyle to Miriam Margoyles to Pauline Melville.  It remains for me the finest way to create a play, both as an actor and as a writer.  I was lucky enough to do both – the play Sanctuary came two years later in 1987 – Deadlines premiered in Sheffield in February 1995 before touring the UK.  Both plays were written about and for a community : journalists and homeless youth.  Later in 1985 Jane Thornton wrote Amid The Standing Corn about the miner’s wives for Joint Stock.  She is from Yorkshire where my dad lives now (married to a Barnsley lass, dear Beryl) and Jane is also married to a Yorkshireman John Godber who is instrumental in my working life (A Clockwork Orange, Up’n’Under).  A strain of decency and pride running through the county.  I think the most rewarding part of both Deadlines and Sanctuary for me  were the nights when the community came to see the play they’d helped create.  When the journalists at the Sheffield Star came to the Crucible Theatre, sitting alongside striking miners and their familes.   When the homeless familes and charities like Centrepoint London came to The Drill Hall for a benefit one night to see themselves represented onstage.  The highest form of emotional.  Lucky to have experienced it twice.  To think that Thatcher had called the National Union of Mineworkers ‘the enemy within’ still makes me enraged to a level which frightens me to this day.  Turbulent times.  A historic defeat.  La lotta continua.  Here’s Billy.

My Pop Life #184 : Mystery Band – Lord Kitchener

Mystery Band   –   Lord Kitchener

    Pan beating all night in de dry river, We all hearing but can’t see this orchestra  


  Another thing confusing the whole public : you can only hear the pan when rain fall


We hearing pan – but can’t see the band 


First things first.  Pan = Steel pan.  The national music of Trinidad.  Steel Band Music.   Various stick fighting and bamboo-based African customs were banned in Trinidad around 1880 because of the Camboulay riots, but the tradition went underground and re-emerged in the hillside region of Laventille above capital city Port Of Spain, being internationalized by the US forces after WW2.  From the late 40s (a time period referenced in this amazing song) to the present day, steel pan have been played all year round and particularly at Carnival, which usually falls in February.  They were historically made from discarded oil-drums with chromatic indentations beaten into the base, played with rubber-topped sticks.  Nowadays they are made to specification.  They are an astoundingly exciting instrument for many reasons.  First – steelpan is the most recent addition to the orchestra, and the only ‘new’ instrument added in the 20th century.  Second – anyone can learn to play it – and thus the huge steelpan orchestras of Trinidad who compete every year in Panorama for the crown.  These can contain up to two hundred people.   Third – any style of music can and is played – from jazz to filmscores to classical to latin.  Panorama is almost exclusively made up of calypso tunes, however, the steelpan is not confined to caribbean music.

I wrote a bit about Panorama and our visit to Trinidad in 1993 in My Pop Life #4, discussing Mighty Sparrow and the carnival.  We spent two weeks on Tobago having a holiday, then two weeks with Felix Cross’ parents Marie and Felix Sr.,  in the beautiful Santa Cruz valley just outside Port of Spain.  Went to Laventille one day to watch the steelpan rehearsals which take place every evening pre-carnival and which are open to spectators with beer, rum, roti and chicken being served to an enthusiastic crowd in the bleachers.   Felix we knew from theatre land in London – he was a composer and director and he had organised and rehearsed the choir for our wedding the year before, (composed of our friends and family) and then been forced to play the organ in the church because the organist didn’t turn up on the day!  Only about 150 yards away from the poor singers !  It all sounded beautiful of course…

Jouvert, the night before Mardi Gras in Port of Spain, is an all-night affair

Back in Trinidad, we went to the beach, we went on a boat trip near the Venezualan islands, did some natural history and hung around the capital.  Felix and I participated in Jouvert, described in My Pop Life #4.  Once carnival started we were joined by other London folk, namely Michael Buffong who was holidaying on his parent’s island of Grenada just up the road, and Rudolph Walker, one of Trinidad’s finest exports.   Michael was a member of The Possee, a sketch show gang of black actors who took London by storm in the late 1980s and included Gary MacDonald, Roger Griffith, Jenny’s cousin Victor Romero Evans, Robbie Gee, Eddie Nestor, Brian Bovell and Sylvester Williams.  We saw them regularly together at Stratford East, The Tricycle and then individually in other plays around town in the 1980s.


Michael Buffong, Artistic Director of Talawa Theatre

Michael Buffong would later turn his energy to directing and Jenny has done two fantastic shows with him – A Raisin In The Sun (written by Lorraine Hansbury in 1959) at Manchester Royal Exchange (for which she won an award), and Moon On A Rainbow Shawl (written by Trinidadian actor and writer Errol John in 1957) at The National Theatre with friends Danny Sapani, Martina Laird, Jade Anouka and Bert Caesar.

Somebody cut something out from the newspaper that day

I first met Rudolph Walker in 1989 in Portsmouth.  We were both working on a four-part TV show called Rules Of Engagement, about a nuclear sub incident and Portsmouth being cut off from the mainland (it is actually an island).  Also present : Kenneth Cranham one of my main musical benefactors and inspirations whom I have written about before, and Karl Johnson, one of the funniest fuckers I have ever worked with, he was also in The Black & Blue Lamp with Ken and I (see My Pop Life #177).   Rudolph was playing a big noise accountant who could get things done.  I was a small-time spiv, and me & my mate Peter Attard represented the flotsam and jetsam of humanity caught up in the geo-political wargames.  The director was Rob Walker, (father of writer Che Walker – Ann Mitchell is Mum) and he is one of the few directors who cast black people without the script mentioning their skin colour.  Thus back in 1989 Cathy Tyson and Ken Cranham were the cops, Rudolph the crooked businessman.

Rudolph I knew of course from my youth, from the telly:  Love Thy Neighbour.  Yes, that Rudolph.  With his screen wife and fellow Trini Nina Baden-Semper they withstood the slings and arrows of white 1970s Britain over 7 series for ITV living next door to racist Eddie Booth (played by Jack Smethhurst) and his non-racist wife Joan (Kate Williams).   At the time I think it was a kind of ITV riposte to Til Death Us Do Part starring Warren Mitchell, the most famous racist character on British TV at that time.  But Love Thy Neighbour actually had black characters and represented their experience, so Rudolph became the first prime-time black actor on British TV and thus the most well-known black actor in Britain for years as a result of this show, which he is clearly very proud of.  Many people thought the series was offensive because the racist Eddie’s favourite phrase was ‘nig-nog’ and he would insist that white people were above black people.  It was totally on the nose and you know how the British like everything to be unspoken and under the carpet if possible.  So while Warren Mitchell and ‘Til Death got all the cultural credit, Love Thy Neighbour became an embarrassment and is no longer repeated in TV schedules.  I hope I’m not overstating things here.  Rudolph is extremely phlegmatic about all this and carries his fame, the controversy and his part in it lightly and with grace and charm.  If you push him though, he’ll defend it to the hilt.  It showed the English who they were, and it showed many of the Caribbean immigrants who they were.  Which was more radical?  Rudi and I used to breakfast together in our little seafront hotel, and one morning he met Jenny who’d only recently become (officially anyway) my main squeeze (see My Pop Life #114).

In fact it was while I was on this job in my old home town where both my parents were born and where I lived from the ages of 2 – 6,  that I proposed to Jenny.  It was a happy accident.   My first school was in Portsmouth and I can still recall the bomb debris site near our house where we played as kids – houses now piles of bricks and rubble and wood still broken down from the Second World War, when Portsmouth, home to the British Navy for centuries, was bombed to smithereens.  My brain thinks bomb-like.  Lord Nelson‘s flagship from The Battle of Trafalgar (1805), the galleon H.M.S. Victory is in dry dock there as a living museum of war and naval superiority.   Jenny and I had spent a fantastic weekend, taking the ferry to the Isle of Wight and walking along the beach, me heroically retrieving her scarf when we left it on a fence and walked on for a mile before realising it was gone, racing back to get it.  On the evening of her departure,  we both dragged our feet so reluctant were we to part.  When Jenny inevitably failed to board the train back to London, we had two hours to wait until the next one.  Portsmouth Station is very close to the naval yard so we walked over to H.M.S. Victory and sat on the giant anchor, chatting.   When I say giant anchor you have to imagine a piece of metal the size of a small bus.

After a while the dusk was falling and Jenny said “What shall we do now?”.    I looked over at the sea and back at her and felt so happy.  “Let’s get married”  I replied.   And so it was to be.  This moment was marked on my skin with a tattoo in 2016.  I always used to say “I’m never getting married” .  I was young, and wrong.  Scarred by the five divorces of my parents.  No respect for the institution of marriage.  But underneath, I just wanted to do it the one time, and this was going to be it.

Rudolph Walker

When I saw Rudi for breakfast the following morning, I told him that Jenny and I were engaged and he blessed us and was pleased.  Three years later he read  from the Song Of Solomon at our wedding in St Joseph’s Church in Highgate “the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God” said the priest Father Joseph, for it was he that was marrying us “but it mentions love many many times and God is love“.  Over the following weeks Rudi and I decided to work together and he told me his main film idea about an itinerant Trini preacher in London called D.K. and his mother.   I loved the idea and agreed to write it – by this point I’d written the Joint Stock play Sanctuary, won the Samuel Beckett Award for it and had all kinds of projects on the go.  This particular one I actually wrote as the first episode of a four-part special called Messiah, had DK and his ma taking over a disused church, performing miracles, providing sanctuary to Kurdish refugees (years ahead of my time, me ;-).. and filling the church with religious iconography from every single religion in the world.  DK’s sermons were very non-denominational.    And the miracles were fun.  Political magic realism. Took me the best part of a year I reckon, by which time Jenny had done Prime Suspect 2 with Helen Mirren and got to know the producer Paul Marcus really well, to the extent of singing at his birthday party.  I didn’t know that many TV producers so when Rudi and I were both happy with the script Paul was the first person I took Messiah to.  And then I waited.  At the meeting with Paul he said some weird stuff about the project having a lot of “ego”, and expressed dislike for the idea.  I was seriously disheartened and didn’t really take it to many other people, Malcolm Craddock for sure, maybe a couple of others but…suddenly, nothing happened.  It’s all about contacts this business-called-show and I had very few in those days.   About ten years later a show appeared on ITV called hmmm The 2nd Coming with miracles and all (just like Rudi and I’s film) with Chris Ecclestone as the preacher.   These are the kinds of things that discourage me from writing.

But Rudi and I stayed in touch and we would see each other from time to time, at theatrical first nights at the National Theatre, The Tricycle and other events, often he’d be with Dounne Alexander, now his wife.  He was granted an OBE in 2006 and we went to the reception at the Trinidadian Embassy in London where a group of youngsters enrolled in The Rudolph Walker Foundation marched in to show discipline and leadership potential and honour their founder.  It was pretty impressive.   By then he had joined the cast of Eastenders playing Patrick Trueman where he works to this day, a cornerstone in the cultural landscape, representing the Caribbean in Britain, both in his life and on screen.  It is an honour to consider him my friend.

Aldwyn Roberts – Lord Kitchener

As for Lord Kitchener, well.  Perhaps even Rudi would accept that Kitch was the greatest Trini export.   Too much to unravel here – but born Aldwyn Roberts in Arima, Trinidad in 1922, he became a full-time musician at the age of 14 after his father died.  Gifted both musically and lyrically he toured Jamaica in 1947/8 for 6 months with calypsonians Lord Beginner and Lord Woodbine before embarking on the Empire Windrush and sailing for Great Britain.  He sang ‘London Is De Place For Me‘ with its Big Ben chimes live on camera, as they docked, for Pathé News.  When the West Indies cricket team beat England in 1950, Kitch was on hand with ‘Cricket Lovely Cricket‘ a victory calypso which became the first well-known Caribbean song in the UK.  He ran a nightclub in Manchester and had a regular spot at the Sunset Club in London until 1962 whereupon he returned to Trinidad, which meant competing in the annual calypso competition, which he dominated alongside The Mighty Sparrow, for the next 20 years.

Lord Kitchener with steel pan orchestra

Lord Kitchener won the road march ten times between 1965 and 1976 at which point he retired from competition and started to develop a soca sound, recently popularised by younger calypsonians Lord Shorty and Robin Imamshah.  So-ca was defined as “the soul of calypso” and would redefine Caribbean music completely, although to my ears, Kitch’s records always have some old school flavour.  Perhaps it is the compositions – as mentioned earlier he is lyrically dextrous, reminiscent of the great Chuck Berry, and more often than not extremely funny while the music is always beautifully melodic and highly syncopated.   There is something in there which I cannot describe – is it the dotted notes ?  The off-beat is constant and pulling you onto your feet incessantly.  So infectious.

Still from the documentary Calypso Dreams (2004). 

As a form, calypso has always been very responsive to the news, often being a commentary on conditions and events, often dealing in double-entendres, often lewd and always entertaining.  It’s a poor man’s newspaper, telling him what’s going on behind his back.   My favourite Kitchener songs alongside this particular work of genius are all later songs :  Pan in A Minor which is stunning, The Bees Melody which is wickedly clever, Tribute To Spree Simon which won the Monarch title in 1975, and of course Sugar Bum Bum from 1977 which needs no commentary from me.  Calypso music had a moment of high fashion in the late 50s and reached a huge international audience when Harry Belafonte’s Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) was released on his LP Calypso in 1956 and suddenly the music of the caribbean was everywhere.  Even Robert Mitchum made a calypso album.  Although I note quickly that both Belafonte and the Banana Boat Song emanate from Jamaica (before I get biffed).

It’s a living vibration rooted deep within my Caribbean belly, lyrics to make a politician cringe or turn a woman’s body to jelly… it’s a sweet soca music, you could never refuse it, it make you shake like a shango and why the hell you shakin’ you don’t know : calypso music

This song – the mighty Mystery Band –  is from when we were there – 1993 – and we heard it everywhere we went along with road-march winner Bacchannal Time by Superblue which is a stonking, itching, devilish party tune.  We bought both records in Port of Spain and carried them home with us as souvenirs of an unforgettable trip.  Kitch was 71 when this record was released.


1993 Carnival in Trinidad

Mystery Band is a song about an invisible band which only plays when it is raining.

Some say the music sound the the late 40s, some say it sound like a band from space

What is the Mystery Band ?  I won’t spoil it by telling you – enjoy the song, one of my all-time favourite pieces of music.   Wonderful lyrics by calypsonian David Rudder, music by Aldwyn Roberts.   It has two distinct parts, in the key of F and the key of E, one semitone below, accentuated each time in a magnificent musical gear shift down half a pitch which makes me swoon with joy.   What a hook.

Lord Kitchener died in 2000 and is buried in Santa Rosa cemetery in Arima.

The Amoco Renegades steelband made this superb rendition of Mystery Band in 1993 and won Panorama. Arrangement by the genius Dr Jit Samaroo.

My Pop Life #178 : It’s Up To You – The Specials

It’s Up To You   –   The Specials

What you gonna do, when morons come for you?
They won’t go away, they want the whole world painted grey…

The classic version of this song was recorded at The Moonlight Club in West Hampstead on May 2nd 1979, the eve of the United Kingdom General Election which was won by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party.   It opens with lead singer Terry Hall saying :

“I haven’t got much to say. It’s the eve of the election.  It’s up to you”  

That gig appeared on a bootleg which did the rounds. The Specials first album proper, produced by Elvis Costello on Two-Tone Records was released in October of that year a few months later.   I remember it all so vividly.   Life in England had felt like a fight for some time.  In the spring of 1978 a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney was organised by Rock Against Racism, culminating in a concert where The Clash, Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69, reggae band Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson and X-Ray Spex among others played to a huge crowd of punks, skinheads, rastas and rude boys.  It was in response to a rising tide of racist attacks and a poisonous atmosphere of hate which had been building for some time in the 70s.  It was about taking sides.  Black/White, Unite/Fight.  

The Specials embodied that attitude – a gang of kids from Coventry led by songwriter Jerry Dammers, singer Terry Hall and toaster Neville Staple, guitarist Lynval Golding and bass player Horace Panter, graced by legendary Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodriguez on their first single A Message To You Rudy, a cover of the Dandy Livingstone ska classic.  Indeed their sound was a punky update on classic Jamaican ska and two-tone rude boy music from the 1960s and that first album had a number of covers of Prince Buster, Toots & The Maytals, Lloyd Charmers and The Skatalites.  The energy and politics were as one, and their live performances were a joyous combination of dancing and fury like most gigs in the late 70s, fuelled by lager and little blue pills.  There was usually a frisson of violence too because skinheads would turn up and bounce around at the front looking for a fight.  If it got too out of hand the band would stop playing and start lecturing them.  With humour of course.

Margaret Thatcher and her mates, 1979

It was the start of four consecutive Conservative election victories and a massive swing to the right in Britain.  Thatcher took on the unions, the Irish republicans, the Argentinians, the gas board, train services, water and electricity and appealed to naked nationalism and people’s innate selfishness.  “There is no such thing as society” was her mantra, Reaganomics was her doctrine.  Trickle-down.  An arrogant, cruel sneering at the poor marked out the so-called national mood as people slept in doorways, lost their rights, signed on for work at lower pay.  Compassion was deemed sentimental.  Sentiment was deemed weakness.  And strength was a lack of care as people fell by the wayside and through the safety nets built up by decades of the welfare state.

The Specials live in 1979

It always felt normal to me to be in opposition.  It still does.  Once again we are faced with a period of bare-faced nastiness, appealing to people’s basest primal fears, blind nationalism, pitting people against each other while the rich cream off the cream, hoping that we’re all looking the other way.  History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats.

The Moonlight Club, 100 West End Lane NW6

I moved into 134 West End Lane, yards from The Moonlight Club in the summer of 1979 as I graduated from the London School of Economics with a 2:2 in Law, scarcely deserved, but a qualification to match my three splendid years in WC2 as a student punk.  I had no intention of ever using the degree or continuing in the Law.  I knew that I was going to be an actor – just not quite yet.   I moved in with other graduates Pete and Sali and their friend Nick Partridge who’d just completed a degree at Keele University.  Thus started a wonderful period of rolling joints, listening to reggae and post-punk picture-sleeve singles, dropping blues or amphetamine sulphate and painting and decorating to save money for a trip to Latin America with my brother Paul.  We started learning Spanish at an evening class in Swiss Cottage.  And we played frisbee and watched Brighton & Hove Albion finally playing in Division One, went to gigs at The Hammersmith Palais, the Music Machine in Camden (later called Camden Palace) the Rainbow in Finsbury Park and yes, The Moonlight Club down the street.   I touched upon this fondly-recalled era in My Pop Life #92.

A band called Spizz Energi released a fabulously mental single called “Where’s Captain Kirk” and played the Moonlight one night, then changed their name the following month to Athletico Spizz 80.  Pete would come home clutching singles by bands such as Wavis O’Shave, Shoes For Industry or Wah! Heat while I would enthuse about The Flying Lizards, The Undertones or the Gang Of Four and Nick would offer Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop while Sali championed The Pretenders.

It’s hard to describe just how out-of-fashion ska music was until The Specials revived it.  They spearheaded a movement which included Madness, The Selector and The Beat but it is a little like some kids today suddenly playing dancehall and it almost overnight becoming the most popular music on the radio.  Such an inspiring moment.

Years later – in 2009 – I shot the lowest-budget film of my entire career, based on Barrie Keeffe‘s searingly brilliant play ‘Sus‘ which is set on the eve of the 1979 election and based on a true story he heard in the pub one night in South London.  A black man is arrested after his wife is found dead and grilled by two policemen who are convinced that he has murdered her.  As the election results trickle in the boys in blue look forward to a new dawn where they will be able to flex their muscles with much more sympathy from the powers that be.  Just two years later in 1981, Brixton, Toxteth and other inner-city areas of the UK would erupt in flames as a furious reaction to this newly-confident police aggression.

Writer Barrie Keeffe (The Long Good Friday, Sus, Barbarians, Abide With Me)

Actor and buddy Clint Dyer – whom I’d met on the TV version of Lock, Stock in 1999 -had been doing the play Sus on stage and tried to talk me into playing the character of Karn the previous year at the Young Vic.  I was honoured, but had to explain to Clint that I wasn’t keen on being onstage in anything.  I just didn’t enjoy stage acting that much.  Months later Clint had raised the money for a film version of the play with Barrie’s blessing, executive produced by Claire Castera and he’d recruited Rafe Spall as the other police officer when he came back to me with the offer to play Karn onscreen.   What a part.  A solid Thatcherite racist policeman, beautifully written by Keeffe, a man who spends the night grilling Leroy the innocent suspect with increasing violence and disdain.  We had two weeks and a fifty thousand pound budget to make this happen, absurdly low.  But where there is a will : a skeleton crew led by line producer Oliver Ledwith, and helmed by the wonderful Jono Smith as director of Photography and first AD’d by Tom White.  Costumes by Linda Haysman, Make-up by Alison Hanken, 3rd AD was Keiron Mahon.  All legends.  Clint’s friend Rob Heath directed us on a set built at Elstree by Mark Sutherland, a single cell in a police station off the Old Kent Road.  And Rob it was who chose this song – It’s Up To You (live at the Moonlight) to accompany the film’s opening credits, which I’ve linked to below, helped by archive footage courtesy of Don Letts.  It is the most perfect distillation of music, time and place that I can think of.  And the end result is a film that I am hugely proud of.  Clint is quite devastating in the lead role. Rafe Spall is a marvellous twerp-like bully.  It looks great.  And I can actually watch myself – very rare indeed.  Which makes it my favourite piece of work out of everything that I have done over the years.  Funny how this particular character, so diametrically opposed to me , should fit me like a glove.  There’s mystery !

And so now here we are, in early 2017, facing another period of opposition, another moment of decision, another call for solidarity.  To be honest I’ve never felt that any government has represented me, or my politics.  They’ve all been corrupt, all sold us down the river (still some quiver when I deliver).  I am permanently in opposition, it kind of defines who I am.  I am against stuff.  Maybe I’ll mellow out as I get older.  Doesn’t seem very likely somehow.  But you never know.  It’s up to me.

Eve of the election :

SUS – the opening credits

SUS – The Trailer

My Pop Life #175 : One Better Day – Madness

One Better Day   –   Madness

Further down, a photo booth, a million plastic bags
And an old woman filling out a million baggage tags
But when she gets thrown out, three bags at a time
She spies the old chap in the road to share her bags with
She has bags of time
Surrounded by his past, on a short white line
He sits while cars pass either side, takes his time
Trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear him say
Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes

Was there ever a more disappointing year for pop music than 1984?  Looking back at the album releases and the top singles I am staggered by the unifying theme – great artists releasing substandard material, and very few inspirational youngsters filling the huge gap. Exception and the big album of the year was Purple Rain by Prince, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood dominated the UK radio and singles charts but I bought very little current music in 1984.  I was filling gaps, discovering genres, crate-digging, conducting archeological excavations and sometimes realising that people I’d scorned as a teenager were actually pretty good.  The albums I did buy from 1984, in 1984 :

Goodbye Cruel World  –  Elvis Costello & The Attractions

The Pearl  –  Harold Budd & Brian Eno

Mister Heartbreak  –  Laurie Anderson

Diamond Life  –  Sade

Best of ‘The Poet’ Trilogy  –  Bobby Womack

Keep Moving  –  Madness

Not as many as usual.  Later I would buy Prince, The Bangles, Luther Vandross, Dr John, Franco & TPOK Jazz, Van Dyke Parks, Gilberto Gil, The Judds, Prefab Sprout, Youssou N’Dour, The Style Council, Steve Reich, Run DMC and Pat Metheny, but even with those additions I think you can see how thin on the ground 1984 was musically.  Springsteen made Born In The USA the title track of which became a republican anthem (he didn’t sing it live this year 2016).  Perhaps the date was casting shade.  1984.  Throughout my life we’d all lived under the spectre of George Orwell‘s chilling and prescient novel.   That collection of numbers, that date had loomed like the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey – the other magical sentient The Future.  It always presaged doom, totalitarianism, a jackboot stamping on a human face into infinity.  Now we were here and…well, life went on, like it does.  Like it did in 2001.  And like it will next year.

The big singles were Relax, Two Tribes, The Power Of Love, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, the others were What’s Love Got To Do With It, I Feel For You, Ghostbusters, Any Love, It’s A Miracle, Careless Whisper, Smalltown Boy, Solid, Like A Virgin, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Hello, Take A Look At Me Now, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Do They Know It’s Christmas.

I liked very little of it.  Disappointing : Bowie with Blue Jean, Stevie Wonder (sigh), Elvis Costello’s worst LP to date, ditto McCartney, ditto Paul Weller.

And then Haircut 100 split up. ( Joke. )

And then Jerry Dammers and Special AKA released Free Nelson Mandela. (Not Joke)

Flying the flag for musical growth, and one step beyond their previous work The Rise and Fall (1982) was the Madness LP Keep Moving, in particular the song One Better Day, which haunts me even now and can move me to tears.  I’d loved the band since their first single The Prince,  multi-cultural British ska birthed in Camden Town via Jamaica. In those early days their skinhead fans and their whiteness made me feel a little uncomfortable at some of the gigs, although the majority of fans were not skins.  Then, aware of this stain on their pop life, the Madness videos started to include black people and the band rose above it all – for example Embarrassment is about a girl who’s going to have a baby with her black boyfriend.  The other groups who’d come up on the ska-revival Two-Tone wave The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter were all multi-racial anyway, but by 1984 they’d all split up.  Madness were on Stiff Records and this was their last LP with the maverick punk label.  It was their finest record to date – I’d bought them all, and they’d just got better and better.  So had The Undertones, but they’d stopped, so had The Jam and they’d split, so had Elvis Costello and he’d gone a bit over-produced, his songs weren’t to his impossibly high standard.   I’d also bought the collected videos of Madness which we watched endlessly, because they were so full of joy and nuttiness. I’m not sure there are a better collection of videos in pop history.  They made me want to be in the band.  Playing the saxophone.  Doing slightly robotic dancing.  Having a laugh with a gang.  

I’ve always wanted to be in a gang, but never really surrendered to it.  I don’t surrender very easily.  I’ve been in some gangs, but always felt like an outsider in there.  Either a council-estate kid in a middle class environment as a teenager, or an educated kid in a working-class environment.  Or an actor in a football team.  Or an actor in a band.  Or just a weirdo who doesn’t fit in enough.  Must be a choice.  I resist surrender.  Because I do not seek oblivion I will never be an alcoholic or a junkie.  I’m scared of oblivion, of disappearing.  Most of the music I like is controlled.  It’s not messy, it’s not people losing control.  It’s beautiful, melodic, harmonic, sweet.  But I wanted to be in Madness so much.  They influenced the band I was in, Birds Of Tin, but not enough. See My Pop Life #149.

Mike Barson was the musical genius on the piano, but his influence infused every musician, from bass player Mark Bedford (who later guested on Robert Wyatt’s cover of Costello’s Shipbuilding) to gimmick side monkey Chas Smash who went from rude boy dancer to trumpet player, from Chris Foreman on guitar and songwriting to Lee Thompson on saxophone (who I wished I was), from Woody on the kit to Suggs on the lead vocals.  They were tight, musical, lyrically interesting and wonderfully arranged pop songs,  vignettes of British life from Baggy Trousers to Embarrassment, My Girl to House Of Fun. They were probably my favourite band in the early 80s – them and Costello and Talking Heads.

Sloane Square, Chelsea

But if 1984 was a meagre year musically for me,  theatrically it was promising.   Armed with a law degree 😉 – I’d been to Edinburgh three times, got my Equity Card,  played the Donmar in Steven Berkoff’s WEST.    Then in early 84 I’d worked at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with Danny Boyle (directing an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown).   It was an extraordinary piece of work which ran for all of two and half weeks as I recall.  Worthy of a post of its own.   Then in the late summer the 3rd director in the building a brilliant young Simon Curtis invited me to be part of his first production which was to be a play for Joint Stock Theatre Company called Deadlines.  I was thrilled, and it turned out to be one of my most satisfying and rewarding theatrical adventures.  Simon was extremely encouraging, open, intelligent and funny.  I ended up playing six parts and getting a new agent out of it : Michael Foster.   Also cast : Kathryn Pogson, Paul Jesson, Shirin Taylor, Tricia Kelly, Paul Mooney.   Writer :  Stephen Wakelam.  Play : unwritten.

A young Simon Curtis in 1985, one year after Deadlines

Joint Stock was a unique theatre company.  Formed by Max Stafford-Clark and others in the early 1970s, it had become a collective in 1974 while they produced David Hare’s play about China ‘Fanshen’, co-directed by Max and Bill Gaskell.  This meant that every member who had ever worked for the company could attend company meetings and AGMs and vote.  In practice people deferred to Max and Caryl Churchill, both of whom were enthusiastic enough to actually attend meetings.  There was an administrator, but no Artistic Director – each big decision eg – what play shall we do next ? directed by who ? written by who ? was decided on a collective vote.  Some were already plays, but more often the show would be devised by the company.

This is now a forgotten way of life.  All of those Arts Council-funded theatre companies have gone :  7:84, Shared Experience, Joint Stock, Paines Plough.  Slashed by Thatcher’s reduction of the State.  1984 was the year of the miner’s strike, Coal Not Dole stickers, and the rise of cardboard city in Waterloo as new regulations on signing on created a new wave of homelessness, particularly of those between 16 and 20.  Suddenly there were people sleeping in shop doorways in London on The Strand.  Then there was an IRA bomb at the Tory Party conference in Brighton at The Grand Hotel.


one of the greatest band shots of all time: the cover of ‘7’ the 3rd Madness LP

Keep Moving was Mike Barson’s last album with Madness, and he left the band once they recorded a couple of videos – Michael Caine and One Better Day, which was their last for Stiff Records, and funded by the band themselves including Barson, seen playing the vibraphone, who flew in from Amsterdam for the shoot.

Arlington house, address: no fixed abode
An old man in a three-piece suit sits in the road
He stares across the water, he sees right through the lock
But on and up like outstretched hands
His mumbled words, his fumbled words, mock

Arlington House is behind Camden High Street.  It housed – and still houses among it’s more commercial premises – homeless men, and has since 1905.  It was the last of the Victorian workhouses, built by politician and philanthropist Lord Rowton in the 1890s to house London’s working poor.

Camden Lock

I used to shop for music shoes and clothes in Camden Town, whether in Dingwalls (‘The Lock’ in the lyrics) or the Record and Tape Exchange on the High St, or one of the many independent stores in that square mile of post-punk grubbiness.  Over the years I’ve been to many gigs in Camden Palace (Culture Club), The Electric Ballroom (The Vibrators) or Dingwalls (X-Ray Spex).  The Dublin Castle.   More recently at the re-opened Roundhouse or the Jazz Cafe.

When I started acting in Moving Parts Theatre Company in 1981 two of the company’s founders – Ruth MacKenzie and Rachel Feldberg – lived in Oval Road just behind Arlington House with the young director Roger Michell who would later go on to direct The Buddha Of Suburbia, Notting Hill and many other successful films.  I would see him years and years later at Michael Foster’s 50th birthday party and he hailed me “Haven’t you done well !”  I looked behind me.  No, he meant me. I smiled.  “Me?  What about you !!” I realised that seen from the outside, my journey looks good and fine, but what about the invisible thrashing through the undergrowth with a blunt machete to reach a small ledge of safety that no one ever sees ?  Eh ?!?  WHAT ABOUT THAT?

Gentrified many times Camden still retains its scruffy down-at-heel ambience, partly due to scruffy down-at-heel junkies, and partly due to people who want to look scruffy and down-at-heel.  But there have always been homeless people there – see Waterloo, see Soho, see Bayswater. And having been homeless myself for a period of time as a teenager (see My Pop Life #84 All Along The Watchtower) I always felt moved by this song, describing a couple walking the streets of NW1.  Street people.  Nowhere to store their stuff, carrying it all around.  Nowhere to wash apart from the hostel, who close their doors at 8am.  I would be interviewing some of these people for my first play Sanctuary in 2 years’ time, using The Joint Stock Method.  And later, some of them would be invited to The Drill Hall to see the play.

The woman in the video is Betty Bright – Sugg’s wife.  Graham McPherson – Suggs – who wrote the song with Mark ‘Bedders’ Bedford – looks impossibly young in the video, but wears the kind of clothes that I used to try and find, and still do to be fair.  Checks.  Tartans. Doc Martens.  There’s a DM shop on Kentish Town Road next to Camden tube which makes an appearance in The Sun & The Rain video.  I had a pair of red patent leather DMs.  In fact I still have them.  I owe some of my so-called style to Madness Suggs chic, (some to Bryan Ferry chic, some to rock’n’roll and some to Laurel & Hardy).

The chorus is unbearably sweet, given the subject :

She’s trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear her say

‘Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes
The feeling of arriving when you’ve nothing left to lose…’

My Pop Life #174 : Learning To Be – Eleven

Learning To Be   –   Eleven


Slipping away I get closer each day I been looking for love to find me

Digging away I will search I will pray I been waiting for truth to blind me

Only perceive and the world will conceive there’s a seat in my heart that binds me  

awake in a dream I believe it’s extreme, ruling out that all this is magic…

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters both the same…”  said Rudyard Kipling in his incomparable poem “If…”.   Well I can’t.  I pretend I can, but no, I prefer the triumphs.  Is that what they’re called ?  Those goals into the top corner.  Those victories.  Yes, I prefer those imposters to the failures.  But people always say wise self-help guru stuff like “you learn more from your failures”  or “crisis and opportunity is the same word in Chinese”  or even “I get knocked down but I get up again”.  You know?   I prefer not to get knocked down at all.   I feel like my life was built on crises.  But still they come.

David Fincher

In 1994 I was living in Los Angeles.  It was David Fincher‘s idea.  He’d directed Alien 3 in 1991 and suggested that Jenny and I move to California.  “Come to LaLa” is actually what he said.  In 1992, after we’d got married and shot Undercover Blues in New Orleans which coincided with our honeymoon, (see My Pop Life #158) we rented an apartment in West Hollywood and stayed for three years.  David was very disappointed with Alien3 because the studio hadn’t accepted his cut, indeed had hacked the shit out of his cut, and after the glamorous premiere in LA and razzamatazz opening weekend fizz had died down, it was a film which didn’t knock everyone out, neither the public it seemed nor the critics.  David took it very badly – personally and professionally.  He spent the following two years silently fuming and plotting his revenge, and his next move.  We spent a lot of time together, round his apartment which at the time was on Beverley & La Brea with his new wife Donya Fiorentino, and Rachel his PA, her boyfriend Paul Carafotes, and David’s friends Chip & Carol, Ron, James, Marcie, and other friends.  We had a handful of friends already there – Anita Lewton from Moving Parts days (early 80s) was in Venice Beach, Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading were hanging out too.

Donya Fiorentino

We ate out a lot – on Sunset Strip, on La Brea, at Pane e Vino on Beverley.  We went to the movies together.  We got drunk.  We visited Lake Arrowhead one weekend and played pool and ate mushrooms.   We drove to Malibu.  Venice.  Went to gigs, clubs, parties.  We hung out in other words.

I got a gig on the film Wayne’s World 2 playing a roadie named Del Preston, and it was rushed out only a few months after it was finished (unusually).  David and Donya were round at our place on King’s Road when the LA Times review came out – it was great for me, and David said something along the lines of “I hope you remember me when you collect your Oscar“.  He wasn’t joking, he was feeling the pain of not working for two years.  Oh the irony !   Then one day some months later we were round his apartment off Beverley and he gave me a script, saying “there’s a great part in this for you Ralphie“.   It was a film called Seven.

Awake In A Dream by Eleven

There was an album that we listened to a lot that year called Awake In A Dream, by a group called Eleven, who were from LA.    A three-piece band writing intelligent glossy pop/rock with great melodies and unusual chord changes.  Their genesis was entwined with another LA band, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and then later after Eleven split, Natasha Shneider played bass with Queens Of The Stone Age in their early days before sadly dying of cancer in 2008.  The other two band members were Alain Johannes (who also joined QOTSA in 2005) and Jack Irons.   Their first LP from which this song comes was released in 1991.   Two songs stood out – Learning To Be and Rainbow’s End… 

…Here at the rainbow’s end, there is no pot of gold, no matter what you’re told…

which was clearly a song about LA itself.   It was a sign.  An omen.

Me, Anita Lewton, Jen, Gary Kemp, Donya, David, Annie & Paul McGann

I’d always had a dream of Hollywood, and I’d never chased it, for fear I would fall flat on my face.  I’d been turned away from LA in 1989 on a trip across the USA in Auto Driveaway cars (see My Pop Life #147) getting as far as Phoenix on Christmas Eve before turning back to El Paso.  I’d always wanted Hollywood to ask me in, even in a small way, and in 1991 they did.   I had to shoot some extra Alien3 scenes and Fox paid for Pete Postlethwaite and I to travel to Culver City in LA (for another story).  I’d got an agent, got a job, got an apartment, and now a few years later I’d got the massive opportunity that eventually comes around.

 1994 was a watershed year for me, looking back.  After that incredible review in the LA Times I did not work for a whole year.  “Kim Basinger is fantastic and Christopher Walken marvellous, but walking away with the whole picture is Ralph Brown as Del Preston” is what it said.  It was the kiss of death of course.   I was going up for three films per week.  Everything that was made in 1994, I auditioned for.  Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.  The Usual Suspects.  Crimson Tide.  Devil In A Blue Dress.  Heat.  Jumanji.   True Romance.  The Quick & The Dead.  And many many others lost to the mists of time.  Learning lines, forming character, turning up with well-chosen clothing and delivering the scene, over and over and over.  Fincher helping me with auditions sometimes (True Romance – offered to Christopher Walken).   Meeting after meeting.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And No.   I’d hit the glass ceiling.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken were getting the gigs.  My gigs.  How could I break through that invisible barrier ?

In June the World Cup gave us some welcome respite.  We got tickets for all the Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, just by sending off for them – an advert in the LA Times, and a country that wasn’t interested, bar the foreigners, the Latinos, Africans and Europeans.  We decided to support Cameroon in an early game v Sweden and met Ashley Joyce (English) and Jeremy Thomas (Welsh, just separated from Drew Barrymore after two months of marriage) who ran The Room a groovy bar just off Hollywood Boulevard.  They are still friends of mine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, 1994 World Cup Final 

The month that followed was glorious – wall to wall football, no England to disappoint us (we didn’t qualify) – over 100 degree heat for a Colombia v USA game, a July 4th game USA v Brazil in San José, a quarter final in Pasadena Romania v Sweden, a semi-final Brazil v Sweden and tickets to the actual final Brazil v Italy, a 0-0 draw, and Roberto Baggio blasting his penalty over the bar, cue Brazilian Carnivale, and meeting my old friend Stephen Woolley from Scala Cinema days and The Crying Game outside the stadium after the Final – in town doing screenings for test audiences of Interview With A Vampire.  “That’s no way to make a film” I said.  “Asking the audience which characters they prefer”  “When you’re spending 40 million dollars, it’s the only way to make a film”  he replied.  I was so green, really, so innocent.  But I was certainly living life.   Learning To Be.

Roberto Baggio has just missed a penalty at the World Cup Final

The best game was Romania 3 Argentina 2 after Maradona had been sent home for drug abuse and Hagi’s sweet left foot sent the East Europeans through to the quarter finals.   I think Germany were beaten by Bulgaria, who in turn lost to Italy.  Klinsmann was playing, Roger Milla, Alexi Lalas, Stoichkov, Romario.  We particularly enjoyed watching games on TV with absurd, nay, surreal commentary from US commentators deciphering a game they scarcely understood:  “The ball has crossed the end line” or “great touch by the goal-handler“.  Or the Latin American channels with the hyperbole of the gods :


We had a laugh.    Then as summer turned to late summer and even later summer (you don’t really get winter in Los Angeles) – our thoughts turned to work and I carried on getting NO from meetings.  They’ve gone another way.  They loved you but it’s not going to work out this time.  Or even worse : silence.  The dwindling hope that finally extinguishes.  And then David gave me the script for Seven.   I read it – and as I’m sure you know dear reader, it was dark and clever.  My character was called John Doe.   David assured me that he wanted me to play it.   It was my gig.  This was great news.   I hadn’t worked for almost a year and was a) going slightly mental, and b) running out of money.   David then called one afternoon and said the producer would like to meet me on Thursday.  Would I mind reading?  “Course not”  I said, “no problem”.   I prepared the scenes in my own accent and also in an American accent.  I’d had an accent coach since one of the films I’d gone up for (The Ice Cream Story) had insisted on me reading again and again ( I went in 3 times and still didn’t get it).  My accent coach told me that my accent was perfect – nailed on.  But the director was nervous, and was projecting his nerves onto me.   I rationalised bitterly.

Wilshire and Fairfax in LA

So Thursday rolls around and I sit in that old space-age diner Johnie’s just above Wilshire Boulevard on Fairfax while I wait for the meeting across the road.   Then I cross Wilshire and go in.  David greets me all smiles like an old friend – he is an old friend.  Introduces me to the producer who in my memory was Arnie Kopelson.  The casting director was there too I think, Billy Hopkins who since Alien3 which he’d cast with Priscilla John had got me in for loads of things, including Speed which is for another post.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But there were a few people there watching me, and I immediately felt uncomfortable.  Like I was on the spot.  I suddenly realised that I had to make David look good.  We did some small talk then someone suggested we read.  There was probably someone there to read the off-lines.  I was shit.  My accent was terrible.  I apologised.  David smiled “It’s cool dude, just do your thing”  I tried it again.  I was shit again.  “Just use your own accent Ralphie” said Fincher, “Just do what you do“.    He was so kind and supportive.  I was in pieces. It was excruciating.

Sometimes I think that eternity blinks paying no due respect to logic

I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I don’t know why I didn’t seize it.  His dream must have seemed so close that he could scarcely fail to grasp it.  He could not know that it was already behind him…wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald…The Great Gatsby’s final paragraph.

I didn’t get the job.  Kevin Spacey did.  He smashed it.  He took a few jobs off me that year.  It was his year.  And the following year certainly was too.  We ended 1994 with one BBC job in Italy and nothing in Hollywood, broke.  We decided to move back to England, but not before I’d written a movie called New Year’s Day which would eventually get made in 1999 (see My Pop Life #75) and which is about – ouch – The Importance Of Disappointment.

..Give me your hand we are part of this plan we can force all this chaos to rhyme…

At some point during the post-production for Seven or Se7en as it was then written, David and Donya separated.  This was painful for everyone, and Jenny and I attempted our usual even-handed response to these painful events and stayed in touch with both parties.  David didn’t like that, or perhaps Donya used us against him in an argument.  In any event I have hardly seen him since 1995.   No bad feeling, just the end of an era.

Donya’s photograph of my wife Jenny Jules, 1994

It was an incredible opportunity in retrospect.  If I’d been cast in that role, it would certainly have changed my career.  I absolutely under-anticipated the stress of that meeting, thinking in my foolishness that David holding the door open would be perhaps enough to swing it for me.   It was a harsh lesson.   Many times I have played it over in my mind, re-entered the room, better prepared, psyched-up, played the scene properly like I’d planned it.  (Spacey played it exactly as I’d rehearsed it in the finished movie).   But I didn’t get it.  Even today, writing this, it bites me.  It was a gift horse and I gave it a thorough dental examination.   Oh well.  I’m still here.  Some things are just not meant to be.  No regrets.  Learning To Be.

Like all hinge moments one cannot eventually regret the way it went.  If I’d been cast in Seven we would have stayed in LA.  Or at least I would.  First and biggest problem.  We wouldn’t have bought a house in Brighton.  Tom, Millie and Lucy wouldn’t have moved down.   Scarlett and Tom wouldn’t have met.  Skye wouldn’t have been born.  I wouldn’t have played in The Brighton Beach Boys.  And on and on.  You cannot unmake a moment, even in your wishes.  And thus, once again, writing out one of my haunted moments in a blog post has allowed to me to understand the wound and clarify the misty darkness which surrounds it a little bit more.   And it becomes not a defeat but just another chapter in My Pop Life.

Look in the eyes of the water that falls
Hiding behind every flower and rock
Why do we dance on the wheel and forget
Life is a child that will never regret
Learning to be, be, be
Stepping away, I get closer each day
I’ve been looking for love to find me
Digging away, I will search I will pray
I’ve been waiting for truth to blind me

Learning To Be :

and Rainbow’s End – it’s not a great quality video, but it’s all there is :

Previous Older Entries