Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Hidden London: naked ladies in Twickenham

When Mohamed al-Fayed unveiled his kitsch tribute to Michael Jackson at Craven Cottage, Peter Watts posted on London's worst statues. I forgot to suggest this extraordinary collection installed in York House Gardens, Twickenham, by the building's last private owner, Parsee prince Sir Ratan Tata, who paid £600 for them in 1909. The statuary is said to have been brought to Britain from Italy by financier Whitaker Wright, who killed himself using cyanide - in court - on being found guilty of fraud in 1904.

Following Tata's death, the main building was acquired in 1924 by the London Borough of Richmond and Twickenham for its council offices but the statues were left to fend for themselves, covered with obscene graffiti and apparently painted over in the Second World War so German bombers couldn't use moonlight reflected off the white Carrara marble to guide them up the Thames. The figures were restored in the late 1980s - this lady seems unperturbed by the plight of her friend:

Monday, 30 May 2011


Jonas Milk has given way on this blog - I've been inadvertently outed by this poster for a tremendous new film, see top left (click for larger image). It's not even my quote.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Street art week: Part2ism

Soundtrack imaginaire

Xavier Dolan's unrequited ménage à trois film Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires), starring Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider and Dolan himself (pictured right to left), opens today. Artfully shot, if empty and irritating, it boasts probably the best (non-original) soundtrack I've ever heard, including Swedish band The Knife's steel drum electro runaround Pass This On, sibling offshoot Fever Ray's Keep the Streets Empty for Me and Bach's Cello Suite No 1 in G Major, BWV 1007. Highlights are outings for 3ième sexe by cult French '80s band Indochine, Isabelle Pierre's Le temps est bon and Dalida's Italian-language cover of Bang Bang, though unfortunately the last aren't available on iTunes in the UK.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Street art week: Stik stuff

Stik is at LAVA Gallery in central London from today until 4 June. Here's a piece of his I particularly like on Brick Lane, and here's the man himself at work.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Street art week: found paintings

Street art should be left where people see it but occasionally works are left out deliberately with the intention that they be collected. A friend dismissed some pieces by Adam Neate only to discover she could have picked up something of value for nothing - he was giving them away.

I was lucky enough to see this picture by MisterMN (above), with the following note on the back: 'Act 27, London 2009 - This Item is part of the London Street Art Collection and must be reported as soon as it has been found.' I contacted the email listed and received an extremely gracious reply confirming the piece was mine to enjoy. I'm a big fan of his work and have always been rather chuffed with my find.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Street art week: wall memorials

As graffiti around Shoreditch inevitably gives way to pristine walls, the latest trend is to memorialise significant sites with framed reproductions of the popular images that had adorned the spot (above). And, as with the best street art, there are those who try and remove these latest decorations however determinedly afixed:

Here is Boot Street in its heyday:

Friday, 20 May 2011

Dark Times in Hackney

Daniel Kramb gave a reading of his first novel, Dark Times, at the lovely Sutton House Book Brunchers yesterday. Set against the backdrop of the financial crisis, the book is steeped in Hackney's streets, bars and clubs. Here's an interview we did earlier this year:

What was the inspiration for the book? When I started writing Dark Times, back in 2007, I set out to tell a story about four East Londoners. Getting into these people was a way for me to make sense of my own confusion, my place in the world. Then, in 2008, “the crisis” hit. Suddenly, everything seemed to collapse but at the same time there was, I thought, a great chance in front of our eyes. I wanted to capture that particular moment in time, and I wanted to tell the whole thing in a very intense, distinct style, which I had played around with for some time.

Dark Times has a very specific sense of place - how important is that to you? Very important. The book has four characters but the most important one might well be its fifth, and that’s East London, or Hackney, more specifically. It’s the one aspect of the book that was never in question, I wanted to write a love letter to this part of the city.

At one point in the book, you say, 'If you walked a street often enough, it became part of you'. How are your characters formed by their environment? That’s Sarah, the journalist in the book, and at that point she has started to walk up and down Stoke Newington High Street, something I used to do a lot. Whether we consciously feel it or not, I think we are formed - or at least greatly influenced - by our surroundings. It’s definitely true for the book’s characters: the idealistic Max, who is also a keen walker, is fed, if you like, by Clapton street life, and the park benches of Hackney Downs reinforce his constant state of waiting; Jonathan simply couldn’t function without the bars of Shoreditch and Dalston; for the struggling artist Lizzie, Ridley Road Market is both a source of great inspiration, and a constant reminder of her unstable, precarious life. But I think this is always a two-way process, a dialogue, between people and place.

You wrote a first draft of Dark Times when you lived in Hackney and then rewrote it when living abroad, in Amsterdam. How did that affect what you wrote? I think it helped: being taken out of your usual surroundings is always a kick-start for fresh thinking, so that was good for the rewriting process. More importantly, I started being terribly homesick for Hackney - it wasn’t about Amsterdam, I liked being there - but I had all these flashes of streets, sounds and smells hitting me out of nowhere. So I found myself sitting in a tiny attic overlooking the river Amstel, early in the morning, conjuring up the dirt of Dalston Lane, the coffee smell inside Café Oto, or the busy Shacklewell Lane junction seen from behind a late-night Turkish soup at Somine.

Dark Times is available on Amazon and at various bookstores (details in the first link on this post).

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

London on film: five great musicals

1. The Young Ones (1961)
Freewheeling fun as Cliff Richard's Nicky and chums, including Melvyn Hayes and The Shadows, use pirate radio to promote a fundraising concert to save their youth club. The catch? The evil property developer threatening their venue is Nicky's dad (played by Robert Morley). It spawned further big-screen outings for Cliff and The Shadows in quick succession: Summer Holiday (1963), Wonderful Life (1964) and Finders Keepers (1966). Key location: Paddington

2. My Fair Lady (1964)
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion premiered on Broadway in 1956. Original star Rex Harrison reprised his role as confirmed bachelor 'enry 'iggins for the film version, which also stars Audrey Hepburn, whose singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon. Key location: Covent Garden, pictured

3. Absolute Beginners (1986)
Pop video director and documentarist Julien Temple created a colourful 1950s London for this adaptation of the first book in Colin MacInnes's great trilogy. Musicians David Bowie, Ray Davies, Smiley Culture, Tenpole Tudor and Sade star and contribute to the soundtrack, among others. Leads Patsy Kensit and Eddie O'Connell are disappointing in a likeable, if mistimed, gamble. Key location: Soho

4. Mary Poppins (1964)
Never mind Dick Van Dyke's defining accent or Juile Andrews' terrifying mumsiness, this is all about David Tomlinson's lovely turn as the put-upon banker who doesn't dare turn his back on the corporate world. Includes songs Chim-Chim-Cheree, A Spoonful of Sugar and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Key location: the Bank of England

5. Oliver! (1968)
Lionel Bart's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist took to the London stage in 1960, before being revived more recently in the West End with famous names in the controversial Fagin role. Star Mark Lester can be spotted as a schoolboy in François Truffaut's Ray Bradbury adaptation Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Key location: The Thames

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Wartorn London (and elsewhere) on film

While writing about empty London, I realised I have a fascination for movies shot in post-war wastelands. In that post's Seven Days to Noon (1950), the central character hides among bomb-damaged buildings in the City. On another occasion I wrote about Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express (1948), much of which was filmed amid the devastation wrought by the allied bombing of Berlin and Frankfurt.

One year later, Orson Welles used real Viennese locations for The Third Man, including the Riesenrad, where Harry Lime famously damns 500 years of Swiss brotherly love. Roman Polanski used CGI to create one of cinema's most dramatic visions of war damage in The Pianist (2002), when the camera lifts to reveal the alien landscape of an annihilated Warsaw.

Back in London in 1949, a bombed site in Lambeth became the setting for Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, although the war-damaged buildings featured in the film are sets. Stanley Kubrick stretched this MO further when he filmed the battle scenes for his Vietnam war movie Full Metal Jacket (1987) - in the Isle of Dogs and the Royal Docks (pictured).

Monday, 16 May 2011

Schlock city: The Curious Dr Humpp (1969)

Inspired by H Writer, Haggered's And Now The Screening Starts posts, I had planned to write about The Curious Dr Humpp (La venganza del sexo) on Friday the 13th but unfortunately Blogger was down. The next Friday the 13th isn't till January, so I hope you'll forgive the indulgence in posting now about this awful Argentinian sexploitation movie, which opens with a canoodling couple being chloroformed before we jump to a lesbian couple getting it on. A drunk man leaving a club, a masturbating woman, a stripper in a jazz club and four dope-smokers are the next to be kidnapped by a bizarrely masked automaton in silver platform boots.

These 'latent nymphomaniacs' are subjects in a bizarre experiment conducted by the impassive Dr Humpp to uncover the key to human sexual experience, in part to preserve his own life. 'Can they stand another extraction?' the mad scientist asks his libidinous assistant (pictured). 'The girl can, she's still strong enough,' is the reply, 'that poor man's got nothing left now.'

The police and a journalist are soon on the doctor's trail but not before we're exposed to more titillating goings on, including a bizarre scene with the monster serenading the drugged test subjects in the laboratory's grounds. Weirder yet, Dr Humpp is revealed to be in thrall to another: a talking brain in a jar (director Emilio Vieyra is especially taken with bubbling lab ephemera, strategically placed to obscure the bumping and grinding).

Johnnysugar on IMDb comments that many of the slightly more explicit sex scenes were added by the film's US distributor, which goes some way to explaining the dubbed, English-language print's non-uniform feel, though many of the original's outdoor scenes look as if they were recorded on different, faded, stock. Utter rubbish, although the militaristic elements are intriguingly authentic and it does deliver all manner of remarkable dialogue, including the zinger: 'Sex dominates the world, and now I dominate sex!'

Thursday, 12 May 2011

London on film: the blank canvas

The most famous images of London on the big screen are fragmentary, illusory even: the blue door of Notting Hill (1999), Newman Passage at the beginning of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), the Bank of England in Mary Poppins (1964), or the rooftop sets from the same film. This may be because we have very little interaction with the capital's best-known icons in our day-to-day life, unlike the Disney-fied characters in the live-action version of 101 Dalmations (1996), say. The capital's streets don't always offer the best views of landmarks - unlike Paris - and, as amateur photographers know, it's difficult to capture the bustle of crowds on camera.

My favourite depiction of London's streets and buildings comes in the Boulting brothers' Seven Days to Noon (1950), when the city has to be evacuated after a scientist threatens to detonate a bomb if the government doesn't halt nuclear research. It may well have served as inspiration for the deserted scenes in Danny Boyle's zombie thriller 28 Days Later... 52 years later: compare the shot from 28 Days, top, with the - very small, sorry - image from Seven Days, below.

While these two films show off London's landmarks to best effect they also capture Londoners' psyche: in such metropolitan Hollywood disaster movies as Independence Day (1996) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) people are shown coming together in the face of apocalypse. We, on the other hand, want nothing less than the city to ourselves.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Killing jokes

A friend happily recommended Albert Cossery's short 1964 novel The Jokers, a very funny satire on a dictatorial Arab governor. Cairo-born Cossery died in Paris a few years ago aged 94, having lived most of his life on the fourth floor of the same St Germain hotel - La Louisiane. He produced less than one book for each decade of his life.

The cover (pictured) for the NYRB's translation (from French), by Iranian photographer Abbas, is presumably an image of Syrian ruler Hafez al-Assad and underlines the book's continued relevance. An obvious parallel is Milan Kundera's The Joke (1967), which also takes for its starting point authoritarian states' fear of mockery.

Cossery's philosophy is closer to that of the pleasure-seeking Tomas in Kundera's most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), though The Jokers' mordant denouement shows there's nothing more serious than humour. I'll definitely be looking up more work by Cossery, thanks for the tip, Andrew!

Monday, 9 May 2011

Three underrated boy bands

1. Ultra
It's no surprise I have little recollection of the release of Leeds Uni foursome Ultra's self-titled debut album in February 1999 as it barely dented the Top 40. It's a shame as it's packed with some of the sharpest, freshest pop you could hope for, from opener Say You Do, through single Say It Once to the unlikely prog close, New Dimension, made up of two tracks - Way to Go and No Place Like Home - that segue into each other.

2. 2wo Third3
In the mid-1990s, former Pet Shop Boys/East 17/Bros manager Tom Watkins picked up gay, synth-driven quartet 2wo Third3. Singles I Want the World, I Want to Be Alone, Ease the Pressure and Hear Me Calling were marketed with a cartoony East 17 meets Clockwork Orange-style image and a plethora of remixes. Around the same time, Watkins also put together boy-girl quartet Deuce but they didn't amount to much either, despite hits Call It Love, I Need You and On the Bible.

3. Let Loose
Before Cathy Dennis was vaunted for her pop craft, this mid-90s band shrewdly harnessed the writing and production skills of Nik Kershaw. Kershaw had a slew of hits in the 1980s, including Wouldn't It Be Good, I Won't Let the Sun Go Down On Me and The Riddle, as well as penning The One and Only for Chesney Hawkes in 1991. He went back to working on his own material, producing a couple of pleasing albums, 15 Seconds (1999) and To Be Frank (2001), more notable for their tunefulness than lyrical concerns.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Le grand Gérard

It's been a while but I'm looking forward to a couple of new Gérard Depardieu films. French cinema's biggest international star made his name in the 1970s with movies for Bertrand Blier (Les valseuses, Buffet froid), Bernardo Bertolucci (1900, alongside Robert De Niro) and François Truffaut (Le dernier métro, with Catherine Deneuve).

In the 1980s he cemented his status with a remarkable run: The Return of Martin Guerre, Danton, Moon in the Gutter (Jean-Jacques Beineix's David Goodis adaptation), Under the Sun of Satan, Police (both for Maurice Pialat), Tenue de soirée, Trop belle pour toi (both back with Blier), Drole d'endroit pour une rencontre (with Deneuve, again), Camille Claudel (opposite Isabelle Adjani), Cyrano de Bergerac and Claude Berri's Marcel Pagnol adaptation, Jean de Florette, alongside Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil.

An attempt to break into English-language cinema at the start of the '90s was hilariously misjudged: director Peter Weir may imbue Green Card with some charm but My Father the Hero is cringingly awful, not least in its semi-incestuous subject matter. Only another actor might resent an actor working too much but over the next two decades Depardieu appeared in an incredible amount of cod-historical dreck - and as Asterix's barrel-chested chum Obelix, a role seemingly destined to take advantage of the actor's ever-expanding girth.

There are subplots to this period of Depardieu's life: his interest in his vineyard and the volatile relationship with actor son Guillaume, who made his feature debut proper alongside his father in 1991's Tous les matins du monde and went on to pursue a series of great choices, including a couple of terribly underrated films with Pierre Salvadori (Cible émouvante and Les apprentis), Pola X (for Leos Carax) and Don't Touch the Axe (Jacques Rivette). (Guillaume had to have one leg amputated when it became infected following a motorbike accident and died in 2008 from pneumonia, aged 37.)

A hint that Gérard Depardieu was returning to something of his past form came with a self-referential turn as a gangster in Mesrine: Killer Instinct (pictured, 2008) and in Claude Chabrol's Inspector Bellamy (2009), though we still had to endure the lazy schmaltz of My Afternoons with Margueritte (Jean Becker, 2010). Now we can look forward to Potiche (out 17 June) - directed by Francois Ozon, starring Catherine Deneuve - and Mammuth, screening tonight at the Ciné lumiere.

Yolande Moreau returns for Gustave de Kevern and Benoît Delépine's follow-up to Louise-Michel, which also stars Isabelle Adjani, and continues the directors' typically inspired, bad-taste exploration of individual rebellion in capitalist society. As he enters his sixth decade, Depardieu has a remarkable, dismaying, 11 features pencilled in over the next two years, according to IMDb. The list includes more English-language productions, cod-historical dreck and the dubiously titled Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia. Not promising.