Month: February 2012

Paul Daniels – A Little Bit of Magic

Matt Wingett reviews Paul Daniels at The King’s Theatre, Southsea, 22nd February 2012.

Paul Daniels was, when I was a lad, something of a hero of mine.

I liked his funny patter, I liked his smooth magic, and of course, when I was an adolescent I loved seeing his beautiful assistant “the lovely Debbie MacGee” getting tied up in scanty clothing, only to mysteriously emerge without explanation in another part of the room.

So when it came to seeing Paul at the King’s Theatre Southsea, I couldn’t resist.

The fact was though, that I went along with some doubts. Would he still have the magic? And what had happened to him in the intervening years? Somehow, he had crashed out of public life – suffering a humiliating series of vicious attacks from a British media intent on knocking down anyone who got too popular. Stories had circulated of his arrogance, and there was a continual dig at the fact that he wore a wig, which supposedly showed he was vain. It was petty, and it was stupid – but somehow after the Press did their worst, he sort of withered away.

The question was: could he still cut the mustard – and then make it disappear?

Making a definite virtue of his hairpiece in the name of his new show “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” was cheeky and funny, but also strangely telling, considering how this ridiculous brouhaha about a wig seemed to have overshadowed this top performer’s reputation in the 80s.

With that “hang the journalists” attitude implied in the show’s name, I have to say that the first half of the show did look like Paul was on the back foot. The audience was disappointingly scanty for one of the top performers of the 1980s, with perhaps a 100 people in the massive King’s Theatre. This certainly didn’t help the ambience.

Paul himself seemed subdued, and started off reiterating the point that he never really cared about his wig in the way the papers had implied – he came on sporting one, in order to make fun of it. It was a strange opening. To me, he seemed to be fighting an old fight that was long gone, and his continued barbs at the Press throughout the show implied that he’d been “got at” more than his “It was never important to me” implied.

The first half sputtered along unevenly. He did a nice levitation routine, and disappeared some handkerchiefs – but really it was all rather pedestrian. The guest appearance by Kev Orkian, an Armenian illegal immigrant who was a genius on the piano was spirited – but he had to work hard to get this small audience to respond. Which, actually, he did.

There were moments where Paul’s personality shone through. His kindness to Jen and her little boy Cas in the audience was really endearing, and he managed to win the audience over. Nevertheless, by the end of the first half, I was approached by one guy who said that he was disappointed thus far.

The second half, though, was a very different matter. Paul’s magical effects increased and there was a definite reigniting of the old magic. His quips with the audience were on the money, and very funny, and the comedy added an extra twist all the way.

Then something extraordinary happened. Paul took it to a level in which – half way between supposedly messing up tricks, he appeared to hypnotise two volunteers from the audience, with no explanation and no induction.

It is possible that they were stooges, but I like to think they weren’t. They were very believable and one, being a street cleaner and the other an employee in Game in Pompey, it should be pretty easy to verify.

The effects built one on another, with signed playing cards appearing from nowhere, a lovely running gag about a £20 note, and a series of befuddling, funny tricks that really got everyone thinking.

Did he hypnotise, or didn’t he? How did he get that note hidden away?

If the measure of a magician is in the way that people continue to ask questions after the show, then I would say that Paul still has the old magic. I am scratching my head even as I write! It was good to see his kindly, funny show of the old school.

It wasn’t just nostalgia. Yes, this is a great show to see!

Against Lazy Atheism – By An Atheist.

After today’s Press Release by Professor Richard Dawkins releasing the results of a survey purportedly showing that there is only a tiny proportion of the UK that are really Christian, an atheist reacts.

I’ve got a bit of a rant today. And it’s probably not going to go where you expect it to.  It’s in response to Richard Dawkins’ latest shenanigan which is his continual attempt to devalue and denigrate important subjective experiences which for many give their lives meaning, fulfillment and happiness.  Those experiences can be summed up as religious ones, which it is clearly Dawkins’s aim to eradicate.  Like O’Brien, the Thought Police Officer in Orwell’s 1984, Dawkins bangs on relentlessly about it, generating ill-will, disharmony and acrimony wherever he goes.

Dawkins’s latest trick has been to do a survey which, though he is not claiming it himself, many will misuse to ride rough-shod over the beliefs that many hold important, by claiming that “the majority are not religious”.  As if weight of public opinion ever changed a convert.

Before I go on, let’s make it plain, I am an atheist. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s atheists who just don’t have a clue why they’re atheists.

Here’s a classic I heard a few days ago from an otherwise not unintelligent woman:

“They should ban religion.  Religion is the cause of all the warfare and strife and trouble in the world.”

Oh really?

If you are one of the people who believes that, think about what you’re saying, and consider the following:

1) Do you really believe that before there was religion, everyone was soft and fluffy and nice to each other, in some kind of mythical past?  Do you really?  What are you telling me? That  it was some kind of EDEN or something, before religion?

2) Although religion has had a grip on people’s imaginations for millennia, the 20th Century saw mass movements that had nothing to do with religion.  Now let’s have a look through history at what those secular mass-movements achieved.

Let’s do so by asking a simple question: Who was the biggest mass murderer of all time?

Was it the religious Osama Bin Laden?  I sincerely doubt it.

Was it Adolf Hitler, with his weird belief in National Socialism that twisted some Christian ideas and turned them into a rationale for killing 6 millions Jews, Gipsies and Homosexuals, among others – allegedly on a purely scientific basis?

Nope, not Adolf.

How about Stalin?  Well, with Stalin we’re getting somewhere. His purges caused the deaths of an estimated 15-30 million people. Wow! Look at all those deaths! That’s quite impressive for someone who had a belief system that had nothing to do with “the cause of all the trouble in the world.”

But hey, let’s not stop there.  Let’s look at Mao Tse Tung.  His rule, with its starvation, mass suicides and political persecution is estimated to have caused the deaths of 40-70 million people.

Not bad going for someone who was an atheist, huh?

So what were you saying about religion being the cause of all the trouble in the world?

3) Is it possible that people in the West have forgotten one of the reasons religion was invented? It can be quite cogently argued that big moral rules were designed to make psychopaths quake in their boots at the possibility that even they might be answerable to someone.

In this model, morals, a belief in an afterlife in which you will be punished or rewarded, were designed to try, however unsuccessfully, to control the savage at the centre of so many human beings.

Logically speaking, and looked at in the abstract, the fact that it has failed time and time again is not a sign that God does not exist nor that religion is wrong.  It is a sign that despite religious people’s best attempts, bad people do bad things in the name of whatever comes to hand. That is, their psychopathology finds a way to use religious belief for its own ends.

Which explains a lot about pervy vicars and warmongering imams.

And before you say – well that’s just an Original Sin argument – no – it’s not.  I told you: I’m an atheist.

4) One final point.  If, as you say, “religion is the cause of every bad thing that people do in the world”, are you seriously telling me that every time a football hooligan stabs a fan of another team, every time a skinhead knifes a black person and every time a burglar breaks into a house and beats the living daylights out of a pensioner, they’re doing it in the name of God?  Do you think they pray afterwards, reporting back to the boss man in the sky about how well they’ve done?  Do you?!

Fellow atheists: get your facts straight and stop being so lazy in your thinking.  If you’re going to not believe in God, don’t  just martial the incidentals of history to assert that God doesn’t exist.

You can debate whether the things done in the name of religion are good or bad till you are blue in the face – because doing that does not prove one way or the other a single thing about God’s existence or otherwise.  That’s like arguing that because people get killed in cars, cars are inherently evil. It’s just muddled thinking.

I am tired of Lazy Atheists.  To me, there is only one thing as stupid as believing in God because you are told a line, or you see something useful in it.  It’s not believing in God because you have swallowed a line and see something useless in it.

Lazy Atheists, prejudice is not proof in the same way that faith does not prove existence.

Finally, if you can’t find a well-thought-out argument that really works – then remember – every time you open your mouth and wheel out these ill-formed prejudices, it’s YOU who’s causing the strife, trouble, intolerance and grief in the world you’re so happy to accuse the other side of fostering.

Remember: knee-jerk anger and intolerance will turn you into the person you hate. Religious, or not.

Simon Callow Shines At Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal, 7th Feb 2012

One of the leading actors of his generation, Simon Callow has had a long and fruitful relationship with Charles Dickens, as his audience at The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth discovered, on 7th February 2012 – the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth, less than a mile from where the theatre stands.

From his first encounter with Dickens at the age of 7 via A Christmas Carol – a story which admittedly frightened him white – Dickens always impressed.

However, it was chickenpox that reintroduced the 13-year-old Callow to the diminutive giant of English Literature, when he was laid up in bed with the virus.  “That mediaeval torture was unbearable, with the need to scratch and scratch,” he told his audience. And scratch he did, until his grandmother intervened by placing a copy of The Pickwick Papers in his hands.  “After that,” Callow announced with a theatrical flourish worthy of Dickens himself, “I scratched no more.”

Simon Callow
Simon Callow, who delivered a fascinating talk about Charles Dickens, at Portsmouth's New Theatre Royal, on 7th February 2012

At the beginning of his talk, Callow announced that he had been invited to attend a service at Westminster Abbey, and a dinner at Mansion House – but there was nowhere he would rather be than here, on Dickens’s birthday. Which of course, got the Portsmouth audience cheering, no end.

Callow went on to describe his connection with Dickens in his early years as an actor. He recalled how, as a 27-year-old appearing in A Christmas Carol in Lincoln, he got to play both Fezziwig and Bob Crachitt. He described unexpectedly disappearing down an unsecured trapdoor dressed as Fezziwig, and after losing his wig in the 14 foot fall, re-emerging in front of a stunned and somewhat confused audience of children as Bob Cratchitt.  He talked of finding out about Dickens’s punishing reading tour, which eventually contributed to the writer’s early death, and brought his tale right up to date with his talk of his appearance as Dickens in an episode of Dr Who alongside David Tennant and Billy Piper.

Of Dickens’s theatrical obsession, his stage-struckness, his am-dram performances put on at his home, attended by Queen Victoria, the Lord Chancellor and half the Cabinet – Callow spoke eloquently. From his first flirtation with the theatre before he went on to become a clerk in a law firm through his performances of plays such as The Frozen Deep, co-written with his friend Wilkie Collins, his work as a director of plays and his invention of ingenious gas lighting effects to recreate the dawn, and of sound effects produced by ethereally playing a piano several rooms away – Dickens’s obsession with the stage was total.

In fact, Dickens’s whole life seemed to be dominated by his need for public performance, and it was his forcing himself to appear at his readings against his doctor’s advice that eventually led to his dying of, essentially, overwork.

It was perhaps surprising that Callow, whose life has been so intimately wrapped up with Dickens, had never before been to the city of his birth. But he made up for it, was fulsome in his praise of the City’s vibrant and spontaneous approach to the bicentenary -and at the end of his talk, the audience reciprocated – continuing to applaud until he took to the stage again, and bowed – not with the theatricality of Dickens, but with something that was very much more Simon Callow: a slight, humble bow.

Simon Callow’s new book “Dickens” is available from Waterstone’s, Commercial Road, Portsmouth, and other good booksellers, and online.

Charles Dickens: A Ball In Commemoration Of His Birth, Where It All Began, 6th February 2012

On a cold night on 6th February 1812, Mrs Elizabeth Dickens, heavy with child, attended a Naval ball, accompanied by her husband, John, at the Old Beneficial School building, Portsea.

The Old Beneficial School, Portsea.
The Old Beneficial School, Portsea.

Not far from the high walls of the thriving dockyard, the Old Beneficial School was a rare architectural gem in an area of squalid housing inhabited by artisan dockyard workers, alehouse keepers, tradesmen and prostitutes.

We cannot know what music was played and what little dramas and intrigues were entered into inside the Old Benny’s walls that night. But one thing of note happened, whose impact echoes around the world.

On that night, Mrs Elizabeth Dickens went into labour, and was rushed by carriage from The Old Benny along the streets of Portsea to nearby Number 1 Mile End Terrace, Landport, where she gave birth to her son, Charles, the following day.

The Hampshire Regency Dancers recreate the ball in which Charles Dickens decided it was time to come into the world!
The Hampshire Regency Dancers recreate the ball in which Charles Dickens decided it was time to come into the world!

Two centuries later, on the anniversary of that very night, another ball was held in the same building, including a gentleman dressed as a naval officer, another as a soldier – and plenty of women in bright cotton Empire Line dresses reviving the past for a few brief hours – and celebrating Portsmouth’s most famous son.

Charles Dickens, son of Portsmouth
Charles Dickens, son of Portsmouth

The staff of The Groundlings Theatre, along with the Hampshire Regency Dancers, who instructed the attendees in the art of period dancing, made a fabulous job of it.

Considering Dickens’s love of the theatre, how right that the Old Benny is now a theatre, dedicated to the performing arts.

Dickens would have loved it. He would have loved the brilliant acting of the kids who put on a short piece on the novels of Dickens – performing the books “both forwards and backwards at ten lines a novel!” He would have been delighted by the acting of the strict schoolmistress and her pupils in the “schoolroom” upstairs, and would have revelled in the spirit and comedy of the shows in the bar.

This was a great evening. It serves to remind the people of Portsmouth something we should be proud of. Over the coming weeks, the extraordinary imagination of Charles Dickens will be celebrated by nations the world over who have never seen his mother country, let alone the city of his birth. Films will be watched, books read, stories told to children, radio plays listened to and plays performed…

…But here, right here, in this street, in the seething, jostling, dirty, alive and vibrant alleys of the Portsea of two centuries ago – this is where all of it started. If we learn one thing from that birth, it’s this – it’s possible for anyone, no matter where they come from to feel that they, too, can have great expectations…

Elaine Steel – The Life of the Literary Agent, Portsmouth Writer’s Hub February 1st 2012

On an icy night, through which numerous semi-clad students were wandering along Guildhall Walk, a group of 20 or so writers arrived at the New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth to hear literary agent Elaine Steel talk about the job of being an agent.

Elaine had an interesting style of presentation, being quite pulled back and ironic, and it was interesting to see a kind of double act occur between her and Chris Taylor of New Writing South.  This led to quite a free-flowing conversation in which lots of different subjects were broached, which genuinely gave an insight into the life and work of the Agent.

Elaine explained that she is primarily a theatrical writing agent, dealing with tv, film and theatre, but that she also does some book deals, too.

Starting off by describing her role as essentially holding a writer together, including acting as a kind of counsellor and guide, creative sounding board and therapist, it is clear that Elaine works closely and intensely with her clients.

As is the usual line with agents, Elaine was clear to say that she wasn’t really looking for new clients at the moment, although later she softened this stance, acknowledging that any portfolio of clients needs fresh blood, and advising that to begin with, a new author will only make her a few thousand a year on a 10 per cent cut.

Things that really stuck out for me at this meeting were as follows:

1) Elaine was absolutely honest about the whole new e-book phenomenon.  When asked if she thought there would still be a place for literary agents in 10 years’ time, she said “I don’t know,” but then went on to say that it is possible that the role of the agent will change and that some agents have even considered becoming publishers of e-books.  This in itself raises a conflict of interest.  At the end of the day, having thought it through with us, she concluded that when it came to the legals, she was pretty sure the agent’s role would be safe.

2) Elaine was pretty strong on the need for the writer to get to know the state of the market.  “Actors read The Stage,” she said. “Writers should be reading The Bookseller, so they know the market.”

3) Advice to writers presenting scripts was to make sure that the agent gets a feel for who the writer is.  Remember: the agent needs to get a sense of whether they can work with you or not.

4) More about what you are presenting to producers also came out.  Sending in a script on spec of Eastenders is not going to cut it with tv producers looking for talent.  They want something that is going to stand out and be noticed.  At the same time, they also want a “safe pair of hands” when it comes to working with people on established shows.  This was nuanced, but it became clear there is a fine line the writer and agent walk together when starting a new relationship with a producer.

5) Several other interesting ideas came up as part of the free-flowing discussion in the room. One of these was having a day to pitch ideas to tv producers – or a day during which agents and writers can take part in the “speed dating” high speed pitch format familiar to those who watch The Dragons’ Den.

6) The vagiaries of the agent’s life is also a factor in the success of getting your manuscript read, Elaine pointed out.  Happening to catch an agent at a quiet time is not something that is particularly predictable or controllable, but it is this sort of factor that might well get your work read.

7) It became clear that the art of editing in publishing houses is on the decline, which makes it even more important that you get your ms as polished as possible before you send it away.

8) The BBC Writer’s Room mailing list was highly recommended, as was the mailing list for The Society of Authors.

There were many more small insights like this throughout the evening – and I may well have missed some.  If you want to add your own observations, please do!