It has been quite a week. As a wee boy in the central Scotland village in which I had the fortune of being raised, I witnessed a few fist fights. At 5ft 4, on a good day, any threat of a 'square-go' and I was off or at least edging to the back of the crowd, just in case. I was not a traditional feartie, more a realist one.
This week, I witnessed through the media something that took me back to how I felt as that youngster. I remembered the experience of witnessing bigger capable youths, in fact men, in everything but name, picking on, intimidating and humiliating less capable prey. Quarry that might valiantly stand-up for themselves, using all means possible to them to fight back, only to ultimately be physically crushed and battered in the affray. All wrapped up by the classic bully post-pummelling excuse that, 'well, they fought back so I had to show them' as onlookers drifted away fully understanding the unfairness but afraid to confront the aggressor in case they then became a victim.
In my late teens and early 20s (and sometimes even with the weans in tow), I used to attend demonstrations as a hobby. If there was a cause I was on to it, just like my tight-knit group of political pals. CND, Right to Work, ANL – the lot. My interest in current affairs did not disappear – it kind of drifted in to abeyance – as I made my way through the years. Other stuff took precedence over the politics, though I did graduate BA (Hons) from the OU, (mainly political study courses). However, I was moved to action the past weekend on witnessing the situation in Israel and Palestine and so got the walking shoes on to attend the Edinburgh demo. The atmosphere on the day was one of anger, but also of hope and positivity, with many people in attendance, who would not in normal circumstances attend a political rally. For them, this was about inhumanity.
By chance, as we walked along in the impromptu demonstration to Bute House, I got talking to a fellow demonstrator, who like me was of a certain age and as I learned had, also similar to me, three grown-up children. All this helped maintain our conversation as we boldly strode out in the pouring rain. As luck would have it, turns out she was also a Scottish Review
reader. In my travails around Edinburgh I meet and speak with many people (sometimes whether they like it or not) the beauty of which is that I (and hopefully they) learn new and interesting things through these interactions. I have long overcome my wee shy laddie phase and appear to have moved to the opposite end of the spectrum in which I rarely pass up on the chance of a conversation.
One of my friends often and inaccurately caricatures me by mocking my liking for my own voice saying: 'here is the stage, there is the microphone, now where is he?' Little does she know that stage fright would render me to a jabbering wreck. If only that were the same for some others who pontificate from their chosen stage.
One should always look on the bright side of life. Not everything in this pandemic year and a bit has been for the worse. Some things happened that will almost certainly change lives for the better – part-time working from home is one of them. A mix of home and office toil should be life-enhancing, even if it spells disaster for many of those sandwich bars which used to feed white collar city workers.
The world of entertainment has suffered as the cries of pain show, but COVID-19, which did put many theatre folk out of work, has not actually killed the shows that were running when it struck. The Phantom of the Opera
will continue to prowl, Le Misérables
will remain. Lesmiz
, Hair Spray
will carry on camping it up, and the Jersey Boys
will strut their stuff soon in London – turning up in Glasgow and Inverness later on. If only they had all been laid to rest. Some will certainly return in diminished form – the orchestra for Phantom
has been cut in numbers – so we may never see their like again, but that is no a bad thing.
While actors were languishing off stage there have been dramatic performances galore to watch on screen. One of my retirement sidelines is reviewing theatre for a 20-year-old website called Reviewsgate which could easily have fallen silent – review sites are nothing without things to review. But through new online 'companies' like original theatre, stream theatre and sites like YouTube, there have been plays and musicals in plenty to write about, some of which are even getting a spell on the West End stages in this re-opening summer season courtesy of the impresario Nica Burns. The problem is going to be why pay West End prices for something one can more comfortably watch at home? Theatres put their archive performances on view, sometimes free, sometime on payment of very modest fees compared to what one would have paid to attend, and so added to the available mix.
One no longer has to live in London to see the likes of the National Theatre for instance. A mere £3 gets a 'seat' to watch the Royal Ballet or Covent Garden Opera with a far better view of the stage than from the seat one could have afforded. The hoi polloi has joined the elite in the stalls. One other advantage of streamed theatre is not having to endure the discomforts of all those Victorian theatres which the Germans failed to bomb during the last war – cramped seats, scarce loos, terrible overhangs and all the rest. Our ancestors, as well as being smaller, must have had amazing bladder control, and as for sightlines, all the plaster cherubs in the world do not compensate for the view of the stage from the cramped cheap seats in those much admired Machin theatres with their cramped foyers and nightmare bars. So expect online access to continue.
One site, not a public one, which has given me immense pleasure this last year has been English National Opera TV which has held over 60 weekly zoom sessions for its supporters with a range of speakers from the company: tenors one week, the altos the next, the lady who makes the hats, the people who build the props, the different sections of the orchestra, conductors and chorus masters, administrators and the dynamic ladies who 'sell' the shows. It was an imaginative way of introducing ENO's supporters to the company, revealing, among other things, the satisfaction the chorus get from their work, what the players not playing in the orchestra do while waiting to resume, and the tricks of the trade of those who try to raise the company's profile.
I don't, as must be apparent by now, live in Scotland so I have no idea what Scottish Opera or Ballet have done should you wonder but I suspect they have not been backward in coming forward. If not – then take it up with them. ENO have found ENO TV such a good way of spreading information, apart from cheering up their supporters, that broadcasts will continue in a slightly modified form when their new season at the Coliseum opens in the autumn according to Andrew Given, the development director, who masterminded it. I was trained to attach a kilt to a story so here it is – he is Scottish.
One thing I learned from the ENO publicists was that newspapers and their critics do not matter all that much today. Getting a story online, on the radio, on TV at breakfast time or The One Show
is what brings in the punters – old time print critics are irrelevant. Good reviews help but what helps far more is spreading the news of what you are doing and how. La Boheme
in the Coliseum? Puccini fans will go regardless, much as the Lloyd Webber ones do to Phantom
, but La Boheme
as a drive-in event in the grounds of Crystal Palace has the wow factor and off the middle classes went to watch from their cars without having to take dangerous public transport.
I never fell victim to the fantasy that I was a butcher of Broadway critic, someone who could make or break a show, but I did discover that something I had written could set a reader to thinking that maybe they might spend their money on a ticket to a film or play. A plug on the air does that, reaches more people and does not require any reading. So who needs the likes of us critics? I was firmly put in my place by one lady publicist, a trenchant Scot, after I had said a horror movie she was promoting was absolutely awful. She replied: 'Aw Bill, but they will love it in Glasgow'. And they did. It was the posters what sold it.
If you would like to contribute to the Cafe, please email your comments to email@example.com