Thursday, August 30, 2012

Diana and I - an anniversary to forget

15 years ago tonight I, along with various other representatives of the consumer electronics industry, was in an East Berlin nightclub in what must have looked like a scene from Cocoon: The Return.

We were a collection of company PRs and journalists, barely anyone south of their 30th birthdays, but partying in the smoky haze of a squat. This was one of the many repurposed buildings in the eastern half of the unified Berlin that had been turned into cool hangouts for, er, the kids.

This particular Saturday night was our final evening in Berlin for the IFA - the gargantuan technology trade show which takes place every year at this time, swallowing up participants in a wagon circle of 26 huge exhibition halls.

For exhibitors and visitors alike, IFA is an event that requires the expulsion of steam, hence this motley collection grooving away in the gloom. Occasionally faces you half-recognised would emerge like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now!, appearing out of the Nung River to complete his mission and dispatch Colonel Kurtz to the next life. That, come to think of it, wasn't the only similarity to the Kurtz compound in Cambodian jungle....

Somewhere near four in the morning, most of this weary group of unlikely ravers decided to return to the spinning chamber that would soon be their room at the well-appointed Steigenberger Hotel across town on Los Angeles Platz.

As is my habit - and despite the ungodly hour and the need to be back on my feet again in three hours - I flipped on the TV to see what the news was, and came across a curious sight: a locked-off camera shot of a crumpled Mercedes lying motionless in a tunnel.

Not wishing to wake the neighbours, the TV's sound had been muted, but a single caption told me everything I needed to know: "Diana injured in car crash".

For the following hours I watched, with the sound still muted, as the story revealed itself. Gradually as, presumably, official protocols were enacted, the actual fate of Diana, Princess of Wales, became known to those who needed to be informed - the Royal Family, prime minister Tony Blair and other circles of the establishment.

As this took place, the caption changed every so often as the news worsened: "Diana seriously injured in car crash", "Diana critically injured in car crash", "Diana in critical condition following crash"... until "Diana dies in Paris car crash".

In reality, the princess had been declared dead at 4am, around the same time we were hailing taxis back to our Berlin hotel. The news, however, was just as surreal as the nightclub. Members of the British royal family - whether estranged or not - don't die in car crashes in Parisian underpasses in the middle of the night. Unless, of course, they are the world's most photographed woman, trying to escape a pack of paparazzi on motorbikes.

Shortly before 9am the press group I'd been out with only a few hours before assembled grumpily and reluctantly in the hotel lobby. As the hungover and bewildered slowly appeared, I began telling them the news.

At first none believed me (a stunning endorsement, I thought, of my communication skills), but as we arrived at the IFA the mood changed, in particular as the journalists caught the news for themselves on the banks of brand new TV sets throughout the exhibition halls.

During one bizarre moment that morning, when the writers were meant to be interviewing a senior Philips executive (Frans van Houten, now the company's CEO), he became the inquisitor, asking the press how they were doing.

By that Sunday lunchtime we were all ready to leave. It had been a long IFA anyway, but the overnight news just made it odd. On the plane, and in a business class cabin exclusively ours, the British Airways attendant handed out free copies of the Sunday Times.

The paper had gone to press long before the day's stunning news had beome public, and yet every single section appeared to feature something about Diana, her sons or the royals in general. Even the Personal Finance section carried an unfortunately prescient story about William and Harry's future financial security. The Sunday Times' technology correspondent, a member of our party, endured some ribbing over that, typical of journalists' black humour.

It wasn't, however, until we landed at Heathrow that it truly dawned that something big had happened. It may sound disrespectful, but we had been enclosed in a bubble of technology and laddish jocularity, disconnecting us from anything else.

As we waited for our luggage to appear, various members of our party disappeared to call home using payphones (yes, back then not everyone had a mobile phone), returning in varying states of shock: "My mum's in pieces - she's been round at my girlfriend's all morning. They're both hysterical" was a common report.

The next day I drove through Westminster. The entire area around Buckingham Palace was carpeted by flowers and zombified, tearful people walking in no particular direction, still stunned by the 24 hour-old news.

Like 9/11, it is still a stunning event now. Mercifully, however, the media obsession with Diana has evaporated over the past 15 years. Her boys have grown up, mostly, and are finding their own ways to both shun the spotlight and attract it. She'd be proud. Even of strip billiards.

I could never call myself a fan of Diana - I'm not that big a fan of the royals - but she carried an undoubted movie star aura that I appreciated. The carpet of people I saw covering Westminster that Monday morning certainly lent itself to Tony Blair's "People's Princess" soundbite.

But I couldn't help but feeling that the Diana Mania led to her tragic demise, that her picture was considered such currency in media outlets in just about every corner of the earth that photographers could pursue her to, literally, the very end.

Now I live in Paris, and frequently pass through or near the Place de l'Alma underpass where the fatal accident took place, I find it impossible not to think back to that surreal night in Berlin, and the events that would lead to a worldwide media phenomenon to reach such a tragic crescendo.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Knights out

“Be careful what you wish for!” is the finger-wagging threat oft-made by maiden aunts, crusty medieval crones and, the generally annoying.

Some years ago plain, vanilla Paul McCartney was ritually referred to in Smash Hits magazine as "Sir Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft". To this day I don't think anyone knows why he needed a nickname, but he certainly did (and does still) have a tendency to extend his thumbs skyward whenever adoring crowds are near. Anyway, in 1997 - long after the Hits first applied the moniker - Macca became a knight proper for "for services to music". Be careful what you wish for indeed.

Roll on another 15 years, and no sooner has Thumbs Aloft belted out his final "na-na-na-nah" to close the London 2012 opening ceremony, than the show's creative director is being installed by Twitter patrons as "Sir" Danny Boyle.

This was no flippant idea, but an earnest attempt to promote Boyle's investiture in recognition of his incredible tour de force on July 27. Such groundswell inevitably led to newspapers reporting that Boyle would be a shoe-in for a gong come the New Year's Honours list. Boyle himself - a dyed-in-the-wool member of the fraternity unlikely to support such things - has so far simply laughed it all off with a curt "I don’t think so".

Even if Boyle turns down a KBE, there will be no shortage of Olympic heroes and heroines queuing up at the Palace to be entitled. Indeed in the proud national glow that followed the London games, Twitter was "awash" (the modern equivalent of switchboards being "jammed") with suggestions that virtually anyone who pulled on a Team GB tracksuit this summer should get the nod for a meeting with James Bond's new parachuting partner, Her Majesty, The Queen. Fleet Street layout artists have no doubt already prepared their front page splashes for the final week of December to declare "Arise Sir Mo!" or "Arise Dame Jess!".

There have been past precedents for such populist clamour to actually succeed: Bruce Forsyth (for non-British readers of WWDBD?, the nation's pre-eminent octogenarian game show host, golfer and catchphrase merchant) endured years of humiliation with just a CBE to his name before HMTQ  wiped the ceremonial cutlass on his newly-knighted shoulders and said "Nice to see you, Sir Brucie, to see you, nice!".

A similar, but less well supported campaign has been lurking in the shadows to have David Beckham knighted in recognition of his services to hairdressers and tattoo parlours.

Old Goldenballs is, I concede, a national icon. Like Mr Bean replacing Benny Hill, Beckham has replaced Bobby Charlton as a shorthand reference for Britain. You can find yourself in the remotest, far-flung corner of the earth untouched by the English language or modernity itself, and you will still - at the slightest hint of Britishness - be met with a smile and the collection of syllables that is "David Beckham! Yes. Very good!".

Beckham is, of course, more than just an underwear model with excellent ball skills - sorry, that should have read "excellent footballer who dabbles in underwear modeling" - and his charidee work, not to mention salesmanship to help land the 2012 Olympics for London, does mark him out as a worthy candidate for national honour. But I do struggle to see why we should be collectively preparing to welcome Sir David and Lady Posh into the pantheon of great Britons knighted or damed (not sure if that's correct, but it's only one letter short of a curse, so it will do).

There are those in the British establishment who've never quite got over the number of actors being knighted, let alone rock stars like messrs McCartney, Jagger and John (which would make an interesting firm of suburban solicitors), whose knighthoods placed dual stamps in the passport marked Sodom and Gomorrah.

So with this we read that the Public Administration Select Committee, the British parliamentary institution responsible for, er, public adminstration, has called for a change in the honours system. T'committee has called for an independent commission to ensure that any government obsessed with image and spin doesn't do anything ridiculous like awarding all five members of One Direction gongs for whatever it is they do.

More importantly, the committee has called for greater transparency and less influence by politicians and their civil servants in the selection process of honours candidates: "We believe that no-one should be honoured for simply 'doing the day job', no matter what that job is,"  t'committee states.

Well if that doesn't set the proverbial big cat amongst the Clacton pigeons, I don't know what will. Because beyond pop stars and Olympians getting rewarded for generally being excellent and putting a smile on people's faces, there are still too many gongs being handed out to senior civil servants and business leaders on the basis that they are due one.

The select committee's chairman, Bernard Jenkin MP, points out that many Britons struggle to understand why the bulk of honours are handed out, which doesn't help public confidence in the system. "In particular," says Jenkin, "honours should not be awarded to civil servants or businessmen unless it can be demonstrated that there has been service above and beyond the call of duty."

And, capturing the spirit of these beleaguered, austere times he adds: "It is distasteful and damaging for people who already command vast personal remuneration packages for doing their job, to also be honoured for simply being at the helm of large companies. This must stop."

However, a spokesman for the government has denied that establishment figures and celebs dominate the honours system, running the old yarn about three-quarters of awards go to "ordinary" people who do charity work.

That, of course, wouldn't rule out a Beckham knighthood, even if he is also at the helm of a large commercial enterprise - David Beckham....

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Tale Of Two Cities

What a difference a month makes. Visiting London during the opening days of the Olympics, there was a palpable vibrancy in the air. All the grumbling and low expectations were giving way to a sense of moment, a gradual awareness that something quite special was unfolding in the capital. And this was before Team GB had won a single medal.

A month later, I'm back again to find that London has returned to normal: the Underground is packed, and packed with the visibly grumpy and the notably impolite.

Summer holidays have obviously expired, and even with the guarantee of a rain-sodden long Bank Holiday weekend, Londoners, at least, are re-engaging the rat race with a somewhat tepid embrace.

So what was different a month ago? Did Boris and his doom-laden 'nuclear attack' announcements on the Tube simply scare the perpetually irascible London commuter away for the summer?

Is that why central London, one month ago, seemed to be populated exclusively by flag-waving families out on day trips to the swimming heats, the show jumping and the cycle races?

Were Londoners and their guests on an Olympic high? Did the capital succumb to an urge to recreate that hippy-dippy advert from the 1970s for Coca-Cola (suspiciously, a 2012 Olympic sponsor...) in which the world was invited to hold hands and collectively drink its teeth into decay?

Questions, questions, questions. Whatever it was, though, it has now worn off. Much like the sun tans sported by many on the Tube this morning from St. Pancras.

London is back and already squashed into its Northern Line misery. Heads are, once more, buried in crumpled copies of Metro, with the paper being used like one of those flimsy canvas beach windbreaks to shut out impertinent stares and the curry breath.

London was, for 17 days, the happiest city on the planet. Today it's back being London again.

Roll on Christmas.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!

Right now there can be few men between the ages of 12 and 92, of any particular proclivity, who isn't quietly lifting a titfer to His Royal Highness, the Prince Henry of Wales.

Britain's leading (occasional) royal hedonist - mostly known as Prince Harry, sometimes Captain Harry Wales, British Army, and quite probably now, the Viscount of Vegas (not a real title but I'm hoping it will catch on) - has managed to extend his strenuous summer watching sport by inventing one of his own, "strip billiards".

This is in addition to his admirable day job flying heavily armoured attack helicopters and snogging posh blonde heiresses in London nightclubs. Talk about living it large.

The revelation that Harry was partying hard in Las Vegas this week and ended up in a threads-free game of pool may be causing discomfort in certain circles of the British establishment, but let's face it, his ancestors - especially his namesakes - were known to do far worse. It's just that they didn't have smartphones and the Internet to contend with.

Until Harry's very own reenactment of The Hangover came to light, he was being lauded by the press for his infectious charm and easy-going nature, as demonstrated during his spring tour of Central America and the Caribbean as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

During the Olympics he - along with his brother and sister-in-law - won credit for being a prominent and fervent patron of the London Olympics. However, even this didn't prevent one or two snide pieces along the lines of "isn't it about time the royal gooseberry found a girlfriend?". I can't vouch for whether Harry's opponent across the billiard table this week would be classed as a girlfriend, but, really, he should be admired for the sterling effort to acquire one.

The British media's obsession with marrying off royal offspring is nothing new: every time his father, as a younger man, was photographed with a bikini-clad nubile in the Australian surf, she was immediately installed as a future bride. Harry's uncle Andrew, on the other hand, provided a more obvious template for his nephew to follow, squiring an assortment of fun-loving types, including a soft-porn actress, until he met and married jolly aristocratic fun's ultimate exponent, Fergie.

Harry has had to endure a more aggressive, more intrusive, and more competitive media. But this cheekiest of semi-orphaned royal scamps, with that mischievous grin and shock of ginger on his bonce, has successfully eclipsed any other member of his family for having a laugh, perhaps because of, perhaps in spite of the magnifying glass that has hovered above him from the day he was born.

Ever since his mother died - 15 years ago, a week tomorrow - Harry has put up with speculation about where that ginger hair really came from, the continuing attention to his dead mother from an unhealthily obsessive media, and his role in the modernisation of a royal family, a modernisation partly prompted by its reaction to Diana's death.

I would hardly consider myself a card-carrying royalist, but on the other hand, I'm frankly amazed that Harry has grown up as normal as he has. Yes, he was caught smoking a joint and being drunk at school, but these could all be regarded as rights of passage many teenage boys go through (though the Nazi uniform was, however, an unforgivable error of judgement). It's just that some don't get caught, and most don't attract some sleeze with a cameraphone and an e-mail address for the picture desk of a website that has played more than its part in the voyeuristic intrusion of celebrities' lives.

Note: the Express's two front page lead
 stories are not necessarily related.
Harry's big Vegas weekend has inevitably led to a hue and cry amongst the British press, but not so much about what he got up to in Sin City, as the fact they haven't been able to run with the photographs of what he got up to, lest they end up en masse being carted off to the Tower.

Although they've got an argument, that the pictures of Harry racking up for his nude break are only a few clicks away online, they are being sanctioned by royal lawyers threatening the big stick of the Press Complaints Commission. And few newspaper editors appear willing to risk their future knighthoods for falling fowl of this apparatus of self-policing, a governance system partly put in place due to the handsome profits newspapers have enjoyed over the last 30 years from the lives of Harry, his brother and his parents.

Still, I don't know what would be worse - newspapers whining about not being able to run the nudie shots of H in action or them using the lurid photographs as an excuse to fill columns with moralistic pontification about what is and isn't appropriate behaviour for the third in line to the throne.

He may be third in line, and I'm sure his immediate family will not be best pleased by the attention he has created so soon after the summer love-in we've all had with British heritage. But has he done anything wrong? Is he not entitled to have fun like everyone else?

After all, even his granny spends here time jumping out of helicopters with James Bond, and no-one seems to wonder what that is all about...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

And in the end...

A tweet caught my eye in the aftermath of the London Olympics closing ceremony. It raised the point: "What will organisers of events like this do a few years from now when they can't wheel out acts like The Who?".

It was an interesting question. We're all very proud of our musical heritage in Britain, but the surviving members of the 60s beat and blues movements - half of the Beatles, half of The Who, four of the original Rolling Stones, as well as the likes of The Kinks, Eric Clapton, The Animals and others - can't go on forever. Not even Keith Richards.

Still, they are around and, if The Who's performance at the Olympic Stadium was anything to go by, still a force. And Sir Paul McCartney's finale appearance at the opening ceremony may have suffered sound problems, but those who saw him on tour this summer have said that the 70-year-old gave some of his best performances as a solo act.

50 years after the Rolling Stones made their debut at London's Marquee, there is still speculation that they have one more tour in them. Not bad considering their marathon, two-year Bigger Bang Tour - the last time they were all out on the road together - ended just five years ago.

Having seen them twice at various times of that run, I can vouch that they were as impressive an actas at any time over the 30-odd years I've seen them live. Despite a dubious story in the Daily Mail a few weeks back claiming that Richards struggles to remember chords, I could imagine the Stones would still cause most other touring bands to swallow something hard and jagged with a show if they were to go out on the road again now.

But at serious risk of writing the most middle-aged words I'm ever going to come out with, it's unlikely that any of today's X Factor-generation acts will be still in the public eye, let alone performing, 50 years from now. Jessie J may have been more ubiquitous at the Olympic closing ceremony than the stadium seating, but it says something that more was written about her performance of We Will Rock You with Queen than the three songs of her own she sang.

Try as some might, there is no escaping the longevity of that brotherhood of artists who, inspired by Elvis and liberated by the ending of post-war gloom, finally, made American rock and roll, blues, soul and R&B their own and, in the process, made Britain center of the musical world for much of the 1960s.

1962, in particular, was a significant year: little more than a month after that Stones gig at the Marquee, Ringo Starr took over from Pete Best as the drummer in The Beatles. Four days later - 50 years ago tonight - they made their own debut at Liverpool's Cavern Club.

The irony is that today, August 22, represents something of a bookend for The Beatles. Because it was on this day in 1969 that the band held their very last photo session, at Tittenhurst Park, the Berkshire mansion that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had moved into just 11 days before. It's the same house in which Lennon would later record his Imagine film, which made a tearful appearance in the Olympic closing ceremony.

Roger Waters has said that Dark Side Of The Moon was the beginning of the end for Pink Floyd. Its success and critical acclaim led to the demons that increasingly beset the band as they recorded Wish You Were Here, more intensively on Animals and then their denouement with The Wall. For The Beatles, the success and acclaim of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band seemed to have the same effect.

Cracks were appearing during the 1968 sessions for the ambitious double 'White Album' (The Beatles). By the start of 1969 the cracks were becoming even more pronounced. The cheeky, yet innocent fun the Fab Four had exuded when they first broke through with Please Please Me in 1963, and then took to America at the spearhead of the British Invasion, had ebbed away.

In the January they started rehearsals for what would eventually be the Let It Be album. For a band that had given up touring in 1965, their public visibility had become limited. An idea was hatched for Michael Lindsay-Hogg - who had made early promotional films for both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones - to film the rehearsal process on a soundstage at Twickenham Film Studios.

The cavernous studio in south-west London was cold in January, and the scrutiny of a staged environment for what was supposed to be a creative process became a miserable experience for the band. "The lowest of all lows", is Harrison's later description.

So, recording of Let It Be - then to be called Get Back - moved to The Beatles' new studio at 3 Savile Row in London's West End, the headquarters of their Apple record label and entertainment empire. Unhappy with the album's recording, it and its summer release, was put on hold. At the end of the month the band took to the roof of the Apple building to stage their famous concert - the last time they'd all perform together. Even taking the time of year into account, there was little more warmth on show than had been seen at Twickenham, and certainly none of the bonhomie that had characterised the lovable mop tops' early career - which was still only a handful of years earlier.

George Martin is said to have been surprised that The Beatles wanted to record another album after  the Let It Be/Get Back disaster, but at the beginning of July 1969 they started work on what would be Abbey Road. Sessions for the album ran through to August 20 - two days before they assembled at Lennon's country pile for their final photoshoot.

The Tittenhurst gathering was the last time the four Beatles would be 'on show' together, and came just 15 years after the teenage Lennon invited McCartney to join The Quarrymen. By September, Lennon had announced he was leaving, only to be persuaded to hang on until a reworked version of Let It Be by Phil Spector could be released.

Incredibly, just seven years separate Starr's August defection, from Rory Storm & The Hurricanes to The Beatles, and this somewhat morose-looking group of hippies reluctantly posing for pictures. The sharp suits Brian Epstein had dressed them in had gone, and instead weird beards and weirder hats had taken over. But the body of work they were to leave behind could not - and is still not - to be touched.

With so many artists from that era continuing to be in business, it's easy to think what might have been, even if The Beatles had continued into the 1970s, even if John Lennon had still been shot in 1980. Lennon went on to enjoy hits, but rarely the same acclaim; McCartney has endured as a national treasure; Harrison recorded brilliant albums like All Things Must Pass, demonstrating that Something and While My Guitar Gently Weeps weren't random examples of genius; and Ringo, bless him, has continued to live the dream, underpinned by a reputation as a truly talented drummer - which is how he came to be poached from Rory Storm in the first place.

The memories, however, are of a long time ago. The Rolling Stones have kept their legacy burning bright by staying, mostly, together. Their creativity has never matched the peak of the period between Beggars Banquet and Exile On Main Street, but that's not to say Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge didn't have their moments. And as a touring entity, they can still justify being the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world.

The Who have maintained themselves as a creditable heritage act - with Roger Daltrey's 68-year-old lungs showing little evidence of age at the Olympic Park, as he ironically belted out the immortal words "I hope I die before I get old", while Pete Townshend windmilled furiously next to him, as if Woodstock and Live At Leeds had only taken place days previously.

McCartney's appearance on the opening night of the Olympics drew plenty of snarkiness. For some, I'm sure, the realisation that the boyish Beatle was now a 70-year-old with a questionable dye-job makes it hard to countenance that all of our rockers from the 60s and early 70s are now dealing with old age.

Why they still do it, however, shouldn't be in question. Sir Paul McCartney is one of the world's wealthiest individuals. He could have stopped making albums - stopped doing anything, for that matter - a long time ago. So why does he?

Let his onetime rival Keith Richards answer that: "People say 'why don't you give it up?', opined Richards in his acclaimed autobiography, Life. "I don't think they understand. I'm not doing it just for the money, or for you. I'm doing it for me."

And in the end, that's why they'll keep going - until they "can't no more".

Saturday, August 18, 2012

That snarling, feral beast is back

Without wishing to exaggerate - well, OK, allow me some licence – living in Paris in August feels a little like Robert Neville in I Am Legend, waking up to a post-apocalyptic New York and wondering where everyone has gone.

When you are so used to a day-long soundtrack of car horns, sirens and those urban siblings, hustle and bustle, the silence is a little disconcerting.

Then again, there are benefits: I can make leisurely progress crossing a street without someone driving through a red light and then through me. Even the city’s waiters have dialled down their usual passive-aggressive indifference and are now just mildly frosty. Not that you care as you lazily sit in the shade of a cafe's canopy, happily watching the tourists drift by.

Sadly these novelties do wear off and you find yourself seeking normality to anchor the spirits. It is here that I would otherwise cherish the urgency with which football returns mid-August. But this season...

Just a week ago the world was celebrating the greatest sporting jamboree in living memory. 16 days of ego-less, personality-laden excellence. Sport - or at least sport for us masses - took a welcome holiday from greed, petulance, personal abuse and, for the most part, shagging teamates' girlfriends.

What a pleasure it was to see delighted achievement not cheapened by fatuous badge kissing; Victoria Pendleton lost out to Anna Meares and still shook hands afterwards - without anyone ending up in a courtroom; and after Bradley Wiggins "enjoyed a few", no one got bottled in a McDonalds at one in the morning.

Diving was rewarded with cheers and flag-waving, rather than boos and hisses, and the overall camaraderie between teams was warm and genuine, of a kind you wouldn't even find within the same football club.

London 2012 felt like a two-week fling with someone fresh, intelligent, and richly different to your regular partner, a holiday romance that opened up the shutters on the increasingly loveless marriage that we have with football and its money.

I'm not the first to point out these contrasts and I won't be the last. It's not that football has suddenly lost its respect. Perhaps it never had it, or perhaps it was as simple as having the Olympics take place under our very British noses for us to notice what good looks like.

Football has never been perfect, and has never lacked the attention of snobs who regard it as a neanderthal art. But I can appreciate how familiarity can breed contempt. It was significant, for example, that no one, apart from Mexico - and large-brimmed hats off to them for taking Olympic gold - actually cared there was even a football discipline at the London games.

Many people (including, patently, the Team GB football players themselves) felt that the Olympics would have been a great time to take a break from the game. It's with us constantly. The last competitive game of the club season in Europe was the Champions League final on May 19, but no sooner had the streamers and celery* been swept away from Munich's streets, than June 8 had rolled around and Poland and Greece were kicking off Euro 2012. And with that concluding on July 1, there were already players reporting for pre-season training at their respective clubs.
*Best that you Google the words "Chelsea"+"fans" +"celery" for an explanation...

Maybe, then, we should ease up on our harsh opinons about professional footballers being snarling, excessively rewarded, feral and spoiled. It can't be easy to earn the average house price every fourteen days with only a couple of weeks off each summer, during which you and the good lady WAG get papped relentlessly in the hotel pool.

If London 2012 raised the bar, what of those of us who do still love football? Are we the sporting equivalent of the gangster's moll, so attached that we ignore the appalling behaviour?

Football is, for some, a soulmate, but if our brief summer dalliance has opened a window to a life less ordinary, we must acknowledge that our hearts belong to a sport with a tarnished reputation, even if its attraction remains undimmed.

If we're not going to budge - and I don't see any real reason to do so - the best the world can hope for is that football learned something from London 2012. Perhaps those who seek more money as their only reward, and who regard cheating and diving as legitimate means to achieve it, will take note of the sportsmanship, the good nature and the ethics of excellence that, even for the modern, professional Olympian, contributed to the enjoyment of the games, rather than was simply a product of it.

It is good to have football back, don't get me wrong. It gives us something to talk about, to socialise over, to get angry and write blog posts on. I'm sure, as I settle into my pint of Dublin's finest tomorrow afternoon to watch Wigan-v-Chelsea, I will feel the warmth returning to my long-term relationship. But I know it won't quite feel right. Farewell my summer love...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

That's All Right

Until relatively recently I had struggled to understand what it was about Elvis Presley.

Why did some people devote themselves to him as others do religious figures? Why were there people who fetishistically dressed like him, copying any one of a number of looks from his 24-year career, less out of homage as lifestyle? Like transvestism without the cross dressing. You don't see many people with long hair, beards and sandals dressed so out of devotion to Jesus, now do you?

It has, slowly, dawned on me that those people are, in their own eccentric way, keeping alive the flame of the world's most charismatic and, in influence and bearing, enduring pop star ever.

Last night more than 70,000 fans held their annual candle-lit vigil at Graceland, the Presley family home in Memphis, in honour of the King's death, 35 years ago today. Presley's widow, Priscilla and his only daughter, Lisa Marie were, for the first time since the vigil tradition began, amongst the fans.

Like most aspects of Presley's post-mortem existence, the vigil has been part of an organized week of events to commemorate his death, which has included, the online memorabilia store, doing a good trade in 35th anniversary goods.

The trouble I have with this is that Presley's memory these days seems to be only good for image exploitation. Unlike other icons who died too soon - Lennon, Hendrix, Cobain - Elvis has been turned into a caricature represented by anyone and anything in a white jumpsuit, gold-framed sunglasses and stick-on sideburns.

In Las Vegas, where the Presley's career descended into the mediocrity of cabaret, his legacy is maintained by the opportunity of you and your beloved (or new acquaintance) being married by an Elvis lookalike at a drive-through wedding chapel. And to sweeten the deal, you'll get $200 of gambling chips for your trouble. It's Vegas. It's just part of that city's gaudy schtick.

Unfortunately its exactly that sort of tackiness that helped drive my indifference towards Elvis. He'd become a cartoon. What changed my opinion was my first visit to Memphis four years ago. Part of a driving pilgrimage to The South, this was - if you'll excuse another religious reference - a visit to my musical Holy Land: Clarksdale's crossroads is Manger Square, Beale Street the Via Dolorosa.

Memphis has a unique place in musical history, being the meeting point and melting pot for blues, soul and R&B, drawing on country and gospel in their genetics. It was these influences that put the fire into Elvis Presley's belly when he first turned up at the Sun Studio on Union Avenue as a teenager to record an acetate disc to give to his mother Gladys for her birthday.

My own visit to Sun transformed my view of Elvis forever. For the first time in my life I saw him not as the jump-suited king of high camp, but as an earnest young singer who had something that no singer had then, or has had since.

It was, then, logical to start my Elvis tour at Sun. Most Memphis visitors make straight for Graceland as soon as they can. So, knowing that Sam Phillips' studio was where the whole Elvis thing began, and with my deep-seated aversion towards tourist excess, I chose to skip the Presley mansion until I was in the mood.

Anyone visiting Memphis should do the same. Graceland represents the Elvis that he became. The Sun Studio represents the raw talent of an 18-year-old truck driver, called back by Sam Phillips almost two years after he'd cut the disc for his mother, to team him with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black ro record the Arthur Crudip blues standard That's All Right.

It became a hit across the segregated South (many couldn't believe they were listening to a white man singing a black song...and sounding black), making Presley a regional star. That drew the attention of 'Colonel' Tom Parker and eventually RCA records, who in turn released Hound Dog which, when performed for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show caused havoc in living rooms across America.

All of that - and much of the pop and rock music that has followed - can be traced back to that tiny studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, which I went back to last year. The other effect of visiting Sun is that after virtually breathing the same air filled Presley's lungs as he made his recording debut,  it becomes impossible not to visit Graceland.

Eight miles separates it from Sun, but it's a distance as significant as the Mississippi Delta is from Chicago. Modest, as mansions go, it was Presley's principle home from 1958 until he died there in 1977.

It was his Camelot, his seat and a magnet for family members as well as the 'Memphis Mafia' that surrounded Presley for much of his life after success took a hold. In the TV room, for example, Elvis would sit for hours watching three TV sets simultaneously, like a nightwatchman monitoring CCTV screens.

The oddest place in Graceland, though, has to be The Racquetball Room. Presley had it built in the early 70s to actually play racquetball, that odd cousin of squash.

The building was another of Presley's hangouts, furnished with a bar, a very comfy lounge, pinball machines and a piano. It was at this piano he sat playing Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain in the early hours of August 16, 1977.

It was the last thing he ever played, closing the piano lid before going back to the main house, where he was later found dead in the upstairs bathroom, having suffered a fatal heart attack, most likely the result of his addiction to prescription medicines. He had died alone, aged just 42.

The irony is that Elvis had rarely been alone in years. In the brilliant Beatles Anthology series, Ringo Starr talks of the somewhat odd atmosphere the Fabs encountered when they were invited to an audience with Presley at his Los Angeles home in July 1965. The band were on tour just a year after they'd made their own breakthrough appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, prompting the so-called British Invasion.

The opportunity to visit Elvis at his Bel Air mansion was seen as keeping protocol, like state diplomacy. In principle it was The Beatles Meet Elvis, but with the Liverpudlians in the ascendancy it had become Elvis Meets The Beatles. Starr noticed an unease about the King during their encounter, which he spent idly strumming a bass guitar. The "weird" atmosphere was not helped by Presley being surrounded by guffawing sycophants. These were the so-called Memphis Mafia, his hangers-on who can also be heard on Presley's 1968 'comeback' TV special, laughing on his every ad-lib like the hyped-up studio "posse" of a zoo-format radio DJ.

Though The Beatles have mostly spoken positively of the meeting, the uneasy atmosphere can be explained by the fact British band were, at the time, succeeding in enjoying critical as well as commercial success, while Elvis had been reduced to Las Vegas cabaret and making cheesy movies, a status, sadly, that would arguably change very little until his death.

I was nine-years-old that Tuesday. I remember it distinctly. I was on a family holiday in Wales, staying in a quaint slate-roofed cottage with a pretty little garden. Coming back from a day's excursion somewhere, I remember rushing into my bedroom, being a Tuesday, to hear the new Top 40 being read out on the 5 o'clock bulletin of Radio 1's Newsbeat. Instead it was relaying the news: "The King Is Dead".

Being nine, I can't say it had a profound impact. It was news. It was someone famous that I had heard of and had probably heard. I certainly had no idea of cultural significance. In 1977 I was undergoing my own musical awakening, the result of immersive chart radio listening rather than educated taste. Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel and even Blue Suede Shoes - written by fellow Million Dollar Quartet member Carl Perkins and drenched in the Delta Blues that I would come to love - may as well have been novelty records from the wind-up gramophone era.

Memphis, Sun Studio and Graceland all opened up the cult of Elvis for me by exposing his roots. It opened my eyes to the God-given talent that was completed by the personality and charisma.
Seeing black and white clips of Presley's first appearance on American TV, swinging his hips and rasping "You ain't nothing but a hound dog", with his greased-up hair and kiss curl, explained the revolution that he brought.

John Lennon claimed that he was kicked out of school for growing sideburns like Presley's, and indeed all four Beatles have cited Elvis as one of their main influences. Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, Michael Hutchence - all have Elvis to thank, too.

The difference is that Elvis did it by the accident of simply being Elvis.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Possibly the most expensive photograph ever taken

I was sincerely hoping I'd cope better than this. Less than 48 hours after it ended, I find myself restless and wanting.

Football is coming back, I know, but it's not the same. Even if you could watch all ten opening fixtures of the new Premier League season simultaneously on ten individual TVs, in my preferred pub, with the Guinness at half price, the void that has been hitherto filled by total spectacle could not be properly completed.

Though clearly no substitute, the incredible photograph you see above is, at least, an attempt to replicate the mind-bogglingly stellar experience of that event of these last two weeks.

It is Art Streiber's remarkable picture, published in Vanity Fair, and celebrating 100 years of Paramount Studios. This is old-style Hollywood glamour - proper, jaw-dropping celebrities. And Justin Bieber.

You have three generations of Godfather cast (James Caan, Andy Garcia and a rather grumpy looking Robert De Niro); apex legends (Jack Nicholson, Kirk Douglas); two generations of Captain Kirk (William Shatner and Chris Pine); "starlets", as they would have once been called (Cameron Diaz, Demi Moore, Megan Fox); a couple of knights (Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ben Kingsley); original Brat Packers (Sean Penn, Molly Ringwald and Tom Cruise); two of the greatest film directors in history (Spielberg and Scorcese) and some of their leading stars (Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg); character actors (the late Ernest Borgnine and Scott Glenn), contemporary British comedians (Simon Pegg and Sacha Baron Cohen) and three of America's funniest people (Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler and Chris Rock); astronomically talented actresses - er, sorry - actors (Meryl Streep, Glenn Close); the original Danny and Sandy (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John); another Danny - Ocean - and two members of his gang (George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle); members of the directorial awkward squad (Oliver Stone and David Lynch); a director (Peter Bogdanovich) and the director (David Chase) whose TV series (The Sopranos) he acted in; and a pair of directors whose work you just can't keep your eyes from (JJ Abrams and David Fincher).

The Paramount Centenary 116
Vanity Fair excels at this sort of thing. One the few monthly magazines left still capable of writing intelligent features about people - not just celebrities - but individuals who make the world the diversely fascinating curiosity that it is. Throw in the incredible cover photography of Annie Leibowitz or Mario Testino, and you have a magazine that treats the famous with a respect that is rewarded, handsomely by interview features that capitalise on the magazine's excellent writers.

Monday, August 13, 2012

We lit the flame and we lit up the world - so what happens next?

For longer than anyone can remember, Christmas has been beset by ridiculously sentimental records jingle-jangling away with sleigh bells and children's choirs and the sort of wintry greeting card schmaltz inspired by a time, before global warming, when snow actually fell in December.

Of too many songs in this genre, the one that stands out is Wizzard's dangerously infectious I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. This is because it has, for the last 38 years, presented children with the ultimate dream: perennial Christmas.

Obviously it's a stupid notion. Turkey farms couldn't breed birds fast enough to sustain Christmas 365-days a year, and, secondly, are you going broach the idea with your household's designated Christmas Day cook? Don't even bother thinking about buying presents.

Over the last 17 days London 2012 has lowered a similar mist of fake snow, tinsel and glitter over rational thought. Logic has been suspended as grown-ups have, like open-mouthed cherubs, declared en masse on Twitter: "I wish the Olympics could be on every day".

Well they can't, but that hasn't stopped hyperventilation over what is normally, and we certainly haven't been let down in this regard, considered to be the greatest sporting spectacle on earth.

Even the most sleep-deprived, Pringles-overdosed, couch-affixed football fan would agree that the games knock the World Cup into a cocked hat (although, from an English perspective, staging the World Cup daily would, via the Law of Averages, raise the possibility of England actually winning something).

This Monday morning, as 16,000 athletes and spectators attempt to leave Britain via Heathrow Airport the world is a very different place than it was on the evening of July 27.

We are emerging from the TV equivalent of an all-you-can-eat-restaurant (I know, a highly inappropriate comparison); we have indulged and devoured the sporting feast to end all feasts, feeling like a Nile crocodile that has snapped up one zebra too many at the riverbank. We may be bloated and pallid but also free of any guilt, simply because we have just consumed the most brilliant explosion of warmth and endeavour and collective effort and colour and fun.

Watching it all from a foreign country - and, ironically, the city that lost out to London - has been an experience in itself. French national television certainly has been enjoying itself - and the London-ness of it all. Fair play to them.

Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
Because from kick-off to final whistle, it has just been the most glorious blowout. We've had Usain Bolt demonstrating (and telling us) that he is the greatest sporting personality since Ali; Bradley Wiggins proving that, ultimately, Mods are better than Rockers; the incredible Mo Farah reducing grown men to tears with his gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000m; Sir Chris Hoy in tears as he eclipsed Sir Steve Redgrave's record of five Olympic gold medals by winning an amazing sixth; Jessica Ennis demonstrating that normality can become extraordinary by taking the world title in a discipline involving seven individual pursuits; Women with French and German names have won medals for Britain in the dressage.

Michael Phelps became the greatest Olympian in history; Ben Ainslie won a fourth gold medal to become Britain's greatest sailor since Sir Walter Raleigh; Laura Trott proved that a succession of childhood illnesses and a diminutive stature are no barriers to Olympic glory; Nicola Adams made Olympic history as the first woman to win a boxing gold medal; Andy Murray beat Roger Federer on the Center Court; let's read that again - Andy Murray beat Roger Federer on the Center Court; and HRH Queen Elizabeth II parachuted out of a helicopter with James Bond. For real. Well, almost. And those are just the highlights.

It has been brilliant to see all of this - and much, much more - taking place in my home country, my home city and even, a couple of bits, in my home neighbourhood. For a nation so self-deprecating that it usually sees itself as the slightly crap kid handling out leaflets to parents on school sports day rather than taking part in the relay race - London 2012 has been Christmas every day, ever since Danny Boyle unwrapped his glittering parcel of magic in the opening ceremony.

Britain has demonstrated itself to be a country of remarkable cyclists, an island nation at strength on the water and in the water, and, with the right coaching, the right training facilities, and the right gumption, capable of competing with the very best in the track and field.

Britain has also projected (what we knew anyway) its charm, its sense of humour, a capital city to be proud of. Who would have thought it possible, 12 months ago, as youths used the mask of their apparent disaffection to set fire to British city centres and help themselves to LCD TVs and pairs of high-end Nikes. Britain, then, was broken. Two weeks of sporting excellence, sadly, doesn't mean it is now fixed.

Now the party's over, as Bryan Ferry crooned, what happens next? Actually, the London 2012 party isn't quite over - the Paralympics continue for the rest of the month, and while their profile won't reach anywhere near the level of the main games, the endeavour and achievement will be no less impressive.

It's what happens after August 29 that really matters: the so-called 'Olympic Legacy'. Before the closing ceremony had even taken place last night there were already politicians applying their customary reptilian skills of predation to opportunistically grab the moral high ground on how Britain builds on London 2012.

This is partly a discussion about what to do with an indoor cycling centre, a large swimming pool, all that sand on Horse Guards Parade, and preventing Olympic Park from returning to the toxic East London waste ground it was on June 6, 2005 when London declared victory in its Olympic bid. And it is partly about where Britain's next Hoy, Pendleton and Ennis will come from.

The two are partly connected. The issue isn't just about whether the £1 billion worth of London 2012 construction projects were worth it in the current economy, but whether or not encouraging Britain's indoor-rooted, Xbox-addicted youth to get off their fattening backsides is an important enough political priority when the nation has other challenges to contend with.

London 2012 didn't happen just to encourage kids to take up sport and thus prevent a future meltdown of the NHS due to cancers and cardiovascular diseases. But since it did happen, and given everyone both a good time and the initiative to squeeze into Lycra cycling shorts, then why shouldn't these Olympics stimulate the return of physical education to being a fixture, not a forgotten option of school life? Why shouldn't it mean the British government thinking again about its programme of selling off school playing fields? It's just a thought.

To this comes the topic of funding in general. There are some who were uncomfortable with the professionalisation of the Olympic disciplines to start with. More, in Britain, have been discomforted by the amount of National Lottery funding and commercial sponsorship.

Sponsorship is fine - when it comes from appropriate sponsors - and the Lottery should do more than provide Saturday night TV with 15 minutes of Dale Winton-presented inanity. Hats off to whoever dipped a hand to pay for Mo Farah's training in America, or the facilities for Britain's incredible band of cyclists, or Team GB as a whole to win a record 65 medals including 29 golds.

Back in 2002, Tessa Jowell, the-then minister for Culture, Media and Sport, read a report suggesting that a British bid for the 2012 Olympics would be unviable. Too expensive, was the civil servants' advice, and Paris had already sown up enough votes from IOC members to virtually have the 2012 games in the bag. Jowell chose to pursue it anyway.

Whether stunning arrogance or obstinate belligerence, her signature approving the formal launch of an Olympic bid set in motion an effort that has given London, Britain and the world a momentary high at a time when it could most do with it. No one knew in 2002 that the global economy would be in its fifth year of recession by the time these games came about, and that the UK could probably afford these games as much as any other country. Perhaps it has just been one of the best - or worst - examples of retail therapy, but man, has it been good.

It's now down to those custodians of the London 2012 legacy to make sure that our purchases will last, and that, unlike the Olympic facilities in Sydney, Athens and Beijing, London's purpose-built venues don't fall into disrepair - but keep on generating incredible people prepared to put their lives on hold for four or more years, getting up at 5am every day to train, train, train and train. Participation has been everything. Winning has been something else.

And if there is to be a legacy from 2012, it should be that in 2016 and beyond, there will be people from every country with the same hunger and ambition to make the Olympic Games the greatest show on Earth. Every four years, of course.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I am in paradise

London 2012 has, apparently, succeeded in changing international perceptions about many things British, including its food (a little worrying considering the only relatively British food sponsor of the Games is Cadbury's...).

Such perceptive changes haven't been without the projection of other examples of British iconography. Like public transport.

It is one of our national obsessions: when not complaining about the weather, Brits are having a go at overcrowded trains, buses turning up in threes or not at all, and taxis becoming invisible at the slightest drop of rain.

Appropriately, Britain's handover during the Beijing closing ceremony four years ago combined public transport with music - arguably our strongest cultural asset - with Jimmy Page on the top deck of a double-decker London bus riffing out Whole Lotta Love.

Having picked up the music mantle again during the London 2012 opening ceremony, the theme comes full circle tonight for the finale, which will include the Spice Girls performing from the roofs of a quintet of black taxis. Once again, the stops have been well and truly pulled out: this might be the first time five cabs are seen together in London after 9pm on a Sunday night.

The appearance of Mouthy, Ballsy, Cutesy, Mumsy and Pouty will be part of a suite organisers are calling A Symphony of British Music. It will be a megamix of 30 songs spanning 50 years, seemlessly bridged by original links created by musical director and James Bond composer David Arnold. Certainly we can expect another musical evening of the truly 'best of British'.

"It’s going to be beautiful, cheeky, cheesy, camp, silly and thrilling," Arnold has promised, covering as many bases of the British musical oeuvre as it's possible to cover, and pledging to ensure something for everyone. That means we could have a show that ranges from Adele and Tinie Tempah, to Liam Gallagher's Beady Eye (reportedly) and Eric Idle performing the oh-so-ironic (and possibly tiresomely-so) Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. Yes. Very funny. Yay for British self-deprecation.

There will also be something of a late-80s Brit Awards line-up as well, with George Michael marking his remarkable recovery from near-fatal pneumonia, along with Annie Lennox and, it is rumoured, Kate Bush (though seeing as she hasn't toured since 1979 and last played live at a David Gilmour show in 2002, it will be interesting to see how she does in front of 80,000 people).

Speaking of Gilmour, Yorkshire's very own guitar-strumming hobbit Ed Sheeran let slip this week that he will be performing Wish You Were Here with one or several of the surviving members of Pink Floyd, though we don't yet know whom. Rooftop-bothering Queen guitarist Brian May will, though, be involved (Hammer To Fall anyone?), as well as the greatest band to come out of Shepherd's Bush, The Who. Not sure what they'll perform, but I'd imagine Baba O'Reilly, with its "teenage wasteland" line, would be well out of place. That said, I'm not sure either Who Are You? or Won't Get Fooled Again would be any more appropriate....

There are more unlikely rumours about Sir Elton John (presumably not joined by "fairground stripper" Madonna...) and the Rolling Stones taking part, and yet another outing for Sir Paul McCartney trawling The Beatles back catalogue.

The evening's guaranteed raised neck hair moment will come from Ray Davies performing The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset, perhaps the greatest song written about London (even if it was originally going to be about Liverpool).

As gloriously ironic as it is iconic, Waterloo Sunset was Davies' melancholic take on hope in post-war Britain, its protagonists Terry and Julie representing the dreams of a generation embarking on a new adventure.

45 years after it was recorded, it will play its part in concluding London's staging of what have been an incredible Olympic Games. From beginning to end, music has been an integral element.

Team GB has made Bowie's Heroes its own, while Queen's We Will Rock You has been keeping the beach volleyball going long into the night in Horse Guards Parade, much to the apparent annoyance of Prime Minister David Cameron around the corner in Downing Street.

Not a bad idea: the US Army made Manuel Noriega surrender by playing The Clash's I Fought The Law around the clock at deafening levels. Maybe Freddie & Co might have the same effect?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

What about Bob?

Perhaps inspired by Claude Debussy's view that music was "the space between the notes", Miles Davis demonstrated that silence can be as musical as playing a sound. Likewise, BB King's blues guitar virtuosity hasn't been measured by how fast his left hand can cover all points on the fretboard, but the beauty of playing a couple of notes...just when they need to be played. Not before. Not later. And not for too long.

Actors rarely get regarded for their silence: if Oscars were given for dead-eyed staring, De Niro would have won more than just the two. Play a cripple or some other down-at-heel, throw in an emotionally thunderous oratory and that gold statue is in the bag, baby.

Two wordless minutes of a film, in fact the final two minutes of a film, defined Bob Hoskins as one of Britain's great actors. It is the scene, at the end of The Long Good Friday, in which Hoskins' Harold Shand is abducted at gunpoint by the IRA (a menacing Pierce Brosnan popping up in the passenger seat of Shand's Jag).

We never learn Shand's fate, though it is assumed he won't see the dawn. In those two minutes, director John Mackenzie extracts from a single close-up shot of Hoskins' face his pique at being outfoxed and his empire pulled from beneath him, and then his desperation in the knowledge that for all his power, he is powerless to prevent his own premature demise.

The scene is not without silence - Francis Monkman's arpeggiated synth cutting in before the theme tune's memorable saxophone melody rasps along - but in it Shand has been silenced, literally.

He'd clearly had little trouble throwing using the 'verbals' to underpin his authority around his London 'manor' - earlier we'd seen him rounding up a band of ne'er do wells and hanging them from an abattoir's meat hooks, Hoskins delivering his own version of Henry V's Agincourt address:
"For more than ten years there's been peace. Everyone to his own patch. We've all had it sweet. I've done every single one of you favours in the past. I've put money in all your pockets. I've treated you well - even when you was out of order, right? Well now there's been an eruption!"
Tonight there's been an eruption, of a sort, with the sad announcement that, at the age of just 69, Hoskins is to retire from acting to focus on dealing with Parkinson's Disease.

Actors, like musicians, rarely retire, but Hoskins' decision to step away from the limelight brings the curtain down on an acting career that began relatively late in his life, in his late 20s. Although Suffolk-born, Hoskins theatre and early television career in the 1970s evolved through playing Londoners, usually on the fringes of legality. His performance as Arthur Parker in the BBC's original dramatisation of Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven established Hoskins in Britain, with The Long Good Friday following two years later in 1980.

Being squat, five-feet-six, with a boxer's neck and a squished nose, Hoskins was never going to win romantic leads. But six years after TLGF, Neil Jordan cast him has George, the ex-con reduced to driving a high-end hooker around for the gangster Mortwell (Michael Caine) in Mona Lisa. It was a fantastic performance by Hoskins, and thoroughly worthy of the Oscar nod and the BAFTA awards he actually won for it.

In the years since TLGF Hoskins had played numerous roles the played upon his stature - Pink's manager in Alan Parker's film of Pink Floyd's The Wall, mobster Owney Madden in The Cotton Club - as well as comic turns in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Though another gritty London crime drama, Mona Lisa provided a springboard for Hoskins' career to take off in Hollywood.

In 1987 Brian De Palma had him pencilled in to play Al Capone in The Untouchables in the event that Robert De Niro turned the role down. He didn't, but that didn't stop De Palma showing his appreciation.

"Months went by and I read the papers and saw De Niro was doing it," Hoskins told Absolute Radio in 2009. "I'd sort of forgotten all about it, and then Linda - my Mrs - was opening the post one morning and said 'What's that?' and it was a cheque for £20,000. It said 'Thanks for your time Bob, love Brian'. So I phoned him up and I said 'Brian, if you've ever got any films you don't want me in son, you just give me a call!'"

It wasn't long before he got his chance as grumpy gumshoe Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis' superb semi-animated comedy. Armed with Hollywood clout, Hoskins next made his directorial and screen writing debut with the under-rated Raggedy Rawney, the story of a young army deserter joining a gypsy clan.

More Hollywood was to follow, with Steven Spielberg having him play Smee in his Peter Pan epic Hook. It brought him together with Phil Collins (playing the detective Inspector Good), prompting rumours, invariably acknowledged by the two, that they might one day make a film together - perhaps with Danny DeVito - trading off their similar physical statures.

Though clearly owning far more range than just playing gangsters, Cockneys or Cockney gangsters, Hoskins' stocky appearance has opened doors. In addition to almost playing Capone, Hoskins has played a number of biopic roles, including Churchill, Mussolini, J. Edgar Hoover, General Noriega and, in Enemy At The Gate, Nikita Kruschev.

No actor should, over the course of 40, 50, 60 or 100 years, be thought of for just the one role, but it's hard not to return to the part that broke Bob Hoskins into the open: Harold Shand. As he steps away from the cameras to deal with his terrible affliction, he leaves with us a tremendous body of work capped by one memorable scene at the end of an equally memorable film. And it's a scene in which silence says it all.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Dancing With The Moonlit Knight

And it was good. As good as expected or better than expected? I'm still not sure. But it was certainly good. Very good.

Critics' rumblings about The Dark Knight Rises being too long, too complex and too flighty really proved to be groundless.

I was surprised how Christopher Nolan's conclusion to his Batman trilogy flew by, even if weighing in at 164 minutes is close to The Lord Of The Rings territory.

But whereas Peter Jackson's three-part interpretation of Tolkien's literary leviathan presented, at times, serious endurance issues for the glutinous maximus, Nolan's three rebooted Batman adventures have zipped along with enough edge-of-seat thrills to not have to worry about one's hind quarters ever going to sleep.

In closing his turn at the Bat franchise with TDKR, Nolan takes few prisoners and certainly doesn't tinker with the formula he has polished. Christian Bale is as brooding as ever, as preposterously throaty in his delivery of The Caped Crusader's lines, and as painfully ambiguous in treading the thin line between vigilante and folk hero.

If there is one criticism I have of TDKR it's that its pace sometimes restricts plots-within-plots to develop. Like, I suppose, frame-by-frame comic books, there is a disjointed rapidity to Nolan's Batman style, which at times means that peaks inside the hero's soul are fleeting. There is depth, but much like the darkened well that provides metaphors in both Batman Begins and this one, it's hard to see how deep Bale's Bruce Wayne descends.

It is here that one can't help but compare the various custodians of the Batcowl with the Bond actors - Connery's brutishness, Moore's ageing playboy, Lazenby, Dalton and now Craig nailing the character's inner anguish. The Batmen, perhaps, haven't been as well scrutinised, perhaps largely for the colour of the spectacles they've found themselves in from the likes of Tim Burton and Joel Shumacher.

Michael Keaton - a brilliant comic actor (Night Shift and Johnny Dangerously are absolute classics) played the character with playful quirkiness, whereas Val Kilmer and George Clooney were just miscast.

Bale has been the actor to finally exorcise the Adam West campness of the Dark Knight. Of course, the 60s TV show, Nolan's take on the franchise bear few scripted similarities to the TV series, but the classic Batman cues are there - the punch-ups with the chief villain's gang, thugs in woolly hats, the prominence and central plot importance of Gotham Police Department, and so on. But what has made the Nolan Batman so over utterly absorbing has been the unwitting immersion the viewer goes through in what could otherwise be a fairly formulaic comic book screen adaptation.

Tom Hardy, as Batman's ultimate nemesis, Bane, probably had the hardest job of anyone on TDKR. How do you follow Heath Ledger, whose Joker in The Dark Knight was one of the greatest dramatic peformances of modern cinema? No screen villain will probably ever be able to replicate criminal insanity in the way Ledger's searingly mesmerising portrayal of The Joker did.

Hardy, however, unrecognisable with his freakishly bulked-up appearance, doesn't give the audience any time to dwell on his predecessor in The Rogues Gallery, as from the off he smashes through Gotham City like the human wrecking ball he is.

Bane remains masked throughout the movie, which, to confirm some critics, does hinder the clarity of Hardy's delivery (it was a smart move on my part to watch a subtitled version in a Paris cinema), but what comes through - part Brian Blessed, part Ian McKellen as Magneto - adds to the sheer menace of the part.

There are other standout performances - Gary Oldman plays an even more pained and vulnerable Commissioner Gordon, Michael Caine superbly doddery as Alfred, and the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt - who for me is still the gloriously deviant old man in teenage form, Tommy Solomon in  3rd Rock From The Sun - is excellent as Gotham's most ubiquitous cop, John Blake.

The involvement of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) is still debatable. Without giving too much plot away for those yet to have seen TDKR, there were times when Catwoman's inclusion seemed like an add-on distraction. A welcome distraction, nonetheless.

She is and always has been the franchise's biggest flirt, and as Lee Merweather, Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry before here, Hathaway provides a wonderfully provocative perv-clad 'meow' to the film.

But, once again, it is Christopher Nolan's vision that makes The Dark Knight Rises the epic experience that it is. Directors of the other comic book franchises - from Spider-Man to The Avengers - may have invested heavily and rewardingly on thrills and spills, but only Nolan has been able to make the action sequences part of a fabric rather than the spectacle itself.

Sure, the Bat-toys are cool, but from the beginning of the trilogy, Batman Begins, they have been components, rather than pillars of the drab collage of the Dark Knight story Nolan has painted. It's a landscape that provides Bale with the shadows of night into which he can disappear, as both Batman and Bruce Wayne, a tone rarely seen in mainstream characterisation since Al Pacino took on Michael Corleone.

If you prefer colour, brightness and cinematic gaety, you will avoid The Dark Knight Rises like an agoraphobic avoids pop festivals held on large farms. But if you want to get a sense of closure on the character, while at the same time refreshing and nourishing your love of dark cinema and melancholy action heroes with anger issues, The Dark Knight Rises will satisfy you considerably. And whatever you've read elsewhere, the Paris audience I sat amongst applauded riotously as the closing credits rolled. For a hard-to-please crowd like that, an achievement in itself.

As for me? I'd had July 20, the US premiere, marked in my diary for over a year, such was my own fervent expectation. Events in Denver that opening night took some of the shine off the excitement, and although it's taken me two weeks to actually fulfill my expectation, I wasn't disappointed. The Dark Knight Rises is as good as the first two and, in the knowledge that it was Nolan's last tread on the Batman franchise, a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Forgive us if we get a little Churchillian

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.' " - Winston Churchill, House of Commons, June 18, 1940
In the time it took for my companion to visit and return from the pub toilet yesterday evening, Great Britain had added another gold medal - the second of three won within the space of an hour. 

We had only called in for a quick pint to refresh a bike ride on a warm Paris evening. Well, I'd called in for a quick pint, but that's not the point: while we were in there we witnessed scenes of unprecedented jubilation not seen since Chelsea's unlikely Champion's League Final victory, on another Saturday evening in May.

In an hour we witnessed all five-feet-five-inches of Jessica Ennis complete the heptathalon with a storming 800-metre run in two minutes 8.65secs, winning the gold medal by a massive 306-point margin; and then, while my friend was taking care of business, Greg Rutherford was delivering a 8.31-metre long jump.

And then came Mo: Mo Farah, who came to Britain from Somalia at the age of eight to escape civil war in his homeland, to devote himself to becoming the first Briton to win the longest Olympic track discipline, the 10,000 metres. It was a genuinely tear-jerking victory. At the end of a day when the tear ducts of many in Britain were getting a very handsome workout indeed.

Those three medals, earned in front of the full 80,000 crowd at the Olympic Stadium, might have been enough to satisfy, but they followed three British gold medals picked up earlier in the day thanks to the women's and men's rowing at Eton Dorney, and another stunning cycling performance, with the women's pursuit team setting a new world record in the Velodrome. Even the departure of Team GB's football team - a quarter-final defeat at the feet of penalties (sound familiar?) - didn't dampen the euphoria of the day.

For a country that prides itself on self-depreciation, that regards The Great Escape as a success story (even though it all ended in abject failure), and which revels in the foreign view that we are a nation collectively lacking self-esteem, these last few days have been days in which it's been OK to be proud to be British.

It's something we've lost the art of. Perhaps we didn't even have it. Whereas Americans have got national pride down pat (a chant of "U-S-A, U-S-A!" can break out spontaneously for the most trivial of events), we Brits can't wave a union flag without feeling ever so slightly gauche.

Britain is, "Like shy party guests who drop their guard and find themselves having an unexpectedly good time," to quote the Sunday Times' James Gillespie today. I would emphasise the "unexpectedly". And he's right. Seb Coe might have slightly pompously branded London 2012 "the People's Games" (surely that was Beijing?), but it does feel like Britain is pitching in to have a good time.

Political correctness has confused national pride with jingoism, that by waving the flag of union is some sort of anachronistic throwback to an imperial past and the shame of colonial abuse. Or worse, that it is a nationalistic symbol at odds with the country's multi-cultural present.

Those who can't help getting their knickers in a twist about this sort of thing are welcome to carry on experiencing discomfort in their lower regions. While they do, the rest of us will be getting on with celebrating an incredible eight days, eight days when the national pastime of moaning about one thing or another has been put on hold, and the eyes of the world have been on London like never before.

And while we're at it, let's celebrate the fact that, the stadium that had played host to "leftie, multi-cultural crap" (A. Burley MP, Cons) in the Olympic opening ceremony just over a week before, last night witnessed a Yorkshire lass of mixed ethnicity, a ginger bloke from Milton Keynes, and a former Somali emigrĂ© who calls Feltham home, winning gold medals on the most amazing sporting Saturday night ever.  

But most of all, let's celebrate the fact that Britain is having a good time. The country may be knee-deep in recession, and heading for a third dip in the economic mire, but there seems to be - from this side of the English Channel, at least, the smile of enjoyment on the nation's visage. 

It is still only Day 9 of London 2012. By the same stage in Beijing, Britain had just seven gold medals. Today it has 16, the best British performance in 104 years. Even if Team GB doesn't pick up another piece of gold, silver or bronze between now and August 14, I doubt you'll be able to wipe the smile off British faces. After which, we'll return to our cynicism, our unemployment, our class divisions, our transport chaos and all the other things that seem to make Britain happiest when it is moaning about them.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Virgin Rebirth

Sometimes publicity stunts go right. And sometimes they go, well, spectacularly awry.

On Wednesday the media was gifted the mother of all sniggerfests when the hapless Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, found himself dangling by his political credentials when a zip-wire caper went hilariously wrong.

It was the sort of PR disaster that would form the master gag of an episode of The Thick Of It or Spin City. But, no, this was a very real stunt featuring the very real-life chief executive of the very real British capital and current host of the Olympic Games.

In the hands of another publicity-hungry blond, Sir Richard Branson, it would have been seen as one more wacky caper featuring the billionaire regarded in the UK as the "acceptable" face of entrepreneurism, owing to his peroxide locks, gleaming white teeth, life-long aversion to wearing ties and propensity for doing daft things for the cameras.

Strangely, Virgin is one of the few prominent global brands absent from London 2012. Indeed beyond the possibility that some athletes might train in one of Branson’s gyms, the only trace of Virgin DNA so far was a week ago today, with the appearance of Mike Oldfield in the opening ceremony.

Oldfield’s now almost 40-year-old opus Tubular Bells – part of which he performed in Danny Boyle’s expansive history of the National Health Service – holds an indelible mark on Branson’s career.  It was one of the first four albums to be released on the fledgling Virgin Records label in 1973. It had been recorded by the then-19 year-old Oldfield at Branson’s rural Oxfordshire studio, The Manor, bought itself by the 21-year-old Branson on a hunch that providing musicians a place in the country to get their heads together might prove creatively fruitful.

It’s the sort of apparently impulsive (but very well thought through) business punt that has been Branson’s hallmark. Over four decades he has spread the Virgin brand across a bottomless stream of commercial puns (e.g. Virgin Brides, fnrrr, fnrrrr...) built upon the Virgin brand ethic of fun.

To support them, there has been conspicuous self-promotion, relentless japery and no shortage of photo opportunities involving air hostesses and buckets of water.

"Oddly, the British find this perfectly charming," wrote Fast Company magazine once, adding: "Americans would probably sue him".

For a billionaire - and Britain's fourth richest person – Branson’s public popularity (or, perhaps, public tolerance of his self-publicity) has rarely waned, and he is frequently named as one of the people Britons would happily vote for as prime minister.

Over 42 years he has built an empire that has had, at certain moments, anywhere between 200 and 400 businesses within its fold, ranging from ranging from airlines to bridal wear, Caribbean islands, manicure services, banking services, mobile phones, wines and soft drinks.

"If you can run one successful company," he has said, "you can pretty much run any company”. And if the distinctive red and white Virgin logo hasn’t been prominent enough, Branson has ensured the brand is one of the world’s most recognizable through dare-devil trans-Atlantic capers by balloon, speedboat and anything else that can bear the company colours.

Beneath the business, however, still lurks the hippyish public schoolboy who left Stowe at the age of 16, having struggled through academia with dyslexia, to launch The Student magazine, later using it as an advertising platform for selling discounted records by mail order.

"There was tremendous excitement about music," Branson himself wrote in his autobiography, Losing My Virginity. "It was political; it was anarchic; it summed up the young generation’s dream of changing the world. And I also noticed that people would never dream of spending as much as 40 shillings on a meal wouldn't hesitate to spend 40 shillings buying the latest Bob Dylan album."

Eventually a full-on mail order service was launched, named Virgin Mail Order Records (named after a female acquaintance suggested the name on the basis that "We’re complete virgins at business."), only to be soon thwarted by a postal strike. Branson, never one to shirk a challenge - or an angle - moved Virgin Records to a former shoe shop at 24 Oxford Street in London. And an empire was born.

Having opened the Oxford Street shop with Nik Powell (later to become one of the godfathers of modern British film-making), Branson saw the next opportunity was to open a recording studio, presumably to create a supply chain for the store. Looking through Country Life magazine, he came across the 17th century pile The Manor and took out a £20,000 mortgage on it. "I imagined that the best environment for making records would be a big comfortable house in the country where a band could come and stay for weeks at a time and record whenever they felt like it."

The logical next step was to launch a record label on which to publish The Manor’s output. Even if record companies were normally set up by people pure music at their heart - the Ertegun brothers at Atlantic, for example, public schoolboys barely out of their teens. Tubular Bells, with its nods towards both classical music, prog rock and the first footings of ambient music, cast Virgin as a label you couldn't pin down.

Branson's nose for a stunt - and an opportunity - reared again in 1977 when the Sex Pistols were fired from EMI. Cashing in on the Queen's Silver Jubilee, Virgin released the Pistols' single God Save The Queen, and subsequent album Never Mind The Bollocks.

From prog to punk? No more varied than airlines and soft drinks, and when you consider Virgin's later roster - Culture Club, Phil Collins, Heaven 17, XTC, Simple Minds, Janet Jackson, the Rolling Stones and, er, the Spice Girls - a Virgin label ethos started to emerge: if it made money, sign it.

Risk was still a factor - signing the Pistols was, another opportunistic publicity stunt - and Culture Club's Boy George guaranteed much the same level of mainstream media in the early 1980s. In some respects Phil Collins - posssibly Virgin's biggest money-spinner - was another risk, given that he was, in 1981, merely the drummer of a moderately successful prog rock band who'd turned some bedroom demos into a melancholy album about his divorce. But then Face Value changed things considerably, for both artist and record label.

Branson clearly loves challenges. Whether launching Virgin Galactic, the world's first passenger space service, or a shop to get around industrial action, there's not much he won't have a go at, perhaps to prove himself right, perhaps to prove others wrong.

Which explains why he is considering going back into the record industry, two decades after he sold off the Virgin music industry to save his airline business at a time of heated pressure from both British Airways and post-Gulf War fuel prices.

Having sold, in 1991, Virgin to Thorn-EMI for £510 million in cash, he now wants back in, regarding Virgin as a "sleeping beauty" of an asset and one that could be an "innovative and leading label once again with the right management and investment", claiming that it has been mismanaged.

With EMI in the process of being acquired by Universal Music - part of the controversial £1.2 billion bailout plan revealed last November – Universal’s owners Vivendi may be forced by competition regulators in Brussels to shed some of its assets, including one or more of the record labels it would inherit with the EMI takeover.

Branson has seen this as his opportunity to get back into the music game, and has discussed the reacquisition of Virgin with French independent record label owner Patrick Zelnik (with whom Branson launched Virgin Records France in 1980).

His approach to create an independent label by merging Zelnik's Naive Records with Virgin, suggests that the blond tycoon isn't frightened of taking on new challenges any time yet - even in the current economy, when traditional notions of the music industry Branson joined in 1970 have been eroded by technology and the demise of physical recorded media.

Speaking about the talks with both Universal CEO Lucian Grainge and Zelnik, Branson has said. "I have known Lucian and Patrick for both 30 years. They are great record men and Patrick has committed to revitalise Virgin Records – which has been mismanaged in the last 10 years."

That said, even today, Virgin's roster includes the likes of Katy Perry, Gorillaz, Laura Marling, Professor Green and French star David Guetta - not a bad commercial foundation to pick up. If successful, however, Branson and Zelnik will restore Virgin to a global independent label.

But with the recording industry in decline, the viability of the plan remains to be seen. Industry insiders do, at least, concede that a new Virgin would have two very significant things going for it: a strong brand and the stewardship of a blond who, even at the age of 62, isn't suffering from diminished ambition.