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 It remained unpublished for nearly 30 years until her granddaughter Tracy Breeze found the dusty manuscript covered in handwritten corrections hidden away in a drawer in Margo’s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.

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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.

Campaign to honour Elisabeth Scott an award-winning architect forgotten by history

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Elisabeth Scott and Bournemouth Pier Theatre on visa pages of current British passport

Pioneering Bournemouth-born architect Elisabeth Scott was a talent to be reckoned with. In 1919, at the age of 21, she became one of the first women allowed to study at London’s prestigious male dominated Architectural Association.

Within a decade she had won an international competition to design the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Revered amongst modernist designers she should have become a household name. She had her own London practice, an Continue reading “Campaign to honour Elisabeth Scott an award-winning architect forgotten by history”

Rejected for being ‘too old’ 40 years ago

The Blues Band: The Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne

It’s hard to believe that it is now 40 long years since Paul Jones recruited a bunch of mates to form The Blues Band with the idea of playing occasional pub and club gigs. Even though back in 1979 they were rejected by at least one major record label for being “too old”,  they proved a near instant success. Now four decades and countless albums later they are still at the top of their game and still sporting almost exactly the same personnel .

Now, as then, we have Jones on vocals and harmonica, Tom McGuinness and Dave Kelly on guitars and Gary Fletcher on bass – a formidable line-up augmented at The Tivoli on Friday by Sam Kelly, Dave’s son, on drums. Depping for regular drummer Rob Townsend, Kelly junior did a sterling job, giving the band a new dimension with some brilliant musicianship.

Not that any of The Blues Band are less than top notch, a fact they proved yet again by steaming through an evening of vintage blues and R&B with a couple of folkie frills lobbed in for good measure.

They opened with three tracks from their latest album The Rooster Crowed, and ended more than two hours later with the Louis Jordan crowd-pleaser Let The Good Times Roll. I could have done without the singalong element added to the encore myself but perhaps I’m being churlish. The band’s  set had included some great numbers. They mined their own individual and collective back catalogues and a dished up a welter of blues classics like Howlin’ Wolf’s Down in the Bottom, Muddy Water’s I Can’t Be Satisfied, Blind Willie McTell’s Statesborough Blues, a dollop of Blind Boy Fuller, a little Staples Singers and much, much more.

A great evening with wonderful musicianship from all concerned including great guitar from both McGuinness and Kelly while Jones remains one of the finest harmonica players on the scene. There were no weak points. However were I forced to pick personal highlights they would undoubtedly be Dave Kelly’s vocal and slide guitar work and Sam Kelly’s drumming. Brilliant stuff!

Jeremy Miles

Nicholas Parsons – the final show revisited

Nicholas Parson’s at Forest Arts Centre, New Milton. His final appearance. Photo Hattie Miles

 How often do you get to hear a 96-year-old man talking about how good he looks in a basque, fishnet stockings and high heels? Veteran actor, broadcaster and presenter Nicholas Parsons’ wonderfully engaging evening of anecdotes drew on an astonishing 75 years in show business and was full of fascinating facts and unexpected revelations.

The fishnets story was from his time as The Narrator in the Rocky Horror Show in the 1990s. He was genuinely amazed at how good his legs looked in tantalising lingerie. “I had no idea. We men don’t tend to spend a lot of time looking at our legs,” he explained.  

There was much more, with stories of his childhood in the 1920s and 30s, his life as a teenager during wartime and the engineering apprenticeship in Glasgow’s tough Clydeside dockyards that he took to please his parents who were suspicious of his desire to work on the stage. They were convinced that showbusiness was populated by deviants, degenerates and alcoholics.

Once he’d qualified as an engineer, Nicholas – best known these days as the long time presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Just a Minute – decided to go into the theatre anyway. 

It’s an astonishing story which finds him, a week after his 96th birthday, still working, despite an accident in the summer that put him in hospital for five weeks. 

Looking frail, and performing from a chair, he held the audience in rapt  attention describing in impressive detail his showbiz life. He’s a great storyteller and though his legs are currently a little weak, his voice is strong, his delivery his spot on and there is clearly nothing wrong with his memory. He’s even a dab hand at impressions. 

Nicholas Parsons’ remarkable showbiz life has taken him from weekly rep to pioneering TV comedy with Arthur Haynes and Benny Hill to the long running quiz show Sale of the Century. There have been West End plays, films and musicals along the way and of course the much loved Just a Minute radio show.

Nicholas revealed that he originally thought the panel game which challenges celebrity contestants  to speak on a randomly chosen subject for one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition was going to be a disaster. What’s more he considered himself totally unsuited to be its chairman. It looks as though he was wrong. He has been doing the job for nearly 53 years now. 

Jeremy Miles

Note: Nicholas never performed again. He died in January 2020

From the sizzling Grange Hill sausage to the colour and thrill of the fairground

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Artist Bob Cosford photographs by Hattie Miles .

I’m sitting in a suburban garden in Bournemouth talking to the man who created the Grange Hill flying sausage. The banger, which appeared in the comic book style title credits of the long- running TV school drama, has followed artist and illustrator Bob Cosford for more than 40 years.

He shrugs: “That title sequence will without a doubt be what I’m remembered for,” he tells me. And here we have the fundamental artist’s dilemma. Create anything that really captures the public’s imagination and it will stick. To this day you can buy a Grange Hill sausage mug, poster, even a t-shirt. But it was creating this iconic title sequences that set Bob on his professional path.

Joining the BBC straight from Art College in the early 1970s, Bob was soon on a path that would bring him a shed-load of awards and critical acclaim. He was nominated for a BAFTA, worked on TV dramas like Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and a raft of popular television series in the 1980s that included Nanny starring Wendy Craig, Bird of Prey with Richard Griffith, and Angels which was dubbed the Z-Cars of nursing.

He worked as a graphic designer and spent many years around Camden and Soho as a creative director for film and TV and ad agencies. It’s an impressive CV but that famous ‘flying sausage’ invariably comes up again and again. Bob is philosophical and recently told fan site Grange Hill Gold that he’s not only proud of the sausage but very flattered that his work has been so well received. “I’ve never actually seen an episode of Grange Hill,” he confesses to me. “The titles were for the first series ever made and the programme went out at 4.50pm, so I would have either been working or down the pub at that time.”

Continue reading “From the sizzling Grange Hill sausage to the colour and thrill of the fairground”

Pinter probes chaos in a world full of alcohol

No Man’s Land: Lighthouse, Poole (19th September, 2019).

Ever since Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land was first staged at London’s Old Vic 45 long years ago, critics have been struggling to work out what exactly the playwright was saying and why.

The joy of this play is of course that actually it really doesn’t matter. There can be myriad interpretations and whether it is about coercion, control, manipulation or just losing ones sense of identity, it remains fundamentally a beautiful piece of writing. London Classic Theatre and director Michael Cabot explore its carefully nuanced complexities in this fine production, 

The story plays out in the opulent Hampstead living room of a wealthy, successful and chronically alcoholic writer called Hirst  – a tour de force performance by Moray Treadwell.  It appears he has invited Spooner, a down-at-heel poet, back from the pub. With Nicholas Gasson as the tweedy, weedy, socks and sandals wearing Spooner very much up for a drink, the booze flows and so does Pinter’s wonderfully poetic and artfully convoluted dialogue.

As Hirst drinks himself into a stupor in the small hours two more figures arrive on the scene – the flamboyantly camp Foster (Joel Macey) and the menacing Briggs (Graham O’Mara).

Who are they? What is the connection between Hirst and Spooner?  There are some surprises in store, plenty of dark humour and an overarching sense that Hirst’s world is tipping into chaos. He is marooned in a no man’s land from which there can be no escape.  All is enhanced by a superbly unsettling set by Bek Palmer – a stunning mix of circles, stuffed animals and a world literally full of alcohol. Wonderful stuff.

No Man’s Land plays Lighthouse in Poole until Saturday 21st September.

Jeremy Miles

k.d. pays tribute to the power of youth

k.d. lang – Ingénue Redux 25th Anniversary Tour: Lighthouse, Poole. (Thursday 25th July, 2019)

Her fans are a quarter of a century older than when Canadian singer k.d.lang first released the album Ingénue. It was a game-changer and so was k.d. as she adopted a potentially career damaging strategy and came out as an openly gay female singer. 

Publicly announcing that she was a lesbian seemed a brave move back in the early 1990s. How wonderful then that it all seems so utterly unremarkable now. These days people are more exercised over why she insists on her name – k.d. lang – always being printed in lower-case. 

The fans saw her then, as now, as a pioneer and they’ve stuck with her every inch of the way. So it was that in celebration of Ingénue’s 25th Anniversary a predominantly gay female audience was out in force when lang’s tour arrived at Lighthouse last night. It was a joyful occasion and a reminder of how much this singer and this album meant to the LGBT community. It accompanied many of them through heartaches and sometimes difficult, sometimes triumphant times.

They are older now, more reflective. “We’re just gay seniors” lang told them. There were whoops of delight and a round of applause as she posed and pirouetted. Of course her followers are not exclusively gay. Everyone was invited to this party and that is the way it should be.

Standing barefoot on the stage, wearing a loose fitting suit and surveying the fans from beneath her trademark masculine haircut, Kathryn Dawn Lang cuts a strange but confident figure

She’s an amazing performer with a voice that can astound with its power and purity. Fronting a superb seven-piece backing band, she performed Ingénue in its entirety. Ten tracks in their original order providing a quick reminder of what great songs the openers Save Me and The Mind of Love are.

The band, measured, nuanced and brilliant, delivered the musical magic against which this extraordinary singer wove her tales of love, loss and hope.

Things swung up-tempo with Miss Chatelaine and then settled into an almost hypnotic groove as lang delivered the rest of her masterpiece ending with, of course, the Grammy winning Constant Craving which had the crowd singing along.

And there was more to come with songs that showcased her continued prowess  as a writer, singer and performer and the brilliance and versatility of her band. She ended with a tribute to three of her fellow Canadian singer-songwriters –  Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. Her rendition of Young’s Helpless was one of the highlights of the evening and the vocal dexterity and passion displayed on Cohen’s Hallelujah was spine-tingling.

The encores found the 57-year-old singer paying tribute to the power of youth with name-checks for climate-change activist Greta Thunberg and the young anti-gun lobby campaigners in Florida. Some things may have changed for the better over the past 25 years but there are always new battles to fight.

Jeremy Miles 

What links a voice coach, Frankenstein, a dead poet and Bournemouth summer rep?

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Vernon Thompson at the Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth. Photograph by Hattie Miles

Listening to the steady, well-modulated tones of actor and director Vernon Thompson it’s hard to imagine that he’s ever had a problem with his voice.

Yet Vernon, the creative talent behind the  summer repertory theatre season at Bournemouth’s Shelley Theatre, grew up with a significant stammer. It was so  bad that he spent the first five years of his life receiving speech therapy from a Harley Street specialist. And now he divides his time between producing and directing plays and working as a professional voice coach.  Continue reading “What links a voice coach, Frankenstein, a dead poet and Bournemouth summer rep?”

McKellen celebrates birthday on 80 stages

Ian McKellen on Stage: with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others & You – Lighthouse, Poole (Tuesday 2nd July 2019)

This was a joyful evening – a masterclass from one of our finest actors on how to hold an audience absolutely spellbound. When Sir Ian McKellen announced last year that he was going to celebrate his 80th birthday (it happened on 25th May by the way ) and would be raising funds for theatres, with a new solo show touring 80 stages across the UK, no one really knew what to expect.

He hinted it would be a mixture of anecdote and acting including, as the title suggests, some Tolkien, Shakespeare and perhaps a bit of interaction with the audience. All I can say is that this show is all of that and more, much more. It’s a tour de force that celebrates McKellen’s long and illustrious career with enormous energy, passion and above all humour.

It doesn’t take long before you realise that, despite his much garlanded career as an actor, he could just as easily have been a cutting edge stand-up. From the opening Gandalf speech from Lord of the Rings to the final lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, we see McKellen reviewing a  very serious career but one that he has always regarded with a twinkle in his eye.

Armed with just a box of props, he delivers wonderful anecdotes describing his northern childhood in Wigan and Bolton, his early love of the theatre, his gay awakening watching the Welsh actor/composer Ivor Novello and his later ‘coming out’ at the age of 48.  

There are stories too about his activism, his scholarship to Cambridge and his subsequent career in the theatre from weekly rep to the classical stage. There are the big names he’s met along the way, his knighthood and how he nearly decided that rather than be an actor he wanted to go into hotel management. Fortunately, unlike Cambridge University, the Blackpool Catering College turned him down.

Alongside his readings from Shakespeare and the classics, McKellen also displays his tremendous range as an actor and raconteur, camping it up outrageously for instance as he pays tribute to panto while showing  the audience his ‘Twankey’. 

Proceeds from the show will go towards Bright Sparks, a programme that enables and inspires talented people in Dorset to develop professionally across the arts sector.

Footnote: This wasn’t the first time that Ian McKellen had been on the Lighthouse stage. He first appeared there 40 years ago in a performance of Twelfth Night. That was a show he is unlikely to forget. As he attempted to access the stage via the auditorium (a direction written into the play) he found his way barred by an over-zealous usherette who told him he couldn’t come in without a ticket. A dumbfounded McKellen gestured to the fact that he was wearing full doublet and hose and pleaded: “Do I look like a member of the audience?” The penny finally dropped and the usherette let him pass.

Jeremy Miles

A town transformed by art

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Richard Wood’s ‘harbourside’ Holiday Homes

We went back to the old home town for the 60th birthday party of a young friend at the weekend. There were lots of reminders of why I love Folkestone. I was born and brought up in the town, went to school there, met and married Hattie there and cut my journalistic teeth on the local newspaper. Though we’ve returned many times since we haven’t actually lived in Folkestone for more than 30 years. It is full of good memories though, particularly of the local arts scene.  Inevitably I suppose most of the writers, artists, musicians and actors I used to know have moved on but great to find the old place still full of character and artistic energy. Continue reading “A town transformed by art”

Memories, markers and special times

Joan Baez: Fare Thee Well Tour – Brighton Dome (February 2019)

Despite battling a chest infection Joan Baez strode onto the stage of the Brighton Dome on the opening UK night of her extended farewell tour and delivered a performance that was masterful, moving and mesmerising.

The 78-year-old singer was determined that her concert was not going to be diminished by anything as mundane as a pesky illness. True to form she sang beautifully, just occasionally, and I mean occasionally, struggling for a note.

After 60 years on the road Baez knows how to optimise almost any concert  situation. So it was that alongside a wonderful catalogue of songs, starting with her alone on stage singing Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright – the first of five perfectly pitched Bob Dylan covers – we also heard her singing the praises of Britain’s National Health Service.

She had arrived in Brighton via a visit to A&E: “Hey the doctors all looked about 15-years-old but they clearly knew what they were doing,” she told us, revealing that blood tests had been made and antibiotics prescribed and all for free. “We don’t get that where I come from,” she sighed.

The medics had done well and more than 20 songs and nearly two hours later Joan Baez finally left the stage to a standing ovation after a series of  encores that had included sure-fire crowd pleasers like Forever Young and a singalong to John Lennon’s Imagine.

For most of the concert Baez had been joined on stage by her son the percussionist Gabe Harris and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. There was also some impressive input from singer Grace Stumberg. Age may have taken the top register from Baez’s soaring soprano but she knows exactly how to use her mature voice to maximum effect. Stumberg meanwhile is on hand to add vocal depth and harmonies to songs like Diamond’s and Rust, Donovan’s Catch the Wind and some belting country blues on Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee.

It was a superbly constructed set featuring songs from throughout the long and illustrious Baez career. Early favourites included Phil Och’s There But for Fortune, Dylan’s Farewell Angelina, Woody Guthrie’s Deportee and the traditional Darling Corey.

 It was an evening full of memories and markers of special times. When she sang Joe Hill many members of the audience will have recalled her performance of the same song at the Woodstock Festival 50 years ago this summer. She was six months pregnant at the time. A glance at percussionist Gabe brought recognition that he had been there too. Yup Woodstock in the womb. How cool is that?

But anyone thinking this tour is purely about nostalgia is sorely mistaken. There was also a good showing of high-quality material from her latest album Whistle Down the Wind with some beautifully reflective writing from people like Tom Waits and Antony and the Johnsons.

Like the every song in the set these are the kind of numbers that in the capable hands of Joan Baez can live and breath forever! Judging by the length of this extended farewell tour, there’s a good chance that she can too.

Jeremy Miles

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Pages of the Sea – lamenting the madness of 1914-1918 and the boys who never came home

Folkestone, Sunday 11th November, 2018: An amazing day. We woke early in a hotel built on the old brickfields and headed for the sands. Found what was probably the last parking space in town and made our way in pouring rain to join  Danny Boyle and lots of other people on the beach to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that marked the the end of the terrible conflict that was the First World War.

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Wilfred Owen

Boyle’s Pages of the Sea project saw portraits of soldiers who never returned from the battlefields in France etched in the sand at low-water on beaches around the UK. They remained briefly as a poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by so many until their images were erased forever by the incoming tide. Continue reading “Pages of the Sea – lamenting the madness of 1914-1918 and the boys who never came home”

Remembering the fascinating and illustrious roots of Folkestone’s annual autumn book-fest

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Benjamin Zephaniah at Kent Literature Festival in 1984. Photo by Hattie Miles

Meet a young Benjamin Zephaniah. The year is 1984.  I had just interviewed the then still relatively unknown Rastafarian dub poet and Hattie took this photograph. We had talked about the scourge of heroin and the drug casualties that appeared to be reaching epidemic proportions on the streets of Britain. Little did we know… 

Zephaniah was just one of the fascinating and talented writers, performers and musicians taking part in that year’s Kent Literature Festival. This wonderful event, run by my old friend the poet John Rice, had been held annually since 1981 (or maybe it was 1980) and was really hitting its stride. Based in my hometown of Folkestone it offered a feast of literature with famous authors and performers rubbing shoulders with emerging talents and  newcomers.  Continue reading “Remembering the fascinating and illustrious roots of Folkestone’s annual autumn book-fest”

From leap to freedom to dance of death – tragic final days of ballet star Nureyev

image.pngA fascinating new documentary about the extraordinary life and mercurial career of Russian ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev arrived in British cinemas this week. Called simply Nureyev it tells a story so astonishing that it is hard to credit that it really happened. It traces one of the creative legends of the 20th century. A dancer of such amazing talent that despite an impoverished background he kicked down barriers and enriched and changed the world of classical ballet forever.

Rudolf Nureyev was born on a train on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1938. He came from a poor family but discovered a love of ballet as a child. His father was horrified and tried to beat the passion for dance out of his young son. This brutality simply made a defiant Rudolf even more determined to fight for a place at ballet school. His brilliance, power and grace soon shone and by his early twenties he was a star of the famed Kirov Ballet.

Continue reading “From leap to freedom to dance of death – tragic final days of ballet star Nureyev”

Dorothea’s dustbowl migrants and Tom McGuinness on Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup

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Migrant Mother the photograph of itinerant pea-picker Florence Thompson and her children taken in California in 1936 that catapulted Dorothea Lange to international fame

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at London’s Barbican viewing The Politics of Seeing – an exhibition of superb and often troubling photographs by pioneering American photographer Dorothea Lange.

Across the gallery, admiring Lange’s iconic studies of Oklahoma dustbowl migrants in California in the 1930s, was a man who I was fairly convinced was Manfred Mann and Blues Band guitarist Tom McGuinness. I wasn’t sure though and short of wandering over and asking, I couldn’t figure out a way of finding out. Continue reading “Dorothea’s dustbowl migrants and Tom McGuinness on Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup”

Buy my lamps you won’t need drugs – a compelling and effective marketing slogan

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Craven Walker: daredevil, pioneering naturist and inventor of the lava lamp

I am intrigued to see that Mathmos, the Poole based company that, back in 1963, launched that soon to become indispensable hippy accessory the lava lamp are celebrating the centenary of their founder Craven Walker.

Craven – his full name was Edward Craven Walker – was in some ways an unlikely inventor of the lamp that fascinated the counter-culture.

A former RAF pilot with a passion for fast cars, speed boats and helicopters, he was also a pioneering nudist who made a number naturist films that avoided the censor by being shot underwater. Continue reading “Buy my lamps you won’t need drugs – a compelling and effective marketing slogan”

Tony Hancock – the comic genius who could not be saved from his demons

Fifty years ago this week one of Britain’s greatest comedians, Tony Hancock, committed suicide. Lonely and depressed, he ended his life with an overdose of drink and drugs in a rented flat in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. He was just 44-years-old.  It was a tragic and lonely end, thousands of miles from home, for a man who just a handful of years earlier had been a huge TV and radio star, a household name loved by millions. Continue reading “Tony Hancock – the comic genius who could not be saved from his demons”

Georgie from cotton mill via Fury to Fame

Georgie Fame and Family: Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne (2017)

What a great evening of music delivered by one the best Hammond organ players in the business. Georgie Fame enjoyed big chart hits in the sixties with hits like Yeh Yeh, Getaway and The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde and decades of life as a touring musician with people like Van Morrison and Bill Wyman.

Now, in his 70s, he’s enjoying a different sort of touring, as family man with a musical legacy to share. And sure enough, with two sons, Tristan and James, on guitar and drums and his granddaughters, Fallon and Merle (I think), as support act. “Grandpa Georgie”, as he was introduced, focused on the story of his musical life.

He played music from his almost 60 year career, including of course all the aforementioned hits, and offered genial and illuminating anecdotes between numbers. There were great songs by influential performers and writers like Booker T Jones, Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Hoagy Carmichael, Floyd Dixon and Peggy Lee and even a spot of country (Jim Reeves and Willie Nelson) as re-imagined by Ry Cooder and Joe Hinton.

There were memories of the legendary all-nighters at Soho’s Flamingo Club and there were wondrous tales of his early years in rock ’n’ roll, of touring with Eddie Cochrane and Billy Fury, why he withdrew from a talent contest at a Welsh holiday camp with a pre Beatles Ringo Starr and much much more. An eye-witness to some serious landmark moments in rock history, Fame even watched as his tearful drummer Mitch Mitchell, distraught at being sacked from the Blue Flames, was snapped up by new boy on the block Jimi Hendrix.

It was illuminating to hear just how much of Fame’s astonishing career has been down to pure chance. Meeting the right people, being close to the right telephones. It was astonishingly effective. One minute he was a junior worker in a cotton mill in Leigh in Lancashire and the next he was being signed by the great pop impresario Larry Parnes to play piano with his stable of hit-makers. 

This involved, at Parnes insistence,  changing his name from plain old Clive Powell to Georgie Fame but it also landed him a gig in Billy Fury’s backing band The Blue Flames. Unfortunately management decided that the Blue Flames were a tad to jazzy for their main man and the entire group were given their marching orders. For Georgie it was too late to change his name back to Clive Powell but not too late to take over as lead vocalist.

The residency as house band at the Flamingo followed and  then a favourite song, Yeh Yeh, gave them a significant hit and briefly turned Fame and his band into pop stars. They toured relentlessly but before long the music industry sharks were circling. It was Fame who was singing the hits and playing the signature Hammond organ. They could make a whole load more money if they axed the band. The rest as they say is history. Georgie Fame was forced to leave his friends and he learned some uncomfortable lessons about the ruthlessness of the music world but he was also suddenly free to enjoy a career that found him able to indulge his love of jazz, blues and R&B. Ironic really that a boy from the Lancashire cotton mills ended up playing music by people who actually picked the damn stuff in the fields of the Mississippi Delta. 

The Tivoli show featured wonderful stories and some marvellous musical finesse. The Hammond organ is an extraordinarily expressive instrument and Fame knows exactly how to handle it. Though he did switch briefly to piano to pay tribute to the great Fats Domino, one of his original heroes, whose death at the age of 89 had been announced only hours earlier. He chose Good Lawdy Miss Clawdy which was  recorded by Lloyd Price in 1952 featuring a classic Fats performance on piano.

It was a lovely evening with the granddaughters returning to the stage and joining grandpa, dad and uncle for a final number. Reflective and poignant, it was simply called Was.

Jeremy Miles

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