Monthly Archives: March 2012

Music film review: Broadway’s Lost Treasures

First in a series of DVDs presenting performances shown once on American television during the Tony Awards, ‘Broadway’s Lost Treasures’ promises “22 rare performances from Broadway’s greatest musicals.”

Does it deliver? If you want to see the people who created iconic roles, look no further. Here is Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide bewailing her single state which has left her with a permanent cold. Here is Zero Mostel’s joyous Teyve the milkman, wishing he was a rich man. Here is Robert Preston’s Harold Hill warning of trouble ‘right here in River City’. Here is Angela Lansbury’s mad Mrs Lovett and the worse pies in London. Here are Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon as the murderous duo ‘nowadays’. Here is John Raitt’s Pajama Game boss. Here are Yul Brynner and Patricia Morison learning to dance. Here is Carol Channing leading the parade and starting life anew.

And that’s just for starters. If you love musicals, then this purchase is a no-brainer. If you like the classic artists, then you will see them at their best here, even if one or two numbers are mimed. There aren’t that many disappointments – Julie Andrews and a truncated ‘Send in the Clowns’ is perhaps one of them; I would have preferred to see Glynis Johns. Patti LuPone as Evita is also not to my taste, but it is interesting to see her here.

Broadway’s Lost Treasures can be purchased from Amazon and the usual retailers, and is well worth a look.

Concert review: Solid Silver 60s (High Wycombe)

Now in its 27th year, the Solid Silver 60s nostalgia tour sticks firmly to its formula of presenting four or five acts who were million sellers back in the days of Biba, Mary Quant, and Carnaby Street. It tends to appeal to a range of ages and this was reflected in the Wycombe audience last night.

Opening the show (and backing all the special guests throughout) were Vanity Fare,’, ‘Ere best known for the hits ‘Hitchin’ a Ride’, ‘Early in the Morning’ and ‘I Live for the Sun’. They are extremely hard workers, especially singer/guitarist Eddie Wheeler who impressed with his solos, and they warmed the crowd up with a well-judged selection of numbers.

Then it was on to the first special guest of the night, Brian Poole from East London, who, with the Tremeloes, is best remembered now for ‘Do You Love Me?’. He entertained the crowd with the ballad ‘Someone, Someone’ (‘a song given to us by Buddy Holly and the Crickets’) and rocked the place with a selection of Chuck Berry numbers and ‘Twist and Shout’. The Candyman himself still has what it takes to do a good set, and at 70+ was clearly enjoying his resurgence of popularity on the nostalgia circuit.

Next up was California’s Chris Montez, who shared his hits ‘The More I See You’, ‘Let’s Dance’, and ‘Call Me’, as well as a couple of number nodding back to his childhood influence and fellow Latino, Ritchie Valens (‘La Bamba’ and ‘Donna’). He also plays guitar very well and effortlessly charmed the crowd with tales of his life growing up as one of eighteen children in a Spanish speaking home before finding fame in his mid-teens with a record contract.

After the interval Vanity Fare returned, with an a capella version of ‘For the Longest Time’, before leading into a rock and roll filled set from Brian Hyland, another Californian best remembered for his early 60s hits ‘Sealed with a Kiss’ and ‘An Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’. We heard those, but also great versions of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’. He’s accompanied by his partner Rosemari on vocals and percussion and son Boti on the drums.

Top of this tour’s bill is former Herman’s Hermits singer Peter Noone, originally from Manchester, who found fame as the band’s frontman aged fifteen with hits such as ‘Hush’, ‘Sleepy Joe’, ‘Silhouettes’, ‘Sentimental Friend’ and ‘Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter’. Good singalong fare to close this enjoyable show which nudged just over three hours.

I should mention as well that this was a present for my mum on Mother’s Day, who was delighted to meet both Poole and Montez and get their autographs. A happy night for all, and this tour remains highly recommended for those who love the songs and artists of the era.

Classic cinema review: Oliver! (1968)

Showing in a new print at the BFI Southbank as part of their Dickens on Screen anniversary season, the Lionel Bart musical, filmed by Carol Reed, is a worthy addition to the adaptations of this most quintessential English writer’s novels.

Oliver! made its stage debut in 1960, using the novel ‘Oliver Twist’ as its source material – freely adapting the complex tale of an orphan who runs away and falls amongst thieves, omitting a few peripheral characters and one subplot (you’ll find no Monks here), and generally making the major characters more sympathetic. By the time the film was released the musical had been a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic, having premiered on Broadway in 1963.

The film features Ron Moody as Fagin, Shani Wallis as Nancy, Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes, Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, Mark Lester as Oliver, Harry Secombe as Mr Bumble, Peggy Mount as Mrs Bumble, Joseph O’Conor as Mr Brownlow, Hugh Griffith as the Magistrate, Sheila White as Bet, Leonard Rossiter and Hylda Baker as the Sowerberries, and Kenneth Cranham as Noah Claypole.

Fagin in particular is depicted as a rich comedy character with a touch of pathos (and more than a touch of the Jewishness which also distinguished Alec Guinness’s portrayal in the 1948 David Lean film), and his songs ‘You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two’, ‘Be Back Soon’, and ‘Reviewing the Situation’ are undoubted highlights of both show and film. Nancy is depicted as both a survivor and a victim, a former child thief trapped in an abusive relationship she doesn’t want to leave (as highlighted in her torch song ballad ‘As Long As He Needs Me’), while she tallies each night in the tavern waiting for her man to return from his day of crime (‘It’s a Fine Life’).

Shorn of his song which worked well on stage, Oliver Reed’s Bill Sikes exudes an air of menace but clearly cracks up when he makes one fatal mistake – here the tension rachets up a notch and the mood swings of the plot are handled extremely well. In fact the handling of both serious and comic situations throughout the film should be noted with praise, as should the performances of the two child stars, Jack Wild and Mark Lester, who are both superb, especially Wild who is a cheeky chappie, a tiny toff who will always make his way in the world, but also a child who knows he cannot yet protect those who need it (the scene where Nancy is attacked by Sikes being a case in point).

Special mention to the ensemble numbers, ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy’ which look superb on the big screen, and the funny/tense ‘Oom Pah Pah’. Numbers for the Sowerberries (who are rather less comical in the stage version), and Mrs Bumble (Corney on the stage; she is not yet married to the Beadle at the start of the story) are not missed from the film and would perhaps have slowed the action down. What remains is of course superb – a song for Mr Bumble, ‘Boy for Sale’ showcasing Secombe’s gift for opera; a diverting piece for the children, Bet, and Nancy (‘I’d Do Anything’) and a plantive number for Oliver before he escapes to London (‘Where Is Love?’).

The film is perhaps one of the greatest literary adaptations even without the songs; it does not trivalise the story of Oliver Twist and, the plot omissions aside, manages to be fairly close to the book, with all the characters fully drawn and perfectly cast, from the drunken magistrate through to the kindly Mrs Bedwin (Megs Jenkins) and the jovial bookseller (James Hayter). A longtime favourite film of mine, which still looks and sounds terrific.

Silent cinema review: The Battle of the Somme, with Ealing Symphony Orchestra

St Martin’s Church, West Acton, was the venue of last night’s screening of the Imperial War Museum’s restoration of the 1916 propaganda film ‘The Battle of the Somme’, performed to Laura Rossi’s score by the Ealing Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Gibbons.

Shot by official cameramen Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, this film is mainly real scenes with a couple of reinactments (the ‘over the top’ and ‘through the barbed wire’ scenes). The film has no plot as such, but in five parts it shows the highs and lows of warfare, with sight of weaponry and shells, of war horses, and of the inevitable death toll of battle.

Rossi’s score is punctuated by imitations of gunfire, lots of strings, and the occasional quiet passage of harp and woodwind. As such it highlights the constant changes of mood of the piece of propaganda, firmly aimed in the British camp.

In the preceding Q&A, a pertinent question was asked concerning the Somme and how many Germans died in the conflict – although we hear of British and French casualties we rarely hear about the ‘enemy’ losses (which are shown here in detail). However, this film is very effective a century on, showing the excitement of troops heading to the front, the boredom and fear of waiting, the dedication to work, and the happiness of hearing material from home. Now it looks odd to have no story and no actual characters, but weaving a drama around a current conflict would not have been the right way to represent it.

Ealing Symphony Orchestra gave a good account of themselves, too, in this last date of a small tour showcasing this film with live accompaniment. The restored film has been made available on DVD since the ninetieth anniversary of the conflict in 2006.

Concert review: The Dream of Gerontius

Edward Elgar’s oratorio ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ sets to music the epic poem of Cardinal John Newman, which details the death of Gerontius and his journey into purgatory. It is a beautiful piece of music running just over an hour and a half, in two parts, for orchestra, choir, and three soloists – tenor, bass, and mezzo soprano.

The Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre was the venue for the Southbank Sinfonia’s version of this oratorio last week; with the London Concert Choir, Adrian Thompson as Gerontius and the Soul of Gerontius, Jennifer Johnston as the Angel, and Brindley Sherratt as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony. The conductor was Mark Forkgen.

This oratorio soars or falls on the gifts of both singer and orchestra as a coherent whole; and in particular the London Concert Choir excelled here, especially during the chorus of Devils where they tempt the Soul into the pit of fire. In the soloists, Thompson was especially affecting, with Sherratt’s Angel of the Agony piece working very well.

Newman’s poem is a touching piece of religious faith and the mysteries of death and life thereafter, but you don’t have to believe in the concepts surrounding the words of the oratorio to be touched by the musical sounds which occur during the piece. And in this, the Southbank Sinfonia, their solo singers, and the choir didn’t disappoint – now and again the bass got lost in the choir’s hymns of mercy in the first Act, but this was minor.

A most enjoyable piece.

More than Steptoe: a tribute to Harry H Corbett

Harry H Corbett always said the H in his name stood for ‘Hanything’, as it was simply there to distinguish him from Sooty’s owner of the same name (sans ‘H’).  Born on 28th February 1925, he is known best these days for his role as rag and bone man Harold Steptoe in the television sitcom ‘Steptoe and Son’ (which ran from 1962-65, and from 1970-74, starting with a Comedy Playhouse pilot called ‘The Offer’).

Born in Rangoon, Burma, young Harry was raised near Manchester by an aunt following the death of his father, an officer in the Army, and mother.  His acting roots were in repertory and in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and on his London debut in 1956 he was already drawing attention as a serious Method performer, even called by some sections of the British Press ‘the English Marlon Brando’.  Such high praise was possibly a little over the top, but his character playing in several episodes of ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (as different characters), and performances in films like ‘Cover Girl Killer’ (1959), ‘Shake Hands With The Devil’ (1959) and ‘Sammy Going South’ (1963) show an actor who is at least capable of more than one stock character.

It was Steptoe, though, which gave Harry his most enduring character, a comedy figure of fun who was in the most tragic of familial relationships with his father Albert.  Throughout the series the mix of humour and pathos brought the series wide praise and attention, and although it has been surmised that he came to resent the character and the straightjacket it placed upon him, he was quick to accept references to it in good humour (as can be seen, for example, in a 1972 episode of the quiz panel show ‘Jokers Wild’).

First married to Sheila Steafel (who wrote a memoir partly about their time together entitled ‘When Harry Met Sheila’ (2010)), and then to Maureen Blott, he is followed in the acting business by his daughter Susannah (who also writes children’s books and who has recently completed a biography of her father to be released this month in commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of his death, 21st March 1982). 

DVD releases have allowed a fairer assessment of Harry’s work than has been previously available in the days of Steptoe alone: in the ‘Armchair Theatre’ play ‘The Hothouse’ (1964) he shines opposite Diana Rigg as a supermarket king who lives for his fascinating plants; in ‘Cover Girl Killer’ (1959) he convinces as a shady and seedy dispatcher of women of sin; in ‘Carry on Screaming’ (1966) he takes over a part intended for Sid James as if he was born for it; in ‘The Bargee’ (1964), a flawed film by Galton & Simpson, the Steptoe writers, he is a kind of canal-based Alfie; and in ‘The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins’ (1971) he invests the lonely Ambrose in the ‘Lust’ segment with real feeling and pathos.  He also appears in the all-star Michael Bentine vehicle ‘The Sandwich Man’ (1966).

In material yet to be officially released, Harry’s starring roles in ‘Joey Boy’ (1965) and ‘Rattle of a Simple Man’ (1964) are worth a look, albeit recognising the latter is more successful than the former.  He also appears in two of the ‘Edgar Wallace Mysteries’ – ‘A Marriage of Convenience’ in 1960, and ‘Time to Remember’ in 1962.  Good later roles include Harry Tombs in the Arthur Lowe series ‘Potter’ and the sitcom ‘Grundy’ (both 1980).

Harry’s final roles for television were a Kenco coffee commercial in Steptoe garb opposite ‘Albert’ (Wilfrid Brambell), and an episode of the long-running Anglia anthology series ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ called ‘The Moles’ (1982).  By the time this episode was aired he had died from a massive heart attack.

Harry H Corbett will always be remembered as Harold Steptoe.  However, his earlier promise and career are commemorated in the Corbett Theatre, East 15 Acting School, Loughton, Essex, and can be glimpsed in the few non-Steptoe pieces of material we have available.  He also had the distinction of being one of the numerous stage Sherlock Holmes’s – albeit as ‘Justin Playfair’ who thinks he is Holmes, in ‘They Might Be Giants’, and also played Hamlet and Richard II in the theatre.  He seems to have been an actor with more promise than he achieved, but perhaps not as much as the Brando comment in the newspapers might have suggested.

Susannah Corbett’s book, ‘Harry H Corbett: The Front Legs of the Cow’, was published on the 1st March 2012 by The History Press, and is also available as an e-book for Kindle readers.

Theatre review: Collaborators

In 1939, the great Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov was commissioned to write a play about the country’s dictator, Josef Stalin.  This was in many ways a poisoned chalice: many of Bulgakov’s plays were banned under the Soviet regime (except The Days of the Turbins/The White Guard, a personal favourite of Stalin’s), and as an opponent of all the regime stood for it was his most difficult commission.  The play was completed (called Batum) but never passed for performance; it is considered his weakest work.

This commision is the seed for John Hodge’s new play, ‘Collaborators’, which is currently showing at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe (and then transferring to the Olivier), directed by Nicholas Hytner.  We first meet Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) in the small apartment he shares with his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary), young worker Sergei (Pierce Reid, who lives in the kitchen cupboard, bare as the house has no food), former aristocrat Vassily (Patrick Godfrey) and Praskovya (Maggie Service), a teacher of history.  They are poor but defiant.

Into this life we hear of Bulgakov’s uneasy dreams about Stalin, and his declining health – flagged in an amusing interlude with a dotty doctor (Nick Sampson).  Once secret policeman Vladimir (Mark Addy) visits and asks for a play to celebrate the 60th birthday of Stalin, things start to change for the writer – and he starts to change to, following a series of visits where he collaborates with his own subject (Simon Russell Beale), to the point where they start to become each other – Bulgakov mouthing the propaganda of his leader in casual conversation, and Stalin excitedly shaping ‘Young Josef’ for the stage.

‘Collaborators’ might be initially read as a comedy, and Russell Beale plays off Jennings very well – with some sharp scenes of comedy.  But after the interval the play takes a darker turn, becoming a black comedy, and a tragedy too.  The performances throughout are uniformly excellent, although much of it is a two-hander between two masterful actors at the top of their game.

The concept of ‘Collaborators’, especially in its staged scenes from the banned Moliere play, brings to mind Bulgakov’s most well-known work, his novel The Master and Margarita, which is a thinly-veiled critique of the Stalinist regime and all its horrors, where people are tried and shot according to quota, where people go to work and never return home, where further enquiries are catastrophic.  This novel was a sharp satire with a sense of the ridiculous – and this is where Lodge’s play succeeds, in presenting a monster in a black comedy coat, and the collapse and tragedy of a man and a nation with smoke and mirrors.

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