Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Paul Merton's Birth of Hollywood

If you missed it, the first part of Paul Merton's Birth of Hollywood is on iPlayer now. (I caught up with it yesterday.) I wasn't so taken with Mark Gatiss' History of Horror last year because the title was misleading, but the Merton one is more focussed and able to stick to its subject.

Part 1 goes from early films, with the Cinematoscope and its ilk, up to the end of the 1910s. I thought the omission of any mention of the magic lantern in the history of film development was a little surprising. Of course, you can't cram a decade's worth of events into one programme, but the lack of attention to the serials (including no mention whatsoever of Florence Lawrence, the original Biograph Girl - Merton just says that Mary Pickford was known as the Biograph Girl) was a let-down. In fact, very little attention is paid to women in film full-stop; the vamps of the mid teens, including Theda Bara, didn't get a single sentence.

There's an awful lot on DW Griffith, who you can't really ignore, and on Chaplin, possibly to the expense of other Keystone performers. I do think that this is one of those programmes where the legacy of the stars, rather than their impact at the time, is what's justified their inclusion, so for the 1920s I'm willing to bet we'll see Louise Brooks rather than the then-more-popular Colleen Moore, and the jury's out on how much screen time Gloria Swanson, one of the biggest stars of the decade, will get...

Still, my nitpicks aside, Birth of Hollywood is a decent programme, and well worth watching.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Silents live: Lotte Reiniger and Buster Keaton

It's ironic, but I've seen more films at the Bath International Music Festival than I ever have at the film festival (which seems to focus on 'worthy' rather than 'fun' – oh how I long for a year when they decide to run a series of classics). Another of Bath's old cinemas, although not as old as the Forum, has become Komedia, a comedy club. Yesterday I went to a silent film event there.

Playing along to silent films is something of a lost art. Nowadays, when you do get them shown, it's usually to a completely written 'new score' rather than someone improvising as the film plays. The first trio of films shown yesterday, Cinderella, The Grasshopper and the Ant and what's left of The Frog Prince, all by animator Lotte Reiniger, were all given new scores. Alexander Balanescu played violin, Evelina Petrova the accordion. She also did some voice work.

I wanted to like it, I really did, but it was obvious from the start that the films were considered secondary in this performance. Balanescu stood right in front of the screen, and just in case that wasn't blocking out enough of the screen he kept his hat on throughout. The music itself reminded me of the stuff that used to accompany the creepy Eastern European animations on Channel 4 in the 1980s, discordant and jarring. Reiniger's animations were exquisite, but it felt as though the duo were using them to illustrate their music rather than creating a sympathetic soundtrack to the films. So I didn't like it, Mr Robot hated it, and I saw at least one chap leaving with his young son.

We downed a beer in the interval. Much needed.

The second half of the show was a complete contrast: two Buster Keaton films, One Week and The Boat, with live piano accompaniment by Huw Warren. In the days of silent film, an accompanist would know all sorts of stock musical phrases and melodies, a little like the way, in oral cultures, repetition of elements is key to storytelling. I won't say Warren is completely fluent as an accompanist - let's face it, he's not doing five shows a day, six days a week - but he did match the action, used familiar melodies to humorous effect (such as playing Brahms' Lullaby as the family went to sleep) and enhanced the films rather than push them into second place. It was great to hear the laughter of children (and Mr R), and was a really enjoyable experience.

I do think the billing showed poor planning on the part of the festival organisers, as one half was very much about avante garde music with film as an almost incidental element, whereas the other was all about the film plus traditional musical accompaniment. There were children in the show, and I don't think the first part of the bill is the sort of thing that makes parents rush back because it was neither immediately likeable or fun. If I do go to see more silents at future festivals, I'll be looking really hard at who's playing…

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Ute Lemper at the Forum cinema

Last night I was lucky enough to see Ute Lemper, one of the greatest singers in the world, performing at one of Bath's few outstanding 20th century buildings, the art deco Forum cinema. (Nowadays the building is used as a church, but the church authorities have maintained the interior and allow it to be used during the International Music Festival. While part of me wishes I could go and seem films there, ultimately I'm just happy the building is so well cared for.)

Ute's show was called 'Last Tango In Berlin' and was a musical journey from 1920s Berlin, with the exodus of artists in the 1930s to Paris and Buenos Aires, then back to Europe for the songs of Jacques Brel, finishing off with the part of the artists that 'still keeps a small suitcase in Berlin'. She was accompanied on her journey by pianist Vana Gierig and bandoneon player Tito Castro. What's a bandoneon? Like a more complicated accordion, much beloved in Argentina.

The show was cleverly constructed, beginning with a couple of songs we all know, 'Falling In Love Again' from The Blue Angel and 'Lili Marlene' (Ute actually sang the original German versions, but I don't know how to spell their titles!) and ending with a medley incorporating 'Mack the Knife' (again, original German version) and 'Life is a Cabaret'. Between them came an hour or so of songs less familiar to me in German, French and Spanish, with a little English. I'm not good enough in any of those languages to follow the lyrics of the songs well, apart from bits like tristesse and yo soy Maria, but it didn't matter. Ute's performance was spellbinding, and her voice so expressive that you understood what she was singing about even if the lyrics were a mystery.

I don't think I've ever head as good a singer in the flesh. Ute could take her voice from a whisper to a bellow, sound like she was going to cry, laugh hysterically or rip the clothes of the nearest chap, and even did a good impersonation of a trumpet! Moreover, she moved incredibly. The programme notes said a ballet had been written for her, and she did have a way of moving her arms that was incredibly graceful and always created a stunning silhouette. I've always thought that if I ever get to see Dita von Teese it will have to be in a large room, and that would be a shame as such artistry belongs in a small, intimate setting. That's how I felt about Ute's performance. I would love to see her in a tiny club, with a little stage that she could dominate utterly, where she could prowl among the tables - yes, okay, the sort of place Jessica works in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Ute owned the stage last night, and I enjoyed every but of the performance, but it's not her, or the songs', natural environment.

Incidentally, if you like the work of Weill and Brecht, there's still time to get tickets for next Sunday's final concert at the Festival, Mr Brecht, are you now or have you ever been…, a drama about Brecht which includes many of his greatest songs.

(Mr R tried to get a shot of Ute, but his iPhone wasn't really up to the task, so you will have to make do with a photo of her chair!)

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Come and charleston

Yesterday was payday, so I was finally able to get my ticket to Bath's next Secret Tea Party. This one is a little more expensive than the first tea party because not only will there be cake and tea on Mrs Stokes' vintage china and talks, there will be charleston lessons! I had originally planned to learn to Charleston for my 40th birthday, but as that's snowballed into a plan to save up and go to Burgh Island to dance the charleston for my 40th birthday Mr Robot has pointed out that it would be a shame to get there and have to learn on the spot. Much better to go with a head full of charleston knowledge. If you're in the area and fancy filling your head with charleston knowledge too, tickets are still available.

I really love the music of the 1920s, and have quite a few CDs of music from the decade. I must confess, I do want to charleston to one tune not from the decade: the cantina band tune from Star Wars!

Anyway, I can't dither around on t'interweb all day as I am going to see Ute Lemper singing Dietrich songs in an art deco cinema tonight. More on that tomorrow!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

James Bond ruined the spy story

Harsh? Perhaps. But true, I feel. I watched an episode of Undercovers, a new 'spy' telly programme, the other day. It was awful. You had two leads too good looking to ignore talking their way into bank vaults (in five minutes) and Spanish society weddings (because, of course, that's not the sort of environment where everyone knows most other people and a pair of Americans won't stand out like sore thumbs), and culminated in a car exploding in Moscow. The police in Moscow aren't hot on things exploding, oh no, it's not as though they're on the alert for terrorists there or anything...

What does this have to do with things vintage? Well, I'm laying the blame at the feet of Ian Fleming, so the rot sets in in the 1950s. I love the Bond novels. They're generally much darker and more violent than many of the films. The films came later, and got lighter, especially once Sean Connery gave way to Roger Moore. Gadgets became more prominent, there were more girls, the locations became more exotic and the baddies more outrageous. Also in the 1960s you see more action-heavy novels from people like Len Deighton coming out, and these were made into films too starring people such as Michael Caine. On telly, you had Mission: Impossible and The Man from UNCLE.

With the Cold War at its peak, spying was as part of the age as terrorism is to ours - even if we don't experience it directly, it's there in the news, in dramas on telly and so on. Somehow over the year, especially since the Cold War ended and espionage featured in the news less, the suspense element has become less important, and sex, glamour and conspicuous explosions have become central. Most of the spy stories I really enjoy are from the 1960s or earlier, more subtle tales of detection and intrigue. The big exception for me are John le Carré's Smiley novels, stories about a middle-aged spy with an unfaithful wife, wearing shabby suits and relying on little more than files, a good memory and an innate gift for shadowy dealings. He doesn't blow things up. He doesn't even shoot. He is the antithesis of James Bond, the perfect spy. Sadly, James Bond's influence is all-pervading, and John le Carré's characters may be the last fictional spies who actually do any spying.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The House on 92nd Street [film]

I caught this wartime spy film on Film4 on one of my days off, and thought it would be great to cover for Spy Month. (I haven't forgotten Spy Month, despite last week's steampunk shenanigans.) The House on 92nd Street was a wartime spy drama, released just after World War II, with the plot loosley based on the real-life Duquesne Spy Ring. A young student is approached by the Germans but turns double-agent for the FBI, and helps them pass along false information to the Germans. Meanwhile a German agent is killed in a road accident and it becomes clear that someone is passing along nuclear secrets. The double agent needs to identify that agent. Eventually the whole ring gets rounded up.

As a film it's not entirely satisfactory as there's a lot of voiceover, which means you're never quite able to get immersed in the action, although it is needed as the story jumps about a bit.

What I found so very disturbing about this film was the level to which everyone was being watched, and that the film makes it explicit people are being watched. When the FBI aren't sure who's leaking secrets from the lab, everyone there gets watched. I know it's wartime and these things are necessary, but the way it's presented, as a great, laudable thing, took me by surprise. Maybe it's because I'm British; I can't help thinking a British film would've been rather more apologetic about the snooping! It was fun seeing the various parts of the FBI, though, including the huge, mechanised, extremely efficient, fingerprint sorting room. (Lots of women were doing the work. Men talked about the results. Sigh.)

I don't know if I'd watch it again, but if you are interested in wartime propaganda films it's worth seeing.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Contrapular Spectacular! Steampunk contraptions at Waltz on the Wye


Now you've had your warning I make no apologies for this long, picture-heavy post. One of the very best things about steampunk, in my opinion, is the creativity that forms a massive part of it. It goes further than making clothes and accessories, although these are important. However, to see the creativity at its peak, you need to look at the contraptions. For Waltz on the Wye, the Contraptions Exhibition was held at Chepstow Castle, with the permission of Welsh Heritage body Cadw.

(If I've spelled anyone's name wrong or something factual ne
eds correcting, please let me know - I've tried to attribute the contraptions to the correct people.)

This pipe and these lenses were both made by Matt McCall. They're superlative examples of some of the things you will see steampunks wearing, carrying and even using. The pipe has been completely reconstructed and yes, it works. Mr Robot, being a man who enjoys a pipe, asked.

I'm really glad we've got close-up photos of these because they show the intricate detail and hard work that goes into contraption making. It's not just gluing cogs on ordinary things! The ones that work, work, and the ones that don't usually have a narrative behind them that places them within the realm of Victorian science fiction.

A very nice gentleman whose name I can't remember (EDIT: it is Arfon Jones) brought along a three-part contraption. As an explorer, you may find yourself on the Lost World at some point, so he had one gunlike device for freezing dinosaurs, one for shrinking them to manageable size and this splendid cryogenic case for transporting them back to the lab. It even smoked! I gave the 'ice' a gentle poke and it's wonderfully realistic resin. I wasn't sure because the noise of the smoky element made me wonder if there was some sort of refrigeration going on there.

Andy, one of the event's two organisers, brought several items along. The fantastic thing about many of his contraptions isn't just that they look fantastic, it's that they work. The puffer fish lamp was quite strange, and the clock is a work of art.

The case is based on Arts and Crafts styles, but the numbers are done using special tubes. Being a technospud, I can't think what the tubes are called, but if you look at them up close, they're like tiny lightbulbs. Each contains wire coils shaped not like a lightbulb filament but as the numbers 0 to 9. Electricity runs through one coil in each tube, making it glow. When the time changes, one filament goes dark and the next one lights up.

The Eyes The Eyes! was Mr Robot's favourite item. Made by Jarkman and Ben, it's deceptively simple looking, and has already been on show at Bristol's Arnolfini Gallery. It's an eye with brass eyelids. However, it will track you round a room, blink, look sleepy… Mr Robot said he felt is was the most sinister and steampunk thing he saw all weekend. I was quite charmed, because it made me think of the film Labyrinth and anything that recalls Bowie in tight trousers as the Goblin King can't be all bad...

Visitors to the exhibition (everyone who went into the castle, steampunk or not) were able to vote for their favourite item, and they chose this, James Richardson-Brown's K-1909. His previous steampunk K9, which has even been borrowed by the BBC, got taken away last week for an exhibition at the British Library so he spent three days and nights with very little sleep making a slightly later model for Waltz on the Wye. The glove, 'The Hand of Asclepius', is also his, and stems from his speculation about what the researchers at Miskatonic University really got up to.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Steampunk outfits: what I wore to Waltz on the Wye

Over the past few days I was at Waltz on the Wye, Wales' first steampunk weekender. It was fantastic and I will have several posts for you, but as my workmates have heard me banging on about trying to sort my clothes out for it for the past few months, I am under orders to post photos of my outfits!

Now, I'm not a steampunk. I love the books, and science fiction generally, and I love Victorian history, and I'm probably jolly steampunk-friendly but I'm not part of the subculture. (In case you're wondering, I went because some friends of mine organised it and I wanted to support them and thought the event sounded like ripping good fun.) Also, my style tends to be extremely simple and streamlined (probably why the looks of the 20s and 30s appeal to me so much). This meant I didn't have much in my wardrobe to wear, but I didn't have a vast amount to spend either.

Slutty Poppins
Lack of wardrobe leads onto outfit one, which I think of as 'Slutty Poppins' because of the amount of ankle on show! The shoes are 'Charleston' by Hotter, which were comfy enough for lots of walking in, and I already had these for work. The skirt is an M&S one I've had for some years now and always felt had something of the Edwardian walking skirt about it. You can't see much of the blouse, but it's a vaguely turn-of-the-20th-century looking CK Jeans one that I got (new and with tags) from British Heart Foundation just over a week ago for £5. The coat is a Pure Wool Bustle Jacket by The Dark Angel that I got a couple of winters ago. I wore this outfit on the Sunday, and the same one for Friday evening (arrival) with ancient Clarks ankle boots and a white broderie anglais camisole instead of the shoes and blouse.

Oh, and I am pulling what Mr Robot calls my 'dog face' in that photo. He says I wrinkle up my forehead and squint like a rottweiler. Charming!

Miss Marple
My other day outfit was this splendid suit. I bought it from Help the Aged back in March for £8, and it's pure wool from Edinburgh Woollen Mill. The fabric is really nice; it's a brown, grey, black and rust check, so will work with black or brown and any shade of metal. Mr Robot calls it my Miss Marple suit. Here it is with that CK Jeans blouse and my ankle boots. The eyeball is The Eyes, and will track you round the room and blink at you. It was Mr Robot's favourite thing in the Contraptions Exhibition, which I will post about tomorrow.

Rachel, one of the organisers, said this suit looked very dieselpunk (the early 20th century equivalent of steampunk; think The Rocketeer, Metropolis and the original 1930s Flash Gordon films and you're there). Someone else asked if it was 'original', so I don't know if she thought it was genuine vintage. My hair spent Friday and Saturday in this gigantobun, wrapped round a mesh sausage from Boots, and it has left me reconsidering whether to cut my hair at all or keep bunning it up.

Bronze Belle
Finally, there's my balldress. My outfits for the event really encapsulate how I shop nowadays, going either for cheap items from charity shops found through pure luck or for items made by small independent companies like The Dark Angel, which are a little more costly than the High Street but which guarantee something distinctive (and sweatshop free). Being a UK size 18, finding nice formalwear is always my bugbear (I had a grouse about finding an outfit for the work Christmas party last November), finding Victorian formalwear was going to be a nightmare and so for the ball I decided to splash out.

Someone in the steampunk group on 'Facebook for knitters' site Ravelry recommended an American firm specialising in Victorian repro, called Recollections. I visited their site, found this little silk beauty on sale and ordered it. It cost around £140.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Finding relatives

I got a link to an account of the death of my great-uncle Bunny today. It's part of an account of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in Burma. The KOYLI suffered heavy losses, and Bunny (Walter Alexander) was one of them. One thing I didn't realise was that he'd been lightweight boxing champion of Burma; granddad had been heavyweight champion of Burma in the early 1930s, which was one of the things that helped get his transfer from the Indian Army to the British. Granddad was attached to the 8th Army for the war, Bunny joined the KOYLI in Burma (where they were from) and died there. One of my great-uncles by marriage was also there when Bunny died and told me about it at granddad's wake.

I think one of the reasons why I don't dress very 1940s, despite loving noir films and swing, is that for me that decade is always linked to the war, and it's a time of sacrifice I take very clearly. I don't like wars, because every death is an irreplaceable person gone forever and too soon, whatever side they're fighting on, but I do respect the courage it takes to fight in one.

Yeah, that account has made me thoughtful.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Sneak chic: John Steed's ladies

While James Bond's lady friends (and lady enemies) may have sported some iconic looks, whether you prefer Ursula Andress in a white bikini as Honey Rider, Lotte Lenya wielding knifetipped shoes as Rosa Klebb or Lois Maxwell in a succession of Moneypenny suits, to me the ladies of The Avengers have the better wardrobes every time. (My personal favourite Bond girl outfit is a little mint green shift dress worn by Akiko Wakabayashi in You Only Live Twice. You can see it here. The chiffon overlay and neat brooch on one shoulder make a very simple dress quite stylish.)

Cathy Gale: Hell for Leather
People always think of Diana Rigg in a leather catsuit as Emma Peel, but Honor Blackman wore it first as Cathy Gale. In fact she wore an awful lot of leather, perhaps because Gale was given lines originally written for a male character, making her more of an action heroine than other females on telly. Because of this catsuits, leather trouser and waistcoat ensembles and garments that allowed her to move and fight freely were necessary. Leather became a big part of her signature look, and for the 1963 series of The Avengers Cathy Gale even had a 'leather' evening gown. (It was actually leather-look synthetic on a jersey backing.)

When not clad in leather, Cathy Gale's outfits tended to be simple, with restrained suits and neat pinafore dresses. Not all of her 'active' clothing was leather, and the stuff that wasn't was frequently things like tabards with high splits: very simple, scoop necked and unadorned, ready for fighting in!

Classic garment: it has to be those 'boots, boots, kinky boots' that she released a record about!

Emma Peel: Fighting Fit
Despite the perception of Emma Peel as a leather catsuit queen, Diana Rigg actually disliked the leather clothing so much she brought about a major wardrobe change. Emma's signature garment is the jersey jumpsuit, usually with stripes, with a belt slung low at hip level. These came to be marketed as 'Emmapeelers'. Like Cathy's wardrobe they were great for moving in. Unlike Cathy Gale, Emma Peel would step out in mini-dresses, with nary a modesty-defending pair of trousers in sight. The Avengers started to be filmed in colour during Diana Rigg's time as Emma Peel, and Emma's wardrobe is bursting with Sixties shades. Cobalt blue, purple, mustard and bright pink are ones that really stick in my mind.

Diana Rigg did wear one notorious outfit in her time as Emma Peel: black corset and knickers, fishnets and boots, accessorised with a studded collar and snake, as Emma became 'Queen of sin' to infiltrate The Hellfire Club. This outfit was one of the reasons why that particular episode, 'A Touch of Brimstone', wasn't broadcast in the US when the series was originally shown.

Classic garment: the Emmapeeler. Miss Peelpants scanned in a fantastic advert for Emmapeelers on her blog - see it here.

The one comment I will make on Joanna Lumley as Purdey is having that haircut as a teen in the 1980s was a MAJOR MISTAKE on my part. Just sayin'.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The scent of Gilda

Have you seen Gilda? While I wasn't taken with the film as a whole, Rita Hayworth was mesmerising in the title role. Among the people inspired by the part was perfumer Germaine Cellier, and in 1948 for Robert Piguet she came up with Fracas, Gilda in a bottle. Cellier had created some other outstanding, original perfumes – Bandit, a peppery, aggressive leather, was another she developed for Piguet.

The perfume was redeveloped in the 1990s (changing regulations on perfume ingredients means the only way you'll smell an old scent the way it was meant to smell is by buying a vintage bottle), and the new version is said to be creamier and sweeter than the original, a little less disturbing, but it's still a tuberose powerhouse. Tuberose is a strange flower. In Nana, Emile Zola likens tuberoses to the scent of human skin, and it does have a fleshy warmth, enabling Fracas to convey Gilda's fabulous physicality.

Fracas is big. My skin absorbs perfume, so usually I'm left with a close-to-the-skin nuance that only I (and Mr Robot) notice. Fracas feels like it's sitting a few inches out from me. If you have the sort of skin that lets perfume travel, be wary of Fracas: you may leave a smothering cloud of flowers in your wake. Like Gilda, Fracas is alluring and impossible to ignore.

I bought my sample of Fracas from Les Senteurs.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Dolly Dolly Spy and the disappearing author

When I bought The Dolly Dolly Spy (you'll never guess where… oh, you know already, Oxfam!) what attracted me was the title. It's a title that tells you exactly when it was written. It's so very 1960s. As the Cold War raged in real life and spies were everywhere in fiction, and while Ian Fleming died in 1964 the James Bond films were still doing bumper business at the box office.

Monday, 2 May 2011

May is Spy Month!

Why is May Spy Month? Because I've just read a vintage spy novel and feel the need to read many more, so it's probably what you're going to get for most of this month. It does mean I'll be covering things a little later in time than I usually do, probably more 1960s and 1970s than anything else, but we can all excuse that for a bit of political skullduggery, yes?

Here's the book that started me off on my espionage binge, another one I got from good old Oxfam, Smith and Jones by Nicholas Monsarrat. It started off extremely well, being narrated by a security service man who's being held responsible for the defection of two agents, who he renames Smith and Jones. Because he's responsible, having vetted them in the past, he's sent off to the cold, grey city where they now live to keep an eye on them.