Category Archives: Writing

Do You Like Being Read To?

The BBC is re-releasing some of its archive and broadcasting on Radio 4 Extra. As of today, November 3rd 2018, there are 24 days left on this release

Go here to listen to a 15 minute story written by some guy called Collin Johnson (aka Colin McPhillamy) way back in the last millennium …

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This isn’t (likely to be) happening

The late great Douglas Adams in his fabulously inventive ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” gave us “The Improbability Drive” as the motive power for nipping from interstellar points A or B to C, D, and beyond.


Now we have improbability politics. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend Gail Collins’s op-ed today (August 23rd 2018) in The New York Times in which she responds to a prospective film treatment which clearly comes from an alternative universe.

When Bill Bryson first published his Yank’s-eye-view-of-Australia in 2000 titled “Down Under” – in subsequent editions changed to “In a Sunburnt Country” – he pointed out that during the late 1990s the mighty New York Times published numbers of articles on Australia commensurate with those on Peru and Albania and far fewer than that in its reporting of Cambodia and Korea.

Much has changed since then, although I can personally attest to this turn-of-the-millenium ranking of general US interest in matters Australian. When I arrived in New York in 1999 you’d have been hard pressed to find a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Shiraz. Today of course, Aussie plonk can be had in any supermarket in any state in the Union. It is still somewhat rare though, to find even a theatrical professional whose ear can reliably discern the difference between an Australian and a British accent. New York is different, the place has, since the turn of the millennium been flooded with Aussie professionals, and Aussie meat pies and flat white (coffee) can be found in parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan.


But today the New York Times has devoted part of its editorial page to current Australian political moves. Moves that leave improbability somewhere beyond the calculation of Pi (π). In brief, the current Aussie administration has abandoned previous modest efforts to take action on climate change. Notwithstanding that there is a State-wide drought in New South Wales, nor that the Great Barrier Reef is dying, nor that more sunshine falls on Australia than almost anywhere in the world…

By the way, I recommend Bryson’s book on Oz, in either title, not least because it contains about the funniest ever description of the game of cricket by one foreign to the game.


The Long Wait is Over…

Back in 1984 Simon Callow (you’ve seen him in the films) published a book called, Being An Actor. In it he wrote, “I don’t know of any other attempt by an actor of my generation to describe the theater in which we work.”

Well Simon…


Big thanks to you personally and to everyone who has followed this blog. The book would never have been written without you.

Now available at Amazon.


An Alternative to the New York Times

Renee Fleming in Living on Love

Renee Fleming in Living on Love

For sheer missing the point, today’s review of Living on Love in The New York Times leads the field.

The point is: it’s Renée Fleming!

The other point is: it’s a farce …

While one cannot fault from a technical point of view some of what is said in the columns of The New York Times’s theatre pages, one could wish that the historical fact-checking was saved for a Master’s Thesis.

One could wish too, for more simple pleasure taken in the act of going to the theatre. More willingness to laugh. A little less requirement that plays offered to the chubby-fingered Infanta of critical taste conform quite so strictly to a Malvolio personal world-view.

I offer here a different take:

In another delicious sweetmeat that is this Broadway season’s theme of frivolous confectionary, Renée Fleming, the great opera diva, is letting her hair down to great effect.

Joe Di Pietro’s update on Garson Kanin’s unfinished play Peccadillo, renamed here Living on Love, plays on farcical tradition going back to Moliere.

Whatever gaps there may be in Ms. Fleming’s acting technique are more than compensated by her ability to time a laugh, and when she sings a fragment of classic opera a gossamer enchantment holds the audience suspended — how could it not? Ms. Fleming’s vocal achievement, experienced here playfully out of context, gives us a teasing insight into the limits of what is possible in the human voice.

Generously supported by a cast of stage veterans, Ms. Fleming’s unique visitation from the refined world of opera, and the fact that she is not a Broadway actress — nor indeed to make the play work should she be — means that the best joke of the evening is the one that transcends the script. Simply put: this is a great star of one genre having a holiday in another.

*       *       *

In Peter Brook’s influential book on theatre, The Empty Space, he tells a story about a show his company put up at their theatre in Paris that received damning reviews. The show was a true flop and they played to almost empty houses. The public stayed away in droves.

An empty theatre

An empty theatre

The company announced three free performances. Such was the lure of free tickets that the police were called in to manage the crowds The houses were packed.

At the end of the third show, the directress of the theatre came onto the stage and addressed the audience. “Is there anyone here,” she asked, “who could not afford the price of a ticket?”

One person put his hand up.

“And the rest of you, why did you have to wait to be let in for free?”

“It had a bad Press!”

A pause, while the directress held for silence. Then she asked another question.

“Do you believe what you read in the Press?”

*      *      *

When the RSC premiered its extraordinary version of Nicholas Nickleby, a show that played for years and toured the world, British critic Sir Bernard Levin panned it. Such was the public response that he returned to view the show a second time, and had the humilty to revise his initial assessment in print.

*      *      *

These days influence in public opinion-making is shifting from mainstream media to the blogosphere, to twitter and so forth. The positive in these changes is the lessening of influence of the mightier media organs. In my native London, influential theatre criticism is spread across half a dozen newspapers, but here in New York The Times still holds undisputed sway.

I reference another recent baffling – let me say that again – BAFFLING review in The Times of that delicious soufflé currently running on Broadway It Shoulda Been You. This show is an exquisitely layered riff on wedding forms. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a wedding will recognize how even the best intended of them can descend into mayhem.

Cast of It Shoulda Been You

Cast of It Shoulda Been You

Punning on mad mothers, frantic fathers, brides beset and a semi-prescient wedding planner holding it all together, punctuated by fabulous show stopping numbers, witty dancing, a show with a tiered wedding-cake construction, with piquant pace, it’s delicious to the last twist.

*      *      *

It is a truism held amongst actors that many, perhaps most, critics are practitioners manqué. The occupational hazard of being a critic is that one will come to despise that which one is paid to critique.

If you are in New York, do see these faintly-praised-in-the-Times shows if you can. And feel free to tell me which of us, Mr. Brantley with his readership of millions, or C. McPhillamy niche blogger, comes closer to pleasure in his assessment.

Sir Toby had it right: “Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

In My Craft …

Whenever I attend an award ceremony, and let me tell you the frequency is running at once a year since this time last year, I think of the following poem:

It works best if you can image a rich, insistent Welsh baritone. Richard Burton maybe, Sir Harry Secombe perhaps …

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art

Or maybe the author himself, Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas

And he would have known all about it, having finally moved off the mortal coil aged 39 after taking in an immoderate number of whiskeys down at The White Horse Tavern in New York City.

Sort of thing Rylance might recite when called to the podium … maybe?

The Blank Page

Don’t get it right, get it written. – Anon

Ideas can be shy, the best of them, the good ones.

And there’s a difference, do you agree, between the mental white-noise that goes on, and an actual lightbulb moment? And they come in different shapes, sizes and guises, they come from who-knows-where. And you never quite know … whether it’s minced recycled lower mind you’re dealing with, or elevated inspiration. All you can do is follow and find out.

I’m writing a book, I’ve got the page numbers done. – Steven Wright

I heard a story from Peter Whelan once. He was a British playwright. I’d just been commissioned to write a play at the time. Here’s how the dialogue went:

Peter: I was working on a play. This was on commission too. I didn’t have the ending. It just wouldn’t come. Then, one day I was walking along in Leicester Square, and I had this idea. And the idea was so tremendous, so extraordinary, that I actually staggered. Staggered I did. At the enormity, the profundity, the grace.

Me: Wow.

Peter: So I rushed home – and do you think I wrote it down? I didn’t. No. I went to bed. Slept well too. And in the morning …

Me: (Aghast) … It wasn’t there?!

Peter: No, it was still there, it just wasn’t any good.


He got through in the end, and he wrote some smashing plays.

I love being a writer, what I can’t stand is the paperwork – Peter de Vries

That stuff about the perspiration/inspiration ratio …

Writing: the coal-face alright, when it’s just you, the subconscious and the keyboard …

A Door In The Wall Moment

One day in about 1973 I drifted into the Tate Gallery in London, and wandered around the rooms.

By J M W Turner

By J M W Turner

In one room there were two men standing in front of a large canvass. One man was dressed as a museum guard and he was talking softly, and the other man was listening with close attention. As I approached I began to hear what was being said. It was a commentary and an examination of the painting.

I came closer. The guard was focussed on the civilian who was rapt. I stood still and began to listen too. By degrees the guard included me in the monologue (he was the only one who spoke), and the group morphed from a duo to a trio. The speaker was knowledgable, and took pleasure in sharing his data with a wiling audience.

After some time, and it could have been two or three minutes or it could have been twenty or thirty or it could have been a span of a different measure, the first listener began, slowly, to disengage. Organically, the guard began a transfer of his entire attention by degrees, onto me. And then, with invisible seams, the first man quit the gallery and the trio became a new duo.

The guard spoke with enthusiasm, with passion and admiration. I was rapt. And lucky. To have been wakeful enough to recognize a source of bright insight. The guard (if that’s what he was) spoke effortlessly on all aspects of the painting, connecting the medium, the subject, form, color, and all the rest of it. And I was a dry sponge, delighting in the sensation of quickened synapses as unguessed at magnitudes, hinted at in unexpected ideas, poured over me.

A new man approached in the gallery and the morph which had occurred when I joined, was repeated, as, by degrees, I disengaged. I stepped quietly away full of new respect for this expertise. As I left I turned and saw the first image of two men standing in front of a large canvass repeated with new casting.

Another Turner

Another Turner

I was a schoolboy then, attending Pimlico Comprehensive on Lupus Street (an extensive experiment in concrete and glass, now demolished), one excellent feature of that institution was its proximity to the Tate Gallery, a five minute walk. I went back there — many times — but I never again found the guard who knew so much about art.