13 Dec 2009

The reality of working in show business

I'm not going to pretend to be objective about reality shows. I hate them. I've hated them since the very first Big Brother leeched its way onto our screens in Australia nine years ago and I've studiously avoided them in any shape or form. I particularly loathe the talent-show versions where people with average voices and minimal stage presence win competitions voted for by the public and get massive record deals. But the main reason I hate them is because they have taken away budgets for decent television programming and work from trained performers - and not just in television. Suddenly lead roles in theatrical productions are being given to individuals with little or no formal training and certainly no formal experience.

We were given tickets to see Oliver! last week. I had a vague idea there might be someone from a reality showoliver!-theatre-tickets-theatre-royal-drury-lane-london playing Nancy (the coverage of these shows means it's impossible to completely ignore them) and I was pretty sure she'd won a competition to play the role. However, when we got there, the 'alternate' Nancy was on for the evening, Australian actress, Tamsin Carroll. Tamsin was exceptional, as I would expect from a young woman who has been working in the theatre since childhood. But it got me thinking. Why was there an 'alternate'? Not an understudy (the role of Nancy has two understudies), but someone who plays the role for a specific number of performances each week.

carrolloliver_1225380120 Most West End shows run eight shows a week (six nights and two matinees) and often additional rehearsals during the week for understudies and swings (performers covering multiple supporting roles). That's two hours a show onstage and for a production like Oliver!, leading actors usually have some vocally strenuous numbers. So logic would dictate that you're going to need some strong singers. Singers with training, technique, experience. Singers who can handle eight shows a week, two hours a night and not lose their voice by Saturday night.

I don't know anything about Jody Prenger, who won the reality show competition for Oliver! other than what was in her bio in the programme (lots of reality TV and a Disney cruise ship gig) and a YouTube video, which, to be honest, wasn't a patch on Tamsin's performance the other night. I also don't know anything about Connie Fisher, another reality-show winner who went on to play Maria in The Sound of Music. But I do know she also had an 'alternate' after her voice packed it in three months into the run.

Two for two. Add Martine McCutcheon (television actress and former pop star), who had to drop out of My Fair Lady for 'health reasons', three for three. Is anyone else seeing a pattern? Tamsin Carroll played the role of Nancy in the Australian production of Oliver! (with no alternate) and Jody Prenger's replacement next year, Kerry Ellis (who understudied Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady) doesn't look like she'll have an alternate either.

I feel I'm stating the obvious here, but evidently it needs to be stated, because it keeps happening. Actors like Tamsin and Kerry, who work their way up through the ranks of the chorus, understudy and supporting roles – 'work' being the operative word – who have the talent, skills and guts to play the leading role to its fullest, aren't given the opportunity because those roles are given to the folks who've been on the TV. Regardless of whether those TV folks  have the talent and stamina to handle the role. They're famous, so they'll bring in the crowds.

Musicals are not the only genre where this is happening – Daniel Radcliffe garnered lacklustre reviews for angodot350 average performance in Equus, Josh Harnett lacked the presence and gravitas of his theatre-trained co-star Adam Godley in Rainman (but Harnett was aware of it, and suitably humble in his curtain call) and Kelly Brook has been hired for her 'talents' to play an 'ordinary woman' in Calendar Girls. Not to say 'famous' equals 'no talent', I saw the superb (theatre-trained) Gillian Anderson in What The Night is For, Brendan Fraser and Frances O'Connor were just perfect in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (and I'm eagerly awaiting James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester in the latest production of same), John Barrowman was wowing theatre crowds long before he was Captain Jack Harkness and I can die happy knowing I saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot. But these are all performers who put in the ground work from day one, who earned their dues and got the break they worked for. They have talent which made them famous, as opposed to  mass-market personality appeal which made them famous.

There are arguments for getting the famous people in - what good is a show if no-one comes to see it? And people will come to see it if there's someone famous in it, regardless of whether they have the chops to carry off the role. I rebutt this argument with 'then educate people about the difference between good and famous'. What if all school children were inspired to see wonderful productions for the production's sake and not so they could say they'd seen Kelly Brooks' baps? The famous people argument reduces theatre to water cooler chat. People go to see the shows to say they've seen it, regardless of how bad it is. So what's the point in getting the good people in, when no-one will see it? May as well have a less-brilliant show that thousands see for the wrong reasons than a brilliant show that hundreds see for the right reasons, right? And so it goes, until there are less and less good shows to see.

Then I ask myself – would I have seen Waiting for Godot if Magneto and Captain Picard hadn't been cast? The truth? No. I wouldn't have. Because the London tickets were £50 each. If they'd been £10 then a much better chance. But I'm not about to fork out a fortnight's worth of groceries on the off-chance the show might be good. I paid a tenner to see Cyrano de Bergerac at the National Theatre some years ago, Stephen Rae was in the lead role and it was bloody awful. But McKellen vs Stewart? They could recite the phone book and it would be awesome.

So what's the solution? Aside from abolishing reality TV? In my book, education. Get the kids while they're young, expose them to good story-telling, beautiful production values, moving performances and teach them how to appreciate what they're watching. Let them know that performance is a job, it's work and not just something you fall into because you're an Irish set of twins with big mouths and big hair. Think of all the wonderful stories we'd all get to see and hear, how much more beauty and light there'd be in the world, how much more hope and productivity there'd be if people were inspired, Roddenberry-style, to want nothing more than to enrich their souls. There is nothing enriching in reality TV. It is voyeurism in its most despicable form – the twitch of the net curtain to gossip about your neighbours. It is stealing jobs from talented performers, writers and directors and, worst of all, robbing us of the stories to weave into the once luxuriant fabric of our community and culture. It has no place in an intelligent society and I look forward to its ultimate demise at the hands of a public so bored they have no choice but to seek out new stories.

8 Dec 2009

When did I become a Ma’am?

Pret A Manger caffe latte, England, Britain, UKI was in Prêt a Manger today, which I am most days, as I buy my morning latté from them. Prêt make the best lattés of all the chain stores in London. I'll go to Starbucks at a pinch (and load it up with vanilla or caramel), Costa as a last resort and Cafe Nero ONLY if the baristas are Mediterranean. English Cafe Nero baristas evidently all drink Nescafé at 40 degrees Celsius and wouldn't know a good latte if it imploded in front of them. The best coffee I’ve found in London (so far) is made by the lovely ladies at MUGI in Ealing Common. Polish construction workers drink it at 7.30am with nothing but cigarettes, so you know it’s good. Should you find yourself on the Ealing Common High Street, I recommend a detour, for the coffee and the hilarious music videos on Russian cable television.

I am a caffeine junkie and used to drink five or six cups a day. However, in a begrudging concession to my health, I only have one coffee a day now, as it made my heart beat irregular when I was a stage manager working 80 hour weeks in my 20s. So my one cup a day is significant and not to be treated lightly. I've tried to support my local small businesses and have gone to all the independent coffee shops in the five blocks around my office (mostly run by aging Italian men who employ contemptuous eastern European girls) and they all make terrible coffee. I mean the kind of terrible that makes you wish you'd ordered Maxwell House instead. I suspect they're all using Maxwell House to make coffee for their English customers, assuming they won't know the difference and keeping the really good, fresh, medium-roasted Italian good stuff for themselves. Bastards.

Anyway, when I was ordering my latté from the friendly folks at Prêt today, I realised that one of them had called me 'Ma'am' when she gave me my coffee. Ma'am. As in 'Madam'. Mrs. M'dme. Missus. M'lady. Not Miss. Or even Ms.

I realised that people had been calling me Ma'am for quite some time. In restaurants, bars, on the phone (where I tend to get 'Mrs' in front of my surname too) and certainly in the mail. And it made me wonder, when did I become a Ma'am? When did it become obvious that I was no longer a Miss? That I was now 'of a certain age' that commanded this level of respect from customer service types?

Is it my expanding waistline that lends me a matronly air? My lacklustre work attire (who can be bothered making an effort for pie charts?) or sensible walking-through-the-park trainers? I refuse to believe it’s crows feet, I have too much natural collagen (mostly thanks to 20 years of chips and chocolate), so it’s got to be my attitude. Evidently I have thrown off the exuberance and naivety of my youth and present myself (to customer service folks at least) an imposing worldly figure impressive enough to inspire in them the use of a befitting title. Or at least fear that I’ll get more annoyed with them if they call me ‘Miss’.

They might have a point.

31 Oct 2009

When Twitter goes bad…

Sometime this afternoon, some chap in Birmingham tapped off a random tweet to a chap named Jim and happened to mention @stephenfry in the tweet. He also happened to mention that although he respected and admired our 'National Treasure', his tweets were sometimes.. well.. a bit boring. He even apologised in the same tweet '(sorry Stephen)', possibly assuming that Stephen would not even read the random mention in his Twitter timeline, let alone bother to reply. He certainly could not have anticipated what happened next.

Evidently poor Stephen was having a bad day and, as so often happens when you are alone in your room with only the internet for company (and I speak from personal experience), the tweet struck a nerve. A big sharp one. Stephen retorted with a snippy comeback, then promptly decided he'd had enough of all the nastiness on Twitter, blocked the guy (thus preventing him from apologising in person) and left, slamming the virtual door behind him.

For those of you not in the know, Stephen Fry has over 920,000 followers on Twitter. Many of whom have not bothered to look for the original tweet (now deleted from the perpetrator's timeline) and, thinking that Stephen has abandoned Twitter on the basis of a single insult from a stranger, have launched frenzied attacks on this chap, who will no doubt have to close down his Twitter account and his blog and move to Manchester. Stephen has not been heard from in *gasp* over NINE HOURS, his business partner and webmaster, Andrew Sampson, has issued a stern warning to everyone that they are not to vilify @brumplum (the villain of the piece) and celebrity Fry-pals Jonathan Ross and Alan Davies, who were calmly enjoying their Saturday evenings in front of the tele, have been barraged by people wanting them to check that Stephen is okay.

Not only that, but the exchange, such as it is, has become the subject of blogs, news feeds and, would you believe - headlines on Sky News and the BBC. The word 'bully' has been hurled in @brumplum's direction, along with a vast assortment of other, nastier monikers. All because some chap said to some other chap that he thought some of Stephen's tweets were... well.. a bit boring.

Which brings me to my point (yes there was one) - just how significant is this Twitter thing anyway? I check Twitter nearly every day and follow just over 100 people (some of whom don't post much more than once a month when they remember, Noel Fielding I'm looking at you) but for me it's pure distraction. I don't expect to learn anything useful (although thanks to the QI Elves, I now know that anteaters are toothless), I hope to be entertained and more hopefully made to laugh. My contrary streak can't bear to conform too much to watercooler chat, so I don't follow Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher (although I do have Rumer Willis on my list) or either of the Hiltons (Paris or Perez).

To get my moral superiority fix, I follow several members of the Skeptic Society, including two Mythbusters, I also follow several comedians, a bunch of musicians, a couple of ex-Star Trek actors, two or three great horror writers and most of the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So no life-changing, credit-changing, job-changing potential there, but it's a laugh and the best tweets are the ones with photos - a voyeuristic taste of the public-private lives of folks I admire.

I hear that there are companies out there using Twitter as a marketing tool, but I have no idea who these companies are, because I don't follow them, so they are failing to sell me anything. I get enough junk mail in the post, why would I ask for more in my Twitter box? A friend of mine is using it for job-hunting - but she does work in media. A CNN column by the CEO of social media site Mashable intimated that those people who aren't on social networks in the future are going to struggle with jobs, socialising and.. well, pretty much existence as we know it unless they sign up. Rubbish. Most people I know aren't on Twitter and they're doing just fine. I have a day job in financial services, the primary industry for the United Kingdom and as my firm is regulated by the Financial Services Authority, on their recommendation (for security and data protection), access to Twitter in my office is banned. On that basis alone I have my doubts about Twitter's future success as a business tool, at least in the financial services industry. And really, if you're a serious investor (and I'm not talking about Mr & Mrs Smith with a £10k ISA), are you going to log onto Twitter to see what the marketing department at UBS are tweeting today or pick up the phone to speak to an industry professional for advice? It's one thing to follow Waterstones to get the latest 3 for 2 deals on chick-lit, it's quite another if you're thinking about investing your children's trust fund.

Then there's real life people. My partner, who is pretty darn internet savvy, follows a bunch of RSS feeds and delights in the Photoshop competitions on b3ta.com and he can't bear the thought of Twitter, for the sheer maintenance of the thing. And he's right, you do need to check it regularly to get any kind of sense of it. I do have a few real life friends on Twitter (pretty much my followers list!), but most people I know aren't. And aren't interested. They're too busy getting on with their lives to write about it in 140 characters or less. And for the most part, I'm grateful for that. Because while it's nice to know what your mates are up to, there's a limit to how many 'eating a sandwich' and 'doing the laundry' and 'I'm sooo tired' posts you can take before you start hitting your head on the keyboard. Twitter is supposed to relieve boredom, not cause it.

And all those promises of how Twitter can make money for you, Joe Bloggs, sitting in your living room, just by sending a few tweets? Yup, just like all those work-at-home jobs stuffing envelopes on your kitchen table. Millions to make. :S

The entire situation with Stephen Fry this evening has been a bit of an eye-opener for me, I'm amazed just how many people involved in Twitter take social networking so seriously, when everyone not involved is blissfully ignoring it and getting on with whatever they were doing before it was invented. I discovered today that you can follow people tweeting about a specific person in real time (or at least I can using TweetDeck), which is something I don't normally do because a) I'm not usually sitting at my computer for long enough to watch it unfold and b) I'm not usually interested in what people 'reckon' - everyone has an opinion, it's just now the internet has given anyone with a web connection the opportunity to reach potentially a worldwide audience. Even if they don't mean to. I look at Tweets from the people I follow because I've CHOSEN to read them, but I'm not interested what the man in the street is saying, because I hear it every day on the Tube, the train and in the office. And for the most part, when they're not discussing the weather, public transport or what they're having for lunch, they're just repeating what they read in the morning paper. Which is usually ill-informed and skewed toward being 'outraged'. Just like all these Twitterfolks are 'outraged' that someone could upset their beloved Stephen so. And now, hours after the event, most people are getting outraged without even knowing what it is that they should be outraged about. It also occurs to me that if Fry was serious about leaving Twitter, it takes three clicks to delete your account. Just three.

So how significant is this Twitter thing? For me, average Twit, not that bloody significant. I'd miss hearing from Wil Wheaton, but if it all fell over tomorrow, if Twitter's servers were shut down all that was left was the fail whale, I think we'd all survive. Heck, we survived The Spice Girls breaking up, we lived through Britney shaving her head and the Mariah Carey Christmas Album, I think we'd get over a Twitterpocalypse. In fact I think you'd find that most people wouldn't even notice.

30 Oct 2009

A most triumphant literary discovery

I have never had a problem with letting people know who my two favourite authors are. I don't bother to be cool and cite two of the world's most prolific and popular horror writers - Stephen King and Dean Koontz. I love their rambling, easy language, their ability to put you into the scene without having to think about the words they're using, their humour, their pop culture references and their musical imperatives - I fell in love with Dean Koontz after he had Christopher Snow addicted to Chris Isaak in Fear Nothing and Stephen King introduced me to Creedance Clearwater and Dylan.

Good horror writing isn't about blood, sex, gore and stupid women who run upstairs when they should go out the front door. Good horror is about blood, sex, goosebumps, heart beats and that feeling that someone, or something, is watching you from the darkest corner of the room. Horror is about mystery, and the thrill of finding out what the creepy thing in the shadows is and how you can stop it hurting you and your loved ones. King and Koontz's heroes are clever guys with a sense of humour and good taste in food and music, who understand the loyalty and secret intelligence of dogs. Their much-adored wives are strong, smart and can handle a butcher's knife or a shotgun if the needs arises (and it frequently does) and their villains are terrifying on a tap-into-your-primal-fear level. They know about 4am, the sound of a train in the distance and the creaking noises in the old house that might not just be the wind. Here are two men who GET it.

So, unlike certain celebrity actresses who believe everyone wants to emulate their lifestyle, I feel no desire to prove myself to be creatively superior by listing my preferred authors as a string of literary award-winning novelists with prose that you need to wade through like treacle. (I saw The English Patient nine times. I read the book once. And it took longer than those nine times combined. And I still prefer Aliens.). Nor do I want to cling to the ranks of the post-modern feminist by name-dropping Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (I can't even spell Dostoevsky, I had to look it up). I've read Austen, the Brontes and Dickens, I've ploughed through Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (science fiction is written for men, women are just not interested in that much detail, trust me on this), I've buzzed through Clive Cussler, James Patterson and John Grisham, I even tried out Minette Walters once (just once). I have never tried to read what is commonly referred to as 'chick-lit' as I know I'll hate it. Nothing with that many pastels on the cover could hold my attention, as there's definitely not going to be ghosts, rock music or hot vampires in it. Vampires don't do pastels. Not even ones who drive shiny silver Volvos.

But I digress, this post is about an author I discovered last year. I was shopping on my own and realised I didn't have a book with me to prevent Nigel-No-Mates stares while I ate my lunch. So I popped into the first charity shop I found (best source of £1 novels and you never know what you might find) and spotted a promising black paperback with a creepy moth and a razorblade on a chain on the front. The blurb on the back was tempting, aHeart-Shaped Box modern ghost story about an aging rockstar haunted by the malevolent spirit of the departed grandfather of a former groupie, and there was a quote from Stephen King about just how good this debut novel was. So hey, I trust ol' Stevo, and it was £1.50, so I grabbed it. The book in question was 'Heart-Shaped Box' by some guy named Joe Hill, who I'd never heard of. Now, the more knowledgeable among you are already chuckling, but stick with me.

The book was great. It was beyond great. It was fantastic. It was easy to read, it was funny, it was full of rock music references (how could it not be, its protagonist was an Alice Cooper style rocker) and it moved along at a rip-roaring pace. Our hero was sexy, funny, clever and he drove a Mustang. His latest groupie was smart and savvy and didn't take any of his crap. It was scary, spooky, creepy and all those other good icky words that describe the feeling you get when the hairs on the back of your neck go up. And amongst the in-jokes relating to music heroes, he won my eternal loyalty when he mentioned My Chemical Romance as 'sweet and young, but decided he quite liked them'.

I was barely two chapters in when I chuckled to myself that this chap Hill, who was roughly my age, must have grown up on a steady diet of Stephen King and Koontz, just like I did, he had a similar conversational style, flow, pace. Some months later I went to his website, joehillfiction.com and discovered another book of short stories and a rather entertaining blog. So long as he kept writing, Joe Hill was about to join my top five writers list. I started following him on Twitter (@joe_hill), secretly excited that I - me! - had discovered this fantastic new writer that no-one else had heard of! I even sent him a Tweet once about Airbourne, an Aussie AC/DC-style rock band, when he was looking for some new music.

Then, in retaliation to the hype around Wolfram Alpha, he requested a bunch of questions from his Twitter followers, with the promise that the best questions would be posted on his website with his replies, and even if they were incorrect, they would at least be entertaining. And sure enough, they were. But halfway down the list, in between 'What was in the briefcase?' and 'Who made who?' was this question: 'If it were possible, which of your father's novels do you wish you had written?' A father who writes? Writes enough novels to be worthy of a mention by his son's fans? Who then, as they say in hippity-hop circles, is the Daddy?

Off to Wikipedia went I, wondering who could be the father of this fantastic new writer who I, like Captain Cook before me, had discovered. My brilliant secret, shared with only a select few, this wonderful story that promised so much more in the same vein (no pun intended). And there, in all the linked-up goodness that is Wikipedia, was my answer. Joe Hill's father is... Stephen King.

I have to say I nearly passed out in my triumph. I had picked up a book on the basis of its cover art, blurb and a line of praise from my favourite author and I had loved it. I hadn't been led down the media-driven super highway and read it just because he was related to the writer I admired above all others. It was untainted by hype and 'If you love Stephen King you will love this!!!' recommendations from Amazon. I had enjoyed this book knowing nothing about the author, with no expectations and no preconceptions. And it had been brilliant. I haven't been this excited about finding an author since my best friend bought me a copy of Poppy Z Brite's 'Lost Souls' (Poppy is also on Twitter @docbrite) and my excitement was pure, genuine and ALL MINE. Joe's next novel is out in February next year, it's called 'Horns', it's about the devil and I can't wait. I now have a third favourite writer.

Going gentle into that good night

I had a day to myself recently and decided I would check out our local cemetery, which, being just beyond the grounds of a 400 year old house, was potentially quite old and cool. I'm a big fan of cemeteries, I like how quiet they are, how beautiful and old they are, even in Australia, where they've only existed in the form we recognise for just over 200 years. I like reading about people I don't know and wondering what their lives (and deaths) were like and pondering the way we as a people deal with death as the ones left behind.

This cemetery is very well maintained and really not that old by comparison to some of the ones I've been to - most of the older graves date back to the 30s and 40s, and only a couple I saw were turn of the century. It's also not a full cemetery so there are more recent graves, and it looked like there was to be a funeral that day too. I found a few interesting graves, including a very old mausoleum with a worn sign saying 'Entrance to the Vault of William...' - that made me pause and look around suspiciously for a minute, expecting a door in the ivy to suddenly creak open.... it didn't, so I kept looking around.

As I was wandering I could hear soft tinkling noises, which I assumed were wind chimes and there was a soft, sweet smell in the air. As I got back round to the main gates, I realised the wind chimes were closer and I turned a corner to find the children's cemetery. Now I've seen child graves before and it's always sad to read that they were only a few years, weeks, even days old when they died, but I've never seen anything like this. There were about 15 or 20 graves in a walled, grassed section of about 25 square metres, and most of the graves were covered in colourful toys, flowers, tributes, plants, ribbons, wind chimes, lit candles (on the grave and in hanging 'lanterns'), sparkly decorations, photos and trinkets. Little signs saying 'our beloved daughter', 'we miss you, mum and dad', 'for my sister', glass stones, teddy bears, other furry toys, even Chuckie from Rugrats and Stitch from Lilo and Stitch.

One grave, a little girl's, had photos of her with the family spaniel, was completely filled with flowering plants with ornaments and toys hiding between them, edged in pebbles with a sign at the foot of the grave saying 'sssh, fairies are sleeping in the bottom of the garden.' Another, an Asian girl's, was the source of the sweet smell floating right through the cemetery - it was incense - and there were two smaller graves, side by side, literally covered in furry toys, for two babies who died a day apart.

I didn't take any pictures of this part of the cemetery, these graves seemed so much more personal, such a public outpouring of private grief, it just didn't seem right to photograph them for something as frivolous as a weblog. The fact that some of these toys had obviously been there for some time and remained untouched says that I'm not the only one who felt this way.

None of the graves were particularly recent, but as the candles and incense had been lit, I'm assuming that the families of these children come and visit regularly. I can't begin to comprehend having a child, let alone losing one, but I'm guessing that all these bright, cheerful toys and trinkets are an attempt to make sure their children aren't alone and frightened in the grey, dark graveyard. If so, it's working, this burst of colour, scent, soft chimes and light amongst the stark, cold stone of the rest of the cemetery is comforting, almost joyful, despite the tremendous sadness it represents.

It does make for stark and poignant contrast though, when you see the one or two graves without all the colour and sparkle - like the one with a simple wooden cross, a name and date and a weather-faded, rain-matted teddy sitting quietly and loyally at the base of the cross.

29 Aug 2009

I am writing

This weblog has sat empty for sometime, but I intend to write lots on it. About everything and nothing in particular, but I do promise no whining or tales of just how boring my day was. Even if I have to make it up.

I have lots of half-written posts on the C drive of my laptop, awaiting completion. When I do, anyone passing by this corner of the internet can read them too. Maybe they'll even write back.