Talented young Dorset actor Jamie hits Brighton’s mods and rockers battlefield

It’s good to hear that two years after shooting and then being left on the covid shelf as release dates came and went, the film Brighton finally gets a digital release tomorrow.

Based on a Steven Berkoff play, it stars Phil Davis and Larry Lamb as a pair of ageing and decidedly non-PC East London rockers returning to Brighton – the battleground of their clashes with sixties mods – for the first time in 40 years.

Jamie Bacon Brighton
Jamie as a young rocker in Brighton

It also features flashbacks to their youth with up and coming Dorset film and TV actor Jamie Bacon playing the young version of the Larry Lamb character.

“It was so enjoyable,” he told me. “Being able to watch really experienced actors like Larry and Phil at work was such a privilege. You can learn a huge amount from people like that.”

Sounds like a great movie. Can’t wait!

For Jamie’s full story go to my January 2020 interview with him on these pages.

London Repertory Players take summer thriller Ira Levin’s Deathtrap to Wimborne

I am so sorry to see that the wonderful Shelley Theatre in Boscombe has decided not to reopen this summer. Fans of the excellent London Repertory Players will be particularly concerned. The pandemic robbed them of the 2020 season but it was hoped that those plays would be back at the Shelley this summer. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

But fear not. All is not lost. The Players and their ever resourceful director Vernon Thompson have been approached by the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne. The result is that one of the company’s productions – Ira Levin’s Deathtrap -will be staged at The Tivoli this summer with performances from Wednesday 28th to Saturday 31st July. 

It will play at  7.30pm each evening plus two 2.30pm matinees on Thursday and Saturday. Featuring LRP favourites including Victoria Porter, Al Wadlan and Claire Fisher, the production already looks like a sure-fire success.

Deathtrap is perfect London Rep’ material. Originally written in the 1970s by Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin.  It focuses on a washed playwright desperate to rediscover his talent and repeat his past success. When a student brings him a  brilliant self-penned play he hatches a murderous plot to claim it as his own.

Deathtrap held the record for the longest running comedy thriller on Broadway and is considered a classic of the genre. It was also adapted as a 1980s film with Christopher Reeve, Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon and Sidney Bruhl.

This summer’s London Repertory Players’ production is going to be a must-see. Book tickets at the Tivoli Theatre  on 01202 885566.

The art deco gem where Harold Pinter swapped stage for page to be reborn

What wonderful news! Bournemouths Palace Court Theatre is poised to become a town centre performance venue again. For the past 35 years the striking art deco building has served as a Christian centre but long before that it was arguably Bournemouth’s favourite theatre.Now it has been bought by the town’s Arts University and there are multi-million pound plans to restore it as teaching, performance and rehearsal space.

I’ve had a peep inside and can tell you that not only is the original architecture stunning but the building still contains a near perfect 1930s theatre just waiting to be revitalised. In its hey day the venue, which opened in Hinton Road in 1931 was the place to see and be seen.

As The Palace Court Theatre and The Playhouse, it featured many well known performers.  By the 1950s and 60s it was home to a vibrant repertory company whose members included Sheila Hancock, Vivien Merchant and Merchant’s then new husband, Harold Pinter who at the time performed under the stage name of David Baron.

The year was 1956 and Pinter’s transition from actor to influential playwright was developing fast. Indeed those who knew him at the time say that during the rep season he spent he was  experimenting and writing new material. His first plays were performed to critical acclaim in the next two years.

Remembering Cumberland Clark doyen of doggerel who went from bard to verse

Cumberland Clark: erudite scholar and the doyen of doggerel

I wonder how many people remember Cumberland Clark – writer, critic, Shakespearian scholar and, inexplicably, one of the worst poets to ever wreak havoc on the English language?

Almost exactly 80 years ago the extraordinary literary crimes that he so gleefully committed were finally brought to an end when a wartime enemy  air raid scored a direct hit on his Bournemouth flat. Both Clark and his loyal housekeeper Miss Kathleen Donnelly were killed.

Though London born and well-travelled, Bournemouth was Cumberland Clark’s adopted home. He loved the town and in the final decades of his life he eulogised it endlessly, churning out ghastly doggerel that made a mockery of his classical education and previous serious literary endeavours.

The Bournemouth Songbook, which he first privately published in 1929, contained more than 150 ‘songs’ in verse so plodding that you have to marvel at his endless determination to find a rhyme, however awful it might be.

How about such dubious gems as:-

For many years I’ve held a brief

For Bournemouth’s Golden Sands

Indeed A1 in my belief

Are Bournemouth’s Golden Sands

You lie on your back from ten till one,

And get well baked by the genial sun;

And then turn over when you’re done

On Bournemouth’s Golden Sands.

or

The bathing at Bournemouth is good

Which appeals to the holiday creature

Among seaside joys this has stood

As by far the most popular features

There’s nothing the sport to supplant

It’s joy for each person who swims

And gives to those people who can’t 

A chance to exhibit their limbs

or

When in Bournemouth if you’ve got

A notion that you would like a yacht

And your cash is quite a lot

Go and buy one on the spot

Folks will point and say ‘Big Pot’

Simply tons of money, what?

A millionaire he is. Great Scot!

And all that kind of tommy rot

Why he penned these outrageously constructed ‘songs’ which also often extolled the virtues of neighbouring towns and villages, remains a mystery.

Cumberland Clark was essentially an erudite and well read man who for reasons best known to himself delighted in reinventing himself as Bournemouth’s very own answer to William McGonagall. Maybe he was just having fun. Whatever the reason, he was a splendid eccentric, immaculately dressed and, I am told, prone to standing on street corners and striking impressive poses.

Self-aware and opinionated he was particularly fond of encouraging the attention of young women. He would acknowledge them with a cheeky wink and a twirl of his snow-white moustache. 

His intentions seem to have been quite innocent and it is said that waitresses would fight to serve at his table because by lavishing a little extra attention on him they would be guaranteed a generous tip.

Poor Cumberland Clark he was eternally optimistic and at the outbreak of World War II, by then in his late 70s, he produced a patriotic and morale-boosting collection called War Songs of the Allies. It included the following verse:

Let the bombs bounce round about us

And the shells go whizzing by

Down in our air raid shelter

We’ll be cosy, you and I

Sadly when the bombs and shells did fall on Cumberland Clark’s flat in St Stephens Road in Central Bournemouth in April 1941, he was not protected by the safety of an air-raid shelter but fast asleep in bed.

At least there is striking memorial to his memory. He made sure of that. Not only did he design an impressively over-the-top monument complete with guardian angle but he had it in place in the Bournemouth East Cemetery a full six years before his death. “So that there will be no bother or anxiety to fall back on relatives or friends”  he told the local press.

He had it inscribed too with the words ‘Sacred to the memory of Cumberland Clark, poet, historian, dramatist … The longer I live the more do I turn to Christianity as the one hope of salvation, the one faith for the soul of man, the one comfort in distress, and the one and only power that can save the world.’ 

Nothing if not thorough, Cumberland Clark left £500 to the NSPCC on the condition that they maintained his grave. He also told the minister at his local church that he didn’t care if everything else he had written was lost but he wanted his self-penned epitaph to remain.

So far it does and seems well kept even though the words are becoming a little worn by age and gradually harder to decipher.

How long will his legacy endure? There used to be a Cumberland Clark Memorial Society that held an annual dinner in his honour but that seems to have petered out around a decade ago. Unless of course you know better.

The day Colonel John Blashford Snell blew up a village fish pond hunting killer ‘Jaws’

They don’t make ‘em like Colonel John Blashford Snell anymore. This larger than life soldier and explorer has done it all. He made the first descent of the Blue Nile, crossed the Darién Gap,drove from Alaska to Cape Horn and pioneered the navigation of the Congo River.

Oh yes and he also blew up a village fish pond in Kent in a bid to destroy a monster which had been munching its way through thousands of valuable goldfish.

I know because I was there.  Forty four years ago to this very day I was a young reporter on the Kentish Gazette in Canterbury. I had been despatched to the nearby village of Ickham after the newsdesk heard that the British Army was rolling into the Garden of England in pursuit of a rogue fish that had been causing havoc in a local goldfish breeder’s pond. There were even rumours that the aquatic killer – instantly nicknamed Jaws – had been deliberately  bred by the Russians.

To be honest I didn’t believe a word of it but, if nothing else, it was a morning out and had the makings of a cracking little tale. Imagine my astonishment when I arrived in Ickham to find a large pond in the grounds of a posh country-manor care home surrounded by a team of Army frogmen and explosives experts. The Colonel – known universally as Blashers –  was directing operations. They really did pull out all the stops. An armoured car, complete with machine gun, sat incongruously on the adjacent ‘Darling Buds of May’ lawn. 

The owner of both the care home and pond, a former trawler skipper turned goldfish breeder called Alf Leggett, was making it clear to anyone who would listen that blowing up his pond was fine by him. There had been 3,000 goldfish in its murky waters just a few weeks ago but now so few were left that their death by friendly fire was a small price to pay for the demise of the dreaded Jaws.

The Army press office, sensing some positive publicity plus the opportunity for an exercise, had put the word around and gradually the UK media – always game for a quirky yarn – started arriving in the village. By the time Blashers gave the order to detonate the charges half of Fleet Street and a couple of TV crews were preparing to witness the demise of Jaws. The resulting explosion sent a plume of water, pondweed, fish, frogs and heaven knows what else at least 50 feet in the air and swamped the assembled press. Someone made a joke about a ‘newt-tron bomb’ and Alf Legget looked on in delight. 

Had Jaws been exterminated? No one knew. And gradually it dawned on us that Mr Leggett wasn’t particularly concerned. He had a 30 or 40 strong press pack in his back garden and as Blashers and his men started to pack up their kit, he invited the reporters into the care home for Champagne and a good look around. Before long brochures were being handed out and details of the perceived delights of the care facility were being bandied around,.

Viewed from the perspective of 2021 this story offers a curious snapshot of an era. A time when the British Army was still big enough to enjoy a bit of fun, when newspapers could afford to send multiple reporters and photographers  on jobs that took them away for days at a time and business people believed that no effort was too great in the pursuit of publicity.

But what of the killer fish? Well, a couple of days later two men from the Southern Water Board clambered into a rowing boat and set out across the pond clutching a fishing net and an electric prod. They eventually found a large perch which was stunned, slightly damaged and possibly rather hungry. It was removed and released into nearby reservoir but not before having it’s photograph taken. The caption simply read ‘Jaws’.

The strange world of sculptor and self-styled ‘rebellious old sod’ Geoffrey Dashwood

Two huge Harris Hawks outside sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood’s Hampshire home

Here’s another one I did earlier. Well several years back actually. Probably around 2012. It was written for the now long-gone Compass Magazine and offered an intriguing insight into the curious world of New Forest sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood. Thought it was worth revisiting.

*********

By Jeremy Miles

Internationally renowned wildlife sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood is an anomaly in an art world full of pretensions and psycho-babble. His works – stunning sculptures of birds – sell across the world, often for tens of thousands of pounds, yet he would rather have teeth pulled than have to play the gallery game. He prefers to work remotely at his home deep in the Hampshire countryside outside Ringwood. Perched on the edge of an escarpment with views for 30 miles across Hampshire and Dorset, it’s an otherworldly place.

Surrounded by monumental bronze sculptures – a one-and-half ton,12 foot tall Peregrine falcon dominates the entrance – the Dashwood home is a marvel to behold.  As you walk across the lawn there are are two huge Harris hawks, a barn owl, a tern, a great crested grebe and a frog. A massive Mandarin drake sits on a plinth in the middle of a pond: “We built the pond for the sculpture rather than the other way around,” says the 66-year-old artist matter-of-factly.

Nestling amidst ancient forest, the natural setting of this house is astonishing too. He points to a huge gnarled old oak which is believed to be 700 years old. “Incredible to think that that was an acorn in about 1300,” he says. 

The site is even believed to have been used for beacons warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada.  Dashwood has lived there with his wife Val and three sons Leo, Max and James for 17 years. He says he really can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Despite his international reputation  and prices that range from £2,000 to £250,000, he eschews most private views and even tries to avoid discussing works with potential buyers. “I’m a rebellious old sod,”he told me as we looked around the huge studio and home gallery that he has built in a barn just yards from his front door. Sucking on a liquorice paper roll-up and swearing like a proverbial trooper, he warmed to his theme. “I don’t do commissions because to be honest I am too awkward and bloody-minded. They all too often end in tears because the person commissioning the piece and the artist have a different idea about the end result. So it’s very, very simple. I just do exactly what I want to do and then offer the work for sale.”

Chippy and uncompromising he may be but Geoffrey Dashwood’s prickly exterior clearly masks a sensitive soul who deeply cares that his work is an honest response to the natural world that he loves. Hampshire born and bred, he has a rare affinity with the New Forest and in his youth worked there as a keeper.  Although he won a scholarship to art school in Southampton when he was just 15-years-old, he dropped out within weeks. “I hated it,” he says. The Forestry Commission provided the only job he could hang onto. “Basically I‘m absolutely unemployable,” he explains. 

Doing artwork for forestry brochures provided some personal satisfaction. He seized the moment and left to go freelance. Amazingly Dashwood didn’t turn to sculpture until he was in his mid 30s. He modelled a tiny English partridge and loved the whole process. With a £5,000 loan from the kind of bank manager that doesn’t exist anymore he made a series of bronze castings and touted his work around upmarket outlets in London – Harrods, Aspreys, Garrards and the galleries of Cork Street. 

Thinking about it now he says he’s amazed that he had the nerve to walk into such elitist emporiums and demand to see the bronze buyer. Somehow it paid off. He was on his way. Initially he concentrated on miniatures but then moved on to life-size and monumental sculptures. The one-man shows and international reputation soon followed.

He has successfully experimented with abstracting the fine detail of the birds down to studies of pure sculptural form. He has also explored the effects that can be achieved with multi-coloured patinas. He recalls eyebrows being raised when he asked at the foundry that he used what would happen if he splattered a mixture of all three commonly used chemicals –  liver sulphate, ferric nitrate and cupric nitrate – on his bronzes.

“They were horrified. They said ‘You can’t do that’ and I just said ‘Oh yeah, and where’s the book that says I can’t?’ We went ahead and it was brilliant. It’s incredible that no one had ever done that before, but that’s the conservatism of the art world for you.”

He knows he’s been lucky, gaining a rare reputation and enjoying success despite a stubborn refusal to bend to the whims of either clients or art professionals. 

“I’ve had a very self-indulgent life,” says Dashwood. “The extraordinary thing is that logically choosing to do this kind of sculpture should have involved a compromise between what I want to do and what the market price demands. I discovered that the more self-indulgent I became the more the market would rise to it.”

Memories of best-selling fantasy novelist David A. Gemmell and death on the page

Fantasy author David A. Gemmell at work in his final days as a newspaper man in 1986

I FIRST met the best-selling fantasy author David A.Gemmell nearly 40 years ago. He was standing on my doorstep pretending to be John Wayne.  He was also about to become the editor of the newspaper I worked for and had decided that a face-to-face meeting on home turf would be the perfect way to introduce himself to his new senior staff.

Whether this was a good idea or not, I don’t know. I found the idea of a new boss I’d never met before hammering on my front door and demanding a get-to-know-you session a little unsettling. Dave –  never David in those days – was, I quickly worked out, far more scared by the encounter than I was.

He talked nineteen to the dozen about his great passions, the songs of Bob Dylan, the films of John Ford and his great hero Wayne.  He would later have a framed picture of the movie star on his office wall. I don’t think he mentioned newspapers once. He certainly didn’t ask anything about me. He finally departed, moseying in classic style down my front path with the words “Walks off slowly into the sunset.” The fact that it was 10 O’clock at night and pitch dark didn’t appear to register. 

A man with a rampantly overactive imagination and sense of romance,  he was horrifyingly ill-equipped to deal with the day to day reality of editing a newspaper. If there was a meeting he didn’t want to attend he just wouldn’t turn up . I believe there was even a summons to court once that he conveniently mislaid. 

When I worked with him in the early 1980s Gemmell spent a lot of time shut in his office endlessly reworking the manuscript of what would become his breakthrough novel Legend. As a journalist he was always an inspired writer. However he suffered the fate that so often awaits high-flyers in the newspaper business, promotion to a job that frankly he was never cut out to do. Gemmell seemed singularly unsuited to the editor’s chair and the management was clearly alarmed at his lack of interest in actually editing the paper. 

He was on borrowed time but it didn’t matter. Legend was a huge success and a string of best sellers followed. When he eventually got his marching orders, Gemmell was already a publishing sensation. Today, 15 years after his untimely death from heart disease, there are still websites devoted to his work and a great many fans for whom he will always be regarded as a towering talent among authors.

I can’t say that his work actually had any significant literary merit but it was certainly commercially successful. My memory of Dave Gemmell will be of a maverick newspaperman who worked out how to use his talents as a tabloid hack to become a hard-hitting and successful novelist. It can’t have been easy. It was a path that many had tried and failed to follow before.

As a colleague and a boss he was talented, fun and fascinatingly unpredictable. He was also a little crazy and, behind the wheel of a car, positively dangerous. For the best part of a year or so he would drive me weekly across southern England to stone-sub the paper. I’m still not sure how we survived.

Happily we did and I have good memories of the times we spent together. Dave even paid me the dubious compliment of having me killed on page 255 of his 1986 novel Waylander. In interviews he has said that he based his characters on real people. He even claimed that he was eventually sacked from the newspaper for using thinly disguised versions of company staff as characters in his book. I hope not because  I am immortalised as a young soldier called Milis. In the space of a page and a half Gemmell has me swapping tall stories about the local whores before I get three arrows in my back and have my throat cut by a marauding invader. It must have been something I said? 

The day town crier Chris banned Bob Dylan from his own Glastonbury dressing room

Wimborne Militia and the town’s then Mayor watch Bob Geldof plant a rosemary bush in 2002. Photo: Hattie Miles

Oh the perils of being misunderstood on social media! It’s happened to all of us and usually it’s a minor matter and easily resolved.

But a couple of weeks back the harmless and well-meaning folk of the Wimborne Militia had their Facebook pages deleted after being inexplicably mistaken by an over-zealous algorithm for a bunch of alt-right thugs.

Nothing could be further from the truth of course. The Militia are a group of historic re-enactors who dress in 17th century military costume and are familiar sight at fetes, parades and festivals in the ancient Dorset market town.

It seems they became unwittingly caught up in Facebook’s creditable bid to root out far right extremists and conspiracy theorists operating militia groups mainly in America. Thankfully Facebook realised its error and the accounts were quickly reinstated. 

Militia leader, gently eccentric Wimborne Town Crier Chris Brown told the BBC:  “I wouldn’t want us to be associated with some of those violent people over there carrying round guns and talking about open rebellion – we talk about peace and community understanding.”

Indeed he always has. I remember Chris once telling me that back in the early 1970s he was far too much of a hippy to become a serious biker even though his Norton Dominator 650 SS was the envy of the local motorcycle gangs.

  “They loved looking at my bike but I used to wear crushed velvet jackets and I don’t think they could really deal with that. Anyway, I could never have been a Hells Angel or whatever. I hate aggression and I’m vegetarian so biting the head off a live chicken would be out of the question.” 

Peacenik Chris has also done his bit at a variety of very non aggressive music festivals appearing on stage with Texan psychedelic visionaries The Polyphonic Spree at Glastonbury, Leeds and Reading.

He also worked as a volunteer backstage marshal at Glastonbury for a number of years and has the dubious distinction of once trying to ban Bob Dylan from his own dressing room.

 “I was told that no one but Dylan was allowed in so when this strange looking bloke turned up and knocked on the door I told him to go away. He fixed me with this really weird stare and just said: ‘Do you know who I am?’

“ I said; ‘I haven’t got a clue mate but no one but Bob Dylan comes in here.’ “Then he just stared at me and I realised that he had an eight foot security man with him. I thought ‘Oh yeah, I know who you are.’ 

Dylan, he says, was rather distant and aloof.

Closer to home Chris has had a number of other rock ’n’ roll encounters. Not least the day when Bob Geldof, in town for a gig at the Tivoli Theatre, was ‘volunteered’ to conduct a planting ceremony at the then brand new Wimborne physic garden. As he planted a rosemary bush, Chris and the Militia fired a celebratory round of musket fire.

The man who would be Stan – how bogus Kubrick fooled the stars of summer season

A curious one this. Back in the 1990s oddball conman Alan Conway pitched up in Bournemouth claiming to be the reclusive American film director Stanley Kubrick. He looked and sounded nothing like Kubrick and yet people, including several prominent entertainers, fell for it. Eventually a movie emerged and so did this magazine article. When I asked one of Conway’s victims, the singer and impressionist Joe Longthorne about his encounter with the bogus Kubrick and how Conway fooled everyone – except perhaps Dora Bryan. He wasn’t keen to talk about it. Both Conway and Longthorne are no longer with us. But it remains a fascinating story. This piece was originally written in 2004.

By Jeremy Miles

Singer and impressionist Joe Longthorne has seen it all. In a roller coaster career that started when he was just a teenager he has experienced adulation and despair. At the height of his fame he was mobbed by thousands of adoring fans but a combination of business troubles and a life-threatening illness came close to destroying him.

Now, having battled his way back from adversity, he’s smiling again. As he prepared to bring his latest UK tour to Bournemouth’s Pier Theatre on Friday he told me: “I feel better now than I have done for 10 years.” He says that years of suffering from the debilitating disease lymphoma was finally resolved by a bone-marrow transplant. I was incredibly lucky they found a match within seven days…It made a huge difference.”

His bankruptcy – he was once so desperate for funds that he begged fans to send him lottery tickets – is also well and truly behind him. “I’m free as a bird now,” he told me happily. He’s philosophical about the difficulties he found himself in “I had too much too young. I didn’t have a clue, but that’s showbusiness.

“I once received a £50,000 bill from an accountant for ‘bits and bobs’. There are always conmen around. Every third person in showbusiness gets done one way or another, its just one of those things…”

Curiously perhaps Joe, 53, still can’t bring himself to talk about the one conman who was so convincing that he persuaded him that he was the world-famous film director Stanley Kubrick. Back in the early 1990s Alan Conway, a nondescript former burglar from Middlesex, duped dozens of people into believing he was the reclusive and rarely photographed American movie-maker.

So spectacular was his success that, following his death some years later, his escapades were made into the film Colour Me Kubrick with John Malkovich as the unlikely conman. The film, which Longthorne refused to have any involvement with, won lavish praise at Cannes but bizarrely went straight to DVD.

Ironically the Conway-Kubrick episode actually started for Joe Longthorne right here in Bournemouth. It was during one of  Joe’s summer seasons  that  the town’s one-time theatres publicity officer Tony Hardman got a call from a friend saying that Kubrick was in town and staying at the four star Carlton Hotel.

Hardman was invited to meet the bogus movie man and  in a story that gets stranger by the minute was so impressed that he decided to introduce the charismatic director to his current house guest, the actress Dora Bryan. He then took them both to see Joe at the Bournemouth International Centre.

Hardman says that though Bryan was suspicious  – “I think she  was unconvinced ” – Joe was incredibly excited and invited Kubrick backstage. He says that the effect Conway’s presence had on people who believed they were talking to the director of 2001 A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket was extraordinary. “They started to bow and scrape, no doubt expecting parts in whatever his next film was going to be.”

While Conway, a long-time fantasist, seemed perfectly prepared to pay his way Hardman says he was soon staying in plush hotels at the expense of others. “He allowed people to convince themselves that he was Stanley Kubrick and then they started footing the bill for things.”

As Hardman would later discover Conway looked nothing like the real Kubrick but he somehow had a way of making people believe his lies. Among those putting their hand in their pocket was Joe and according to Hardman it wasn’t long before the con-man was driving around in Longthorne’s Rolls Royce.

Having been given short shrift by Joe, the makers of the movie Colour Me Kubrick turned to Jim Davidson, another entertainer who had fallen for the Conway hoax, to play the celebrity victim. Cast drastically against type, Davidson played an ageing and extremely camp singer called Lee Pratt. The character he stresses, somewhat unconvincingly, was in no way based on Longthorne. “Lee Pratt is complete crap and Joe is one of the best stage performers in the business,” says Davidson, adding that Longthorne was also just one of many people who were conned by the appropriately named Conway. “There were plenty of others.”

Davidson maintains that the film shows how Conway prayed on people’s vanity. “I met him and I certainly didn’t suss him straight away. He got me on the hook. He said: “So are you Jim Davidson the comedian and I’m thinking ‘That’s amazing, Stanley Kubrick knows who I am’. This is what the film is all about. How we all wanted Stanley Kubrick as our mate.”

Longthorne starts briefly to discuss the same subject and tells me that for a while he really believed that Conway was Kubrick. “I’m an impersonator. I naturally observe people. And I would never have guessed that that man wasn’t from Brooklyn.”

He suddenly realises where the conversation is going: “We’d better stop this or I’ll have to get on to the lawyers,” he tells me, adding with a laugh: “Or maybe not, they’re far too dear.”

Meeting Vietnam war legend Tim Page

A 1966 combat operation in Vietnam

By Jeremy Miles

Among war photographers Tim Page is a legend. He is part of that lunatic elite who cruised into Vietnam and surfed through the whole crazy, horrifying nightmare on a high-roller of drugs, adrenalin and rock n roll. Other members of the Press Corp thought him completely mad. He pushed his luck to the absolute limit, was wounded again and again, but kept returning with pictures that no one else could possibly have got.

He took insane risks but at the same time achieved a documentation of the war that will stand forever as a historic testament to its terror, sadness, brutality and awful glory. Working as a freelance for UPI, his photographs were received with relish by huge news corporations like Time Life who published hundreds of them. In return for the incredible pictures they received, they pandered to this Mad Brits’s apparent need for a near-suicidal work schedule and lifestyle.

The first time he was flown back to their office in Danang still clutching his precious film. He received a hero’s welcome. Page’s physical involvement with the war effectively ended at precisely 2.02pm on April 19, 1969. That was the time showing on his shattered wristwatch when he was pulled out of the carnage that resulted when the platoon he was patrolling with walked slap into a booby-trap mine.

A soldier just a few steps in front him was blown to pieces after stepping on a 105mm shell hidden under leaves on the jungle trail. Page was felled by the shrapnel and with a hole in the base of his brain the size of a grapefruit, medics were convinced that he was fatally wounded and announced that he probably had no more than 20 minutes to live. Astonishingly he not only survived but refused to believe  the prognosis when doctors told him that he would be permanently paralysed down the left side. Over the next decade he literally forced himself to learn to walk again.

When I ran into Page in the mid 1980s he was living in London and working again. I wrote a piece when he visited the Metropole Arts Centre in Folkestone to show his famous Nam pictures.There was also a telling collection of photographs taken in a post-war America that was rapidly gaining an unenviable reputation for the heartless treatment of its physically and mentally damaged veterans.

Talking of his experiences and taking questions from the small audience, it was clear that Page remains an extraordinarily driven individual. The craziness was still there but somehow offset by an inner-peace and an unwavering sense of purpose. Page the adrenalin junkie who got off on the thrill and dangers of war and grown into a man with a mission – to tell the unpalatable truth about political regimes.

I met him once before, on the edge of  a jungle in Sri Lanka. He was holed up in a tiny wooden shack on the coast with a large woman, tripping on acid, smoking dope and listening to Buddhist chants on a clapped out old tape-recorder. It was a strange evening. We had both been covering the Esala Perahera – the torchlit parade of dozens of decorated elephants and exotic dancers. This psychedelic carnival that meanders through the ancient city of Kandy honouring a mysterious relic that is said to be the tooth of the Buddha himself, is a heady mix of sights and sounds. Perfumed with incense and the smell of burning copra the Perahera is like nothing else on earth. I was writing a never tio be pub listed book and Page was being Page

After a stampede of frightened elephants some years earlier camera’s with flashguns had been banned at the Perahera but sitting in his jungle shack, Page showed me a letter he had acquired, apparently from the President himself, giving him special dispensation to use a flashgun. I wasn’t sure that I believed him but in the context of our long and long, rambling conversation it seemed to make sense. We covered much ground discussing the psychology of elephants, the mystical ability of the BiC biro to dematerialise at will, the special quality of light at 5.00am and why Page still needed to travel.

Frankly he seemed both as whacked out as the journalist and counter-culture fanboy within me could have hoped for. He was also in pretty bad physical shape and if I’m honest I really didn’t think he’d live for much longer. I was very wrong on that count. To this day Tim Page is very much a going concern living in Australia and still, giving lectures and holding exhibitions across the world.

Of course our encounter happened 40 years ago. I was 30 and though I was a veteran of CND marches and thought of myself as a peacenik, I was very much in thrall to the glamour of war. After all I had grown up surrounded by so many books and movies about battles and adventures under fire. From Bridge on the River Kwai to the Dambusters, Reach for the Sky to The Great Escape. It was really exciting.

When I was a teenager in the late 1960s my parents moved to Hong Kong. I spent a couple of amazing summer holidays at their old colonial apartment high on The Peak overlooking the city and harbour, a strategic stop off point for troops being shipped in an out the Vietnam war.

Those steamy hot evenings spent hanging out on their balcony listening to Hendrix or The Doors while surveying the teeming city below; the days spent hitting the strangely exotic streets full of bar girls, swaggering young American servicemen and the inevitable chancers, dealers and pimps who followed them around. It’s a memory that is seared into my brain.

Tim Page was part of that Crazy Asian madness that I was witnessing from the sidelines when as a 17-year-old in 1968 I was trying to make sense of what was happening to these American boys – soldiers and sailors, many of them barely older than me. The fear, the bravado, the sense that they had seen so much in such a short space of time was tangible..

Fast forward 13 years and I’m working as a journalist, travelling around Sri Lanka and have added Apocalypse Now to my list of favourite films. Running into Page, who was at least partly the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s renegade photographer gone-rogue, is pretty exciting.

Even more thrilling is the fact that he seemed perfectly happy to chat. I’m a fairly confident individual but I have no doubt that had I approached him in a similar manner – “You’re Tim Page, aren’t you?” in an urban setting in the UK our conversation would have been embarrassingly brief. Somehow just being in an Asian jungle had bestowed me with a degree of credibility.

The beauty caressed by the classical masters

Graham Rankin with the Steinway model D grand piano
It was back in 2004 that I met Graham Rankin, enthusiast for and restorer of all things vintage. I was on the trail of a wonderful old Steinway piano once played by the classical greats. Neglected and in disrepair and by now more than 100 years old, it found its way to the remarkable Mr Rankin. When I turned up at his door I soon discovered that keyboard instruments were just one of his many passions. This is the story that emerged.

Words Jeremy Miles Pictures: Hattie Miles

SHE is almost 103 years old and during a long and eventful life may have felt the caress of Rachmaninov, Bartok and Stravinsky. No, we are not talking about some geriatric classical groupie. The “she” in question is a magnificent Steinway model D Concert Grand found gathering dust backstage at Bournemouth’s now closed Winter Gardens. 

But how long this huge and imposing instrument was in Bournemouth, who played her and which concerts she featured in remains unclear.  That she was played by the great, the good and possibly the legendary is beyond doubt. For the Steinway Model D is the  Rolls Royce of pianos and revered throughout the classical world. That those who played her included some or all of the above named musical A list is a distinct possibility. They all appeared at the Winter Gardens. But so far the old lady has kept her secrets.

Now the man who found her, bought her and is currently planning to return her to her former performing glory is determined to fill in the gaps in this grand old piano’s history. Graham Rankin, a builder and restorer of everything from antique instruments to vintage cars, knows that the piano was built at Steinway’s workshops in Hamburg, The company’s archives show that the instrument, registration number 104793, was first shipped new from Germany in November 1901.

One of Graham Rankin’s wind-up gramaphones – this one is an EMG Senior.

What happened to it then, who played it and how long it was before it arrived at the Winter Gardens remains a mystery. “It would be very interesting to find out the background to the instrument,” says Graham. “I would love to publish a history with photographs so that its story can be kept for posterity.”

So far his inquiries have led to a number of dead ends. Many people connected with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which for many years used the Winter Gardens as its headquarters know the instrument well but no one seems to know exactly where it came from or when.  Far from frustrating its new owner, this lack of information simply inspires Graham Rankin to make greater efforts to find out. “I enjoy a challenge,” he says. I am soon discover that this is possibly the understatement of the century.

A bright earnest man with sparkling eyes and a bristling moustache, he is an extraordinary enthusiast. In little over an hour in his company I was treated to fascinating insights into subjects as varied as  turn of the century land speed records, the history of the pipe organ, the sound quality of the vintage gramophone horn, church turret clocks, historic timber-framed buildings and much, much more. And I’m sure that that only scratched the surface of Graham Rankin’s fascinating world.

He lives with his wife Mary-Anne in a huge and beautiful barn conversion on farmland that was once the estate of Jane Austen’s brother at Chawton in Hampshire. It’s an idyllic setting and big enough to house a collection of workshops and storerooms where he can work on a variety of strange and usually vaguely mechanical projects. 

He greets us on arrival summoned from a nearby work room by an industrial sounding claxon he has wired to his front doorbell. We head for the music room but I’m stopped in my tracks on the way by the sight of a huge old car. “Oh that,” says Graham “That’s a 1905 Fiat that they were going to produce to challenge the land speed record.”

It turns out that the monster car never actually made it into production but that Graham got hold of the original design drawings and, nearly a century after it was originally conceived, is building it himself. Nearby in the same workshop is another vintage Fiat which he says he dragged from a bog in Ireland. It was a complete wreck and hadn’t been driven since 1913. Graham spent years restoring the vehicle to working order and in 1993 drove her again for the first time in 80 years. He doesn’t limit himself to Fiats however, elsewhere around his home I notice a Bugatti and a Vauxhall. I’m sure there are others too.

One of the huge cars Graham has worked on in the workshops at his home at Chawton

After all this the music room, where he intends to install the Steinway Model D, threatens to be something of an anti-climax. Not a bit of it. Not only is  it housed on the upper floor of a magnificently converted barn complete with vast oak beams hewn from a single tree in the 15th century but pride of place is taken by an astonishning pipe organ. Another of Graham’s rescue projects, the 1876 two manual Sweetland was salvaged from a church in Bath.

It arrived in Chawton and was stripped down to 125,000 pieces before being painstakingly reassembled. Now with its 600 pipes in pefect working order, it has pride of place at concerts that the Rankins occasionally host. He gives me a demonstration of its capabilities, lifting the lid of a nearby carved oak chest to reveal a mini-mixing desk “we need this because of the flat acoustic in here” he explains. Flicking a couple of switches,  he pulls out various stops before hitting the keys causing the Sweetland to swell into magnificent musical life. 

As we make our way to the workshop where the Steinway is currently stored Graham takes us through his lounge. It’s hard not to notice the vintage gramophone with its huge conical sound horn that dominates one corner of the room. This is another passion. After finding a classic EMG Senior Gramophone, Graham was determined to locate an original horn to go with it.  He was extraordinarily successful, tracking down the very first horn of its type complete with a  “number one” embossed on it’s side. However the near impossibility of finding any other properly constructed gramophone horns, particularly ones made from applique mache (“the only material that produces the proper sound quality,” says Graham), has led him to build his own protype and examine the prospect of manufacturing them himself.

“Who exactly are you going to sell them to?” I ask. “Hmm, good question!” he replies before offering a demonstration of what he calls the “holographic sound” produced by the EMG and its magnificent horn. He selected a Mozart opera from a pile of old 78s and then rummaging in a box found a needle. “Burmese thorns,” he explained. “The only thing to use.” The result was indeed extremely impressive.   

The Winter Gardens grand may well have been played on one or more of  Graham’s old 78s, certainly its battered casing shows scars where microphones have been attached for recording sessions.  It is currently stored in a room that in many ways gives clues to passions to be found in the rest of the Rankin household. It sits alongside  a couple vintage cars, a turret clock, one of Graham’s monster  gramophone horns and an old bicycle that looks as though Mary Poppins herself left it there.

Despite its scuffed and scratched casing and a cracked soundboard, the instrument is in remarkably good condition and even more or less in tune. It’s acquisition is something of a dream come true for Graham who has longed to own a Steinway Model D ever since playing one in a dealers showroom several years ago.“It was marvellous I decided there and then that nothing less would do, such was the joy of that instrument.”

 Then he discovered the price and sat down – a decent Model D can cost £100,000. He started hunting for a good second hand instrument and eventually found himself at the Winter Gardens. However the piano they showed him dated fom the mid 1950s and Graham felt that it had suffered from being manufactured during a period of post war austerity. “My assessment was that the quality was not all that it might have been” he says. He rejected the idea of buying and was about to leave when he noticed a second Model D covered in dustsheets.

Undoubtedly much older but dating from one of Steinway’s finest manufacturing eras, the piano instantly appealed. Negotiations were soon underway and last summer, after offering a bid by sealed tender, Graham was its new owner. He is currently assessing how far to take  the restoration process.  “I am thinking very carefully before even touching it,” he explains. “It is vital that we find the correct balance between musical excellence and cosmetic appearance. The last thing I want is do anything to it that will effect the quality or character of its sound.” In the meantime he hopes that anyone with memories of or information about the Steinway will contact him. 

Death off the Nile – a cautionary tale

Felucca’s on the Nile close to Luxor

Travels in Egypt originally written in 2005

Words Jeremy Miles Pictures Hattie Miles

As Abdullah swung the rattling wreck that had once been a car across six lanes of traffic, death or serious injury seemed a certainty. Incredibly, as if by magic, a path opened up before us and we passed unscathed though the honking, seething, fume belching nightmare that passes for rush hour on the roads of Cairo.

We had found Abdullah the previous evening when we hailed his taxi near our hotel. After a couple of near-death experiences on the roads around the city,  he had seemed an oasis of calm and common sense in a trade that seemed to be populated by the crazed and the kamikaze.

We had booked him for a day. At around £17 for ‘Wherever you want for as long as you want” it had seemed like a good deal. Now we had just watched our lives pass before us, we weren’t quite so sure.

Abdullah glanced over his shoulder at us cowering on the back seat. A smile flickered across his world-weary face. “In Cairo driving is tough. It is not an easy city,” he explained with a  resigned nod.

After this blindingly obvious observation he went on to tell us that he had been driving a taxi around Cairo for 35 years. It doesn’t get any easier,” he added with a shrug. 

That was it. If he’d survived that long the the chances were he would make it through another day. Yes I know what the other logical theory is but there are times when you really don’t have any choice but to be optimistic.

We continued happily with our day out, convincing ourselves that in Abdullah’s care we must be protected by some sort of divine force-field.

EGYPT – A Market Street in Cairo

Certainly his car had survived against all odds. It appeared to have once been a big old eight seat Peugeot but some er modifications had taken place.  It had also led a life that had left it looking like something that in this country you might find dumped in a disused quarry.

The  inside door handles had been torn off, the gear stick was just a metallic stump and the dashboard was dead.  The speedometer bounced loosely up and down and the clock had frozen sometime in the diim distant pass at 544,679 kilometres.

However our optimism was rewarded and nine hours later we were returned safely to our hotel after a day in which we had taken in everything from the Egyptian Museum and the breathtaking treasures of Tutankhamun to the mysterious alleyways and atmospheric markets of the old city. 

We explored a marvellous array of Islamic mosques and Coptic Christian churches and of course The Citadel. Sitting high above the city this medieval fortification was the seat of Egyptian government and the official residence of its rulers for nearly 700 years until the 19th century.

There had also been a surreal visit to The Cairo Tower, an impressive  landmark constructed back in the late 1950s and early 60s. From its revolving restaurant some 500 feet up we had a panoramic view of the city as we enjoyed tea and cake and were slowly jerked around in circles.

The Pyramids

A hapless waiter meanwhile was using a lot of energy trying to stand on a chair to change a lightbulb. Unfortunately his chair was firmly planted on the static floor while the troublesome lightbulb was attached to the revolving section of the ceiling.

Our trip to Cairo came as part of a travel feature based  around a Nile Cruise.After a fascinating eight days sailing from Luxor to Aswan and back with visits to tombs and temples and a journey along The Nile that offered astounding scenery, we had flown north to Cairo for three nights at the Pyramids Park Hotel. 

Located some 23 kilometres from the centre of the city, it sits amid lushly landscaped grounds on land reclaimed from the desert. As its name suggests, it’s dead handy for the Pyramids and Sphinx which we visited as a seperate trip from our taxi adventure. 

Standing by the great Pyramids and scanning the horizon you realise how fast the ever-developing city of Cairo is advancing on this historic site that just a few years ago was miles from the urban sprawl. 

As Abdullha said, Cairo is not an easy city. However it is a fascinating one and I am sure that, despite the huge number of things we crammed into our two-and-a-half days there, we barely scratched the surface. 

Night market, Egypt.

After leaving Cairo we flew back to the tranquility of Luxor and four nights in the comfort of the luxurious  Sonesta St George Hotel. 

Nestling on the banks of The Nile, it proved a perfect location for recharging our batteries, making return trips to the temples we had seen on our cruise and exploring markets and museums.

Brothers in arms laid to rest in a foreign field and reunited shoulder to shoulder in death

In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave […]

Thirteen soldiers from the Dorsetshires killed in action
Thirteen soldiers from the Dorsetshires killed in action and laid to rest shoulder to shoulder in Authuile

World War I battlefields – Northern France and Belgium

(Originally published October 2014)

Words by Jeremy Miles   Pictures by Hattie Miles

In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave way to an infantry raid.

In the gunfire and desperate hand-to-hand combat that followed the daring dozen and their 19-year-old commanding officer were slaughtered – shot, bayoneted, blown to pieces. The violence of the deaths of these men – Privates Stretton, Painter, Cottom, Barrow, Cavley, Haynes, Sergent and Matthews. Lance Corporals Keeping, Eaton, Wells and Greenway and 2nd Lieutenant Vere Talbot Bayley, the teenage subaltern who led them, was appalling. It is particularly sobering to think that Bayly was barely a year out of Sherborne School.

Continue reading “Brothers in arms laid to rest in a foreign field and reunited shoulder to shoulder in death”

Danube river cruise (2009)

Budapest on the River Danube

Words Jeremy Miles Pictures Hattie Miles

SOMEWHERE between the Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic and the site of the old Stalin monument in Budapest, we floated through a fairy-tale world of castles and cathedrals and, yes, schnitzel with noodles and whiskers on kittens.

Sailing down the mighty Danube – Europe’s second longest river – provides the discerning traveller with a huge mixture of experiences. Astonishing sights, beautiful scenery and a troubling but necessary history lesson.

For this great waterway (which isn’t blue by the way, more a grubby, yellowy brown) cuts a majestic swathe through Central Europe and an ever-changing world. One minute it can be Christmas every day and Julie Andrews’ voice floats on the Alpine breeze, the next offers stark reminders of totalitarian monsters, hatred and death.

A tourist poses for pictures with a Czech military guard

We started our Avalon Waterways tour firmly on dry land with a three-day break in Prague, staying in the five-star luxury of the Hilton Hotel. This is the hotel of choice for visiting presidents and rock stars, and no wonder.

It was here that we met our fellow passengers and our excellent and entertaining cruise director – the wonderfully named Dragan who, with his shaved head and theatrically sinister Austrian accent, resembled a Bond villain.

Happily his intentions proved entirely positive and for the next 11 days, both aboard our cruise vessel, the MV Poetry, and at his desk in the Hilton foyer, he would prove an unflappable Mr Fix-it.

It was from Prague that we took an optional tour to the Terezin concentration camp, a sinister holding station that played a crucial role in Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Disguised, in an extraordinary wartime propaganda exercise, as a health spa, Terezin proved a place of starvation, punishment and disease where thousands died. It was also a halfway house to the gas chambers.

Though the spectre of the Second World War and the subsequent Communist stranglehold on Eastern Europe cast its shadow across our entire journey, it also shed light on the sense of survival that inhabits so much of mainland Europe.

The Terezin concentration camp with the motto “Arbeit Macht Frei” Work Makes Free over its gates.

Boarding the Poetry at Nuremberg, scene of the Nazi War Trials, we set off on a truly remarkable trip that would take us through a dizzying mix of picture postcard scenery, including ancient castles and historic cathedrals.

Climbing through a series of spectacular locks from the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal to the river proper, we sailed to historic ports like Regensburg, Passau and Melk, gliding through the rising mist of the beautiful Wachau Valley to Vienna and then on to Budapest.

Every stop provided jaw-on-the-floor sights, amazing Baroque architecture, solid silver altars, art treasures, winding cobbled streets and history – social, religious and political – stretching back over centuries.

It wasn’t all high-culture and self-improvement, though. In Salzburg we were treated to an insight into the home city of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and also a dedicated Sound of Music movie tour. To the accompaniment of a singalong soundtrack, we visited the original film locations and heard how, while they love Julie Andrews, the locals are still not too keen on Christopher Plummer, who got all moody on set, hated the children, insisted on staying in a separate hotel and later dismissed the famous musical as “The Sound of Mucus”.

Watching the river flow: The Danube and the 12th century bridge at Regensburg, the oldest working stone bridge in Germany.

As well as sightseeing, our journey offered opportunities too for shopping and the chance to sample Bavarian beers, specialist sausages, gingerbread… the list went on.

The catering aboard the Poetry – three meals a day and quality wine with dinner each night – was so good there was barely room for an alfresco Bratwurste for elevenses.

Street graffiti in Prague

The ship was a state- of-the-art river cruiser. Supremely comfortable and beautifully run by a friendly and mainly Hungarian, crew. Entertainment was provided nightly and we quickly found convivial dining and drinking companions. Our 125 fellow passengers included doctors, lawyers, a vet, a petroleum geologist, a sculptor, an economics lecturer and even a couple who hire out private jet aircraft to celebrity clients. It just shows that it’s good to pull out of life’s fast-lane once in a while. I can’t think of a better way of doing it.

Morocco (2010)

The dust kicks up as we speed towards the dunes of the Sahara desert

Words Jeremy Miles  PhotographsHattie Miles

The sun is rising over the oasis and I have just woken up in Kate Winslett’s bed. It doesn’t get much better than this. We’re in Morocco on the edge of the great Sahara desert enjoying the eccentric delights of the inimitable Hotel Kasbah Tizimi and even though the delectable Miss Winslett has not been here for 15 long years, it is gorgeous. 

She stayed here in 1995 while filming Hideous Kinky and fell in love with the  place – there’s a framed, handwritten note in the foyer to prove it. Now we’re here too and as a special upgrade we’ve been given her room.

Photographer Hattie Miles in the desert

With a palm-fringed pool just steps away, it is tempting not to go anywhere but there is so much to see and do that soon we are heading for the nearby desert village of Rissani. We visit the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Sharif, founder of the Alawite dynasty who ruled here 400 years ago and stroll past a bustling livestock market to the souk where traders haggle over pungent and colourful spices.

In the afternoon we climb into a hired 4X4 and, with driver Yusef at the wheel, are soon off-road and heading 50 kilometers into the desert. An hour or so later we are in a goatskin tent sipping mint tea with Berber tribespeople and preparing to ride camels across the majestic sand dunes at sunset.  The perfect end to the perfect day and just one of the many memorable moments enjoyed by my wife, photographer Hattie Miles, and I on a recent Highlights of Morocco tour, a comprehensive ten day journey that does exactly what it says on the tin. 

Starting from Marrakech we boarded a coach and headed first to Casablanca and then along the coast to Rabat, Meknes and Fez. Picking up local guides along the way there were visits to Royal Palaces, ancient mosques and colourful markets.There were also comfortable hotels, and breakfast and dinner was included most days. Our fellow travellers included a dentist, an oil worker, an Israeli artist, an urban planning boss and a globe-trotting, ballroom dancing psychiatric nurse. Plenty of fascinating conversation there. They weren’t the  kind of people you’d expect to find on a coach holiday but the general concensus was that it was a most agreeable way of seeing a lot in a short space of time. 

The Hassan II Mosque in C{photographer Hattie asablanca

At Casablanca there was a chance to visit the huge ultra-modern Hassan II Mosque which towers over the seafront with its 200 meter high minaret. It can hold 25,000 worshippers, has an electric roof, a glass floor and a laser beam that points to Mecca.  Meanwhile a tour of the magnificent Chella Gardens with its Roman ruins and nesting storks near Rabat offered a reminder of Morocco’s long and intriguing history.  

At Fez ancient and modern combine. There are swish continental style tree-lined boulevards but in parts of the city life continues much as it has for hundreds of years. The 6,000 alleyways that wind through the old Medina must be the ultimate maze. We headed south, travelling through the Middle Atlas Mountains and the spectacular Ziz Valley to our Sahara hotel at Erfoud. From there we made our way through the stunning terrain of the Dades Valley to the oasis resort of Ouarzazat.

Finally it was time to return to Marrakesh but before driving across the High Atlas through the 7,414 foot high Tizi-n-Tichkas Pass we visited  Ait-Benhaddou, the setting for many films including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. It was here that a cheery little man called Ali offered to take us to his primitive hillside home. His battered stone house is part of a settlement that dates back nearly a thousand years.  His family sleep on bed-rolls on the bare floor, the ‘kitchen’ is basically a hole-in-the-wall oven and until recently water had to be collected by donkey and pannier from a well four kilometers away. The village now has the ultimate in mod-cons – several standpipes.

Ali’s local claim to fame is that he worked as an extra on Gladiator. The contrast between his life in rugged, rural Morocco and the luxury lavished on  the multi-million dollar world of the Hollywood film industry could not be greater. It comes as little surprise though when we hear that at least one factor in director Ridley Scott’s decision to repeatedly use Morocco as a location for his films is that he can shoot for nine solid weeks in places like Ait-Benhaddou for the price of a few days in the USA. 

Marrakech at night

It’s a sobering thought  and as we arrived back in Morocco’s fabled ‘pink city’ Marrakech where we had opted for a two day extension we couldn’t help but notice the huge amount of development as the metropolis grows and modernises. Morocco’s ancient beautiful heart still beats loudly but the chasm between the haves and have nots is widening. Now is the time to visit, while this astonishing country is still real. 

Travels in Cambodia and Vietnam

Halong Bay

Cambodia and Vietnam (2006)

Words: Jeremy Miles Pictures: Hattie Miles 

FOR someone whose earliest memories are of torture and genocide   Sothy laughs a great deal.  The cheery 32-year-old works as a freelance tour guide helping to establish Cambodia on the tourist map. 

He specialises in taking English and American travellers to Angkor Wat and other ancient  temples near his home town of Siem Reap. His informative lectures about the kingdoms, wars and civilisations of the past are punctuated with little jokes and he always seems to have a ready smile.

Yet despite his cheerful demeanour and relatively tender years Sothy is a survivor of Pol Pot’s brutal regime, the crazed dictatorship that, in the mid to late 1970s, saw literally millions starved, beaten, interrogated, tortured and put to death. 

Sothy

Sothy was only a child when the Khmer Rouge came for his mother.

Accused of trying to  exchange a shirt for a bowl of rice, she was thrown in jail. They took the boy too.  And, with his mother’s screams echoing in his ears, Sothy was stripped naked, tied to a tree and smothered in ants. 

He remembers the fear and confusion and he remembers the sores that festered until he was half crazy but he can recall little else. Three months later they were released. 

 “My mother says I cried all the time,” he told me. “That I had a big head and a little skinny body but  when I ask her about it she cries.too” He says he doesn’t know why they were spared but there’s a haunted look in his eyes as he talks about it.  

Cambodia is a fascinating, beautiful and rewarding country to visit. It’s magnificent emples are its main attraction but tourists are also confronted with the  ghosts of the all too recent recent past and the legacy of Pol Pot’s insane Maoist-Leninist experiment. 

We had arrived in this beautiful but battered country at the end of a fascinating 10 day, top-to-toe tour of Vietnam with the holiday company Archers Direct. That trip had taken us from Hanoi in the north  to Ho Chi Minh City in the south.  With knowledegable guides and extremely comfortable accomodation, it was a great way to see a fascinating part of the world.

Touching down in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh at the start of a three night Kingdom of Cambodia extension to our holiday we found oureslves embarking on an eye-opening experience. The first thing you realise is how extraordinarily poor the place is. The escalator at the airport  (one of only two, we were told, in the entire country ) is a prime destination for family outings. Not surprising perhaps. For when a schoolteacher is lucky to earn US$25 a month, a ride on a moving staircase must represent a rare and affordable luxury 

Photo by Michiel Verledens  Pexels.com

Next stop was the Genocide Museum – a thought-provoking guided tour of Pol Pot’s feared S21 secret prison. Housed in an unremarkable  looking  former Secondary  School building, it still boasts the iron bedsteads that they manacled the prisoners and a gruesome variety of instruments of torture that led to the deaths of almost all who were taken there. Of the 14,000 plus men, women and children dragged through the doors of S21 only seven emerged alive. Inside the old schoolrooms the dead  are still present in the form of hundreds, maybe thousands of  prison photographs. The victims – Pol Pot’s supposed political enemies – each hold a number. Their crime was being educated, able to read, inclined to question. Some were tortured and executed simply because they wore glasses. Others because they had nicely manicured nails. They were beaten to death. Bullets were deemed too expensive to waste on mere prisoners.

Around both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap the notorious Killing Fields are easy to find. They are not, as I had naively imagined, remote, discreet and distant but right there on the edge of town. In fact those same fields – the last resting place of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent victims – are now sprouting four and five star hotels: a cash crop to feed the burgeoning tourist industry.

Such information can of course prove disquieting  to holidaymakers who simply believe they are jetting into an, until recently, hard to visit place to see some old and interesting temples. And so it should. I was impressed and proud of the fact that the party we were with embraced the fascinating and salutary history lesson that was Cambodia with enthusiasm and intelligence. 

The temples too of course were quite amazing. Lavishly  carved and dating back a thousand years or more the most impressive are  clustered around the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. 

Vietnam

There was the magnificent jewel in Cambodia’s tourism crown – the towering, beautiful and well-ordered Angkor Wat – so much bigger than we had imagined – in fact an entire city five miles in circumference.  But there were many other treasures too, like the massive carved heads and huge gateways at Angkor Thom and the Bayon with its bas reliefs showing ancient battles, real and mythological.  Best of all perhaps was Ta Prohm which is still half-consumed by the jungle. It’s ravaged walls and tower’s entwined in the roots of giant self-seeded banyan trees.

Cambodia offers astonishing sights, including some places that even the locals have been unable to access for years. Away from the tourist trail, the country is still heavily mined. Hidden explosives continue to claim between 600 and 700 lives a year and until very recently travel in the leading carriage of the local trains was free of charge because it doubled as a minesweeper. 

In Vietnam they also bear scars of terrible times but, while what they call The American War is far from forgotten, this is clearly a young, vibrant country looking to the future. Sure ageing hippies can still find The Doors and Jimi Hendrix on countless juke boxes and you can buy  “battle scarred” Zippo lighters,  scuffed and battered and bearing such legends as “When I die bury me face down so the whole world can kiss my ass.” It’s tourism though, not history.

Girl on a motorcycle, Saigon

Flying into Vietnam via Bangkok, our  journey started in Hanoi, a bustling city with quite literally a million mopeds. Having learnt to cross the road – an art that requires courage, blind-faith and and the acquisition of a deep sense of fatalism, we spent a couple of happy days exploring street markets and stalls, temples and tourist sites.  

We then drove briefly north towards the Chinese border for a sailing trip among the towering limestone pillars, rocky outcrops and caves of Halong Bay.  

After an overnight stay we flew down to Da Nang – base for a huge US military presence during the war and still  a magnet for  veterans revisiting their past. We spent a couple of days in the idyllic  and ancient riverside town of Hoi An where tailoring is a speciality – they’ll knock you up a perfect suit, shirt, dress, you name it in next to no time – we also ate perhaps the best croissants of our lives – an indication of the culinary impact left by years of French rule. 

We drove form Hoi An  to the ancient capital of Hue.  Packed with history and war damage, it delivered some haunting images, not least the shattered remains of its astonishing 16th century Citadel most of which was smashed to dust and rubble by American troops during the Tet offensive in 1968. 

Hoi An, Vietnam

“What a pity!” said our guide. Ironically this  had been the exact phrase used by a previous guide back in Hanoi when informing us that Uncle Ho was not receiving visitors in his mausoleum because his mummified body was undergoing “technical maintenance”. It all seemed a rather undignified for fate for a man who specifically asked that he should be cremated. 

We did however get the chance to visit the Presidential Palace  and the “simple house” in its grounds where  Ho Chi Minh, president from 1954 to 1969 and leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam through the height of the war, chose to live. 

He claimed that it proved he was truly a man of the people. I’m not so sure . While based on a traditional peasant stilt house, it is relatively spacious and very attractive with lots of highly polished wood and a pleasing open-plan design.  If it hadn’t been for the special shelf for Ho’s tin hat and hotline telephone and the padded door next to his bed leading to the bomb bunker it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Homes and Gardens. 

Finally we flew to the vibrant and buzzing melting-pot that bears his name. Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still insist on calling it, is a brilliant, bustling metropolis full of sights, sounds and sensations. To reach them required more death-defying road crossing.  It really is difficult to get your head around the concept of stepping in front of 70 or 80 motorcycles which you know are not going to stop.  The instruction was “Just walk slowly and they’ll go round you” Astonishingly they do. 

Hattie in Vietnam

In 10 days in Vietnam we saw a beautiful country, wonderful street-life, pagodas and palaces. We enjoyed river trips and the hospitality of gentle friendly people, wonderful food  and of course many reminders of a war-ravaged past.  In Ho Chi Minh City we spent an afternoon at the diplomatically renamed War Remnants Museum (it used to be called The War Crimes Museum). After viewing, among other horrors, exhibits and first hand accounts relating to the My Lai massacre there was something particularly chilling about  returning to a very comfortable four star hotel switching on CNN and seeing footage of an American Marine casually blowing away a wounded and unarmed insurgent in Falluja.  Nothing, it would seem, changes.  Just the names and the places.

Captain Oates: penguins, antelopes and cockroaches in the Hampshire countryside

Intrepid polar explorer Captain Laurence Oates celebrated at Gilbert White’s House

Want a wonderfully weird thing to do in the Hampshire countryside? Try a visit to Selborne and the 18th century home and garden of naturalist, author, gardener and parish priest Gilbert White. You might know it. It’s a fascinating place and, as its name suggests, devoted to the story of the Rev White’s life-long investigation of the natural world and his enduring influence on botanists and naturalists right up to the present day. 

Although visitors must wear masks and social distancing is rigidly adhered to we didn’t need to book. They just sell 50 tickets in the morning and 50 in the afternoon. First come, first served basis.

Bizarrely this it appears that this country house museum wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Family Trust of polar explorer Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. I may be wrong but it appears to bankroll the entire project in return for using the upstairs as their own Oates Museum. 

Me and the resident impala at Gilbert’s house

The result is a pairing of two rather chaotically curated displays which appear to occasionally and inexplicably overlap. Hence, you wander into Gilbert White’s perfectly appointed 18th century English front parlour with its Queen Ann and Chippendale style furniture and suddenly find yourself confronted by a couple of rather misplaced taxidermy specimens – a penguin and a decidedly moth-eaten impala. The latter bears a notice saying ‘Please don’t touch. I’m losing my hair’. Though there is no explanation, the creature appears be a reference to the intrepid travels of Captain Oates’ Uncle Frank who has a room or two upstairs devoted to his pioneering expeditions to ‘Darkest Africa’ the last of which sadly proved fatal.

They weren’t a lucky family, the Oates. Most of the upper floors are devoted to Captain Oates famed role in Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1912 expedition to the South Pole. ‘I’m going outside. I may be sometime‘ and all that. Never mind thanks to Oates extraordinary act of self-sacrifice and Gilbert White’s intriguing house.

Downstairs the house – the odd penguin or impala aside – is a wonderful celebration of Gilbert White’s life-long investigation of the natural world as displayed through his house and wonderful 19th century garden. We learn of his fascination with all living creatures including a recording showing how he might have praised his prized collection of cockroaches to his horrified housekeeper.

There is no doubting his influence on natural science over the last 200 plus years. His book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne was originally published in 1889 and has never been out of print.

Whatever happened to Margo?

A young Margo Durrell pictured in Bournemouth in 1940s. All pictures: Courtesy of the Durrell family

Words: Jeremy Miles

The famously free-spirited Durrell family probably didn’t realise it at the time but when they ditched their digs in dank 1930s Bournemouth and headed for the sunshine of Corfu they were writing a little piece of history.

Widow Louisa and her children Larry, Margo, Leslie and Gerry spent only a  few idyllic years on the Greek Island but it was long enough to sow the seeds of a legacy that lives large to this day.

Eighty years later millions tuned in each week to watch The Durrells, the good-hearted ITV drama series based on their exploits. What many don’t know is that by the 1950s and 60s the family was firmly back in Bournemouth.

Gerald was finding fame as a pioneering naturalist, conservationist and best-selling author and would go on to establish the famous Jersey Zoo and Durrell Wildlife Trust.

Eldest brother Larry meanwhile had become literary superstar, Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet. Fans of the TV show will not be surprised that Leslie made a rather less spectacular impact.  Always the most vulnerable of the siblings, he was living over a Bournemouth off-licence with his gun collection and lurching from one failed business venture to the next.

A young Gerry on Corfu in the 1930s

But what of sister Margo? In TV version of The Durrells she is a force of nature, a scatty, fun-loving teenager determined to make her presence felt amidst the creative chaos of her brothers. By all accounts it was a fairly accurate reading of her character. For the real Margo was loved by everyone and remained at the hub of the Durrell family for the rest of her life. She died aged 87 in 2007.

Despite being charismatic, joyful to know and leading an extraordinary life, she never sought the limelight and as a result was rather eclipsed in the public-eye by her famous brothers.

In the 1960s she quietly set about redressing the balance by penning her own fascinating memoir.  It was called, of course, Whatever Happened to Margo? It remained unpublished for nearly 30 years until her granddaughter Tracy Breeze found the dusty manuscript covered in handwritten corrections hidden away in a drawer in Margo’s Bournemouth home.

Tracy laboriously retyped it and, in 1995, Whatever Happened to Margo? finally arrived on the nation’s bookshelves. It was a fascinating, rather madcap tale. It was well received but by the time The Durrells hit the small screen it had been out of print for years. Two years ago Penguin republished Margo’s book to coincide with the final season of the Tv series and no one was more delighted than Tracy, the daughter of Gerry Breeze the elder of Margo’s two sons.

At the time she told me. “I loved my nan. She was such an amazing person and we were incredibly close because she actually brought me up from the age of 11 when my mother died.” She remembers Margo being open-minded, adventurous and above all lots of fun. “She was the heart and soul of the family.”

Margo in the 1990s

In the opening episode of that last season of The Durrells, mother Louisa describes Margo as having “a mind like a roomful of starlings.” Was she really that scatterbrained? Tracy didn’t hesitate. “No, free-spirited would be a more accurate term.”  The Tv show, she admitted, was a little exaggerated but she loved it, telling me: “The impact it’s having on the Durrell family is fantastic. It’s helping to sell Uncle Gerry’s books and promoting the Jersey zoo which is continuing his work with endangered species. For me that ticks all the boxes. As for seeing my grandmother portrayed as a teenager, that’s absolutely fine. It just makes me smile.”

Whatever Happened to Margo? lifts the lid on what happened after the family left Corfu. It finds Margo, now in her late 20s, returning to post-war Bournemouth in 1947. Her marriage to a dashing RAF pilot, Jack Breeze, is sadly over and she has two small children to bring up. She spends an inheritance on buying a substantial property in the Bournemouth suburb of Charminster with the intention of running a boarding house.

It doesn’t quite turn out the way she’s planned. She will soon have brother Gerald keeping a small menagerie of exotic animals in her back garden and several chimpanzees and a six foot python as house pets.

As for the paying tenants? Her boundless good nature finds her acting as landlady to a stream of characters who are guaranteed get the net curtains of Charminster twitching like mad. There’s a painter of nudes and a pair of  glamorous nurses whose revolving gentleman callers lead to suspicions that she is running a brothel.

Tracy remembered the house, at 51 St Albans Avenue, well recalling that Margo’s open-mindedness and live and let live philosophy meant everyone was welcome. “She would probably have taken in the tenants that other people were turning away. She just accepted everyone for who they were. The Durrells were all very down earth despite coming from a privileged background. One minute Uncle Gerry would be talking to Princess Diana and the next he’d be asking the dustman in for a cup of tea. There were no barriers.”

Gerald and his first wife in Margo’s back garden in the 1950s

Tracy insists that growing up as a member of the Durrell family just seemed normal to her. “As a child I don’t think I realised how special it was. You just accept things, but I was very lucky indeed to be brought up by my nan. She was my best friend and we had great adventures. We even went back to Corfu which she had always felt such strong connection to.”

Margo was described at her funeral by Gerry’s widow, Lee Durrell director of the Durrell Wildlife Trust, as “One of a kind who sparkled with her own special joie de vivre and enriched the lives of everyone around her with an aura of happy serenity and a marvellous sense of fun.”

Her friends and family in Bournemouth knew Margo as a woman who loved reading, art exhibitions, walking by the sea and visiting churches. Needless to say this latter interest crossed all faiths.  Even though she was a chanting Buddhist she worked for a time as an enthusiastic guide to Christchurch Priory.

She also somehow found time to write another book. The manuscript tells of a time when her children had grown up and she was looking for another adventure. She answered a small ad in the local newspaper took a job with the crew of a Greek cruise line sailing the Caribbean. Her second memoir is called Growing Old Disgracefully and now Tracy is hoping to find a publisher for that too. Watch this space.

Margo out on the town with friends and lodgers in Bournemouth in the 1950s

Hot new screen actor Jamie demonstrates the fine art of bringing home the Bacon

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Film and TV actor Jamie Bacon at Lilliput Sailing Club, Poole. Picture Hattie Miles

Dorset’s own up and coming film and TV actor Jamie Bacon is standing on a balcony at his parents home looking at views across the rooftops to Poole Harbour and talking about the kind of career that most of his contemporaries could only dream of.

He was one of the stars of White Lines, the 10 part Netflix mystery drama that screened earlier this summer, while his latest cinema film, Brighton, directed by Stephen Cookson, is, Covid permitting, also due for release in the near future.

The movie, based on a Steven Berkoff play, stars Phil Davis and Larry Lamb as a pair of ageing East London rockers returning to the seaside resort for the first time in 40 years.

Jamie Bacon Brighton
Jamie as a young rocker in Brighton

In flashbacks to their youth Jamie plays the young version of the Larry Lamb character. “It was so enjoyable,” he tells me. “Being able to watch really experienced actors like Phil and Larry at work was such a privilege.

“Marion Bayley (partner of the director Mike Leigh and recently seen as the Queen Mum in The Crown) is also in it. You can learn a huge amount from people like that.”

And there you have it. Jamie, who initially trained at Poole’s Jellicoe Theatre,  is looking like the man of the moment. At 27 and just four years out of drama school, he has barely stopped working. There are several films and a body of TV work already in the can yet he displays no arrogance. Just a willingness to work hard and learn. The industry has responded well.

Last year he appeared, uncredited, as Cool Dude in the Elton John biopic Rocketman but perhaps most impressive is the success of his own highly-praised and self-produced film Into the Mirror, a moving story of a young man struggling with gender identity.

Jamie co-wrote the piece with a friend, Charles Streeter, when they were between jobs. He produced the film himself and stars in the principal role as Daniel, a junior office worker adrift and deeply unhappy in the big city. Charles meanwhile plays a drag queen called Jennifer.

“I was sitting there waiting for the phone to ring and, as I love writing and had always wanted to make a film, I thought I might be able to make something happen rather than wait for someone else to do it for me,” he explained.

Into the Mirror was originally planned as a five minute short but, with backing from industry insiders and encouragement from, among others, Richard E.Grant, it soon developed into a 65 minute drama that had the critics sitting up and taking notice.

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Jamie as Daniel a London office worker exploring gender identity

It tells how Daniel’s life is transformed when he discovers an underground club scene where his belief that he is really a girl begins to make sense. The story, in which he transitions into his female alter ego, was inspired by a Channel 4 documentary and brought praise from across the film world. Not only was it a sensitive and well-played piece but it proved what a diverse talent Jamie Bacon is.

The film, which received a special local screening at Lighthouse in Poole last December, found Jamie playing against type. In real life he is lean, well-muscled and decidedly heterosexual. His long-term girlfriend, the actress Beatrice May, was also in the movie with him.

Jamie, who loves surfing on the Dorset coast and when in London keeps fit by boxing several times a week, found that one downside of his fitness regime was that his shoulders were initially too broad to fit comfortably into the gown that had been specially prepared for the role.  A few adjustments had to be made before shooting could begin.

The transitioning Daniel with his careful make-up and glamorous dress may be a world away from beach boy Jamie but he draws some parallels. “There are always people who will judge you and jump to conclusions and there have been times when I’ve felt judged,” he says. “When I was growing up and told people I was doing drama and dance I used to get some stick. So, although I’m the opposite of who Daniel is, I think there is something of him in all of us and I’m encouraged by his bravery.”

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Jamie Bacon at the family  home in Poole with English Bulldog Barny. Picture Hattie Miles

He’s delighted with Into the Mirror saying  “It’s very positive and upbeat and although I’m not a spokesperson for the LGBT community I am very happy to draw attention to it and maybe help people understand more.”

It seems he’s achieved his aims if the review from Movie Nation is anything to go by: “Into the Mirror gets as close as any movie ever has to simulating the state of mind of someone conflicted, if no longer confused about his sexuality,” it states.

Other projects have included shooting the aforementioned White Lines with Daniel Mays in Ibiza. The Netflix drama  which garnered impressive reviews focused on the discovery of the body of a legendary DJ 20 years after he mysteriously disappeared.

Jamie also features in Tea – a short film about racial tensions in a south coast town. He has also recently been shooting A Gift From Bob, the sequel to the hit feelgood movie A Street Cat Named Bob.

Jamie is quick to credit the performing arts course at the Jellicoe for inspiring him to pursue his acting career but says it was his mum and dad –  builder and artist Ricky and his wife Sue – moving the family from London to Poole a decade ago that really set his life on its current course.

 “I love it here,” he says, as we stroll out on the pontoon at Lilliput Sailing Club near the family home.  “It was a perfect place to live and study and it is now the perfect place to come back to. After the pressure of London I can just get my surf-board, head for somewhere like Kimmeridge and recharge my batteries.”

Jamie says he’s under no illusions about the future of his career.  “I’ve been very lucky but you can’t take anything for granted. Acting is such a tough business. One minute you’re working and the next you’re not. It’s just a question of keeping busy, trying to get the right auditions, getting seen for the right parts and hoping to be lucky. It’s peaks and troughs. A bit like surfing really. You just have to ride the waves.”

Accident or assassination? The question that haunts the story of Lawrence of Arabia

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Bournemouth actor Tom Barber Duffy as T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence After Arabia

By Jeremy Miles

Eighty five years after his death following a motorcycle crash near his Dorset home, Clouds Hill, the truth of what really happened to Lawrence of Arabia remains a mystery. Conspiracy theories abound. Did T.E. Lawrence, the author, soldier and reluctant hero of the Arab rebellion die after his powerful Brough Superior bike swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles or was he assassinated by the British secret service?

Why did witnesses tell police that they had seen a large black car at the scene of the accident but then change their statements? What was Lawrence up to?  A new film, Lawrence: After Arabia, examines his final years, his powerful friends and dangerous enemies. Shot in Dorset with a largely local cast and crew supporting a line-up that includes Brian Cox, Michael Maloney and Hugh Fraser, the film focuses on events that led up to the crash near Bovington Camp on 13 May 1935. Lawrence died in hospital six days later.  Bournemouth actor Tom Barber Duffy takes the title role. Maybe it will help unearth the truth.

The movie has been a labour of love for writer and director Mark JT Griffin who says he has been fascinated by Lawrence of Arabia since childhood. “I used to holiday every year  with grandparents in Wareham. One day when I was about 10-years-old my gran went into the butchers and sent me to look around the church over the road.” It was there in the 1,000-year- old St Martin’s on the Walls that he saw the war-artist Eric Kennington’s famous Lawrence effigy and fell into conversation with a man who was cleaning it.

“I was fascinated by this figure of Lawrence seemingly dressed as an Arab prince and as I looked at it the guy told me bit about him and said that he’d died in a motorcycle crash. I asked if it was an accident and he said: ‘Well not all accidents are accidental’. That planted a little seed in my mind and, over the years, I got to know more and more about Lawrence.” Before long the young Griffin was visiting the crash site, Wareham Museum and Lawrence’s cottage at Clouds Hill, devouring everything that he could about this enigmatic character and the strange life that he led.

Mark JT Griffin would grow up to become a professional writer, penning six novels and a biography of the Greek musician and composer Vangelis. His interest in Lawrence continued to percolate in the background and eventually he wrote a radio play on the subject. He soon realised that the T.E. Lawrence of the public’s imagination is largely based on David Lean’s Oscar-laden 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.  Even though it’s now nearly 60 years since that epic film hit the screens if you mention Lawrence to the average man or woman in the street they will invariably visualise its star, a strapping blond-haired, blue-eyed, 6ft 2 inch Peter O’Toole.

In reality Lawrence, the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish landowner and a guilt-ridden governess, was just 5ft 4inches in his stockinged feet and an oddly intense looking individual. Not only that but Lean’s film, magnificent as it was, glossed over the final years of Lawrence’s life. The same was true of the 1992 Ralph Fiennes movie A Dangerous Man. “I felt they’d just scraped the surface. There was a lot going on in those last couple of years that hadn’t been dealt with at all,” says Mark.  His radio play gradually morphed into a full-blown screenplay which he sent to 60 different production companies. “There was plenty of positive feedback but no one was willing to take the project on, so I decided to do it myself.”

Shot over six weeks at locations like St Martins, Bovington and Clouds Hill, Lawrence: After Arabia was set for a number of screenings across Dorset. There were also plans for a red-carpet world premier at Lighthouse in Poole. It was originally planned for  in May, though with the current coronavirus situation this may well now happen next year, along with the other Dorset screenings.

As well as many instantly recognisable Dorset locations, the film features a soundtrack by music legends Rick Wakeman and Bruce Woolley (ex-Buggles), Guy Protheroe of the English Chamber Choir and composer- musician Clifford White. Their musical collaboration provides a fitting musical backdrop to the compelling story which re- examines the circumstances of Lawrence’s untimely death at the age of just 46.

Speaking of his personal view of the crash, Griffin says: “For years I sat on the fence but the more contact I’ve had with people in Dorset the more I feel it is probably 60/40 in favour of an assassination. The family of the coroner Ralph Neville-Jones told me he was under a lot of pressure to wrap it up the inquest neatly and draw a line under it.”

The film explores why the State might have wanted Lawrence out of the way. “He was an agitator and he didn’t care whether people liked him or not. He just did what he wanted to do,” explained Griffin. “Lawrence was friendly with Churchill who knew that war was coming and was keen to shake up the Secret Service; this had been run by a guy called Kell since before World War One. I think Churchill wanted to throw Lawrence in there as a kind of hand grenade to sort it out.”

Through his friend Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, Lawrence was also thought to be connected to the Black Shirts and Oswald Mosely, the leader of the British Fascists “Williamson was trying to arrange with Mosely for Lawrence to meet with Hitler and that could have been very embarrassing to the authorities.” Griffin believes that, far from being a fascist sympathiser, Lawrence may have been trying to infiltrate the Blackshirts to get information about Hitler back to Churchill.  “He didn’t care what people thought. He’d just go off and do it. Lawrence was not somebody who could be controlled.”

Note: Lawrence After Arabia should have been launched in Dorset with a series of special screenings plus a red-carpet premiere at Lighthouse in Poole on the 19th May 2020 – the 85th anniversary of Lawrence’s death. Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic put paid to that. A new premier date was announced for September but that too has now been cancelled with the film now due to launched at Lighthouse next year.

Ronnie Wood (72) “I never got past 29 in my head. I didn’t expect time to go so quickly”

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Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me (15)

Everyone’s favourite rock ’n’ roller Ronnie Wood looks incredulous at the idea that he is now in his 70s. “I never got past 29 in my head”, he explains. “It’s very surreal. I didn’t expect time to go so quickly.”

Oh Ronnie, You’ve got to love him and this wonderful film portrait by the acclaimed director Mike Figgis shows exactly why. The man is a phenomenal guitarist who first made waves as a  member of The Jeff Beck Group and The Faces back in the sixties. For the past 45 years he has been a member of The Rolling Stones.

He’s also a serious artist – “he can paint better than me”, says his mate Damien Hirst and a larger than life personality to boot – an almost Dickensian character for the 20th and 21st centuries.

Figgis’s film which received its only regional screening at Lighthouse in Poole in January, reveals Ronnie’s  extraordinary story in full. It’s a unique tale of talent and excess.

Against the odds he has not only survived near fatal encounters with booze, drugs and cancer but he’s thrived in a career that has been driven by a combination of brilliance, charisma and being in the right place at the right time. Or, as Ronnie himself puts it, Somebody up there likes me…”

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Film director Mike Figgis with Ronnie and guitar

Mike Figgis traces Ronnie’s life from his childhood in West London and the days when his hard drinking dad would rarely make it home from the Nag’s Head without falling asleep in one of the neighbour’s front gardens. If he did get back the chances were that Ronnie’s long-suffering mum would find him rattling the windows with a knees-up and singalong with the local rag and bone man, a couple if gypsies and sundry inebriated human flotsam invited back from the public bar.

It was a challenging if character-forming upbringing for young Ron but one that served him well when, in the early days, he found himself navigating a rock ‘n’ roll world run by gangsters and thugs.

Figgis’s film gently explores Ronnie’s  rock ’n’ roll beginnings, the art school influences, his journey to stardom and the characters he met along the way. There are interviews with Rod Stewart and fellow Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.

Other contributors include his wife Sally and his friend the singer Imelda May who appears on lead vocals in some excellent concert footage from Ronnie’s brilliant performance at the 500 seat Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne right here in Dorset back in November 2018.

Beautifully shot, this film finds a candid Ronnie reflecting on his life with warmth, humour and, above all, immense honesty. Jeremy Miles

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t even though Chappo’s still got it 50 years on Oz

Now here’s thing. A little over 50 years ago my wife Hattie, then my new girlfriend, and I went to our first live gig together – a free all-nighter at The Lyceum in London.
Heading the bill were Family and among the support acts was The Edgar Broughton Band. So, when we heard that Family front man Roger Chapman was playing the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne this week AND Edgar Broughton was the support we felt we had to be there.

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Roger Chapman

The Lyceum Ballroom December 1969: The place reeked of hashish, patchouli oil and the naive hope that somehow we could make the world a better place.
The Tivoli Theatre January 2020: We’re sitting in a theatre full of our near contemporaries wondering what went wrong. There may be a slight smell of Werther’s Originals.
Some of the audience are a little younger than us, some are older. Some look comfortably well-heeled, others decidedly battered by life.
There are several who appear to have been newly released after being trapped in a squat in Ladbroke Grove sometime in the early 1970s. For them nothing has changed. A few are even literally wearing rose-tinted spectacles. Lennon style granny glasses.
The concert starts. The great Roger Chapman is undoubtedly in fine voice. Backed by an exemplary six piece band featuring long time collaborators Geoff Whitehorn on guitar, Paul Hirsch on keyboards, Nick Payn on sax, Poli Palmer on vibes and Gary Twigg and John Lingwood on bass and drums, he still looks good and sounds invincible….most of the time.
However, at 77 years of age, the inimitable Chappo simply cannot compete with his younger self. The years have inevitably eroded the top and bottom of his considerable vocal register.
Though he can still deliver brilliant, beautiful songs in that astonishing, gritty vibrato that set him apart from the pack back in the glory days of Family and Streetwalkers, there are some notes that he really can’t reach any more. For instance My Friend the Sun, dedicated to his old Family bandmate Charlie Whitney, just shuddered to a halt. No shame there of course and Chapman knows it. He simply shrugged, laughed and carried on.
He is far better with the jazzier, bluesy stuff or numbers that utilise his still massively impressive middle register. Songs like Who Pulled The Night Down, Moth to a Flame, Midnight Child, Habits of a Lifetime and the ever popular Short List were a joy to hear. But one-time crowd-pleasers like Burlesque and The Weaver’s Answer were far from vintage cuts. And there’s the rub.You have to do the favourites. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Consider then the albatross that Edgar Broughton carries with him. Out Demons Out, his band’s signature chant from the 60s and 70s refuses to go away. Back in the day its sheer audience-swaying power made other bands fearful of following the mighty Broughtons on stage. Now, touring solo with just an acoustic guitar, Edgar clearly wishes it could be consigned to history. He’s halfway there. He didn’t play it but he did talk about it.
In fact he talked about a lot of things including fishing, the dental layout of the pike and the sad demise of his fallen friend, one-time counter-culture hero the late Mick Farren. Oh yes, and there were the makings of a couple of half decent songs in there too.

Chappo, Family and friends half a century on

Roger Chapman: Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne. Wednesday 29th January, 2020

Now here’s a thing. A little over 50 years ago my wife Hattie, then my new girlfriend, and I went to our first live gig together – a free all-nighter at The Lyceum in London. Heading the bill were Family and among the support acts was The Edgar Broughton Band. So, when we heard that Family front man Roger Chapman was playing the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne this week AND Edgar Broughton was the support we felt we had to be there.

The Lyceum Ballroom December 1969: The place reeked of hashish, patchouli oil and the naive hope that somehow we could make the world a better place.  The Tivoli Theatre January 2020: We’re sitting in a theatre full of our near contemporaries wondering what went wrong. There may be a slight smell of Werther’s Originals.  

Some of the audience are a little younger than us, some are older. Some  look comfortably well-heeled, others decidedly battered by life. There are several who appear to have been newly released after being trapped in a squat in Ladbroke Grove sometime in the early 1970s. For them nothing has changed. At least one was literally viewing the worked through rise-tinted granny glasses.

The great Roger Chapman is undoubtedly in fine voice. Backed by an exemplary six piece band featuring long time collaborators Geoff Whitehorn on guitar, Paul Hirsch on keyboards, Nick Payn on sax, Poli Palmer on vibes and Gary Twigg and John Lingwood on bass and drums, the great Chappo looks good and sounds invincible….most of the time. However, at 77 years of age, the inimitable Chappo simply cannot compete with his younger self. The years have inevitably eroded the top and bottom of his considerable vocal register.

Though he can still deliver brilliant, beautiful songs in that astonishing, slightly gritty vibrato that set him apart from the pack back in the glory days of Family and Streetwalkers, there are some notes that he really can’t reach any more. For instance My Friend the Sun, dedicated to his old Family bandmate Charlie Whitney, just shuddered to a halt. No shame there of course and Chapman knows it. He simply shrugged, laughed and carried on.

He is far better with the jazzier, bluesy stuff or numbers that utilise his still massively impressive middle register. Songs like Who Pulled The Night Down, Moth to a Flame, Midnight Child, Habits of a Lifetime and the ever popular Short List were a joy to hear. But one-time crowd-pleasers like Burlesque and The Weaver’s Answer were far from vintage cuts. And there’s the rub.You have to do the favourites. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 

Consider then the albatross that Edgar Broughton carries with him. Out Demons Out, his band’s signature chant from the 60s and 70s refuses to go away. Back in the day its sheer audience-swaying power made other bands fearful of following the mighty Broughtons on stage. Now, touring solo with just an acoustic guitar, Edgar clearly wishes it could be consigned to history. He’s halfway there. He didn’t play it but he did talk about it.

In fact he talked about a lot of things including fishing, the dental layout of the pike and the sad demise of his fallen friend, one-time counter-culture hero the late Mick Farren. Oh yes, and there were a couple of half decent songs in there too

Judy: Still rattling the chandeliers at 80

Judy Collins: Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne (19th January, 2020)

Now this was a strange one. Strange but nice I should point out. The wonderful Judy Collins – 80-years-old and still possessing a voice capable of rattling the chandeliers – acting as her own support act and delivering what was at times close to a stand-up routine.

Of course there was plenty of music too and many classic songs from a career that has spanned 60 wonderful years. But what happened to the advertised support?  Norwegian folk singer Jonas Fjeld – Judy’s collaborator on her latest album, the excellent Winter Stories, was notable by his absence.  The album and indeed Fjeld himself got a couple of honourable mentions in despatches from the stage and two of its numbers, River and Jimmy Webb’s sublime The Highwayman were undoubtedly among the high points of the show. But there was no explanation.

The concert opened with a couple of vintage tracks, Maid of Constant Sorrow and Chelsea Morning, with Judy on guitar accompanied by her longtime musical director Russell Walden on piano. To be honest she took a little while to get into her musical stride but when she did she was extraordinarily good, punctuating the set list, including classics like Both Sides Now, with  anecdotes and some rather whiskery jokes about Keith Richards.

After the interval she was back and wearing a sparkling crimson jacket – an 80th birthday gift from her old friend and fellow sixties survivor Joan Baez. Abandoning the guitar for the piano, she demonstrated a technique that revealed the classical training she received before joining the burgeoning US folk scene of the 1950s. 

Becoming a folkie was a shrewd move that at the time did little to impress either her mother or her piano tutor but ultimately it brought her into contact with everyone from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Joni Mitchell and Stephen Stills. And do you know what? I think we’ve all benefitted. Certainly audiences at The Tivoli have. Although modest in size the venue has become one of Judy Collins’ favourite UK theatres over the years. It’s a privilege to see her perform there.

Jeremy Miles

Walking in Memphis in memory of Elvis

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Graceland, Elvis Presley’s mansion in Memphis, Tennessee

It is more than four decades since they carried the bloated body of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll from his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. Yet still the graffiti outside the lavish, white pillared pile that he called home says it all: “Just pretend Elvis lives” 

For years desperate devotees hung onto the vain hope that his death had somehow been staged. That Elvis was alive and well, working in a video store or perhaps hiding out somewhere producing new material.

Never mind that at the age of 42 he was addicted to junk food and prescriptions drugs, that he weighed more than 20 stones and that his once lean physique was in ruins. For some his death, on  August 16th 1977, was simply too much to comprehend. 

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This year Elvis would have been 85-years-old and still tens of thousands of fans make the pilgrimage to Graceland. They hold vigils, light candles and weep at his graveside but now only the most delusional among them hang onto the dream that Elvis might actually still be alive. 

For every truly besotted fan there are dozens who are just curious to know little more about the man who changed the face of popular music and gave the world extraordinary hits like Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock.

A few years back Hattie and I made the journey to the heart of Elvis’ world, joining fans on a hugely popular six day package that offers a special insight into the astonishing rags to riches story that was  Elvis Aaron Presley’s life. The  tour took in his humble birthplace in the Mississippi Delta; the city of Memphis where he grew up and found fame and the hotspots of the Nashville recording industry where so much of his music was created. 

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The main focus though was Graceland – the 23 room, brown-limestone mansion bought by Presley in the late 1957 as a refuge from the screaming fans. Ironically the home he hoped would bring him some privacy  is now an officially designated National Historic Landmark and visited by morev than half-a-million people a year. The house had originally been constructed in the classical revival style in 1939. Records show that Elvis paid $102,500 for it. Today its price is estimated at well over $100 million dollars.

We stayed just a couple hundred meters away on the other side of Elvis Presley Boulevard. A few years back this road was known simply as Highway 51 but folks round these parts don’t like to miss a trick. Which is why we were staying at the Heartbreak Hotel and guess what? It was at the end of Lonely Street.  

For fans actually stepping across the threshold at Graceland is a chance to briefly experience life as Elvis did, walking through the bizarrely decorated rooms, including the famed Jungle Room with its indoor waterfall, they can perhaps get a glimpse of the singer’s exotic tastes in decor. A feel for this place he called home.  In the grounds they can visit the Meditation Garden where it is said he went for quiet reflection and where he now is laid to rest alongside his parents Gladys and Vernon, and grandmother Minnie Mae. There is also a small memorial to his twin brother Jesse who died at birth. 

Across the highway Heartbreak Hotel does a roaring trade in giant cheeseburgers and – “Elvis’ favourite” – fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches. This was the King’s midnight snack of choice, brought to his room by staff and eaten by the stack.  Frankly just looking at them feels like an artery-clogging venture that could well end with a one-way ticket to the cardiac ward.  That doesn’t stop the queues of fans eager to sample the King’s favourite comfort food though. So, a brief chance to live like Elvis and maybe even die like him too?

IMG_4193 2The real Elvis Presley story has long been distorted by myths and misinformation. An entire industry exists to part people from both their senses and their money and it does so with ruthless efficiency, churning out Elvis tat that is astonishing in its tawdry inventiveness. You can buy anything from an ornamental Graceland snow-storm to a replica Vegas-style rhinestone studded bat-wing collared jump-suit.  However for all the superficiality and artifice there was something genuinely moving about this tour which combined a fascinating journey through Tennessee with a big slice of social and music history. 

The people on our tour – 98 of them in two coach-loads – came from all kinds of backgrounds and ranged in age from early 20s to mid seventies. They were united by a common love of Elvis’ music and a fascination for the story of the boy from the hillbilly backwoods who went on to conquer the world.

It offered some wonderful experiences, including  a night out on Beale Street, spiritual home of the Memphis blues and a guided tour around Sam Phillips’ famed Sun Studios. It was here in 1953 that the 18-year old Presley paid $4.00 to make some test recordings. Phillips – a man who would go on to shape the careers of Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf –  instantly recognised his potential and offered to take the young Elvis under his wing.

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Sam Phillips Sun Studios in Memphis

 A year later That’s Alright Mama was released by Sun Records as Presley’s first single.  Things moved fast with fans drawn to his smouldering good looks and high-energy performances. That same year he acquired a new manager in the form of the charismatic hard-nosed music promotor Colonel Tom Parker. He also signed with RCA Records and scored his first chart-topping single with Heartbreak Hotel. It was the beginning of a journey that took  Elvis Aaron Presley from lean, mean rock ‘n’roll star and teen idol to a lost-soul destined to end his days as a tragic, bloated, multi-millionaire icon adrift and lonely in the pleasure palaces of Vegas, drowning in a sea of excess.

But the fans would always love him. In Tupelo Mississippi – where Elvis was born, dirt-poor, in a two-room shack    they are told how as a boy he had to shoot squirrels for the pot. Our tour joined the line of hundreds of Elvis fans from all over the world who view his humble first home with tears in their eyes.

There was even a stop at the neighbourhood hardware store where, way back in 1945, a salesman called Forrest L. Bobo unwittingly wrote himself into rock ‘n’ roll history. The occasion – immortalised on a plaque on the shop wall – found Bobo persuading the 10-year-old Elvis that he didn’t really want a gun for his forthcoming birthday, he’d be much better off with a guitar. 

IMG_4139_2 2This sound piece of advice has kept the hardware store in customers ever since, cheerily supplying Elvis related knick-knacks and anecdotes along with the nails, paint and plumbing supplies. The best surprise of all though came when the tour buses rolled into Nashville. A couple of days checking out Music City included a visit to the old RCA Studio B in Nashville where our tour party got to make its very own recording.

There had been a chance to see the Country Music Hall of Fame, free time to enjoy the Honky Tonks on Broadway, a visit to the Grand Ole Oprey and more but nothing came close to the thrill of actually laying down a track on Elvis’ sound-stage. Standing in the same room where Elvis cut more than 250 tracks, the fans were invited to record a massed-voiced version of his heart-rending ballad Can’t Help Falling In Love. To be honest it was dreadful, but we all left with huge smiles on our faces clutching souvenir CDs.

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Hattie plays Elvis’ piano  RCA Studio B,  Nashville

The sheer sense of history in that simple studio was enough to really get to the diehard fans. This after all was the studio where Elvis cut It’s Now or Never and Devil In Disguise, where the Everly Brothers recorded Til I Kissed You and Cathy’s Clown and where Roy Orbison laid down Only The Lonely and Crying.

For older fans simply being in the room that gave birth to the soundtrack of their youth  brought the memories flooding back. One first generation Teddy boy told me how back in the 1950s he had eloped with his 17-year-old girlfriend.

Singing Elvis songs had kept their spirits high as they drove through the night in his pink Vauxhall Cresta, with parents and police in hot pursuit. More than half a century later this couple were still together, still very much in love and still jiving… in a room that just happened to contain Elvis Presley’s piano.