Archive | August 2013

The 70s, Part 1: Fringe Benefits

Rowan Atkinson

Rowan Atkinson

It’s almost exactly forty years since I got my first paying job in the arts, when, as a second year undergraduate, and by a complicated route, I had the great good fortune to fall into the post of classical music critic for the Glasgow Evening Times. So I think I’m justified in indulging in a bit of ‘now and then’ comparisons. Anyone with a strong aversion to nostalgia can skip this strand in the blogs. This week: how I covered the Edinburgh Fringe. All of it.

Getting that job at the Evening Times probably helped a lot three years later when, in 1976, as a new graduate, I applied, successfully, for a one year traineeship with BBC Radio, based in Edinburgh. At that time Scottish radio programmes were an opt-out from the Radio 4 UK schedules, and my primary job was as Research Assistant to a daily magazine programme, ‘Twelve Noon’ (guess when it was broadcast) which was the Scottish replacement for the then fledgling ‘You and Yours’. The last weeks of my contract coincided with the Edinburgh Festival. Now, while the ‘official’ Festival was covered by a weekly review programme, in that rather more ad hoc and informal environment the BBC Edinburgh team had no set formula for covering the Fringe, but decided that year that it should feature as a daily insert to ‘Twelve Noon’.

So, as a still wet behind the ears trainee, I was given a studio, a team of reviewers and a technician–all older and vastly more experienced than me–and told to provide ten minutes a day on the Fringe. I was editor, producer, scriptwriter, presenter, interviewer, and recorder of ‘live’ extracts, and there was no time for anyone more senior to check what I put together—the newly edited tape would simply be slipped into the programme’s running order just minutes before it was due to be aired. It was possibly the best fun I’ve ever had and been paid for.

And that year, 1977, proved to be a vintage Fringe for new talent. We got a tip that the Oxford Revue was going to be worth checking out as, most unusually, it was a one man show. But then, that one man was a gangly, odd-looking young fellow whose memorably sardonic tone of voice constantly caught his audience off guard. His name was Rowan Atkinson. And he was unforgettable. That show we heard about just after it opened, but I also managed to get in and record an extract from what would be that year’s biggest hit, before it actually opened. Three of the actors from 7:84’s famous The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil –Bill Paterson, John Bett and Alex Norton—were reuniting to stage the first play by the artist who had created the memorable ‘pop-up book’ set for the Cheviot. The artist was John Byrne, the play was Writer’s Cramp, and the rest is history. By a happy coincidence,  the play is being revived for the first time in many years for the Lennoxlove Book Festival in November.

Another of the hits of that 1977 Fringe was revived at last year’s Fringe. Glasvegas – a comedy musical and nothing to do with the indie band of the same name—launched the careers of its creators, writer and director Morag Fullerton, and composer and sometime actor, Pat Doyle, who, by another coincidence, would go on the following year to play Hector in John Byrne’s next play, The Slab Boys. In the 80s, as Patrick Doyle, he would become house composer for Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company, and via Branagh’s film of Henry V, go on to become one of Hollywood’s most talented and successful film composers.

Both last year and this, the media, online and in print, have been full of op-eds about whether the Fringe has become too big, and also too expensive both for participants and for ticket-buyers. Certainly, I’d be very interested to know if anyone has any views on whether new talent like John Byrne, Morag Fullerton and Patrick Doyle would get spotted in today’s Fringe, without the benefit of the media interest that inevitably attaches, for example, to new acts coming out of Oxford or Cambridge.

I’m pretty sure that it would be very hard, if not impossible, to do now what I went on to do in 1980, which was to put together a company of student and aspiring actors for that year’s Fringe. We were facing a number of obvious disadvantages: I had chosen to stage the English language premiere of a play by the ‘Spanish Shakespeare’, Calderon de la Barca: The House with Two Doors. At that time, prior to high profile productions at the National and the RSC, Calderon’s name was barely known outside academic circles. But I had a good friend, John Clifford, who was a Spanish Golden Age specialist and very interested in translating Calderon for the stage. Our venue wasn’t the most prominent: a school hall near the Art College, some distance from the gravitational centres that were already emerging among Fringe venues. And of course the actors were all complete unknowns. My only ‘name’ was the composer and Whistlebinkie Eddie McGuire–I had got a Scottish Arts Council grant (yes, a grant!) to commission him to write the incidental music.

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The House with Two Doors

Yet over a two week run we averaged around 30 paying customers a night, got two decent reviews (one in the Scotsman), and the whole venture only cost me £200—say two thousand in today’s terms . Worth every penny. John (now Jo) Clifford went on, of course, to become one of Scotland’s most prolific and internationally-recognised playwrights. Several of the cast became professional performers, one later joining the BBC Radio Repertory Company. Our make-up artist has gone on to have a successful career in TV and Film make-up. And as for the builder of the eponymous doors—Reader, I married her.

© Robert Livingston

Rambling on Bute

 

Kilchattan Bay

Kilchattan Bay

Are you a tourist or a visitor?  Do you like to be part of an organised group, plan your own itinerary in meticulous detail, or be spontaneous and leave everything to chance and the whim of the day? I was back on Bute this week, for a meeting that helped to move forward the slow process of planning the redevelopment of Rothesay Pavilion, and with some time to spare, I decided to play the tourist.

It was a morning meeting, so I had stayed the night before in Rothesay, at the Glendale, a comfortable, modestly-priced and, architecturally, wonderfully eccentric guest house, where, for breakfast, I partook of brioche with creamy scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. Smashing.

Winter Gardens, Rothesay

Winter Gardens, Rothesay

Having arrived at around 8.00 on a pleasant and dry evening, I had gone for a walk along the front.  Now, the front at Rothesay should be celebrated as one of Scotland’s small glories.  An unbroken walkway stretching for miles, from north of Port Bannatyne right through Rothesay to its southernmost tip, it has, to the seaward, the unmatchable view across to the Cowal Peninsula and the hills of south-east Argyll and, to the landward, a long line of the most delightfully diverse vernacular architecture, with many of the larger villas having fine gardens to their front.  And in the centre of Rothesay there are the glories of the Winter Gardens (their fabric sadly looking rather the worse for wear) and their flowerbeds, and, of course, the finest Gents’ lavatories in the country (I can’t speak for the Ladies).  Rather like at Nairn Beach, I don’t imagine that walking the front at Rothesay is a pastime of which one would tire quickly.

My meeting was over by lunchtime, so I bought a picnic and drove down to Kilchattan Bay, which I had last visited when I was eleven years old, and I had spent an idyllic week with my mother on a farm holiday there.  It’s still idyllic, especially as the weather was positively Mediterranean, and it has a quiet peace that, oddly, reminded me of South Ronaldsay at Scotland’s other extremity.  Then on to the picturesque ruins of St Blane’s Church, up the west coast to Ettrick Bay, and across to Rhubodach and the ferry back to the mainland, and the long drive north.

Dunagoil Hill Fort

Dunagoil Hill Fort

Now, here’s where the paradox comes in. At each place I stopped I was just able to squeeze my little Peugeot into the last parking space—at Kilchattan bay, and at the roadside bays for the hillfort at Dunagoil, and St Blane’s Church.  And at all of these locations the special quality of the experience would have been marred if there had been many more visitors—especially a large coach party. At a different scale, something of the same is true at Bute’s largest visitor attraction, Mount Stuart (subject of an earlier blog): it’s in the nature of the house that visitors have to be guided round in small groups, and in high season the numbers going round could probably only be increased by extending the opening hours, the extra income from which might be outweighed by cost.

Yet, in the middle of August, my very pleasant and well situated guest house still had vacancies.  On the other hand, those who organise events on the island tell me that Bute doesn’t have enough bed spaces to meet existing demand at times like the Jazz Festival, never mind an increased demand that might be occasioned by new events at a refurbished Pavilion.  And nor is the existing accommodation of the type that would attract back to a rebuilt Pavilion the large conferences—especially party political conferences—which the building used to host in its heyday. This is in part due, I’m told, to the number of hotels which, in recent years, have been turned into flats or left derelict.

So, if Bute is going to increase its prosperity, it would seem that it can only do so by increasing the number of visitors, even in high season, and consequently providing more and different accommodation. Yet this risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. As I found in my short trip, Bute offers the visitor an exceptional range of experiences in a small compass, but those experiences are very different from those of the days of going ‘doon the watter’: they favour the independent traveller, not organised mass tourism. I think I’m rather falling for Bute, and not just its landscape: its folk are cheerful and welcoming, but also energetic and enterprising.  The island has tremendous potential: we all need to ensure that in trying to realise that potential, we don’t mar rather than make better.

© Robert Livingston

 

Pittenweem and the Working Class Playwright

The 'Reaper' in Pittenweem Harbour

The ‘Reaper’ in Pittenweem Harbour

I don’t often find myself  linking Pittenweem and Monty Python, but our visit to the Pittenweem Arts Festival  this week brought to mind that great Python sketch Working Class Playwright . It goes like this: Eric Idle (long hair, suit, posh accent) is the son returning to his Hampstead home, which he left to become a coal miner ‘up north’, against his father’s wishes.  The father is Graham Chapman (collarless shirt, braces, boots, cod working class accent) who has stayed at home to follow the demanding calling of being a working class playwright, getting up at five, and attending premieres and gala dinners.  He suffers from agonising writer’s cramp, and berates his son for choosing the soft option of coalmining, dismissing him, unforgettably, as ’you tit!’, to which the son responds that ‘there’s more to life than culture!’.

Recalling this sketch is the best way I can pin down the very slight queasiness that I felt during an otherwise wonderful couple of days at the Festival, a life-enhancing experience greatly helped by the gloriously summery weather.   We lived in the neighbouring village of Anstruther from 1984 to 1996, and have returned to the East Neuk frequently ever since, and so we know Pittenweem very well.  Indeed, Judith and I both played small parts in the early days of the Festival, back in the late 80s. When we finally moved permanently to the Highlands in 1996, both Anstruther and Pittenweem were pretty depressed communities, affected badly by the shrinking fishing industry.  It took two years to sell our handsome Edwardian semi, and even then it went for a fixed price. There were many empty shops and derelict premises in both villages.

Anstruther has been saved, in part, like so many former fishing villages, by the introduction into the old harbour of marina pontoons, which have attracted so many boats that the system is now being extended, and the front at Anstruther now boasts three fish and chip shops, all, at busy times, with lengthy queues. Pittenweem, on the other hand, has been saved by Art.  When the Pittenweem Festival started out in the 1980s, I’m sure no-one expected it to become the mega-event it is today, with around 100 artists and makers exhibiting for ten days throughout the village.  This year’s event seems to have been particularly successful: the large festival car park was almost full on both days we were there, and almost every exhibition we visited (about a third of the total!) sported a healthy rash of red dots.  It’s estimated that it brings £1.5 million to the local economy—a lot for a community of just 1800 people.

And, of what we saw, we found the standard to be very high.  If there was nothing quite as unforgettable as last year’s installation of Jake Harvey’s sculptures in the little Old Men’s Club, there was a great deal of work that was accomplished, engaging and inspiring.  The Festival also deserves praise for the quality of its organisation, from the parking stewarding to the signposting, and from the festival catalogue to the programme of related events.  Best of all everyone—volunteers, artists, catering staff–was unfailingly cheerful and welcoming, showing few signs of fatigue, six days into the festival!

So, why that slight queasiness?  Well, Pittenweem is still the most active fishing port on the Fife Coast, with a large number of boats going after shellfish, lobsters and clams.  The harbour is often very busy, with a handsome Fishmarket that was built as recently as 1994, and a number of related businesses in the town itself—fishmongers, chandlers and the like.  But it seems to be the art that has brought prosperity back to the village: several galleries, studios, and art materials shops, many working artists living in the village, a number of apparently thriving cafes and restaurants. All the evidence, that is, of gentrification.

Other East Neuk villages—Crail, Elie–long since succumbed to such gentrification,  and possess little or no local industries, Elie in particular being dominated by holiday homes, while Crail has seen, in recent years, a drastic decline in local retail businesses.  Can Pittenweem continue to resist this process and retain a degree of authenticity as a working village?  Or is my wish for such ‘authenticity’ just another part of the gentrification process, wanting the undeniable picturesqueness of the harbour area to remain based in genuine working practices, and not simply maintained in some shadowy form for the sake of tourists? Is it my own sense of queasiness that I’m trying to assuage in wanting evidence that, for Pittenweem, ‘there’s more to life than culture’?

Although there are inevitably some dissenting voices, arguing that the Festival has become too commercial, too exclusive, and doesn’t put enough back into the community, a 2012 household survey by Pittenweem Community Council, with a healthy 17% response rate, found 76% of respondents had been to and enjoyed the Festival, and only a small minority had any negative comments to make. So maybe the two worlds of fishing and art can successfully co-exist.

Pittenweem is a very important test case for the role of the arts in community regeneration, for a number of reasons: the Festival was a truly local initiative, unprompted by any external strategies or incentives; it has always had both artists and representatives of local businesses working together at its core; it needs very little public funding (and currently gets none from Creative Scotland), and it is a survivor, growing and developing over a 30 year period.  But, as the excellent Radio 4 programme More or Less is always reminding us, ‘correlation does not imply causation’, and we should not leap to the immediate conclusion that Pittenweem’s current prosperity is rooted in the creative economy, nor even, if it is, that this is a replicable model.

The fact is that Pittenweem’s long and complex history has resulted in a very special built environment, and one of the great pleasures of the festival is being able to view parts of that environment that are usually private, or to gain, from those private settings,  unexpected perspectives of familiar sights and buildings.  Any study of the impact of the arts in Pittenweem, therefore, can’t just look at the economics involved, but would also have to take account of these more intangible factors.  At the end of five hours of exhibition-visiting, eyes narrowed in the glow of the late afternoon August sun, head full of images, I began to find it hard to avoid the feeling that I was moving through some sort of dreamscape, as I caught an unexpected glimpse of a shimmering Bass Rock at the end of a narrow wynd,  or came across the 110-year old ‘Reaper’ , a Fifie-class drifter from the Anstruther Fisheries Museum, making its way out of the narrow harbour mouth.

There’s an underlying truth to the Python sketch with which I started: making art may very rarely be as physically arduous or dangerous as the fishing industry (or coal mining!) but nor is it, for those who are really serious about it, a soft option either.  The financial rewards can be too often entirely disproportionate to the mental and physical efforts involved.  The Pittenweem Arts Festival, above all, celebrates artists, and that can’t be a bad thing!

© Robert Livingston

A Good Read

One of the drawbacks of working from home is that I no longer get to listen to downloads of Radio 4 programmes while driving to and from work each day, and so I’ve accumulated a substantial backlog on my MP3 player.  Fortunately, though, I had to drive to Rothesay this week, a round trip of some 12 hours, and so I have caught up substantially through listening to multiple episodes of Feedback, Last Word, Saturday Review, More or Less, Counterpoint, The Life Scientific and, a particular favourite, A Good Read, with the estimable Harriet Gilbert.

My interest in Ms Gilbert is not just that she’s an excellent and quirky presenter, skilled at drawing out the views of her guests, but also that she’s the daughter of one of my favourite neglected authors, the crime- and thriller-writer, Michael Gilbert.

death-in-captivity-6850-p

Michael Gilbert enjoyed a very long life—he died in 2006 at the age of 93—and a similarly long writing career, publishing his first novel in 1948 and his last in 1999.  That means he was a contemporary of much better-remembered writers such as Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin, as well as overlapping with the later careers of such eminent figures in the crime and thriller worlds as Margery Allingham, Eric Ambler, and, of course Agatha Christie.  I think he’s as good a writer as any of those famous names, and better than some of them, but, curiously, the very qualities for which I admire him may be the factors that have led to his neglect.

First, he didn’t stick to one genre, but wrote detective novels, thrillers, and espionage fiction.  And he didn’t hesitate to mix genres.  I’m currently reading one of his most acclaimed books, Death in Captivity from 1952, which is a murder mystery set in a POW camp in Italy and based directly on Gilbert’s own wartime experiences: it was made into a film in 1958.  Previously I’d read The Empty House of 1978 which starts out as a murder mystery and turns into a spy thriller.  Its innocent hero is thrust into a world whose cynicism, ruthlessness, and disregard for the law strike a remarkably contemporary resonance.  It’s an absolute page-turner.

And then, although some of his central characters do reappear in several titles, none of them achieved the fame—or notoriety—of an Albert Campion, a John Appleby, or a Hercule Poirot.  That of course left Gilbert free to tell the stories he wanted to, without being shackled by readers’—and publishers’—expectations, but it also militated against his books becoming really popular, and his characters lasting in the collective memory.  Just as with his cross-genre plots, Gilbert often compounded this characteristic by writing stories which had no one central character, but instead multiple viewpoints.  That makes for an exhilarating, but also a more demanding, read.

Finally, although his books can have a whimsical tone (Smallbone Deceased) that is reminiscent, say, of Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, or a boy’s-own-adventure quality (The Etruscan Net) comparable to Michael Innes’s wonderful The Journeying Boy, all those I’ve read, no matter how fantastical their plots, have an underlying toughness and realism that prevents them from offering a cosy nostalgia for the innocent days before Prime Suspect or The Killing.

One thing that Michael Gilbert does share with his genre contemporaries is that his books are short—rarely exceeding 250 pages.  His story-telling is wonderfully terse and economical: the opening chapter frequently throws the reader in media res, with setting and character introduction following later.  That’s a virtue we need to rediscover.  I remember the wise and canny editor and literary agent John Jarrold telling budding SF writers that their books needed to be 400 pages long to meet publishers’ demands, as it seems readers today measure a book’s value by its length as much as, or more than, by its quality.  The result is too often padded, if not bloated, and has resulted in the ruination of many previously fine genre writers.

So, again unlike Allingham or Christie, Michael Gilbert’s name has not been revived through regular TV and radio adaptations, and as a result most of his books have been out of print for many years—so many years that they now rarely surface in charity shops, so obsessed are those enterprises with only the latest bestsellers, nor in libraries where older copies have long since worn out.  But technology has come to Gilbert’s rescue.  A huge number of his titles are now available in Kindle editions, while battered copies of those old paperback editions can be ordered from online sites like Abe Books for a pittance.

So I’m glad to say you have no excuse for not discovering Michael Gilbert’s merits for yourself—he really is A Good Read.

©  Robert Livingston