Monthly Archives: January 2016

London East

 

35 years ago, I visited London for the first time and I’ve been lucky to visit it many more times since.

On my first visit in 1980, it felt very large and overwhelming and I felt very young and parochially Scottish. On my most recent, in 2010, surrounded by so many young people of different ethnic backgrounds (many who were clearly residents rather than tourists) speaking so many languages, I felt very old and very British but still definitely not a proper Londoner!

I have always been fascinated by the history and geography of the East End of London: those names like Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Stepney, Poplar, Limehouse, Rotherhithe, Deptford. My interest was certainly encouraged by early reading about the Jack the Ripper murders and the fact that the locations of those dark ghoulish crimes were so close to the wealthy privileged areas of the City. Later came the understanding that the districts in which the poor and underprivileged of London lived were not merely scenes of crime but also centres of political activism and working-class learning and culture.  Before the Industrial Revolution, at the time when Nicholas Hawksmoor was designing his churches, the East End was of course one of the parts of London where people of all classes and trades lived side by side.

I saw one tiny part of that East End,  Petticoat Lane market, on my very first visit to London,  and other places on subsequent trips. Regularly looking at the web-site Spitalfields Life keeps  the area in my mind.

 

ChristChurchSpitalfields

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s famous Christ Church in Spitalfields, in 1992

 

MarkGertlerhouse

Also in 1992, the property in Elder Street, Spitalfields, which was the former home of artist Mark Gertler.

 

Spitalfields Life is full of brilliant photographs and information about the present-day residents of the area but I do find it most fascinating on cultural and architectural topics.

Like many formerly working-class districts, Spitalfields has seen a good deal of gentrification over the decades. Although London is a city which usually appears to value its built heritage, recent reports in Spitalfields Life show that not all battles have been won. The Spitalfields Trust is currently striving to defend some streets in the district of Norton Folgate which are at renewed risk of unsympathetic development. The latest news, sadly, is that the first round of this battle has been lost.

 

 

Folgate Street

Folgate Street, Spitalfields, part of the old Liberty of Norton Folgate, looking west towards Bishopsgate, in 2010. The crowd is gathering for a visit to the brilliant Dennis Severs’ House.

 

TheGherkinetc

On the edge of Spitalfields, in 2010, lower buildings of various periods are dwarfed by the space-ship shape of Norman Foster’s “Gherkin” building, whose formal name is 30 St Mary Axe.

 

 

 

 

 

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Olivier and Branagh

 

When I saw Kenneth Branagh play Laurence Olivier in the film My Week With Marilyn, it reminded me of the many times in the past when Branagh has been compared to Olivier. First, by his star-making performance of Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 at the age of 23. Then the film of Henry V which he both directed and starred in. By this time he had made his bold move into theatre management with his Renaissance company, performing in or directing several classic and modern plays.  The next film he directed was Dead Again with its evocation of Rebecca, in which Olivier had starred for Alfred Hitchcock.  Later came his film of Hamlet in which he starred. Eventually, inevitably, came the knighthood. Over many years, frequently, circulated the rumours that, following further in Olivier’s footsteps, he might become the artistic director of the National Theatre.

Some writers, like Joe Queenan, have pointed out that Branagh has less acting talent than his success suggests, but in a busy successful career there are always a few false steps. My own  choices for Branagh’s most wince-making were his association, adding spurious gravitas, with the BBC’s over-publicised fantasy/science melange Walking With Dinosaurs  when he had already served as narrator in serious documentaries such as Anne Frank Remembered, and with the BBC’s unnecessary Wallander , when the corporation had already bought and were screening a perfectly decent Swedish version.

Otherwise, I would suggest that TV and film producers have been luring classical British actors to highly-publicised and/or unedifying projects since the 1930s, and, taking this into account, Branagh’s acting CV is almost certainly no worse than many distinguished predecessors like Olivier.

In addition, some of the films which he has directed suggest that one area where he has a greater professional skill than, say, Olivier is in directing, and not merely acting in, a lightweight special effects-driven potboiler like Thor. (I can’t imagine why artistically he would choose to do it, but he clearly seems to have the necessary professional ability!)  Furthermore,  directing a World War One-set version of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is certainly something that no previous British theatre knight ever felt inclined to attempt.

One reason I have always had a high regard for Branagh, in addition to his varied and substantial career, is that he has always appeared personally very affable and even self-effacing. I remember a TV interview with Barry Norman at the time of the film of Henry V when he brushed aside media attention with a comment like “There are other actors”. In other words:  you needn’t give unusual attention to what I’m doing.

Olivier lived during an era of much greater hierarchy, his life divided  by two world wars and great changes in social class and the British Empire, where a man’s age and experience greatly affected his own behaviour and people’s perceptions of him. It was often reported that he was prone to jealousy and hated anyone whom he saw as a rival. But then Olivier was one of the first people in his profession to experience the opportunities and success and status which he enjoyed, and the rulebook for socially approved behaviour had not been written.

It may well be true that Branagh’s long-term reputation will rest on his versatility and his project management skills rather than on individual performances, so I’m pleased that he has returned for a while to an area where his talents are of particular value, leading a theatre company in a year-long season of varied plays . His production for the Kenneth Branagh Company of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s complicated play of jealousy, suffering, loss and reconciliation, was highly suitable for this time of the year, and it was good to get the chance to see it through the currently popular practice of live video screening from theatre to cinema.

 

 

 

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New Year resolutions

 

Happy New 2016!

Two striking poems on the theme of the New Year, by two famous writers but of very different tones.

Alfred Tennyson’s “Ring Out Wild Bells” (I wonder if it was knowingly copied by George Harrison for his Christmas song “Ding Dong”?) calls for better behaviour, both public and private, during the next year. He envisages an end to “the feud of rich and poor”, “ancient forms of party strife”, “false pride in place and blood” and “civic slander”. At first it seems unusually political, until the last lines show that Tennyson believes such good conduct would merely be following the true Christian message of Christmas – “ring in the Christ that is to be”.

While, in Tennyson, it is the sound of bells which will signal this new movement to banish “coldness” and “darkness” and make social behaviour “nobler…sweeter…purer”, D.H.Lawrence’s “New Year’s Eve” focuses on the sight of light, fire, which dispels “great black night”.

Lawrence’s poem, like Tennyson’s, is an exhortation to change behaviour, but more private and personal, to share in love and physical pleasure. “There are only two things now”- the outside night and the inside fire – and “we (are) the two ripe pips” between those elemental forces,  so “take off your things…”

In 2016, should our resolution be collective or personal, deal with spiritual or physical needs, be a long-term plan or immediate action? Whose recommendations are more pertinent?

 

 

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