Back To The Future The Musical – Manchester Opera House

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Great Scott – it’s Back To the Future, The Musical!  I’m absolutely delighted that Manchester is the first place in the world to get to see this new stage adaptation of one of the greatest cult films of the ’80s, and indeed of all time; and what an absolutely amazing spectacle it is!  1.21 gigawatts of spectacle, in fact (sorry, that had to be said!).  Flying cars, flashing lights and lightning strikes. I’ve never heard so many men yelling and screaming at a musical: it’s usually only we ladies doing that 🙂 .If you’re looking for Les Miserables, you’re not going to get it: apart from the original songs from the film, the music isn’t really that memorable. But, if you’re looking for Back To The Future and you’re not sure that it’s going to work on stage – believe me, it does!  If you’re worried that someone’s going to spoil a sacred bit of your ’80s childhood – it’ s fine, they’re not!   And, yes, the DeLorean flies!

It’s a bit surreal when you stop to think that we’re now going back further to get to 1985 than Marty’s going to get from 1985 to 1955.  It’s especially surreal if, like me, you’ve never entirely got out of the 1980s.  But the story works for any age. When you look beyond the sci-fi/time travelling elements, it’s a story of learning to stand up for yourself, overcoming bullying, trying not to worry that people are going to laugh at you for not being cool or trendy, and making a success of things by being yourself and doing what interests you.  That’s pretty inspiring in any decade. I think that the musical actually gets that side of it across better than the film does.

And it is definitely entertaining. I’m not someone who usually gets excited about special effects, but this is really something. It’s on a 12 week debut run at the Opera House, the 5th night of which happily coincided with my birthday, and I believe that people are travelling from all over the UK and even from the US for the chance to see it; but it’s going to run and run. When this baby hits 88 miles per hour …

Obviously, you can’t do everything on stage that you can on screen. For a kick off, you can’t spend 3 hours slapping make-up on people to make them look 30 years older, so, in the scenes in the 1980s, the McFly parents look around the same age as their kids 🙂  – but just try to ignore that! There’s not much skateboarding, and (hooray!!!) there are no dogs. George falls out of a tree, rather than being hit by a car.   Also – and it’s killing me to say this, because I am a child of the ’80s, and I got quite upset when it hit me that no-one much under 40 will even remember 1985 – there are things which worked in the ’80s which just wouldn’t work now.  References to Libyan terrorists, and indeed any terrorists, have been removed … and, thinking about it,  it’s kind of weird that they were considered suitable at the time, TBH.  And Doc Brown’s bemusement on learning that Ronald Reagan the film star is now the President of the United States, which was hilarious in 1985, falls a bit flat now.

However, I’m pleased to say that the Thought Police haven’t been allowed to get to it and take away the ’80s and ’50s feel of it. I know there’s been some whingeing about recent musicals being made of An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman, from people saying that they’re sexist, but can we just accept that times change and that you can’t and shouldn’t try to change the past to match? Lorraine being impressed by first Marty and then George rescuing her from the unwanted attentions of Biff, largely by walloping him, works in the context of the 1950s. And, whilst no-one is more paranoid about their weight than I am, the thing about original 1985 Lorraine being fat and new model 1985 Lorraine being slim works in the context of the 1980s.  Talking about the prospect of “a coloured man” becoming mayor is the language that would have been used in the 1950s – and, of course, Goldie, who starts off sweeping the floor in a café, does indeed work his way up to the position of mayor, and he does it through his own hard work, without anyone having to change to change history for him!  I don’t know if anyone now would make a film in which a girl fancies a boy whom she’s unaware is her son. And even a friendship between a teenage boy and an older man might be considered dangerous territory now – which is a shame, because Marty and Doc Brown are such a great team.  But we’re not writing the story for 2020.  It was written for 1985.  And it’s largely been left as such.  Good.

So, yes, this is Back To The Future, and this is the 1980s!  As I said, it’s quite strange when you realise that, to younger members of the audience, the ’80s clothes, hairstyles and music, and things like the ’80s phone and TV in the McFlys’ kitchen, look like something from history.  It’s like when you’re walking round a museum and you see stuff that you remember using.  Most of it’s set in the 1950s, of course, though … and people who are 30 years older than me will probably feel exactly the same about the ’50s as I  do about the ’80s!  The music and dancing are part ’80s and part ’50s. And there’s a lot of music and dancing, because, well, it is a musical.  In fact, it had a bit of a feeling of Grease about it, because, as they couldn’t show scenes in as many parts of town as they did in the film, quite a lot of it was set in the high school attended by teenage George, Lorraine and Biff.

The new songs aren’t that great, as I said, but the original songs are still great, and the new ones are lively and upbeat even if not very memorable.  I’m a purist and a traditionalist and I would normally howl with indignation at the slightest suggestion that the main attraction of a musical was anything other than the music, but this is an adaptation of a particular film and so the special effects were always going to be the big thing.  And, if you’re looking for special effects, then, yep, you are going to get them, big style!  There are a lot of flashing coloured lights.  There is dry ice.  It has actually been made to look as if the car is going through time.  Well, OK, we don’t actually know what time travel looks like, but you know what I mean!  And, yes, all right, all right, we now know that 2015 was not an age of flying cars, but we didn’t know that in 1985. There is a flying car at the end, because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

It’s more than that, though.  It’s genuinely very funny – the comedy element is great.  And it’s genuinely inspiring.  Because you can’t do as much on stage as you can on screen, there’s more about the characters.  Or maybe I’m just getting old – and, yes, that is part of it.  When you’re a kid, it’s all about Marty.  When you’re older – and birthdays always make me feel like Methuselah – you feel much more for young George, shoved around by the school bullies, never able to stand up for himself, and hiding his love of sci-fi and the stories he’s writing because he’s convinced that people are going to laugh at him.  And you feel much more for the original version of adult Lorraine, who’s turned from a lively, vivacious teenager into an unhappy woman, turning to food and drink for comfort.  Well, unless you were a Biff-type kid at school, but, if you were, you probably won’t be reading anything written by me.

This is a brilliant fantasy time travel story.  And it’s a brilliant comedy, because of the way that Marty accidentally messes up the past and then has to try to sort it out, and because of all the time travel jokes such as Lorraine thinking Marty’s called Calvin Klein because that’s what the name tapes on his underpants say.  But, when you think about it more deeply,  it’s a story about the shy, uncool kid, who’s got zero self confidence and gets pushed around by bullies, becoming Mr Happy and Successful.  And it’s about Doc Brown’s years of trying to invent something that works finally paying off.  And I love that.

Oh, all right, it’s about the flying car, as well!  Because, where we’re going, we don’t need roads …

 

Kinky Boots

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This was excellent – what a wonderful pick-me-up on a very wet and windy day. I’ve always liked Cyndi Lauper’s music (don’t you just *love* the Girls Just Want To Have Fun video?), and this addressed some important issues in a fun and upbeat way rather than a preachy way. It’s partly based on a true story, as well. Let’s have drag queens wearing kinky boots saving family-owned factories in proud provincial towns, and modelling the boots on the catwalks of Milan in Cool Britannia dresses, and let’s have everyone learning to accept everyone else for who they are. Up the provinces, up the factories, up everyone learning to accept themselves and to accept everyone else, down with pretentiousness, and up with music and dancing!

Thanks to the legendary Foo Foo Lammar, I and most other kids in ’80s Manchester grew up thinking that drag queens were some of the coolest people on the planet. When Foo Foo died, the city mourned and Sir Alex Ferguson gave the eulogy at the funeral. But Simon/Lola in this story has struggled to find acceptance, especially from his own dad, and the storyline is partly about that. It’s also partly about Charlie, the factory’s owner, being torn between the place he’s grown up in and the people he’s grown up with, and the new life that his snotty girlfriend wants him to make in a “marketing” job in That London. And it’s partly about the devastating effects of the decline of traditional industries on their home towns.  These are very serious subjects – and the way in which Kinky Boots works is to address them in a fun and upbeat way, not a preachy and lecturing way, and not a sneery and mocking way.  It’s serious stuff, but it’s entertainment.  And it is *superb* entertainment.

Northampton makes shoes. OK, I think we’ve all had to accept that the days of towns and cities being dominated by, and leading the way in, their traditional industries are over, but that history is still a huge part of who we are. We still talk about “taking coals to Newcastle”, things being “all ship-shape and Bristol fashion”, and driving through “the Potteries”. Not to mention “Manchester goods” 😊 . Football teams still have nicknames like “the Blades”, “the Hatters”, and, in the case of Northampton Town, “the Cobblers”. Deindustrialisation has hit the North, the Midlands and other parts of the country very hard. It’s the same in other countries: the term “the Rust Belt” is used to describe parts of the US. How wonderful to see a musical/film tackling this very important subject.

Charlie’s family have been making shoes for generations, and his dad expects him to take over the factory in due course. However, Charlie’s girlfriend Nicola persuades him to move to London. Bright lights, big city, a job in the service sector rather than the manufacturing sector … and a flat the size of a shoebox. But then Charlie’s dad dies suddenly, and Charlie inherits the factory. It’s overstocked, it’s lost its main customer, no new orders are coming in, and his instinct is to close it down. Nicola wants him to sell the building to be converted into “apartments” for the well-to-do. But that’s going to mean that all the staff, most of whom he’s known all his life, will be thrown out of work, and there are precious few other jobs around. One of them, Lauren, who’s got a bit of a crush on him, points out that those factories which have survived have found new markets – hiking boots, or sandals. They need to find something new as well.

Then enter Lola, a drag queen who’s having problems finding feminine boots with heels strong enough to take a well-built man’s weight without breaking. Eureka! Unlike Charlie, Lola loves shoes and is keen to design them. I’ve never quite got why some people are so obsessed with shoes, TBH.  As long as mine are comfortable and not too expensive, I’m sorted, but I do get that shoes are a really big deal to other people!

The women at the factory think Lola’s great. Some of the men, especially one Don, aren’t so sure. And Lola herself, despite seeming to be so confident, clearly isn’t.  One day, she arrives at the factory in a man’s business suit, no wig, no make-up, and says that this is who she was in another life – Simon from Clacton. We learn that, whilst Charlie’s dad wanted him to take over the shoe factory, Simon’s dad wanted him to be an Alpha Male, including being a professionally-trained boxer.

Charlie is desperate to put on a good show at a forthcoming footwear exhibition in Milan. Initially, everyone’s keen – but, as time goes on, Charlie and Lola clash, Charlie and the staff clash, Don and Lola clash, and everything goes wrong. The exhibition looks set to be a disaster, but, thanks to everyone eventually accepting everyone else, it’s all all right on the night – Lola’s troupe of dance queens show off the kinky boots in a Geri Halliwell-esque Union Flag dress, a Beefeater outfit, an English cricket whites outfit, etc. Everything is Cool Britannia, the factory is saved, Lola performs her drag act at the nursing home where her father’s now living, Charlie breaks up with snotty Nicola and gets together with Lauren, and there’s a rousing finale.

OK, it’s a bit cheesy, and, whilst the music’s lively, it’s not particularly memorable … but it’s so positive, and it really cheered up a horrible day when Storm Ciara was battering us and I got wet and windblown just walking from the tram station to the cinema!  Very highly recommended.

CATS

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Let the critics moan all they like about this: I enjoyed it.  OK, it’s rather weird seeing some of the most famous humans on the planet sporting digital fur; but I’m not sure how else it could have been done.  Pantomime-style zip-up animal costumes?  Lycra and face paint?  I’m really not sure why everyone’s getting so worked up over the costumes – although the tails, which seemed to have minds of their own, were a bit disconcerting!  The music was great, the night-time shots of cats dancing round London were like a modernised, extended version of the classic “Step In Time” scenes from “Mary Poppins”; and Francesca Hayward stole the show even with so many big names in the cast.  I now look forward to someone making a film version of “Starlight Express”, in which Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba & co are made to look like humanoid trains: that really *would* traumatise the critics!  Speaking of trains, would someone put Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat in charge of Northern Rail, please?  He is sorely needed.

The problem with CATS is that there isn’t really a storyline.  No-one’s manning the barricades, fleeing from the Nazis, reshaping Argentinian politics or killing their girlfriend’s brother in a gangland feud.  There isn’t even a light romance.  I’m sure Grizabella’s life history’s very interesting, but we don’t hear about it.  I’d love to know how Old Deuteronomy came to be the one making the Jellicle choice, but we aren’t told.   It’s very bitty, and that’s why, even though some of the songs are so good, it’s never been one of my favourite musicals.  So it was always going to be difficult to make a successful film version of it.

Then there’s the issue of the costumes – but, as I’ve said, I’m not sure what the alternative was.  Incidentally, I’ve got great admiration for the people whose characters were just encased in digital fur with no clothes over them: you’d have to be pretty body confident to do that (although I gather that some CGI came into play there too!).  Oh, and would someone please tell the shrieking snowflakes, who are calling the film racist because a mixed-race actress is wearing (or whatever the correct term is for being covered in by CGI) white fur, that Victoria is the White Cat.  Hence the white fur.  The clue’s in the name.

But, if you know the stage version, you’ll know not to expect too much of a storyline. And is the digital fur really so big a deal?  It’s all about the music – and the music is great.

Francesca Hayward, as Victoria, is the star of the show, but there are also good turns from Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Laurie Davidson, dancer Robert Fairchild and various others.  And seeing the cats dancing round London is quite cool, even if I am getting rather sick of films being set in London.  Maybe I’m missing something, because the reviews have been pretty universally awful, but I really did enjoy it.

Don’t expect too much of a story.  Accept that humans digitally dressed up as cats look rather odd.  Accept that this isn’t Les Miserables or The Sound of Music, but that it was never going to be. Ignore all the silly puns about the film needing spaying, putting down or consigning to the litter tray.  And then just sit back, lighten up – hey, it’s Christmas! – and enjoy the music and the dancing.  It’s actually rather good fun.

I Carried a Watermelon: Dirty Dancing and Me by Katy Brand

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Don’t change yourself: change the world.  Compare the character of Baby in Dirty Dancing with the character of Sandy in Grease.  Sandy changes everything about herself to be what Danny wants and the rest of the cool kids expect.  Baby, without being either super-cool or super-glamorous, always remains true to herself, whatever the cost, and the film gets a happy ending thanks to her personality and her principles.  You can get quite profound over romantic musicals, and that’s what Katy Brand does here. A lot of what she says is fascinating.  Unfortunately, some of the other things she says are intensely irritating.  I’d love to go on a Dirty Dancing-themed weekend, at the place where the film was made, as she describes in one of the chapters in the book.  But I don’t think I’d want to go there with her.

I’ve never actually said “I carried a watermelon” in any context other than that of Dirty Dancing.  I do, however, say, or at least think, “I’m scared of everything” and “I’m balancing on shit” pretty frequently, and am usually to be found in the corner.  I have even said “I don’t just got to do anything,” to rude people at work … although I wish I hadn’t, because Lisa’s grammar is appalling!  And I know all the words to all the songs.  I first saw this wonderful film with my then best friend, when we were in the third year of secondary school, and we were both already obsessed with Patrick Swayze because of North and South.  I’ve seen it dozens of times since then, and I hope to see it many times more.

I love everything about this film. I love Johnny, obviously.  And, whilst I’m way too much of a wimp ever to have contemplated going into anything like the Peace Corps, I love Baby too.  And there’s the music, there’s the romance, there’s the whole coming of age storyline, there’s the fact that the main character is a girl – bearing in mind that this was made in the days of Top Gun, Back To The Future, Lethal Weapon etc – and, yes, there’s the social message.   It’s one of my all-time favourites.  So, what has Katy Brand got to say about it?

Well, a lot of it is about the social messages.  Think about the botched backstreet abortion – a storyline which, in Ronald Reagan’s socially conservative America, meant that some of the sponsors pulled out.  And the entertainments staff, who are living hand to mouth and can be fired, by jumped up little brats like the awful Neil, on the basis of a false allegation made by a “bungalow bunny”.  Penny and Lisa both being taken in by smooth-talking Robbie – there’s a warning to all young girls, and indeed young lads.  The end of an era, as well – the sense that the days of the Catskill Mountains holiday camps are numbered … and let’s not forget the historical social importance of those camps, set up back in the “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish” days when most of the people who went there would have been refused accommodation at many resorts elsewhere in New York state. And, most of all, Baby putting herself on the line to save Penny and get justice for Johnny.  Dirty Dancing makes you think, in a way that other iconic films of the ’80s, however great they are in their own way, just don’t.

This all sounds terribly serious, doesn’t it 🙂 ?   The book’s not all serious at all.  It mentions the theme weekend I referred to earlier.  I had no idea that you could actually go to the place where the film was made.  Wow!  I’ve been to all sorts of places associated with favourite books, films and TV programmes, and I love the fact that other people do this too. She also goes on about how she taped the film off the TV and then watched it so many times the tape broke, drove her sister and best friend mad with her obsession with it all, and wanted to go to dance classes because she thought they’d be like the ones in the film. These bits are great. And she also mentions Dirty Dancing on-line fandoms.  I love on-line fandoms.  I love the fact that I can have deep and meaningful discussions with hundreds of people about fictional characters, and that we all think this is a totally normal thing to do.  It’s so cool.  It’s so uncool!!

However, some of it is serious.  Katy Brand does, to be fair, stress that it would be inappropriate to make out that the film’s some sort of political statement.  It’s essentially a romantic coming-of-age musical.  She does suggest that Eleanor Bergstein, the film’s writer and co-producer is now trying to make out that it actually was primarily about making political points.  I don’t know whether or not that’s true, but, if so, then, with all due respect to Eleanor Bergstein, maybe she’s taking it all a bit too seriously.

Baby does take herself very seriously at the start of the film, but that’s part of it.  She’s 17.  She’s idealistic.  She plans to take “economics of under-developed countries” as her minor subject.  But she’s led a very sheltered life and has very little experience of the world.  She doesn’t get that none of the other entertainment staff can fill in for Penny, because they’re all too busy working.  She tells Penny that she envies her, when Penny’s just told her that she’s had to support herself since she was 16.  It’s a pretty silly thing to say.  But that’s the point.  She’s about to learn an awful lot in a very short space of time.

However, and this is a point I’d never really thought of before, she’s actually pretty mature.  And the whole film’s pretty mature.  No-one’s looking for a fairytale.   When Johnny leaves, Baby doesn’t burst into tears and beg him to take her with him.  It ends with “I’ve had the time of my life”.  Not with a wedding.  Maybe Baby and Johnny do live happily ever after, but, as Katy Brand says, it’s more likely that they drift apart once she’s at university and he’s on his next job, but that, as they both move on, they both continue to think that “I’ll never be sorry”.  That’s different.  Most romantic films aren’t like that.

She’s also super-confident. She isn’t cool.  She’s not unattractive, but she certainly isn’t a raving beauty.  Unlike Lisa, she isn’t even all that bothered about her appearance.  And she goes after Johnny.She goes to Johnny’s cabin. This isn’t an older man seducing a 17-year-old girl: if anything, it’s the other way round. Hands up, the first time I saw the film I wasn’t that keen. It took me a couple of viewings! That was partly because I’d got it firmly fixed in my head that Patrick Swayze lived in South Carolina in the 1850s, so I couldn’t quite handle the idea of him being in New York state in the 1960s, but it was also because I couldn’t get my head round the fact that Baby actually was that confident. It was something I just couldn’t relate to. Katy Brand says it makes her a role model. I suppose it does. And then we get Lisa offering to do her hair, but then saying that she’s pretty in her own way. That is great. Katy Brand really picks up on that. Everyone is attractive in their own way. Hooray! Heroine whose attraction is her personality, not her looks, anyway. Hooray!

Lisa is great there. She and Baby clearly aren’t that close, but, when push comes to shove, when everything’s going wrong for Baby, her sister is there to support her. And, when Baby finds out what Robbie’s really like, she’s desperate to save Lisa from him. And there’s also female solidarity between Baby and Penny, after the initial “Go back to your playpen,” scene. When Penny’s scared about the abortion, Baby comforts her. She’s completely out of her own comfort zone, but she’s there for Penny.

In fact, everyone’s there for Penny, apart from Robbie. Abortion is not the political issue in the UK (except perhaps in Northern Ireland) that it is in the US, but it’s still an issue. And this is set in the 1960s. Eleanor Bergstein was really saying something with this storyline. Not even Dr Houseman criticises Penny: he only criticises Johnny who (he thinks) was the one who got her into trouble, and the “butcher” who botched the abortion. And there’s quite a telling scene in which Penny says to Baby that she only slept with Robbie because she thought he loved her and “it was something special”. I hadn’t realised that sponsors actually pulled out because of the abortion storyline. Eleanor Bergstein was very brave with it.

So, there’s a lot to think about here. I’m not going to write it all out, but obviously we’ve got the huge moment in which Baby tells everyone that Johnny couldn’t have stolen anything because he was with her all night. We’ve got the showdown between her and her dad, when she says that she’s sorry she let him down but that he let her down too. We’ve got his eventual acceptance of what’s happened. We’ve got the unmasking of the Schumachers as the thieves and Robbie as the one who got Penny in trouble.

And, as Katy Brand says, wouldn’t you love to know more about the minor characters? What exactly goes on in the Pressmans’ marriage? And why on earth doesn’t Marge Houseman ask why Baby needs to borrow $250, in an all-inclusive resort miles from any shops, or where Jake has been with his medical bag in the middle of the night? Does it honestly not occur to her that something very untoward is going on?

So there’s a lot in this book which makes for very interesting reading.  But there were other bits which marred it for me.  I don’t know Katy Brand, and I don’t even know much about her, so I can’t really comment on what she’s like.  But there are a lot of people around these days who are full of some kind of sense of middle-class guilt, or uncoolness, or something, and deal with it by abusing upper-class people (usually in contexts which aren’t even relevant) and sneering at other middle-class people. They also, although to be fair this doesn’t actually happen in this book, usually sneer at working-class people and say that they’re stupid, know nothing about politics and shouldn’t be entitled to an opinion. So they actually snipe about everyone. And Katy Brand does come across, in this book, as being one of those people.

It must be very wearying to go around sniping about everyone. Isn’t that the complete opposite of what Dirty Dancing‘s about? It’s telling us that you can love anyone, and be friends with everyone. Not that you should make sarcastic remarks about people in a theatre queue having bought their sandwiches from Waitrose. Who even worries about where people in a theatre queue have bought their sandwiches from, anyway? Who even notices?!

And, in the middle of the book, she starts slagging off the Bullingdon Club. What on earth has the Bullingdon Club got to do with Dirty Dancing? Are there a load of Old Etonians staying at Kellerman’s? Are we to assume that Robbie and Neil are members of some sort of American equivalent of the Bullingdon Club?  No. Of course not. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with it. So why bring it up? I just do not get these people at all.  What do they think they’re proving by having a go at everyone?  Especially when it’s not even relevant?

I get the impression, though, that Katy Brand would have preferred it if Robbie and Neil had been members of the Bullingdon Club. She keeps going on about “class war”. She’s clearly desperate to make out that the film’s all about a clash between the most privileged and the least privileged. And it isn’t. Robbie may be at Yale Medical School, but he still has to spend his holidays working as a waiter. We’re told that it’s the Houseman family’s first proper holiday for six years. Max Kellerman reminisces about his family’s struggles during the Depression, when they had nothing. And about when his Bubba and Zaida (that’s Bobbie and Zaidie to people who pronounce Yiddish the Northern English way, BTW!) ran the place.

I’ve never been to the Catskills. However, last month, I stayed at Lake Placid, in the nearby Adirondacks. There’s an interesting story there, about Melvil Dewey, the man who invented the Dewey Decimal System. He ran a hotel in Lake Placid. No Jews. No blacks. No-one else he considered socially undesirable. He was forced to resign as New York State Librarian as a result – which is pretty impressive, considering that this was in 1905. But the exclusion policy stayed. That would probably have been in Max’s grandparents’ time.

OK, I wouldn’t expect Katy Brand to know that. She’s not a historian. And, to be fair, she does acknowledge that the Housemans, the Kellermans and the Goulds are actually not from a Bullingdon Club type background. But she’s determined to push forward her class war theory, and she ties herself in knots over it. She quotes another author’s claims that Robbie’s trying to “out-WASP the WASPs”. What, because he’s a git and he treats Penny and Johnny like dirt? Gits come from all sorts of different backgrounds, love. It’s nothing to do with what colour you are, what religion you are, or what socio-economic class you belong to. Get over it.

She also claims that she’d seen the film about a hundred times before she realised that the Housemans were Jewish. I find that quite hard to believe, but then she also claims that, the first time she saw the film, she didn’t know what “knocked up” meant, and thought Penny was ill rather than pregnant. That seems rather odd, for a 12-year-old, but I do actually believe that, so maybe I should believe her about the Housemans as well. But then she goes on and on about “affluential Jewish families” and she quotes the out-WASPing commenty author as also saying how hypocritical it is for self-made Jews to look down on anyone else.

Why is she quoting someone else?  We’re not talking about the causes of the Civil War: we’re talking about a romantic musical film.  It’s a bit … strange.  And what is going on here anyway?  What is she getting at?  In the current political climate, it made me feel quite uncomfortable that someone should have written this. It actually had me wondering what Jeremy Corbyn makes of Dirty Dancing, a thought which I am trying very hard to banish. To be fair, I don’t think for a minute that she has a problem with the fact that the Kellermans and the Housemans, and probably the Goulds too, are self-made Jewish families.  I think it’s more that she can’t cope with the fact that they’re not part of some sort of privileged, country club, social elite, because that scuppers her class war theory.  Yes, I know I’m overthinking this, but I’m not the one who’s judging people on their socio-economic status and religion whilst criticising them for doing the same!

Then, after all this class war stuff and “affluential Jewish families” stuff, she jumps back to the fun stuff, and this was where the weekend at the place where the film was made came in.  I’d love to go there.  I’d love to go over every teensy little bit of the film with other people who’ve also seen it a million times.  I’d genuinely like to have serious discussions about the social message of the films: I accept that some people say that we should just enjoy books and films and not analyse them, but I love to analyse them, and I love to discuss them.  But maybe not with Katy Brand.  Which is a shame, because there was so much in this book that I loved reading and so much that I could relate to.  But there were some bits I just wasn’t comfortable with at all.  But, hey, that’s life.  You can’t be everything to everyone.  Just, like Baby, be true to yourself!

 

On Your Feet (the Gloria Estefan musical) – Palace Theatre, Manchester

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This was wonderful.  It was mostly music from 1988 to 1991, which is just my era, so it was a brilliant nostalgia-fest!  But it was more than that.  It was the story of two immigrants who overcame adversity to live the American Dream.  It was their love story.  It was the story of how a  courageous woman fought back from terrible injuries.  It was full of emotion, like a 1980s musical, but also full of dance and colour, like a 1950s musical.  And how come I can remember all the words to all those songs from thirty years ago, yet I can never remember where I put my keys five minutes ago?!

Gloria Estefan (and the Miami Sound Machine – she didn’t use her name alone until 1989) didn’t become popular in the UK until 1988, when I was thirteen.  We’d just got our first CD player.  Cutting edge technology!   But we were taping music off the radio as well.  I quite liked the upbeat songs, like 1-2-3, Get On Your Feet, Oye Me Canto and Rhythm’s Gonna Get You, but, being hopeless at dancing, not to mention going through an extremely soppy phase starting in mid-1989, I preferred the ballads.  They were all in there!   Can’t Stay Away From You, Don’t Wanna Lose You Now, Cuts Both Ways, Anything For You, Here We Are …  and I still know all the words to them all.  And there was quite a bit of her earlier music too.  All those Cuban rhythms and dancing, all those colourful clothes!

It finished with Coming Out Of The Dark, her comeback song.  That didn’t do very well here.  I don’t know why not.  We were all so upset about the accident, which happened in March 1990.  She’d had one hit after the other, and she was so popular.  Such a lovely person.  I remember reading an interview with her, in Smash Hits or Just Seventeen or something like that, and thinking how terribly romantic it was that she’d married her first boyfriend.  It was such a positive time, as well.  That brief interlude.  The Berlin Wall was down, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, everything seemed possible.  It only lasted until the summer, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, but that short period was a really special time.  I’ve got completely off the point now, haven’t I?  She had to learn to walk again.  The musical showed some of what she went through, the rehab, how difficult it was.  To come back from that, to get back to performing at the highest level … incredible.

To get back to 1988, Gloria was in her thirties, with an eight-year-old son.  She and the band had had success in the US earlier, but only a few years earlier.  The likes of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and Kylie Minogue were having hits in their teens, and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were only in their mid-twenties.  Madonna was about the same age as Gloria, but she’d already been around for years.  The Miami Sound Machine (to add to the confusion, originally it was the band’s name alone, without the then Gloria Fajardo’s!) had released its first album in 1977.  So what on earth took so long?

Well, OK, sometimes it does take a while.  But what this musical showed was the specific issues faced by a Cuban-American group, performing Cuban-influenced music, trying to break into the English language mainstream market.  It wasn’t that the English-speaking public didn’t like their music.  It was that producers wouldn’t take a chance on it.  They’d been touring Latin America, but producers in the US were urging them to stick to the Latin market, and not even to sing in English.  I don’t know how accurate the musical was, but the way it showed it was that they were handing out copies of their singles in the street, offering to perform at clubs for free, and even playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Partly a marketing thing, but partly also general prejudice.  There were some fairly hard-hitting scenes with Emilio Estefan saying “This is what an American looks like” and talking about how, in his early days in Miami, he’d been faced with signs on apartments saying “No pets, no Cubans”.  It’s not an uncommon story.  “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish.”  No-one bleating about “wokeness”, or claiming that singing Cuban-influenced music in English was “cultural appropriation” or saying that someone should lose their job because of a comment they made twenty years ago.  Just someone talking about the difficulties which they personally had had to overcome.  And being proud to be an American, a Cuban-American.

And the musical showed how they went from being faced with signs like those to playing in Washington DC, with the Stars and Stripes as the backdrop to Gloria’s performance, to meeting President George Bush at the White House.  It was so positive.  People don’t talk much about “the American Dream” any more.  Is that due to modern negativity, or is just seen as an old-fashioned term?  Anyway.  They made it!  And how ironic it was that it was whilst returning from the White House that their bus was involved in that horrific accident.

I was going to say “two Latinos” or “two Hispanic people”, but I think that that’d perhaps mask the fact that the Cuban-American experience has been very different from, say, the Mexican-American experience or the Puerto Rican American experience.  It happens here too: the term “British Asian” perhaps masks the fact that the British Indian experience has been very different from the British Pakistani experience and British Bangladeshi experience.

Emilio Estefan left Cuba with his dad, initially for Madrid and then for Miami, as a teenager in 1967.  His mum remained behind to care for her elderly parents, and they were separated for four years.  Gloria’s family, the Fajardos left Cuba, where her dad had been a soldier with close ties to the Batistas, in 1959, when Gloria was only two.

Gloria’s mum had been a singer in Cuba, and had an offer from Hollywood but was stopped from going by her father.  The musical showed how she initially wasn’t happy about Gloria going into the music business, and being on tour when she had a young child, and how they became estranged for a time.  She’d later got a PhD in education, but, because the Cuban authorities destroyed all her certificates, she had to retrain from scratch when she got to Miami – where she was the family breadwinner, because Gloria’s dad became severely disabled.

It wasn’t mentioned in the musical, but he took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was captured by his own cousin and imprisoned.  He was eventually released, but then served in Vietnam.  The musical showed him in Vietnam, but, presumably to avoid controversy, didn’t spell out the fact that his medical condition was probably caused by Agent Orange poisoning.  Gloria cared for her father and her younger sister, aided by her beloved maternal grandma whilst her mum was retraining and then working, but still got a university degree.

Gloria Fajardo and Emilio Estefan – they had it tough, they struggled to get their music into the mainstream market, and then, at the peak of Gloria’s success, she suffered that horrific accident.  And they overcame it all.  What an inspirational story.  This is a wonderful nostalgia fest for those of us whose music collections have never really got past 1988 to 1991, but it’s so much more than that.  Great story.  Great music. Very, very impressed.

 

Malory Towers

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As a little girl, I was obsessed with Malory Towers.  When I was 6 or 7, one of my primary school teachers even complained to my mum and dad that I wrote like “a miniature Enid Blyton”.  I only wish I did – I could use the zillions of pounds she must have earned in royalties!  I tried to write a pantomime like Darrell Rivers did – with the parts going to my dolls and teddy bears.  I told my sister that we were going to have a midnight feast and we had to nick food from our tea.  You get the idea.  Then, as I got older, I began to find aspects of the books more and more unpleasant.  The bullying, the malice, the snobbery.  Let’s face it, as a swotty fat kid with a Northern accent, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at the place.  Alicia and Betty would have made mincemeat of me!  But I’ve still got that childhood affection for the books, for the midnight feasts and the seawater swimming pool and the tricks played on teachers, and I booked to see this stage adaptation pretty much as soon as tickets went on sale.  And it was a really nice interpretation of the books – not exactly faithful to them, and with some elements that verged on being spoof-like, but with added depth given to the problem characters to explain their unpleasant behaviour, and an overall emphasis, on friendship, pulling together, and becoming the sort of kind, strong women whom Miss Grayling talked about in her legendary welcome speeches.

It started with a group of girls in a modern school, and my heart sank … but that was only some silly intro bit that’d been added for no good reason, and it didn’t last long!  Soon, we were off to Malory Towers. No midnight feasts, and only one trick, but we did get the swimming pool – thanks to the clever use of graphics and other special effects, which formed a big part of the performance. There’s obviously only so much that you can show on stage, especially in a production that’s only aimed at relatively small theatres, but the graphics were very effective in showing things that couldn’t have been included otherwise.

Only seven characters featured – Darrell, Sally, Gwendoline Mary, Alicia, Bill, Mary-Lou and Irene. If I’d had to pick seven of the girls to include, I’d probably have gone for exactly the same seven (ignoring the fact that Bill didn’t actually appear until the third year, and this was meant to be the first term of the first year), but I did wonder how it was going to work without Miss Grayling, Miss Potts, Mam’zelle et al. However, in the end I didn’t really miss them that much – and Miss Grayling did feature when needed, as a silhouette and a disembodied voice!  Headmistresses in school stories are always terribly wise and inspirational – I was fully expecting some sort of inspirational speech on my own first day at secondary school, and was rather put out when all we heard about were timetables and lockers and dinner queues – and we needed her words to remind us what Malory Towers was supposed to be about, but the emphasis was on the girls and the bonding between them.

It was a musical, but the music wasn’t really that memorable: it was all about the storyline.  As far as that storyline went, several storylines, from different books, had been combined, so it wasn’t for the purists. There was also a clifftop rescue scene which had more echoes of the Chalet School than of Malory Towers, and a Shakespearean play storyline which had more echoes of Kingscote than of Darrell & co’s pantomime. Even aspects of the characters had been merged: Bill was an “Honourable”, whereas in the books that was Clarissa. However, the general themes were there, and much of the story hinged on the iconic scene in which Gwendoline holds Mary-Lou under the water in the swimming pool and furious Darrell slaps her. That scene’s been taken out of some modern reprints, which rather annoys me.  It’s meant to be violent. The whole point of it is that slapping people isn’t acceptable. And it’s much more dramatic than the storyline in which Darrell’s framed for breaking a pen, which is what causes most of the first term’s trouble in the book.

As far as the portrayal of the characters went … well, for a kick-off, most of them didn’t have posh voices, so maybe yours truly would actually have been OK in this version of Malory Towers!  Well, if the other girls could have got past the fat and swotty stuff!   And the only two who were really true to how they were in the books were hot-tempered but good-hearted Darrell and timid Mary-Lou.  They were all a bit caricatured – but it has to be said that Enid Blyton’s characters can be rather one-dimensional, certainly when compared to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s or Antonia Forest’s. But this adaptation did give more depth to the two problem girls – Alicia and Gwendoline Mary. Alicia, rather than being malicious and, it has to be said, rather a bitch, was shown as playing the part of class comedian to try to cover up her academic failings. That was venturing a long way from the books, in which Alicia was very clever, but it fitted with the purpose of the show, which had everyone coming together at the end to support each other.

As for Gwendoline, in the books she was only redeemed towards the end of her final year, when her dad became ill. In this version, we were told that the reason she was so badly-behaved wasn’t that she was spoilt, as it was in the books, but that she had a troubled home life because her dad was suffering from shell-shock after the war.  And her dad actually died – it was strongly suggested that he’d taken his own life – and the other girls rallied round her, and so she became part of the crowd.   Again, it was a long way from the books, but it worked for the purposes of this show. It was also interesting to see the effects of the war on this generation of young people brought into the story. It was never mentioned in the books.  It really did all get quite dark, partly with the suicide storyline and partly with Gwendoline half-smothering Mary-Lou with a pillow, driving her into running away.  The books certainly weren’t all jolly hockey sticks, with some pretty nasty stuff going on, but this took things to a different level.

Sally’s story was changed as well – she was far more serious and bossy that she was in the books, and her issues were put down to, rather than jealousy of her new baby sister as they were in the books, being neglected by parents who weren’t really interested in her. Again, it all formed part of this idea of the girls needing each other, and realising that in the end. Irene didn’t really feature much, and had lost her scatterbrained nature and her interest in maths: she was the one character whom I felt could really have done with a bit more of a story and a bit more action.

And so to Bill, who’s had all the press coverage because the part’s being played by a non-binary actor. Some of this has been bigotry from the religious right and is therefore best ignored, but there’s also been some valid concern, from people who are not in the least bit transphobic, that the casting decision gives the impression that a cisgender female has to be into frilly pink girly stuff and that a tomboy can’t identify as being female.  The issues of gender identity and sexuality weren’t actually referred to, but there was certainly something going on.  Bill was referred to as a “knight in shining armour” for her part in the clifftop rescue, strode about in jodhpurs and riding boots, like a Jilly Cooper character, whilst all the others were in school uniform, and shared a “moment” with Sally when their parts in the Shakespearean play required them to kiss.

I personally have never seen Bill as being non-binary or transgender: whereas George (Georgina) of the Famous Five dislikes being seen as a girl and is pleased when people see her as a boy, there’s never any suggestion that Bill identifies as anything other than female. But, like many Girls’ Own fans, I see Bill as being gay, and imagine her ending up in a relationship with Clarissa Carter. There’s a lot of fanfic “shipping” the two of them – and quite a bit of it is by authors who are themselves gay and say that they identify with the characters and find it helpful that characters like them do exist in older books for children. I think we’re also meant to see Miss Potts as being a lesbian – she’s a rather clumsy stereotype, unlike Miss Wilmot and Miss Ferrars in the Chalet School books, but the point is that there are strong LGBT undertones in some Enid Blyton books, although it’s George rather than Bill who doesn’t want to be seen as a girl, and so there’s no “agenda” involved in portraying that in stage or film or TV adaptations. Children’s books of that period did not include openly gay characters – the first children’s book I read which did include an openly gay character was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and that wasn’t written until the 1980s – but there were definitely those aspects to Malory Towers and other Girls’ Own stories.  Anyone claiming that it’s been made up for political correctness or to push an “agenda” or anything else really needs to have a good read of the books!

Nevertheless, as I said, this wasn’t for the purists, because storylines and characters had been changed; but the general themes, the positive themes, of Malory Towers and of Girls’ Own books in general were all there.  Pull together, work with your friends, try to deal with any aspects of your own character – a bad temper, jealousy, bullying tendencies – which are problematic – and try to “learn to be good-hearted and kind, sensible and trustable, good, sound women the world can lean on”!   It’s great to see Malory Towers back in the news, and it was great to see a lot of teenage girls there last night, and some younger children as well.  I’d thought it was all going to be people aged 35 and over, but it looks as if the Girls’ Own baton is being carried on into another generation.  Hooray!!  Or, as Enid Blyton would have said, hurrah!

Rocketman

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I thought this was great, although it didn’t make for easy watching despite the fun fantasy musical sequences.  I love the fact that a “fat boy from Pinner” became an international superstar, and continues to be one after all the years; but I’m so sorry that he’s had to go through so much.  Life can be very hard: we screw ourselves up, and other people screw us up.  I felt as if everyone should have jumped up and joined in with the “I’m Still Standing” happy ending … although, being a bit of an old romantic, I wish it’d jumped forward and finished with his wedding to David Furnish, rather than everyone dancing around on a beach 🙂 . I also feel really old: I’ve got Elton John albums on tape, and I remember when Dexter Fletcher, who directed this film, was in Press Gang!

It’s quite an unusual film, because you’ve got the big musical sequences – and it can’t be easy fitting songs into someone’s life story, rather than making a film like Mamma Mia! or Sunshine on Leith where the story’s written to fit in with the songs – and the flamboyant costumes, but you’ve also got a real human being’s real pain.  I hadn’t realised he’d suffered from eating disorders, but his issues with alcoholism and cocaine addiction are well-known.  They’re all played out on the screen, all tied in with his difficult relationships with his parents, and with his one-time manager and boyfriend John Reid.  I believe there’s been some criticism of the way Reid’s portrayed in the film, but we can’t know what went on behind closed doors so can’t really comment on that.

The film did seem to emphasise the lows rather than the highs.   As I’ve said, I’d like to have seen it show him finding him happiness with David Furnish.  And, come to that, I’d like to have seen a bit more about Watford!  What about them getting to the 1984 Cup Final?!   It started off with a group therapy session, which rather set the tone.  He’s achieved so much: he’s sung so many iconic songs, sold so many records.  I’d like to have seen a bit more emphasis on the positives.   But, having said that, the film’s showing us how he struggled behind the flamboyant act and the brilliant music, and anyone who’s ever had issues with self-hatred and addiction and eating disorders will feel for him.  Well, everyone will feel for him, I hope.   And maybe anyone who’s opposing the teaching of LGBT equality in schools will see how Elton John struggled with being expected to hide his true self, and think twice about their attitudes … although they probably won’t, because they probably won’t go to see the film.

There is a happy ending.  We’re told that he’s been sober for 28 years, and we’re shown pictures of the real Elton John – Sir Elton John, I should say! – with his husband and children and doing his charity work.  Not all life stories of celebs who’ve struggled with themselves and addiction turn out happily.  All too many have ended in tragedy.  I’m so pleased that things have worked out for him.  I’m sure he still has his moments – I’ve seen him in concert twice, and the first time he had a tantrum and walked off early, although the second time he was wonderful – but hopefully there aren’t too many of them any more.

And what a singer, and what a pianist.  The music’s great.  The music’s always great!   And, if you haven’t seen it already – I’m a bit late to the party because I’ve been busy with tennis and days out!! – this is definitely a film worth seeing.

The King and I – Manchester Opera House

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Don’t you absolutely love the way Anna Leonowens is presented in this very Victorian story combining morality, romance, humour and (a not very accurate view of!) Thai history?  Abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, genteel but hard-working devoted single mother, confidante of one king and the inspiration behind the reforms made by another, friend to royal wives and beloved by royal children, promoter of East-West harmony, courageous, uber- principled, and beautiful and glamorous to boot?  She even sorts out arguments over the Bible!   I’d give a lot to have Mary Poppins’ ability to tidy up the house just by clicking my fingers, and I adore Maria von Trapp, but I’d love to be Anna Leonowens. If I was being a Victorian.  OK, there’s no way I’d ever get into the dress that Deborah Kerr wears in the “Shall We Dance” scene, and I’d probably do an Eliza Doolittle and forget to pretend to be posh at the most inappropriate moment, but even so. Shame that a lot of the story’s “romanticised” (not to mention didacticised) and has given people an inaccurate impression of not only Anna (which isn’t really a problem, I suppose) but of King Mongkut and mid-19th century Siam in general; but I love it as a story and as an incredible musical – and this is a great production of it.

There are so many wonderful, wonderful songs in it – not only Shall We Dance, but Something Wonderful, Hello Young Lovers and We Kiss In A Shadow which are all so emotional, Getting To Know You which is very sweet, and I Whistle A Happy Tune which I’ve always liked too. The broken English of Is A Puzzlement doesn’t work now as well as it did in the 1950s, but the actual lyrics, the confusion of a leader who desperately wants to do what’s best for their country but, in changing times, just isn’t sure what that is, works in any time.  The message of the song rings so true, and the king is such a fascinating character – even if the story doesn’t depict him very accurately.

Coincidentally, the Thai royal family’s in the news this week, with King Maha Vajiralongkorn, King Mongkut’s great-great-grandson, due to be crowned on Saturday and having just married his bodyguard (well, the deputy leader of his personal security detail), whom he apparently met whilst she was working as a flight attendant on a plane he was on, and made her queen. That’s a brilliant story, and it’s all true!  Anna’s is … well, the word I’ve used is a “romanticised”!

OK, she was employed as a schoolteacher (note the use of the word “schoolteacher”, never “governess” with its overtones of being an upper level servant rather than a “free and independent employee”) to the Siamese royal children. And King Mongkut was certainly interested in science, and in Western ideas and closer ties with the West. And, yes, he did have a lot of wives and concubines, and a lot of children (82). But he’s certainly not thought to have been cruel, and the Tuptim story’s caused a lot of upset in Thailand over the years. King Mongkut actually banned forced marriage, and freed a lot of the royal concubines.  Furthermore, he definitely wouldn’t have been dancing a polka with the schoolteacher – which is a shame, because I really love that scene. Nor was Anna at his deathbed: she wasn’t even in the country when he died, but on holiday in England!  Chulalongkorn, the crown prince in the film, abolished slavery (and prostration), but it’s a bit rich to claim that that was because of the influence of Anna Leonowens.

As for Anna herself, she lied about her maiden name and place of birth – quite possibly to cover up her mixed race heritage (see here if you wish to read my wafflings on that subject!) – and her late husband Tom Owens (who later merged his middle name and surname to create the posher-sounding “Leonowens”) was a clerk, not an army officer. It’s a very interesting tale of fake news, really. And her real story’s even more interesting – she travelled widely, tried to set up her own schools, was the great-aunt of Boris Karloff (seriously!), and genuinely was a feminist, and an opponent of slavery.

A lot of musicals have very serious messages.  Very few of them are just purely about entertainment. The King and I is one which combines morality, romance, humour and history.  OK, it’s not very accurate history, but most people seeing the film or the stage show will never have had the opportunity to learn much about Thailand, its history and its culture – I’ve got a degree in history, as well as a GCSE and an A-level, and Thai history never came up once in my struggles – and owt’s better than nowt.  We’re learning something about Siam/Thailand.  And, yes, it’s from a Western viewpoint, but we are talking about something set in the 1860s.  The stage show, unlike the film, includes the “Western People Funny” song, in which the Siamese ladies sing about how ridiculous it is that they’re being made to wear Western clothes, and about the Western “sentimental Oriental” idea, which does redress the balance.  And I think the story is respectful of Siamese culture – it’s certainly very respectful of Buddhism, and we’re clearly meant to hope that the king is able to stop Siam from becoming a British or French protectorate.

It also includes “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” which has that great line about being a “free and independent employee”.  That’s not an East-West thing, and nor are all Anna’s comments about respect for women.  Jane Eyre makes a similar comment, in a very different context, about being a free and independent person.  It’s a very important theme in The King and I. 

Of course, the issues of freedom go way beyond that, to the question of slavery, and the Tuptim story.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most important books of the 19th century in terms of raising awareness about slavery.  Read it, and the sickly religious language will probably make you want to throw up – it really is unbearable! -, but it was incredibly important at the time, and it’s interesting how it gets linked into The King and I … if rather misleading, because there were a lot of differences between slavery in the American South and slavery in Thailand. But slavery is still slavery.  Thankfully, this production of the stage show did not include Anna’s comments about how “Mr Lincoln is fighting a great war to free the slaves”, which always annoy me, though!  Lincoln fought the Civil War to bring the Southern states back into the Union, OK!   And, no, King Mongkut didn’t really offer to send him any elephants to help him win the war – although he did offer to send elephants to the US for use as beasts of burden.

I’ve got off the point now.  It’s quite irritating that the question of slavery has to be viewed through an American prism, but I suppose the idea was that it was one the audience’d understand.  And it’s the Tuptim affair that breaks the king.  He actually died of malaria, but, in this – and it was the first musical ever to kill someone off actually on stage, incidentally – he dies of heart trouble, not only physically but mentally, having realised that his time is up because Anna Leonowens made him realise that he couldn’t beat Tuptim.

But he dies knowing that Chulalongkorn is going to bring about reform. This production gave Chulalongkorn a bigger role than he gets in the film – it had a lovely scene in which he and Louis Leonowens sang part of “Is A Puzzlement”, about how grown-ups argue about things that they don’t really understand themselves. And he’s not a baddie. He’s a good guy. He tried his best. It’s not one of those horrible absolute Victorian religious stories in which everyone’s either right or wrong – one of the king’s last lines is about how what matters in life is to have tried your best.

It is a Victorian moral story, though. The king dies because Anna stopped him from beating Tuptim. And there’s this theme of honour all the way through it. Honour, whilst it’s a big thing in Girls’ Own and Boys’ Own stories, doesn’t always work that well in stories for adults. In Gone With The Wind, honour is a big theme but it’s all rather ironic, because the honourable Ashley Wilkes is really a complete loser. In The King and I, the keeping of your word is crucial. Siam cannot hope to take her place on the world stage if her king cannot accept that he has to keep his word about the schoolteacher’s living accommodation: she was promised a house, rather than an apartments within the palace, and she keeps on about this house until the king gives in.

It sounds so mad, put like that, but it’s the principle – the idea of truth and trust. In 2019, no-one trusts a word that comes out of any political leader’s mouth. In 1862, was it any different? Did any adults genuinely believe the idea of the wonders of British justice and spreading it across the world? 1862 was probably too early for that idea even to have been round, actually. And Abraham Lincoln certainly wasn’t the saint he’s now made out to be. (I’m just using Britain and America as examples because the story’s about a British woman and goes on about Lincoln.) Yet, somehow, the idea works here.

A lot of that’s because of the music.  Music can make most things work.  We’ve got all these great songs, and the unspoken attraction between two great characters.  The costumes are wonderful, too!  The dancing’s wonderful.  And it’s very romantic … but just the chemistry between Anna and the king, but the romance between Tuptim and her lover, Anna’s love for her late husband, Sir Edward’s unrequited love for Anna, Lady Tiang’s love for the king.  And the love between Anna and her son, the king and his children, the royal wives and their children, Anna and the royal children.  Not many things manage to combine morality and emotion well.  This does.  It really gets you.  Wonderful story, wonderful music, wonderful production.  Cute kids!

And I still want that dress …

 

 

 

 

SIX The Musical

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This sounded like an utterly ridiculous idea – presenting the six wives of Henry VIII as “sassy” 21st century pop/rock princesses, seriously?! – but it worked brilliantly (although rather better with the last three wives than with the first three wives)!   My music collection has never got out of the 1980s so I can’t really comment on modern pop/rock  😉 , but it was very lively and entertaining.  And, hey, there weren’t even any glaring historical inaccuracies – apart from annoyingly referring to “Britain” and “the UK” rather than “England”.  It was really good.  It bothered me slightly that the composers were born in 1994 – surely anyone who was born in 1994 has no business being out of nappies, never mind writing award-winning musicals?! – but I genuinely enjoyed it.

The idea was that the six wives were going to choose who should be the leader of their girl band by way of each one singing about what a hard time she had, and the winner being the one who’d had it worst. I know – it sounded like one of those awful ideas that teachers come up with because they think it’ll attract kids’ interest.  Luckily, none of my history teachers ever made anyone sing.  I was the kid who won the school history prize but was told that I had to mouth the words in music lessons because my singing was so bad that it was putting the other kids off, so that combination really would not have worked for me.  Although one of the duo who wrote this studied history at university and then studied dance and musical theatre.   It must be amazing to be multi-talented like that 🙂 .

But we never sang in history lessons. Nor did we try to relate history to the present day.  That was a no-no.  “Anachronistic” – a very bad thing to be.  It does seem to be a trend now, though, and it can be quite annoying.  There was a programme on the BBC last year, which was supposed to be about the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.  David Starkey, who really ought to know better, spent the entire time going on about Brexit.  What on earth has Martin Luther got to do with Brexit?  Very irritating.  However, there’ve always been schools of historical interpretation which are closely connected with events at the time – the Whigs, the Marxists, etc – so the idea of a #MeToo interpretation of events, which I think was partly what this was meant to be, is fair enough.

As was pointed out, the six wives are largely remembered each as one of six, and only in relation to Henry, rather than as six individuals. On the other hand, everyone knows their names because there were six of them.  People who aren’t particularly into history and wouldn’t be able to name the wives of any other English kings can recite the names of the six wives of Henry VIII with no trouble at all.  And the rhyme.  “Divorced, beheaded, died.  Divorced, beheaded, survived.”  It’s not actually accurate, because the marriage to Catherine of Aragon was declared not to have been a marriage at all, and the marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled, but anyway.  It’s the best-known period in English history.  Let the Whig historians talk about the importance of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution: it’s the soap opera-esque appeal of a man with six wives (much more so than, you know, the Reformation!) that gets the attention.

I hate getting things out of chronological order, but I’m going to make an exception here, because the way that this presented the fourth, fifth and sixth wives was great, whereas I was less impressed with the presentation of the first three wives. Yes, all right, all right, it was done like that so that they could get a range of different styles of music in, and I was probably the only person in the audience who was trying to make it into a serious historical thing; but I’m just like that.

Anne of Cleves, then. I loved this!   At school, I was taught that Anne of Cleves was “the Flanders mare”, the one whom Henry sent packing because she was ugly.  It was only later that I found out that – to be fair, I suppose they can’t really tell you this at school – what probably happened was that Henry wasn’t up to the job and tried to blame it on Anne’s physical appearance.  And there was no need to try to modernise this story, because it really is a story for the 2010s.  Henry decided to marry Anne (well, apart from her dowry, and the fact that no other foreign princess would have him) after seeing the overly flattering portrait of her painted by Holbein, and then claimed that he’d been tricked and that she looked nothing like it.  Yep.  Just like all those profile pics on Facebook or Tinder or Grindr or whatever, which have either been photoshopped or else show the person when they were younger and possibly slimmer.  Then he totally humiliated her by broadcasting this to the whole of Europe.  Poor Anne.

What you aren’t usually told is that, once the marriage had been annulled, Anne of Cleves was treated as if she were the king’s sister. She got to lead the luxurious life of a senior member of the royal family without having to put up with Henry, the pressure to produce an heir, or the fear of losing her head as soon as Henry’s eye began to wander.  She probably got the best deal of the lot.  And that is exactly how it came across in SIX.  Hooray!

Next up, Catherine Howard – the one who’s usually presented as a silly little tart. If the story of Anne of Cleves is a story for the social media age, the story of Catherine Howard is very much a #MeToo story.  She was a pretty young girl, taken advantage of by older men, and pushed into the arms of the king by her ambitious male relatives.  OK, it was incredibly stupid of her to have an affair after she was actually married to Henry, but she was looking for affection – and, by then, she’d been made to feel that this was all she was, someone whom men wanted, and only wanted for one thing.  I’m not sure that an Ariana Grande hairdo really fitted with her sad story, but it’s a story that is very ripe for re-telling through 21st century eyes.

And then Catherine Parr. There are opinion polls about all sorts around these days, but I’ve never seen one asking which of Henry VIII’s wives is people’s favourite!  Catherine Parr is mine.  My one big quibble with her is her appalling taste in men.  Thomas Seymour.  No, no, no!   Her song seemed as if it was all going to be a tale of woe about how she’d had arranged marriages to older men and then, just as she and Thomas had got together, Henry decided he wanted to marry her.  Marks for historical accuracy, OK, but all so negative!  But then, hooray, there was a second part to the song, all about how she was very well-educated and she wrote books and promoted female authors and artists.  Yay!! That’s why she’s my favourite of the six!

And I think we owe Catherine a huge debt for the role she played in Elizabeth’s education. I’m just going to do a bit of a David Starkey here, sorry, and say how much we could do with Elizabeth at the moment!   She had to cope with two rival factions, both of whom wanted everything (Reformation-wise, in her case) all their own way and seemed to show very little respect for other people’s opinions.  She had people trying to overthrow her – and, in her case, we’re talking imprisonment and probably execution, not just being replaced as party leader.  Hostility from Europe?  Philip II of Spain sent an Armada to try to invade her country, and the Pope pretty much said that people had a divine duty to assassinate her.

Makes those idiots in Brussels look like pussy cats by comparison. And she was probably the greatest ruler this country’s ever had.  I’m just saying!

Back to the beginning. Catherine of Aragon.  Everyone knows this bit, and it rings true in every period of history.  Man dumps his loyal wife of many years, to go off with someone younger and sexier.  Catherine is eternally cast as the wronged wife, Anne as the other woman.  It’s really interesting that, even though the Tudors were masters of propaganda, and it certainly didn’t suit Henry VIII for Catherine to be cast as a saint and martyr, nor Elizabeth for Anne to be seen as the baddie, this is the image that’s come down through the centuries.   Catherine’s song was the full sob story – shipped off to marry Arthur, widowed very young, treated very badly during her widowhood, then the loyal, loving, pious wife, dumped by Henry, separated from her only surviving child, all the children she lost.  Yes, that’s all true.

But, if we were doing “sassy”, couldn’t we have got the other side of Catherine in there as well? She was very much Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter.  She masterminded Flodden Field, whilst Henry was messing about in Flanders.  She sent him James IV of Scotland’s bloodied surcoat, and I always get the impression that she’d quite like to have sent him James’s dead body as well.  She was a tough cookie.  She must have been, or else she’d have trotted off to a nunnery and let Henry and Anne get on with it.  Does even the #MeToo generation have to present her as nothing more than the wronged wife dumped for a younger model?

Then Anne Boleyn. What was going on here?!  She had a Bjork hairdo.  And spoke and sang like a chav.  I think she was actually meant to come across like a bored millennial,who was never off her mobile phone, but she did actually just come across as a chav.  Bjork, chav, Anne Boleyn … er, no, me neither!   The song also made her come across as being a bit thick and a victim of events.  No!  That was Catherine Howard!  I suppose at least they didn’t show her as a conniving tart who betrayed the sisterhood by stealing another woman’s husband, because it’s very unfair how history’s tended to do that – Anne, far from setting out to attract the king, wanted to marry Henry Percy, and was in an impossible position once Henry became interested in her – but she was anything but thick.

I know, I know! It was probably just about what fitted with different songs.  And the same with Jane Seymour.  She got a love song – and I suppose that was because they had to have a love song in there somewhere, because we all like a bit of soppy music.  But the song was about how Jane really loved Henry, and she was sad because she knew that the idea that she was the one he really loved only came about because she was the one who produced the son, and how sad it was that she and her son never knew each other because she died of childbirth fever.  The bits about Henry and Edward were true enough, but does anyone really think that Jane genuinely loved Henry?  I’m not keen on the Stepford Wife image of her, either.  I do think that she was a genuinely nice person, and I like the fact that she tried to reconcile him with both his daughters, but I also think that she was clever enough to know that, after what had happened to Anne Boleyn, her best bet was to keep her head down and her mouth shut, not that she was someone who didn’t have the guts to do anything else.

I seem to have done a lot of moaning there. Well, I do about the way they showed the first three wives, anyway!  I take things too seriously.  Sorry!!  But it was really entertaining – the music was great, even for those of us who are so out of touch that we can’t name a single song in the current top 40 (even though we can recognise most top ten songs from the second half of the 1980s just from listening to the first few beats) .  And the point about the need to think of these six women as six individuals is a quite serious and genuine historical point.  Also, this has the potential to reach an audience which historical novels or documentaries on BBC 4, however interesting, probably won’t.  There were a lot of kids there.  I really hope that they all went home and rushed to read up on the Tudors.  OK, they probably didn’t, but I can hope!   And, on a very wet and windy December evening, this was great entertainment, and it also made you think.  I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, but I did 🙂 .

Evita: The Making of a Superstar – BBC 2

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I’ve got the worst singing voice in the entire known universe, but practically the first thing I did in Buenos Aires was sing (quietly) “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” outside the Casa Rosada. It had to be done!   It’s such an iconic song, from such an iconic musical – which, according to Suzy Klein on BBC 2, is Donald Trump’s favourite musical and was so admired by Maggie Thatcher that it led her to say she said she hoped someone’d write a musical about her.  Let’s not go there!   South American history isn’t widely taught in schools in English-speaking countries, but we’ve all heard of Eva Peron.  And we all know that song.

Our group went to a gloriously touristy Argentinian evening, involving large steaks and people (not us) dancing the tango. It also involved someone singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, which really surprised me.  OK, it was a tourist thing, but I wouldn’t have expected Argentinians to be into Evita.  Quite apart from the fact that it’s a British musical and Anglo-Argentinian relations aren’t exactly warm, it doesn’t portray Eva Peron very favourably.  The expression “scheming tart” was how one of the people interviewed on this programme summed it up.

And she really is still hero-worshipped by a lot of people in Argentina. Our local guide, clearly a very intelligent woman with intensive knowledge of Argentinian history, couldn’t praise her highly enough.  Many political leaders are greatly revered, but that’s usually because they led a country to greatness, or to independence, or saw it safely through a time of great peril.  Eva Peron didn’t do anything of those things.  She wasn’t even a political leader: she was just married to one.  She was, as we’re reminded at the very start of Evita, known as “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.  There aren’t too many other people seen in those terms.  Gandhi’s the only one who immediately springs to mind – and he certainly didn’t wear expensive clothes and go on glamorous Rainbow Tours.  To this day, many Argentinian households have pictures of Eva Peron on their walls.  Often next to depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The only other person who seems to be so adored in Argentina is Diego Maradona, and the least said about him, the better. And I see that the final of the Copa Libertadores, between Boca Juniors and River Plate, has had to be postponed because of hooliganism.  That’s actually quite relevant to Evita, because Boca Juniors have always been seen as the team of the poor/descamisados and River Plate as the team of the rich.

I’m not sure what story this programme was actually trying to tell. Was it the story of Eva Peron, the story of Evita the musical or the story of 1970s/1980s culture?  It seemed to be a bit of all three.  Maybe the same theme runs through all three – the cult of hype and image and celebrity.  But that’s one thing with a film or a musical or a pop group, and quite another with someone who has huge political and financial clout.

Tim Rice informed us that he first became interested in Eva Peron when he got some Argentinian stamps for his boyhood stamp collection, and wondered why they bore the picture of a woman who wasn’t a queen! And that, years later, he heard something about her on the radio, and decided to write a musical about her.  It’s certainly a great story – rags to riches, a tragically early death, hero worship, etc – but it’s still a strange choice.  The Perons wouldn’t have been well-known in Britain at the time.  And, even before the Falklands War, making a musical about Argentinian politics was hugely controversial.  Some people accused him of glorifying fascism.  And Eva Peron is a very controversial and divisive figure.  The musical couldn’t make that any clearer.

This was all very interesting, but the programme then veered off the subject of Eva Peron and on to the subject of how the musical was tied in with both the idea of powerful female leaders and the media obsession with celebrity. I’m not sure that either Eva Peron or Margaret Thatcher, whilst they had ambition and ruthlessness in common, would take very kindly to being compared to each other.  There are probably more comparisons to be drawn between Eva Peron and Diana, Princess of Wales, in terms of the “people’s princess” rubbish, but the programme didn’t so much draw comparisons between the two as say that the media were obsessed with the musical and its stars and that that obsession then moved on to Diana.  Er, it’s a great musical, but how on earth can you claim that Elaine Paige & co got the same level of media attention as Diana did?!

All the talk about the hype was actually quite sad. OK, obviously you’ve got to have publicity, to get bums on seats and make money, but it all seemed so cynical.  Much as it annoys me when anything isn’t historically accurate, I love the interplay between Eva Peron and Che Guevara in Evita. It’s so well done.  That bit where they dance together, and he goes on about how she’s conning everyone and she goes on about she can’t really do anything else within the Argentinian system, is just incredible.  It says so much about Argentina, and South American politics in general.  So I was rather upset to hear that the reason for including Che wasn’t to make some great political point but a) to appeal to the public by bringing in a household name and b) to provide a glamorous and romantic male lead role in which an attention-grabbing good-looking bloke could be cast.  OK, Antonio Banderas would be reason enough to watch the film version, even without the music and the history, but … well, it all sounds so cynical!  Boo!!

As I said, it wasn’t quite clear exactly what story or whose story the programme was trying to tell, and it this point it went back to Argentina and discussed the “Evita Movement”, set up in 2004 as a sort of social protest movement, and also commented that Eva Peron now has admirers from all social classes. I like that.  Whatever you think of Eva Peron, you’ve got to love the line “But our privileged class is dead.  Look who they are calling for now”.  I think that’s only in the film, not the stage version, isn’t it?  Great line.  And the line about “No we wouldn’t mind seeing her in Harrods, but behind the jewellery counter not in front” is a reminder that, long before the invasion of the Falklands, the privileged class was very Anglophile and there was huge British influence in Argentina.  There still is.  Harrods might have closed down, but there are still red postboxes in Argentina, and the uber-iconic Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires serves extremely nice scones.  Take that, Peron!

Lovely, lovely city, by the way. Beautiful buildings.  Great food.  Everyone talks about football all the time.

They then flipped from Eva Peron to Madonna. It does say a lot that Madonna was so absolutely desperate to play the lead role in the 1996 film version of Evita.  Like Bridget Jones J , I pretty much know all the words to The Immaculate Collection.  A lot of people who grew up in the ’80s will do!   You want celebrity, hype, image, and someone who really made the most of what they had?  Madonna.  I can’t imagine ever being friends with her, if I knew her personally, but what a woman!   Really, it was quite a risk for her to become involved in something that was very controversial at the time, because filming took place in Argentina at a time when, in addition to anger over the way Eva Peron was portrayed by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, both Britain and America were very unpopular there.  The programme showed us some of the “Fuero Madonna” and “Fuero Ingles” graffiti that appeared in Buenos Aires at the time.  It wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but the Argentinian government actually produced its own film about Eva Peron, as a direct response to all the controversy.

I can’t believe that the film’s 22 years old! I’ve seen it more often than I’ve seen the stage version (which is now 40 years old!), because cheap and easy to watch a DVD in your own front room, so I know it better than I know the stage version.  I’d never thought that much about the reasons for the differences between the two, but, as this programme pointed out, the portrayal of Eva Peron in the film is much softer and much more appealing than in the stage version.  “You Must Love Me” was a new song for the film, and the portrayal of terminally-ill Eva practically being propped up on the balcony of the Casa Rosada really tugs at the heartstrings.  Was it a sop to Argentinian sensitivies?  Well, the programme didn’t really go into that.  It just said that it was inaccurate, because the real Eva Peron was making feisty, rousing speeches right until just before the end.

It didn’t really answer any questions. It didn’t go into the real history of Eva Peron’s life and Juan Peron’s rule of Argentina, which is now all so confused, between the myths of Eva and the myths of the Evita musical, that it’s very hard to know what to think.  Even putting the myths aside and trying to rely on actual sources, historians can’t agree on exactly what was going on.  What was going on with the money from the Eva Peron Foundation?  Was Peron a fascist?  No-one seems to be sure.  But not too many people in the West talk like this, or even in Argentina, talks this much about General Galtieri, or about any of the umpteen other very questionable people who ruled Argentina or other South American countries during the 20th century.

Musicals and history are an incredible combination, when you think about it. Look at some of the subjects covered by the most popular musicals of all time.  The June Rebellion of 1832.  The Anschluss.  Pogroms.  The rise of the Nazis in 1930s Berlin.  Criminal gangs in Victorian London.  Gangland conflict in New York.  The Vietnam War.  The Second World War in the South Pacific, also covering racism.  The miners’ strike.  Pretty weighty subjects.  I assume that the word “superstar” in the title of this programme was meant to refer to Eva Peron, not Evita the musical, but the image of Eva Peron outside Argentina, certainly in the Angophone world, has largely been determined by Evita.  That says a lot about the power of musicals.  It’s quite frightening, actually!   Imagine if someone did make a musical about Margaret Thatcher, or Donald Trump, or any of the other controversial figures of our times.  Maybe not …