Trapped in a junkyard world by an eternal dance of doom

Mike Shepherd as Albert and Dean Nolan as Harold in Steptoe and Son
Mike Shepherd as Albert and Dean Nolan as Harold in Steptoe and Son

Steptoe and Son: Lighthouse, Poole

Anyone who lived through the sixties will have absorbed something of Steptoe and Son into their entertainment DNA. You mess with that kind of thing at your peril.

Creating an intriguing and affectionate adaptation of the classic Ray Galton and Alan Simpson sitcom was a brave move by director Emma Rice. It was also a clever move because it works rather well. I know because I went to see it at Lighthouse in Poole last night.

One of the main strengths of this co-production from long-time collaborators Kneehigh and West Yorkshire Playhouse is that it steers well clear of imitation. Scheming and manipulative rag and bone man Albert Steptoe and his dreamer of a son Harold played here by Mike Shepherd and Dean Nolan are significantly different from the hapless pair as portrayed by Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett on BBC TV.

The cor blimey Londoners from Oil Drum Lane, Shepherds Bush, now have a light West Country brogue and an indeterminate geographical location. No matter. You still get two fine actors who combine striking physical performance and adept stagecraft to deliver a comedy drama that plumbs the very essence of the original show. With Kirsty Woodward as mother, lover, doctor, dancer and occasional object of passing fantasies –  Rice has used four original Galton and Simpson scripts to explore the desperate plight of the Steptoes.

An impressive set and a musical backdrop that takes in, among others, Elvis, Cliff Richard and the Rolling Stones marks both their passage through time and the increasing hopelessness of their situation, Albert and Harold – scarred by war and battered by circumstance – are locked in a dance of doom, trapped in their junkyard world forever.

The result is a strange mix of tragedy and comedy. As Emma Rice herself commented after reading the original Galton and Simpson scripts: “The work is deeper, darker and more intricate than I’d ever realized, watching as a child.”

I had the privilege of discussing this production with Galton and Simpson themselves a few months back. They admitted they were excited at the prospect of Albert and Harold getting a new theatrical outing. Rice and Kneehigh were, they said, worthy temporary custodians of the Steptoe legacy.

The pair, now 82 and 83, respectively still seem a little bewildered at their good fortune when they talk of the chapter of accidents that originally brought Steptoe to the screen more than  50 years ago.

They had just split from Tony Hancock and the BBC, horrified at the prospect of losing their comedy dream team, came calling cap in hand.  “It was extraordinary,” recalled Galton.  “Basically the guy in charge of humour told us:  ‘You can  do what you like, write what you like, cast who you like, you can even be in it if you want. Just write something new for us.’  We thought ‘Hello, he’s gone bonkers!’  Anyway, we started working on this Comedy Playhouse piece The Offer about two rag and bone men.”

Rather than use comedy actors, the piece starred Shakespearian actor and exponent of experimental theatre Harry H. Corbett and jobbing character actor Wifred Brambell. It worked a treat and the BBC instantly offered Galton and Simpson the chance to turn The Offer into a series.

Tired and jaded after years of scripting Hancock and others, the pair tried to turn the BBC’s proposition down. “We really didn’t want to do a series,” said Galton. “We said no for six months and eventually we just ran out of excuses. To be honest we weren’t particularly worried because we reckoned that if we asked Harry and Wilfred – who were straight actors – if they’d be in it, they’d certainly say no. We couldn’t have been more wrong. They jumped at it.”

Ironically the comedy gold that was Steptoe and Son would lead to bitterness and misery for Corbett and Brambell who gradually came to loathe each other. Brambell was a curmudgeonly gay alcoholic desperately trying to hide his sexuality from the public. While Corbett was an unhappy womaniser trapped by his own success and frustrated by a professional partner who would frequently forget his lines after drowning his sorrows with too much gin. They ended up as dependent on each other as Albert and Harold but off stage or off set could barely bring themselves to speak to each other.

As Downton extras get a pay hike I meet a £1-a-month scullery maid from the 1930s

I hear that producers of the upstairs downstairs TV series Downton Abbey have agreed to give extras working on the fourth series of the hit ITV show a higher rate of pay.

Continue reading “As Downton extras get a pay hike I meet a £1-a-month scullery maid from the 1930s”

Jonathan Miller: he may be multi-talented but call him a Renaissance man at your peril

Jonathan Miller: Photograph by Hattie Miles
Jonathan Miller: Photograph by Hattie Miles

The multi-faceted career of Jonathan Miller has long been a source of fascination to the media. Doctor, satirist, author, sculptor, TV producer, populariser of science and director of theatre, film and opera – there seems no end to his talents but call him a Renaissance man at your peril.

Continue reading “Jonathan Miller: he may be multi-talented but call him a Renaissance man at your peril”

Forever young: June Whitfield still a force to be reckoned with after 60 years of classic comedy

June Whitfield photographed by Hattie Miles
June Whitfield photographed by Hattie Miles

It’s hard to believe that June Whitfield is in her eighties. For even though she was a pioneering performer during the golden age of radio and TV comedy working with everyone from Wilfred Pickles and Arthur Askey to Tony Hancock and Morecambe and Wise, she has managed to remain a constant presence on our screens. What’s more she’s  bright, witty and razor-sharp.

Continue reading “Forever young: June Whitfield still a force to be reckoned with after 60 years of classic comedy”

Schwitters condemned by the Nazis as degenerate interned by Britain as an enemy alien

Kurt Schwitters, En Morn 1947 © Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012
Kurt Schwitters, En Morn 1947 © Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012

I’ve long admired the work of the German artist Kurt Schwitters but had not fully realised how shabbily we treated this extraordinarily creative man when he sought wartime refuge in Britain from the Nazis.

This is made abundantly clear in the new exhibition Schwitters in Britain (Tate Britain until May 12) and shows how his pioneering work born out of European Dadism and a profound influence on future artists was largely ignored.

Continue reading “Schwitters condemned by the Nazis as degenerate interned by Britain as an enemy alien”

Almost snubbed for a plate of horsemeat but Ken canters to victory

Ken Livingstone on stage with interviewer Bill Heine at Guildford last night. Photo Hattie Miles
Ken Livingstone on stage with interviewer Bill Heine at Guildford last night. Photo Hattie Miles

Some felt it was like marching into the lion’s den. ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone taking his new on-stage talk-show to true-blue Guildford. What could he be thinking of?

In fact  An Audience With Ken Livingstone went down a storm. Not only did the former London Mayor emerge from the town’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre unscathed but he did so with rapturous applause ringing in his ears.

Continue reading “Almost snubbed for a plate of horsemeat but Ken canters to victory”

Don’t let the BBC call time on The Hour

I’m delighted to see that people power has swung into action in a bid to pressure TV bosses into changing their minds about axing the BBC2 media drama The Hour.

More than 6,000 fans of the show – which focuses on a TV current affairs programme in the 1950s and stars Ben Wishaw, Dominic West and Romola Garai – have so far signed a petition on the website.

But will the powers-that-be listen? Intelligent drama providing a fascinating view of the rapidly changing social and political climate of post-war Britain makes a refreshing change from the routine dross we are so often fed on TV these days. Sadly it seems it simply doesn’t attract enough viewers. The opening episode of series two of The Hour attracted viewing figures of just 1.68 million viewers. Nowhere near enough to please BBC management.

Campaigners have described the programme, quite rightly,  as “a sophisticated show for a discerning audience”. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was more of that kind of thing on the box? If you agree get signing that petition at 

Meeting Morse’s maker as Lewis finally retires from Oxford police…well maybe!

Colin Dexter: photo by Hattie Miles
Colin Dexter: photo by Hattie Miles

Age plays curious tricks on us. A few years ago I wasn’t much bothered about watching detective dramas on telly. Even the admittedly wonderfully crafted Inspector Morse was of scant interest while its rather contrived spin-off Lewis left me cold.

Yet last night I was really rather sad to see Kevin Whately’s Inspector Robbie Lewis finally hang up his truncheon saying farewell to trusty sidekick DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) and heading off for a romantic retirement with pathologist Dr Laura Hobson. Typical! Just as I’ve started to enjoy the programme they’ve pulled the plug on it. Admittedly Whately is now 62-years-old and bit long in the tooth to be racing around murder scenes.

Continue reading “Meeting Morse’s maker as Lewis finally retires from Oxford police…well maybe!”

Happy memories of Troggs at the bottom of my garden – farewell to Reg Presley

So it’s a sad farewell to Reg Presley who has died at the age of 71. He was one of life’s great characters, an inextricable part of popular music history and a presence in my life too. Our family were not only living in Andover when The Troggs rose to fame but the band used to practise at guitarist Chris Britton’s girlfriend’s house which just happened to back onto our garden.

Reg Presley and me. Picture  by Hattie Miles
Reg Presley and me. Picture by Hattie Miles

They also rehearsed in a room over The Copper Kettle tearooms opposite my dad’s office in the High Street. By the time Wild Thing hit the charts we’d heard it played at least a hundred times. It only later occurred to me that had I had the forethought to get a tape-recorder and hang a microphone over the garden fence I might now be in possession of a particularly interesting bootleg.

Continue reading “Happy memories of Troggs at the bottom of my garden – farewell to Reg Presley”

New Edouard Manet show reveals insights into his portraiture and the world of 19th century Paris

A unique insight into the work of one of the most radical painters of  the 19th century and the creative circles of Parisian society in which he moved is offered in Manet: Portraying Life, the first major UK exhibition to showcase Edouard Manet’s portraiture.

Edouard Manet: The Railway, 1873The National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Edouard Manet: The Railway, 1873
The National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The show,  which highlights Manet’s portraiture, opens at London’s Royal Academy of Arts on Saturday (Jan 26. It examines the relationship between his portrait painting and his scenes of modern life and is already set to break records.  By casting his sitters as actors in his genre scenes, Manet guaranteed the authenticity of the figures that populate his paintings and asserted a new, more potent relationship between Realism and Modernity.

Manet: Portraying Life includes over 50 paintings spanning the career of this archetypal modern artist together with a selection of pastels and contemporary photographs. It brings together works from both public and private collections across Europe, Asia and the USA.

Continue reading “New Edouard Manet show reveals insights into his portraiture and the world of 19th century Paris”

Terminally ill Wilko announces “farewell concerts” as thank you for fans

Determined to deal with his recent diagnosis of terminal cancer on his own terms, Essex guitar hero Wilko Johnson  has announced four farewell concerts to say thank you to his fans.

Wilko Johnson: Farewell tour
Wilko Johnson: Farewell tour

Wilko, who found fame with trailblazing Essex pub-rockers Dr Feelgood in the 1970s, is best known for his rapid-fire machine-gun style of playing and his wild eyed stage persona.

He discovered he had inoperable pancreatic cancer late last year. Told that he may enjoy several months of reasonable health, he rejected the offer of life-prolonging but possibly debilitating chemotherapy.

His manager Robert Hoy says that 65-year-old Wilko, who also played with Ian Dury and The Blockheads and had long led his own Wilko Johnson Band, will play concerts in London, West Midlands, Yorkshire and Glasgow in March.

Hoy said the dates offered Wilko “an opportunity to express his sincere thanks to fans for all the support he has had throught his career.”

In addition to his work as a musician Wilko has also recently appeared as the mute executioner Ilyn Payne, in the fantasy series Game of Thrones.

Tickets go on sale on Monday (January 21). Contact the Box Office: 0844 478 0898,

Bob Dylan may play centenary concert for his hard-drinking near-namesake Welsh poet Dylan Thomas

So Bob Dylan is ‘thinking positively’ about playing a centenary gig in honour of his hard-drinking near namesake, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. And if you don’t believe me check out Hansard. For the matter has already been discussed in the House of Commons.

The young Bob Dylan
The young Bob Dylan

Talking about the concert, which will be part of a series of events being staged in Swansea next year to mark Dylan Thomas’ 100th birthday, local MP Geraint Davies said:  “I have asked Bob Dylan whether he would be prepared to give a centenary concert in Swansea, in order that he could blend his music with Dylan Thomas’s poetry. Sony Music has come back and said that Mr. Dylan is thinking very positively about the idea.”

The honorable member for Swansea West added: “Bob Dylan named himself after Dylan Thomas.” This isn’t strictly true. It is well documented that the singer songwriter, whose real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, actually named himself after the fictional Dodge City lawman Marshal Matt Dillon,  hero the 1950s radio and TV cowboy drama  Gunsmoke. However it widely believed that he changed the spelling after reading Dylan Thomas’s work.

It’s easy to see why the young Bob would have been impressed by Dylan Thomas’s extraordinary sense of literary rhythm and extravagant use of language. The Welshman  was a larger than life character, writer of groundbreaking poems like Do not go gentle into that good night and radical plays like Under Milk Wood.

He was also a notorious boozer who died in New York after several reckless binge-drinking sessions during a poetry tour. He had lived fast and died young. In that respect he fitted neatly in with other tragic heroes of the era like Hank Williams and James Dean.

Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

The end came for Dylan Thomas after he returned to the famous Chelsea Hotel very much the worse for wear after a heavy session at the Manhattan drinking hole, The White Horse, proudly claiming “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!”

Unfortunately instead of just sleeping it off he became ill and within two days had been admitted to the emergency ward at St Vincent’s Hospital where he slipped into a coma.  He was diagnosed  as suffering from alcoholic brain damage and  died a few days later on 9 November 1953 – just two weeks after his 39th birthday.

It’s noticeable that Bob Dylan has done markedly better commercially than his Welsh namesake. Despite enjoying considerable fame in his lifetime Dylan Thomas was invariably broke or looking for a loan. He died leaving just £100.

Bob Dylan meanwhile has a multi-million dollar fortune bolstered no doubt by deals with Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret. Remarkable for a man who once wrote:

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

Lloyd Webber limbers up for an all-singing, all-dancing look at the Profumo scandal

What a difference 50 years makes! Back in 1963 The Profumo scandal  shocked the nation to its very foundations. Now it looks likely to become the subject of a West End musical.

For those who may not know, John Profumo was a top politician and something of a socialite. Married to actress Valerie Hobson who had found a certain degree of fame in the 1930s in horror films like The Bride of Frankenstein and The Werewolf of London, he was the epitome of the smooth, urbane man about town. Crucially he was alsoSecretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s  Conservative Government.

So when it was discovered that he had had an affair with model and showgirl Christine Keeler who was also the reputed mistress of an alleged Soviet spy all hell broke loose.  It was the height of the Cold War. Questions were asked in the House. Profumo tried to lie his way out of trouble. It didn’t work. He had to resign.

The Government teetered on the edge of disaster as the unedifying details of his brief tryst with Keeler became public knowledge. Central to the stories that emerged was a house party attended by both Profumo and Keeler at Clivedon, Lord Astor’s palatial Buckinghamshire mansion.

Also present was friend of the aristocracy and networking supremo Dr Stephen Ward, a fashionable osteopath and society party fixer. Ward had introduced Profumo to Keeler. It was suggested that he might also have introduced her to  Yevengy Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy. Such connections appalled the nation. The security implications were unthinkable. The entire sordid story went into overdrive. East v West, Left v Right. Ward was caught in a firestorm of allegations.

Eventually he was charged with living off immoral earnings. He committed suicide taking an overdosing of sleeping pills on the last day of his trial. But did he actually kill himself? Conspiracy theories followed – that he was murdered by an assassin delivering a lethal injection, that he was working for the Russians, that he was an occultist dabbling in black magic.

Andrew LloydWebber  believes that, whatever the truth, Stephen Ward was a scapegoat and stitched-up by the establishment. He has now been working on a new musical based on the subject for the past few months.

Whatever you do or don’t believe, Lloyd Webber points that the inside info on the Profumo affair will remain a closed file till 2046?” Intriguingly Cliveden , now a luxury hotel, seems rather proud of the role it played in the Profumo Scandal. It unashamedly uses it in its publicity including a mention on its website timeline alongside a short BBC video about the affair.

Visconti dashes rumours that Bowie will never play live again

David Bowie shortly before his last retirement

As I predicted a couple of days ago reports that David Bowie has said he will never play live again seem to have been somewhat exaggerated.

Amid the Bowie fever whipped up by the surprise release of Where Are We Now?, his first new single in a decade, there have been countless interviews with long-time Bowie producer Tony Visconti.

As the technical guru behind both the single and Bowie’s forthcoming album The Next Day (another bolt from the blue), Visconti has been acting as spokesperson for the Bowie camp.

Various press reports had suggested that though Bowie had emerged from retirement to go into the recording studio, he had indicated that he would never play his new music live. Not so. Visconti has now put the record straight saying that Bowie has simply said he doesn’t want to tour any more and certainly hasn’t ruled out playing a live show. I somehow thought that might be the case.

It’s been interesting hearing Visconti’s account of working with Bowie again. His association with the Thin White Ziggy Tomdust  goes right back to Space Oddity days some 44 years ago. He also produced The Man Who Sold The World, Young Americans and the Berlin trilogy Low, Heroes and Lodger as well as producing The Idiot for Bowie’s friend, collaborator and Berlin flatmate Iggy Pop. So he was perhaps the logical choice for this ‘under-wraps’ comeback project. It took a while apparently with instrumental demo tracks being laid down in the studio and then given to Bowie to mull over, often for months, before a final track was developed. Visconti talks with some glee about walking around Manhattan listening to the new material on headphones, passing people in David Bowie t-shirts and thinking that they’d be amazed to discover what was on his iPod.

It’s an interesting thought but then Tony Visconti is an interesting man. I’ve never actually met him though I did have dinner with his ex-wife once. Many people don’t realise that Mary Hopkin, the  young singer from the Welsh valleys who recorded the 1968 hit Those Were The Days for The Beatles then new Apple label was the first Mrs Visconti and sang on many song’s produced by her husband including material on Bowie Low album. Tony Visconti’s second wife was John Lennon’s former girlfriend May Pang. He’s a well connected man.


Bowie gets fans guessing over whether he will ever perform live again

So David Bowie says he’ll never perform live again. At least that’s how a casual comment from his longtime producer Tony Visconti will be played across the pages of tomorrow’s newspapers. What Visconti actually said was that the 66-year-old singer is “fairly adamant he’s never going to perform live again”.

He was talking to the NME following the release of Where Are We No? Bowie’s first single in more than a decade and the announcement  that a new album The Next Day will follow in March.

Recalling an exchange during rehearsals when one of Bowie’s band had asked how they were going to play the material live, Visconti reveals that the singer simply said: “We’re not”.

None of this actually adds up to Bowie never performing live again. He already seems to have ‘retired’ at least twice and decades ago showed no compunction in killing off his band The Spiders of Mars alongside his stage persona Ziggy Stardust.

Maybe he won’t ever appear live again. Maybe he will. It could just be that the unnamed studio musician that Visconti mentioned is simply not going to be included in any live band.

Wilko says ‘I’ll play on’ as he is diagnosed with terminal cancer

Wilko Johnson

I was sad to learn that the inimitable Wilko Johnson has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The former Dr Feelgood and Blockheads guitarist discovered he had inoperable cancer of the pancreas just before Christmas.

Having been told that even without treatment he may have several months of reasonable health, the 65-year-old musician has announced that he has chosen not to receive  chemotherapy and says he will keep performing as long as he can.

Wilko is currently in Japan. A statement from his management says: “on his return we plan to complete a new CD, make a short tour of France, then give a series of farewell gigs in the UK. There is also a live DVD in the pipeline, filmed on the last UK tour.

“Wilko wishes to offer his sincere thanks for all the support he has had over his long career, from those who have worked with him to, above all, those devoted fans and admirers who have attended his live gigs, bought his recordings and generally made his life such an extraordinarily full and eventful experience.”

Known for his manic stage persona and machine-gun style of guitar playing, a curious combination of  rhythm and lead,  Wilko rose to fame in the mid 1970s with the legendary Southend-based R&B band Dr Feelgood. He left the Feelgoods in 1977 and later joined Ian Dury and The Blockheads. He has also enjoyed a successful ongoing solo career.

Many people will recognise Wilko more readily as the mute executioner Ilyn Payne in hit TV series Game Of Thrones. He landed the acting role after appearing in the award-winning Feelgoods documentary Oil City Confidential.

Old-fashioned and tired? I think they’re taking the pith!

I was horrified to hear that that nectar of the Gods known as marmalade has fallen out of fashion. Latest figures show that sales are down by more than six per cent and that people would rather eat honey, jam or even peanut butter for breakfast.

The first of our 2012 marmalade
The first of our 2012 marmalade – Photo Hattie Miles

Are they sure? Could it not be that marmalade sales have simply been hit by armies of  people rushing to make their own? After all Seville oranges (the quintessential marmalade fruit)  are in the shops right now and are easy-peasy to turn into unbelievably delicious marmalade. You just need to add water, sugar a few lemons and a modicum of skill and you’ll have jars of the stuff. Of course marmalade can be made from any citrus fruit but orange is the one for me.

The first batch of the year is already in our kitchen cupboard. The second is bubbling away right now – a cauldron of molten orange delight slowly thickening on the hob.

As you have probably realised I absolutely love the stuff so I’m a little alarmed that the not knowingly trendy trade magazine The Grocer reports that marmalade has an image of being “old-fashioned and tired.”

What do they know? Since when has The Grocer set the agenda for what’s hot an happening? No, I reckon marmalade is beyond fashion. It’s been around in Britain since the late 15th century. It’s a classic!

The name by the way comes originally from the word marmelado – which is Portugese for a quince preserve.

Rare unpublished 1964 slides of The Beatles in Vegas and Beverly Hills go up for auction

Unpublished colour photographs of The Beatles are pretty rare these days. Whatever you find the chances are that someone, somewhere has got their first.

So there is understandable excitement over the discovery of 65 slides  taken of the band during their first tour of the US in August 1964.

Taken by award-winning physicist and inventor Dr Bob Beck, the pictures include images of The Beatles both on and off stage. They are to be auctioned in March on the 50th anniversary of the release of the band’s debut Please Please Me album. They are expected to fetch between £10,000 and £15,000.

The collection includes portraits taken during a press conference at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas and even pictures snapped at a private Beverly Hills party given for the band by at the mansion of Capitol Records boss Alan Livingstone

Bob Beck died in 2002  leaving a massive archive of photographs at his Hollywood home. Clearly close to The Beatles in the early  days, could he be the famed Doctor Robert from the band’s 1966 album Revolver?

Possibly! For although conventional Beatles folklore suggests that the Doctor Robert of the song was a pill-pushing medic constantly on call to rich and famous clients, all the lyric actually says is that he’s on call day or night “He helps you to understand. He does everything he can…”

Dr Bob Beck worked on a number of medical programmes including inventing the so called brain-tuner which was said to help recovering drug addicts, reduce stress, improve both short and long term memory, increase energy, improve concentration, enhance sleep quality and reduce pain, anxiety  and depression.

I would say he was a great pioneer but he also decided that garlic is toxic to the brain and desynchronizes vital neurotransmitters. Sorry, I can’t be having that!  I love garlic. I’d rather have my neurotransmitters desynchronised any day than banish it from my diet.



Berkoff’s photographs capture the dying days of London’s old East End

Steven Berkoff: Photo by Hattie Miles

Director, actor and playwright Steven Berkoff knows a thing or two about the East End. He was born there 75 long years ago, a mere barrow boy’s shout from the chic Thames-side studio that is now his artistic base.

Yes the East End has changed and so too has Berkoff who fought his way from unpromising beginnings as the son of a Russian Jewish tailor  to produce a radical body of theatrical work that has brought him both widespread acclaim and a certain degree of notoriety.

These days he’s recognised as a creative giant of the theatre, equally at home producing hard-hitting avant garde drama, adapting Shakespeare, Kafka and Sophocles or writing his own critically acclaimed original plays. He also has a parallel career as a Hollywood movie actor of course having appeared in a curious mixture of movies that include  A Clockwork Orange, Octopussy, Rambo, Beverly Hills Cop and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

It’s all a long, long way from  the now lost world that Berkoff grew up in. Happily when he was just 11-years-old  and kicking around the streets of Stepney someone gave him a camera. It sparked a lifelong interest in photography and a few years later when he acquired an enlarger and learnt how to print his own pictures, he was ready to go.

Armed with a second-hand Rolleiflex, Berkoff started photographing the people and places of the old East End – the markets, the street sellers, the potpourri of cultures brought to the area by immigrants.

By the 60s and 70s it became all too apparent that the bagel-sellers, chicken-slaughterers and other colourful characters that were the life and soul of East End London were slowly but surely disappearing. Berkoff’s photographs captured the last gasp of an era.  “I felt I had to record it before it vanished forever,” he says.

Happily the pictures – now so historically important – have survived and have just been publishing in the book  East End Photographs. There is also an exhibition of his prints which is currently showing at Lucy Bell Fine Art in East Sussex.

You can see ‘Steven Berkoff – East End Photographs’ at Lucy Bell Fine Art, St Leonards-on-Sea, until 21 Feb 2013. For book sales:

Fifty thousand quid for Tolkien’s old fireplace

Who says that the cult of celebrity is a thing of the past? As Hobbit fever sweeps the cinema-going world someone with far more money than sense has bid £50,000 for JRR Tolkien’s old fireplace.

 It is among items salvaged by the boss of the demolition company that pulled down the Lord of the Rings author’s old bungalow in Poole four years ago.

The joke is that Tolkien only lived in the house for three years  from his retirement in 1968 until the death of his wife Edith in 1971.

What’s more he didn’t even like the place. A career academic, he would have much rather have stayed in his beloved Oxford. 

However the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings meant he was constantly bothered by fans beating a path to his door.  

The couple finally moved to the south coast to escape unwanted callers. They chose the seaside location partly because of Edith’s failing health butalso because for many years they had spent summer holidays at The Mirimar Hotel in nearby Bournemouth.

By all accounts Tolkien didn’t like it much there either, complaining that it was difficult to find someone to have a stimulating conversation with. 



Pointless death of celebrity-chasing paparazzo killed after snapping Justin Bieber’s Ferrari

No one has much time for celebrity-chasing paparazzi these days (except a few dinosaur magazine editors who seem incapable of realising that the world has moved on) but how sad to hear that a photographer has died while apparently snatching  pictures of pop star Justin Bieber’s latest Ferrari.

The hapless snapper was hit by a passing car after apparently walking into the road to photograph the white Ferrari 458 Italia after it had been stopped by the police in Los Angeles.

What a stupid way to go particularly as the 18-year-old pop idol wasn’t even in his  $200,000 super-car at the time.

According to CNN, Bieber issued a statement saying  that his thoughts and prayers were with the family of the victim.

He added: “Hopefully this tragedy will finally inspire meaningful legislation and whatever other necessary steps to protect the lives and safety of celebrities, police officers, innocent public bystanders, and the photographers themselves.”

In other words a pointless death which might well lead to even more controls being exerted over a largely responsible media.

Playing Jesus Christ lands actor Robert Powell with centre seat at the ultimate supper table

Playing Jesus Christ for Franco Zeffirelli 35 years ago has clearly paid dividends for actor Robert Powell. He’s been placed in the central position in photographer Alistair Morrison’s Actors Last Supper which is on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Powell has been a stalwart of stage and screen for the past 40 years and has forged a reputation for the sheer breadth of his talents. Equally adept at high-brow and populist material, he has made critically acclaimed appearances for not just Zeffirelli but also directors like  Ken Russell who cast him in the title role in Mahler.

Robert Powell: Photo Hattie Miles
Robert Powell: Photo Hattie Miles

However Powell is just as happy  playing knockabout sit-com with his mate Jasper Carrott or appearing in popular TV dramas like  Holby City. He recently joined the cast of the latest West End production of the hit musical Singin’ in the Rain too. No wonder  Morrison chose him as one of the 13 leading British actors and directors he used to recreate, photographically, Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic 15th Century painting The Last Supper.

Morrison, who over the past 30 years has photographed everyone from Bette Davis to Laurence Olivier, used  a cast that in addition to Powell included Steven Berkoff, Anthony Andrews, Simon Callow, Tom Conti, Peter Eyre, Sir Richard Eyre, Colin Firth, Sir Michael Gambon, Tim Piggott-Smith, Sir Antony Sher, John Alderton and Julie Walters

The portrait, which is over three metres long, was originally among images created to raise funds for a childrens charity through Variety’s Hidden Gems project. It has now been acquired for The National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.

Today programme guest editor Zephaniah and the power of emphasising the positive

Benjamin Zephaniah

It was good to hear Benjamin Zephaniah doing his bit as guest editor of this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

As a particularly articulate and accessible poet, he has been embraced by the British middle-class. For many that would have been sell-out point but Zephaniah hasn’t forgotten what it was like to grow up as a black person in an England torn apart by racial tensions.

I first met him nearly 30-years-ago. The riots of Handsworth, Brixton and Toxteth were still raw memories. The police were about to move on to beating the living daylights out of the miners. It was a deeply uncomfortable time if your race or political stance didn’t fit the bill as it were.

Benjamin Zephaniah saw through the crap, refused to be cowed and intimidated and exuded a sense of confidence, thoughtfulness, engagement and enthusiasm. He believed then that positive thoughts and actions can be more powerful than negativity and violence. He still believes it today.

Arguing with John Humphrys that there can be a place for good news in the media was always going to be a pointless exercise but Zephaniah danced around the subject with an impressive lack of ego. He knew he was sounding naive but sailed on regardless.

The point is that BZ is right. No one wants to be spoon-fed endless tales about fluffy kittens and lovely people. Well actually they probably do but they’d soon get fed up with it. However, finding the positive to counterbalance the negative in the news agenda might just give people a broader view of life, the world and help bolster their hopes and aspirations.

Are traditional memoirs and diaries being swept away by social networking?

Now here’s an intriguing theory. Esteemed editor Ruth Winstone, who I vaguely know through her work on nine volumes of Tony Benn’s diaries, suggests that the end of an era is nigh, that the age of the political diary may be over. Winstone should know. She has also edited three volumes by the former Labour MP Chris Mullins. Her argument is that the instant communication of blogs and social networking has effectively replaced what used to be a reflective private activity.

Tony Benn: Photo Hattie Miles
Tony Benn: Photo Hattie Miles

I’m pleased to see that Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian, disagrees, pointing out that political diaries tend to give a sense of history  behind the kind of scheming, plot or  knee-jerk reactions that  these days are so often the motivation/subject of politicians tweets. He has a point, but why single out political diaries? He implies that the same is not true of (mere?) memoirs. Surely it depends on the quality of both the writing and thinking as much as the actual subject matter. For example no one expects Cheryl Tweedy’s autobiography to contain an analysis of  the changing soci0-demographic structure of the North East in the wake of  the decline of the mining and shipbuilding industries but I’m guessing that the fact that she is a product of that era means that, amid the tittle-tattle and fluff, there’s something of that in there. Weightier memoirs (diaries/biographies) can contain a great deal of background and context.

As for blogs and tweets? They are by their very nature of the moment, a platform for comment, reaction, whimsical thoughts and  maybe a little brow-beating. All could  have their place in a diary but once filtered through a process of reflection, and with hindsight, can be very different indeed. My feeling is that  traditional diaries, memoirs and biographies live on while social media provides another means of communication. All are valid and all will survive in some easily recognisable form.

Ironically Tony Benn is about to publish what he says is the final volume of his diaries. A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine even contains the subtitle The Last Diaries. Well he is 87-years-old but I wonder. The old political warhorse battles on. I suspect that that blaze of Autumn sunshine mentioned in the title might turn out to be an ongoing Indian summer.

Benn recently said that he gets immensely annoyed that people  think he’s mellowed with age. He hates being regarded as a harmless old gentleman saying: “I may be old and I may be a gentleman but I’m certainly not harmless.”

Benn first made big headlines back in the early 1960s when as Lord Stansgate he renounced his peerage so that he could sit in the House of Commons. He went on to become the Labour Party’s longest serving  MP and  was a minister in both the Wilson and Callaghan cabinets.  He resigned from Parliament more than a decade ago famously announcing that he was leaving Westminster to spend more time on politics. Nearly 12 years on he hits the road again on January 11th when he takes the first of a series of  An Evening with Tony Benn shows to the Braintree Theatre in Essex. He still seems to have plenty to say and no doubt plenty to write about.

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