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

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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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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  

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

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We hearing pan – but can’t see the band 

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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.

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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 date..in 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 :

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!

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 :

My Pop Life #172 : In My Chair – Status Quo

In My Chair   –   Status Quo

I saw her talking, now
My ears were burning
Her feet started walking, now
They started turning
My eyes were half open
But she didn’t see me there
We ran along, walking ‘cross the roof-tops
In my chair

I was working in Bude, Cornwall on Julia Davis’ series Nighty Night when I got the offer. Did I want to play Status Quo‘s road manager Barney in 3 episodes of Coronation Street to mark the 45th anniversary of Britain’s longest-running soap ?   Who’s gonna say no to that??   These are the moments in an actor’s life which really lift the spirit.  Straight offer.  No audition.  Working with a band I’d loved since I was knee-high to a wotsit.   Iconic.

Press play

And on a TV show with it’s sensational trumpet theme tune which had been with us all the way – a host of characters who were real – Ena Sharples, Hilda Ogden, Albert Tatlock, Elsie Tanner, Rita Fairclough, Ken and Dierdre, Vera Duckworth, played by actors who were even more real.  Reminding all of us soft southerners that this country of ours had a north, who spoke differently.  Working class people on TV.  And it was comedy too, unlike Eastenders the slit-your-wrists southern soap.  The combination of Status Quo and Coronation Street was earthy and righteous.   I said yes there and then, and a few days later the scripts arrived.  One of the things people always ask me when I get a job and I’m shooting some programme or film is this : “When is it coming out ?

Which is one thing I never ever know.  Some time next year, when it’s all edited and got a soundtrack and some PR behind it and blah blah blah.  But this was the one exception.  Coronation Street scripts come with the TX, or transmission date printed in capitals at the top of page one.  When’s it coming out ?  September 21st 2005.

I’d had hair extensions added for Nighty Night because I was playing a new-age sex therapist who was a bit of a twat (enjoyed that role very much and both Julia Davis and Rebecca Front (and the rest of the cast – truly blessed we were) are genius but that’s for another post) – so I kept the long hair for Corrie since I felt in my bone of bones that the old fella Danny the Dealer from Withnail and I would get another outing.  Withnail was shot in 1985 – then in the mid 90s I’d filmed Wayne’s World 2 and played another rock’n’roll character called Del Preston (for another post too!) and he had spoken with the rhotic ‘R’ sound & stoned delivery of Danny from Withnail, after I’d called writer and director of Withnail Bruce Robinson and asked him if he thought it was OK (it’s your character Ralph, do as you feel).   I felt that I would wheel him out once more, perhaps for the final time – indeed I haven’t played that character since then, but hey never say never.  There are people who wonder why I didn’t make a career out of that geezer, (I did : Ed) but I’ve always felt rather protective of him and kept his powder dry.    Coronation St with the Quo though felt completely right, so it was dangly ear-rings, maroon waistcoat, jeans, cowboy boots, a floppy yellow hat and permanently stoned gaze.

EXT. The Rover’s Return – day

My first scene was in The Rover’s Return, the legendary pub on the Corrie set, which nestles in the centre of Granada TV in the heart of Manchester.  Of course the exterior is in The Street while the interior set in inside a studio.  Obvious but there you go.   I’d met the band briefly before we went on set, invited to their dressing rooms (one each for Rick and Francis) and said hi – they were both very easy-going and normal and friendly -unsurprisingly because their image was of down-to-earth-fellas, because that is who they are.  Like me I hope.  And then we were in the pub – initially me at the bar and them in a booth.  Next to me at the bar was Jack Duckworth.

Julie Goodyear (Bet Lynch), Liz Dawn (Vera Duckworth) and Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth) in the pub in Coronation Street

If you’ve never seen the show it’s not easy to explain who this person is.  He’d been an extra on the show for ten years, playing darts in the background of The Rovers before becoming a regular character in the early 80s some 25 years earlier.  He was, in short, a fixture on the show, and on that particular set.  He spoke with a viscous throaty Manc growl, full of beer and fags and character, a kind of gloomy town crier that you used to be able to find at the bar in every pub in England.  In the scene he had to ask Barney who those geezers in the corner were, and I had to sing a section of Rockin’ All Over The World which he wouldn’t recognise, at which point I say “The Quo man?  Status Quo”  and carry the beers back to the lads.  It was fun.

Rick Parfitt, Francis Rossi : the stars of Status Quo

After four or five takes they stopped to fiddle with a lamp and Bill Tarmey – or Jack – turned to me and said, with all sincerity :

“Ralph lad, you’re doing very well. Very well.  I’ve had top actors in here, A-listers stand at this bar and I’m telling you lad, their knees have gone”

Christ it was funny.  I wondered who he was talking about – Ian McKellen? Ben Kingsley? – and carried the beers back to Francis and Rick, and we had a sup and they called cut.  Rick Parfitt and I lit up a Benson & Hedges each.  A runner ranneth over, doing his job (running).  “Sorry you can’t smoke on set gentlemen you’ll have to go outside“.  We looked over at Jack Duckworth who was perched, nay, carved into the bar with an Old Holborn roll-up permanently tucked and smouldering inside his hand.  “Jack’s smoking” I said.  The runner assumed an air of private suffering.  “That’s Jack though”  he smiled weakly.  Rick and I looked at each other, made a decision to say nothing and walked outside for a quick puff.

Francis Rossi had formed a band with Alan Lancaster at Catford High School in 1962 who evolved into Status Quo, adding Rick Parfitt in 1967,  Andy Bown in 1977, and John Rhino Edwards who replaced Alan Lancaster on bass in 1985, all of whom are in the current line-up and present on set in Manchester.    Quo have had over 60 chart hits in the UK and specialised, since 1969, in denim-clad 12-bar boogie.

Status Quo in 1970 when they released ‘In My Chair’ as a single

Their peak era was the mid 1970s, with a run of hits including Softer Ride and Down Down just as I and my friends from school Conrad, Tat, Andy Shand and Tigger were forming our own band called Rough Justice based in Kingston nr Lewes.   We wrote our own material, but also played a nice wedge of covers – two by The Beatles (Birthday and Get Back), two by Elvis Presley (Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock – see My Pop Life #80) and THREE by Status Quo :  Paper Plane, Caroline and this song In My Chair.   In My Chair is a very low-temperature boogie with delightfully surreal lyrics and a terrific old school guitar solo, and if it got any slower it would slowly slide off the sofa and fall asleep on the floor, yes, but it’s also a tune.  My favourite Quo song along with Gerdundula, which was actually the B-side on Pye Records.  (Francis Rossi had later told me that Gerdundula was written for a German couple they knew in the late 60s called Gerd und Ula.  So now you know 😉   Rough Justice loved the Quo, but we also found these songs relatively easy to play – 12-bar songs with a rhythm guitar part (Conrad playing Parfitt) and a lead part (Tat playing Rossi).   I would then sing the relatively undemanding nasal lead vocal (Ralph singing Rossi).   Although as I recall I played bass on Caroline (three whole notes!!) and Andy Shand sang the lead vocal.  People could dance to them too.  Of course I told the Quo all this, and they were pleased.   They were pleased to be in Coronation Street, with lines, acting, thrilled to bits to be honest.  Which was very sweet.  I asked them who they liked and they said Jeff Lynne of ELO and Hank Marvin, guitarist with The Shadows.  Rick had sat next to Hank at some variety TV show where the audience is filled with celebrities, and told us that he’d spent some of the time looking down at Hank Marvin’s  right hand, thinking – that hand played those licks!  They were lovely fellas all right and they made me feel very welcome.

I appear to be happier than The Quo

Later that night Rick and I had a few too many in the hotel bar and Rick actually fell into a glass table covered in drinks, causing mayhem, spillage and jokes.   Kind of gratifying.   We ran along walking across the rooftops in my chair.   Three weeks later we would return to Manchester for the following episode.  Now read on dot dot dot.

Jack Duckworth, the character, passed away in 2010 asleep in his chair.  Millions mourned. He was the 2nd-longest serving male character on the show – over 30 years.  Two years and one day later Bill Tarmey the actor passed away in Tenerife at the age of 71, of a heart attack.  We mourned all over again.  Here’s to you Bill.

Late note : as I was writing this blog, Rick Parfitt was suffering a massive heart attack. Thankfully he lived and is now in recovery, on the mend.  My thoughts are with him.

In My Chair from 1971 :

clearer visuals :

the B-side Gerdundula played live in 2004

My Pop Life #166 : Pacific 202 – 808 State

Pacific 202   –   808 State

The last few days of 1989 :  a Ford Granada with me driving, Jenny in the jump seat and my brother Paul and his boyfriend Colin in the back is driving the long endless East German autobahn towards West Berlin.  It’s cold outside and the road goes on forever.  We’ve been driving from England since morning.  For the last six months news reports coming out of the Eastern Bloc of change :  East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in particular seethe with popular unrest, and since November 17 the famous Wall dividing East and West Berlin has been tested and breached by demonstrators.  Refugees from East Germany have been granted asylum in Hungary.   Berlin is in flux.  Gorbachev is in power in the USSR talking about Perestroika (re-structuring : also the name of his book, which I read in 1989) and glasnost (open-ness), a new way forward, relaxing the tight rules on state power and movement of peoples and now in front of us, the Iron Curtain is creaking.


Mikhail Gorbachev stated in 1989 that German re-unification was a German matter

Historic times indeed.  Then on Christmas Day, hated dictator President Ceaușescu of Romania and his wife are executed by firing squad after a trial lasting one hour.  We decide to see in the new year in Berlin, in the centre of it all.  Armed with an address provided by Jonathan & Roberta, Paul and Colin’s friends from college, we finally arrive at around 10pm, climb the three flights of stairs to find a lovely two-room apartment, empty save for two Italians who had also been told that they could use the space for the New Year.  Mutual surprise all round, but these were pre-internet days.  The four English end up on two single mattresses in the main room.

Checkpoint Charlie : he didn’t crack a smile

The following morning we wake too late for hot water, our Italian friends having got to the bathroom first.  After breakfast Jenny and I drive through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin, receiving a small passport made of cardboard which is stamped, and we are told that we have to return before midnight.  East Berlin is eerie and strangely gentle.  At the first large square – almost deserted, very few shops open, there are rabbits hopping around.  We visit a large department store and buy AyeAye, a 1970s Donny Hathaway hat which we still have – a beautiful, madly out-of-date-in-a-good-way fashion piece, so out-of-date that it was back in fashion in the west.  We ate some unimpressive food in a quiet restaurant and made our way back to the western side.

 West Berlin was heaving with people, simply full up. Jenny and I had decided to get a hotel room, but there weren’t any.  She was something of a distraction for everyone, being black and sporting her eighteen-hole DMs.  That night, New Year’s Eve, we queued for an Italian restaurant (against my religion to Q for food : unless I’m in prison), only to be told it was a private party.  At another Italian the waiters took exception to Paul & Colin being gay, so Jenny gave them a piece of her mind and was escorted physically from the building.  We did finally eat somewhere, but seven million other people had had the same idea as us and West Berlin was rammed.  Still, if you can’t be original, join in, that’s my motto.  Sounds better in Latin.  si non potest esse prima iungas..  Imagine it on a little crest.  A badge.  Oh, never mind.

Approaching midnight and Paul and Col had gone clubbing somewhere, Jenny and I made our way to the Wall at Potsdammer Platz near Brandenburg Gate where crowds of revellers were partying on top of the Wall in full view of soldiers from both sides, dancing, smoking weed and chipping pieces of the Wall away with chisels and hammers.  An extraordinary atmosphere.  We stood in one of the holes in the Wall and could see No Man’s Land and the towers and barbed wire of the East.  I had a mini boombox and played a previously-recorded Martin Luther King “I Had A Dream” speech when a soldier told me to turn it off, despite clearly not speaking English and not understanding what it was.  I didn’t turn it off and there were too many people around to make a fuss.  In amidst the party atmosphere was a strange tension as many of the West Berliners felt decidedly ambiguous about everything opening up.  A kind of tense excitable hysteria, who are all these people?  The future was uncertain, and there were already some East Germans crossing the border, changing the nature of the enclave forever.

New Year’s Eve at The Wall 1989

We listened to cassettes on the drive over, handmade by each of us, or purchased at Our Price or Woolworths.  Certainly one of these was a best of 1989 compilation – and it was a great year for dance music in particular.

Hip hop had already come, seen and conquered.  Now we were into the Daisy Age thanks to De La Soul, while Heavy D & The Boyz had serenaded Jenny and I in D.C. with their own New Jack Swing thang  (see My Pop Life #33).  Janet Jackson was in the Rhythm Nation, Shabba Ranks was being Wicked Inna Bed, and in the summer I’d  choreographed a dance to Redhead Kingpin & The FBI‘s monster song Do The Right Thing (see My Pop Life #7) in a theatre workshop with a young David Walliams and 25 other teenagers for the National Youth Theatre.  Not to be confused with the Spike Lee film of the same name which had a terrific soundtrack featuring Public Enemy, Perri, Teddy Riley, Guy and Take 6.

The British had a great year – a new confidence in the air manifest by Soul II Soul and that Keep On Movin’ LP which dominated the summer.  Other acts which popped through were Rebel M.C. with Street Tuff, Neneh Cherry with Buffalo Stance and Stone Roses with Fool’s Gold.  But none caught my ear quite like this record.  Radio One played it every day – Gary Davies I think – until it was eventually released in November 1989 and became an immediate hit. An immediately intoxicating sound whether you had dropped ecstasy or not, we hadn’t heard much like it before on the radio.

I depended on Paul and Colin for bringing me club tunes since I didn’t really go clubbing.   I did go to legendary gay club Heaven with them a couple of times under the Charing Cross Arches but they were out listening to Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers, Phuture and the other stars of House Music regularly, and this year’s big song was French Kiss by Lil Louis.  Earlier in the year Paul had introduced me to seminal techno house track Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, out of the Manchester underground, later a big hit, and this track Pacific by 808 State has his fingerprints all over it.

Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson, Martin Price – 808 State

808 State were formed in Manchester by Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald), Graham Massey and Martin Price in 1987 and named after Gerald’s Roland TR-808 drum machine.  Pacific aka Pacific State, Pacific 717 Pacific 202 etc etc was and remains a delicious electronic chilled dance tune featuring a wonky alto sax line and a collection of strange bird noises and it heralded Acid House and the Manchester rave scene, about which I know next to nothing.  My Manc friends Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill, Keith Davey and Josh Raikes all came of age through those Madchester years and I’ll leave it to them to explain it all to you (they all moved to Brighton though – make of that what you will…).   As for me, I never did like Happy Mondays, The Charlatans or Stone Roses THAT much and I certainly never bought the 2nd Summer Of Love designation, but I would never pour cold water over it either, I’m sure it was an intoxicatingly hypnotically fantastic and exciting time to be up in the north west of England.  Especially when Pacific State came out !   I bought the 12″ single on ZTT (Paul Morley, Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair’s label) which had Pacific 707 (the 7 inch version) and Pacific 212 and one other mix ?  There are about 20 versions out there.  The one below is Pacific 202.  I think.  It was released in America on TommyBoy Records in 1990.

We found a hotel and a bathroom on Jan 1st 1990 in West Berlin while Paul & Col made friends with their new Italian flatmates and stayed for three more weeks.  Jenny and I explored the groovy anarchist squat scene in Kreuzberg and went back to The Wall and picked up some orange spray-painted sections for keepsakes and drove back home shortly afterward one morning.  I went back to Berlin last year and invented the David Bowie : Where Are We Now ? tour (see My Pop Life #97) and some 25 years later the city is almost unrecognisable.  Only a few parts of the wall remain, tourist attractions, protected.  I stayed in the old East Berlin, now simply Berlin.  It is thrumming with activity and endeavour, much of it artistic, simply full of energy.

As we drove home through Germany, then Belgium, we were stopped on the French border for our passport.  Most cars were getting waved through and we were blocking the road.  The passport was in my suitcase in the boot, so I offered to pull over while I got out and unpacked.  No said the French border police.  Stay in the road.  I got annoyed with him and so they decided to search the car.  Jenny and I were processed through the system, stripped,  and searched.  And then made to wait in the little central booth as the border police tooth-combed the car.  While we waited, and waited, I noticed cars queuing to get into Belgium from France looking at me with quizzical eyes.  They were asking for permission to cross the border.  There was no one else there, so I started to nod at the drivers, and they would drive through.  It was ridiculous but fun.  Eventually we were interviewed by the boss.   He explained that busloads of tourists came this way from Amsterdam every day.  I told him that we’d come from Berlin.  Earlier in 1989 I had been filming in France (see My Pop Life #9) playing Eugene Delacroix the painter who appeared on the 200 Franc note (sadly now replaced by the Euro).  As I explained this to the police chief, he asked me if I smoked weed – “and is it used for inspiration, like Baudelaire?”  I agreed that I imagined it was.  “Ah you artistic types” he sighed.

We crossed the Channel at Ostende and landed in England in the brave new world of 1990.   Capitalism won, after extra time.

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