Monday, September 12, 2005

Now this cannot be good news ...

25% alchohol beer, anyone? Unleashing such a product on Australians or Brits would seem to be a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately it tastes like a "quirky mixture of beer and sherry", according to its creator.

Even in Cambridge, possibly the world's last significant population centre for under-60 sherry drinkers (an 60 really should be the minimum legal age for sherry-drinking), that doesn't sound like a taste sensation likely to catch on ...

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Classic viewing: "Edge of Darkness" (BBC DVD)

Undoubtedly one of the best BBC TV dramas ever made, “Edge of Darkness” first screened in 1985 and reflects the dark mood and preoccupations of the time.

Starting with a simple tale of human tragedy, the plot slowly widens to encompass national and international concerns. Bob Peck delivers an extraordinarily controlled and nuanced performance as Yorkshire detective Ron Craven whose young daughter, Emma, is gunned down outside their home. Still grief-stricken, Craven discovers a handgun and a Geiger counter in Emma’s room. Was the gunman after him, or his daughter?

As Craven makes his own investigation of her death, several strands slowly come together: his own past in counter-terrorism in Northern Island, his daughter’s environmental activism and the current inquiry he is meant to be conducting into a rigged election at a Yorkshire mine refitted as a low-grade nuclear waste containment centre. These threads come to form one line of inquiry, taking him inexorably into the heart of a trans-national nuclear state.

What unfolds is, in effect, an extremely intelligent five-and-half hour action film mixing espionage, conspiracy theories, environmentalism and a touch of science-fiction. Quietly compelling, it is made with astonishing attention to detail. It uses both silence, and a terrific score by Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton, to great effect.

It has a gorgeous sense of surrealism as well: two frighteningly, clinically British spies (one all army charm, the other a glumly FT-reading lawyer) are funded by the Endowment for the Arts as “strolling players”; while larger-than-life Texan CIA man Darius Jedburg (Joe Don Baker) is obsessed with golf and British ballroom dancing.

But, as one review brilliantly puts it:
“The moment that most lingers in the mind is the sequence where Baker and Peck find a [disused] bomb shelter buried deep in [a] nuclear plant. Fine wine, the best books, and, of course, a classic motor car. The two settle down for a gourmet dinner.

“It's hypnotic enough for its oddity alone, but what is even more striking is that this relaxation occurs in the middle of a fraught chase sequence. Character development amid the action? Doesn't happen these days.”

Watching it again, I was amazed how much I recalled from seeing it as a kid in Australia. It holds up amazingly well, and its commentary on the links between industry, energy and the military and the way a society deals with terrorism and ecological concerns are also still more than relevant. Really excellent viewing, even if the parts of the final episode (“Fusion”) are a little melodramatic.

Further reading: Wikipedia, DVD Times, imdb, BBC Cult TV.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Notes from the Edinburgh Fringe: overlong and overdue, part 2

What I seemed to spend most of my four days in Edinburgh doing was buzzing between plays. I only caught six shows in the end, but that seemed more than enough. I know enough thespy Cambridge types that I could only see about half my friends’ shows – and I kept bumping into student theatre friends on the street … mostly while they were passing out promotional flyers to tourists.

So, highlights. Best Cambridge shows would have been a marvellous production of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” in the sweltering sauna that is the C Too venue; and an astonishingly physical production of “Macbeth”, cut to a bare one-hour script.

“Macbeth – The Hour” was competing in a fierce field of Scottish play productions: it’s something people seem compelled to stage at the Fringe. Still, this was different. It had a junk yard staging, with all walls, fences, tables, beds, etc being provided by a series of planks held with handles by cast members allowing lightning-fast scene changes.

To give one small sample of the physical staging: I’ve always found the witch’s cauldron scene pretty camp. Not here. Three half-naked men, kneeling, hands joined behind their backs represented the cauldron. As the witches recited their foul list of ingredients they mimed (very effectively) force-feeding the human cauldron’s three mouths, the actors gagging and choking all the while. Nasty, but surprisingly creative in a play where it’s easy to think you’ve seen it all before.

Of the new theatre I saw, “The Guardians” and “Angry Young Man” were easily the best. “The Guardians” is a dark comedy about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal; and the faked photos run in British tabloids of similar atrocities supposedly perpetrated by UK soldiers. Two talking heads, a female US soldier (clearly based on Private Lynndie England) and a sleazy, erudite, sadomasochistic, Oxford-educated tabloid journalist. The England character came off relatively sympathetically, and despite the nameless journalist being a bit of a stereotype, the American writer’s ear for English idiom was flawless. Worth seeing if it tours other places.

“Angry young man” was a straightforward farce about a dodgy doctor from an ex-Soviet republic fleeing to England to avoid being struck off. Following a misunderstanding with a minicab driver, he loses his identity documents and is mistaken for a people-smuggled refugee by a clueless upper-class would-be do-gooder. Following adventures with ducks, skinheads, predatory girlfriends and the English countryside a happy ending ensues. The clever bit was that the entire thing was acted by four men in identical suits, taking turns to play various roles (each has a go at the central character) and narrate the action.

Best line? Approaching the bar in an illegal club occupying a disused air-raid shelter, we have the following exchange:

Doctor: “It was, how you say? A typical English pub.”

Barman: “G’day, mate.”

The Fringe is simply an unconquerable cliff-face of theatre. But with a little research and some local advice I was pretty pleased with what I saw.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Notes from the Fringe: overlong and overdue, part 1

So a few weekends ago now, I was in Edinburgh during the Festival season.

I went to the ‘Burgh ostensibly to visit some delightful Cambridge friends in their new terrace house (home ownership among people younger than me really freaks me out), catch up with another Cambridge mate who’s doing some research up there and to have a discussion with an academic at Edinburgh Uni about my PhD research. I did, though, spend a good deal of time at the Festival.

Edinburgh’s a town of about half-a-million, which apparently more than doubles during the Festival season. It’s easy to believe: almost every down-town cash machine is perpetually out of service. At first I thought it was just bad luck or poor maintenance: then I realised they were all out of money. I had to ask for cash back when buying a sandwich in Marks and Spencers.

The Royal Mile becomes something like a crowd scene from a medieval movie. Hordes of people thronging below the castle while people in bizarre costume pass out flyers for their shows, and street performers increase congestion by simultaneously clearing an area and drawing a thick crowd. Madness best held at bay with an iPod.

When you can find some elbow-room and a beer, the people-watching is fabulous. Every third person is speaking a language other than English, or is carting props, costumes or fellow-performers to and from a show.

I had a number of Cambridge drama friends in shows, and have seldom been more glad to have politely refused to go to auditions. Most of ‘em didn’t look like they’d slept since arriving two weeks prior. “It’s so good to speak to someone who looks relaxed, alert and normal!” one all but yelled at me in a frenzy over coffee. (For the record, I was travel-stained and spaced out.)

It’s always potentially a bit embarrassing bumping into people who you didn’t know were in Edinburgh for a show.

“What are you doing in Edinburgh?” I asked one, meaning “what show”?

“Oh,” she replied in her light Edinburgh accent, smiling. “Waitressing. I’m just indigenous.”

Ground, swallow me now.

I also enjoyed an inadvertent return to childhood during my stay. I was informed on arrival that my host and her boyfriend in a fine bit of mutual consultation had double-booked the single bed in the spare room (which had belonged to my host as a child). I was welcome either to the futon in the lounge, or I could haul the component out from under the spare bed required to turn it into a bunk and share with the other guest “Ant”.

“Ant said he’s totally up for it,” I was told. So, never being one to act the killjoy I returned on my first night a little shy of 11 pm and started assembling a bunk. It swayed a little when I got in.

“Comfy?” asked my hosts.

“Fine,” I said, gently rocking our two-man berth, “I really like its slightly nautical air.”

Monday, September 5, 2005

Songs that are speaking to me at present

Having been tagged with this five-tracks meme by Daniel, I thought I’d comply (“Resistance is useless!”).

So, here’s five songs I’m enjoying at present:

Barenaked Ladies, “If I Had A Million Dollars”: “If I had a million dollars / I’d build a treefort in our yard … / You could help it wouldn’t be that hard … / Maybe we could put a refrigerator in there”.

A couple of guys and their string guitars mucking around with off-the-wall lyrics and a tune that just forces you just to grab a friend and dance in the kitchen (100% proven fact). It sounds like a parody C&W song, but is about a zillion times funnier.

Ani DiFranco, “The Arrivals Gate”: “Gonna go out to the arrivals gate at the airport / And sit there all day / Watch people reuniting / Public affection so exciting / It even makes airports OK”.

Other than the echo of the sappy Hugh Grant speech at the beginning of “Love Actually” this is a touching little tune, especially for someone who flies home at Christmas. The faintly on-edge feel of the sampling and techno-pop nicely match the dislocation of airports.

The Waifs, “The Waitress”: “I thought I’d move to Sydney to get a little piece / Of the city life they talk about in the 90’s / Where everyone I meet don’t want to know my name / They want to know what I do for a living.”

Apart from a damn catchy tune, this song summarises – despite the handful of good friends I made there – everything I disliked about Sydney.

The Cruel Sea (no website at present), “You’ll Do”: “The only reason that you can forgive me / Is cause you can't remember what I said / Your always sayin’ that you wanna leave me / But first you gotta get out bed”.

As Tex Perkins said introducing this song at a Canberra gig I once went to, “This is a song about the quest to find your one true mate, it’s called … You’ll Do.” The concept that this could be a love song embodies the laconic Australian humour and understated sincerity I sometimes miss over here.

The Cat Empire, “Hello”: “she stopped me in my tracks / and I said ‘mmm hchello hchello...’”.

So OK, the lyrics could have been written by girl-crazy fifteen year olds: but this song is just plain raucous fun, funk in a head-on collision with big band which manages to side-swipe a scratching DJ as well. A tune that’s always capable of getting me up to face the day.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Doug and Neighbour K, a-puntin' Posted by Picasa
Pirate punt-tacular

So, I took Thursday afternoon off to enjoy the weather and spend time with friends heading off for September. (Let's ignore for the moment the fact that I only ever blog about taking time off - the PhD is advancing.)

So, how did neighbour K want to celebrate her birthday, and how did the American Archeologist want to relax after turning her dissertation in?

A pirate punt trip, is how!

I was press-ganged to write the e-mail advertisement for the event:
Ar me hearties!

Ye is warmly invited, and firmly (ar!) commanded, to attend K's birthday-and-the American archaeologist's-handin'-in-day afternoon of pirate puntin', grog swillin', ale quaffing and parrot husbandry.

Eye patches optional. Ar.

"Avast!" I hear you cry, and: "But where and when can I set sail on this debauched and larcenous extravaganza of outlawry?"

"Thursday!" be the word.

2 pm in the MCR to don make-up and costumes, 3 pm at Trinity Punts to set sail with the jolly roger hoisted high and unleash terror upon the high seas - or as much of Old Father Cam as we can subjugate to our nefarious plans.

Be thar, or walk the plank!

... and for those who don't speak pirate: Thursday 2nd at 2 pm in the MCR for an afternoon of pirate punting. Do bring costumes, swords, beverages, edibles (chocolate gold coins a must).

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the outing was my ability to costume myself almost entirely out of my own wardrobe (the fetching paisley headscarf set me back £1.99 at Oxfam).

Passers by on the Cam seemed to get into it as well, answering our hail of "Ar me hearties" or crying back "Shiver me timbers!" or enquiring as to what grog we be drinkin'. Fun afternoon. And there are photos.

Oh, and check out international talk like a pirate day.