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

Mayall: Godfather of British Blues plays on

John Mayall: Bournemouth Pavilion (Saturday, 25th November, 2017)

The first time I saw John Mayall was nearly 50 years ago and he was old then. Perhaps I should clarify. He was in his mid thirties and I was only 17, so he seemed old to me.

Yet on Saturday night, four days ahead of his 84th birthday, he played the Bournemouth Pavilion and not only was he looking fit and sounding great but he played a brilliant set. What’s more there’s a new album – Talk About That – and, inevitably, yet another line-up of amazing musicians.

That’s the thing you see. Back in 1968 John Mayall was THE man, a musician whose ever-changing band, The Bluesbreakers, had become a sort of finishing school for some of the finest musicians of the era.

By the time I caught up with Mayall, who was known as the Godfather of British Blues, many of his discoveries had already flown the nest.  Eric Clapton had formed Cream and Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie had evolved into the nucleus of the original Fleetwood Mac. He did still have a young Mick Taylor in tow but within the year he would be off to join The Rolling Stones. The Mayall line-ups were phenomenal.

So it’s wonderful to see him keeping on, keeping on and with such energy and focus. Playing keyboards, harmonica and guitars, Mayall has settled on a stripped-down format for his latest band featuring just himself with Chicago session men Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport on drums.

Both are astonishing talents and Mayall uses them brilliantly delivering numbers that span half a century of his own career. They included numbers like Acting Like A Child and The Bear from the late 60s, tracks from the new album and some superb covers of classics by people like Jimmy Rodgers, JB Lenoir and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Two thirds of the way through their 90 minutes set the band was joined on stage by blues guitar virtuoso Buddy Whittington. A one-time Bluesbreaker himself and leader of the trio who had been the opening act, Whittington turned what had been merely excellent into phenomenal. Now a four piece, the band stretched out into sublime versions of Nature’s Disappearing, a song about looming  environmental disaster that Mayall penned decades before green issues made the headlines and California. An absolutely brilliant show.

Jeremy Miles

Dylan Thomas and New Quay – the little Welsh town that inspired Under Milk Wood

New Quay harbour
Picturesque New Quay the town where Dylan Thomas wrote the first draft of Under Milk Wood

I am standing outside one of Dylan Thomas’s favourite pubs in a “cliff-perched toppling town” on the west coast of Wales. It is true that many a hostelry claims the notoriously thirsty Welsh poet as a regular. But this is New Quay, the picturesque fishing village on Cardigan Bay that Dylan often visited as a child. He and his wife Caitlin also made it their home and writing-base for a year during the Second World War.

The pub is the Black Lion where the infamous hell-raiser once got embroiled in a spat with a jealous husband who later attacked his £1-a-week “shack at the end of the cliff” with a machine-gun and hand-grenade. Continue reading “Dylan Thomas and New Quay – the little Welsh town that inspired Under Milk Wood”

Richard Thompson: a genius unplugged

Richard Thompson: Lighthouse, Poole

Fifty long years after he made his first appearances as a shy but talented teenage guitarist with Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson is rightly regarded as a one of our greatest singer-songwriters and a brilliant and innovative musician.

This tour offers a fascinating stripped-down perspective on a career that not only spans half-a-century but has produced some peerless material that actually changed the course of folk music history.

Armed only with an acoustic guitar, an extraordinary talent and the kind of songs that it’s hard to believe haven’t existed forever, Thompson played a two hour set that covered all bases.

There were reworkings of wonderful solo recordings like Gethsemane, and 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. There was a nod too to Fairport with a tender version of Who Knows Where the Time Goes and several classics from the Richard and Linda years with I Want to See the Bright Lights tonight, Wall of Death and a singalong version of Down Where the Drunkards Roll.

Performing at the top of his game, 68-year-old Thompson resplendent in cut-off denim jacket and trademark beret was in fine voice. It’s hard to believe that back in the early years of his career he had little confidence as a singer. Somewhere along the line he quite literally found his voice and it’s been getting better ever since.

Perhaps even more impressive is his beautifully dextrous guitar work. Whether playing brilliantly evocative songs like the emotive They Tore The Hippodrome Down or thrashing his way through Push and Shove, his largely forgotten and previously unrecorded  tip of the beret to The Who, Richard Thompson is the consummate guitarists guitarist.

This tour largely supports his recently released Acoustic Classics and Acoustic rarities albums but it also offers a chance to wonder at the depth and breadth of his repertoire and his abilities as both an artist and an entertainer.

Perhaps the two sides of that coin were captured to perfection in the final encores with Waltzing’s for Dreamers and Don’t Sit On My Jimmy Shands.

Support act was singer Josienne Clark and guitarist Ben Walker who also paid tribute to Thompson’s late lamented one-time Fairport Convention bandmate Sandy Denny with an impressive version of Fotheringay.

Jeremy Miles

When Henry the horse danced the waltz…

beatles 5.jpgIt was 50 years ago today that Sgt Pepper taught the band to play – well give or take a day or three. On Thursday 1st of June 1967 I was 16-years-old and like most of my schoolfriends made a beeline for the local record shop to hear The Beatles’ newly released album.  Little did we know at the start of what would become known as the Summer of Love that music, and indeed a whole bunch of other things, would never be quite the same again.

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may not have been the greatest album ever recorded but it was one of the most innovative, inventive and influential. It was unlike anything anybody had ever heard before and it caught the spirit of the time perfectly. Listening now to the remastered 50th Anniversary edition I realise that it gave us a soundtrack to an era and, as the 1967 Summer of Love morphed into the 1968 Year of Protest, the album stayed with us. Continue reading “When Henry the horse danced the waltz…”

25th May 1917 – the WWI air-raid that blasted Folkestone into a new age of violence

 

William Henry Stokes_2
My great grandfather William Henry Stokes one of 61 people killed in the Tontine Street air-raid

The date:  Friday 25th May 1917. The time: 6.22pm.

It was a beautiful early summer’s evening and for the people of Folkestone the start of a seaside holiday weekend. In bustling Tontine Street children were playing while their mothers chatted and queued outside Stokes Brothers the greengrocers. There had been wartime food shortages and a new delivery of potatoes had just arrived. A crowd had quickly gathered as news got around. Shopkeeper William Henry Stokes, my great grandfather, and his staff were doing brisk business.

The mood was surprisingly carefree. Despite the terrible death toll on the Western Front just a short distance across the English Channel, the actual violence of war had had little direct effect on the town. The sound of distant explosions caused scant concern to the shoppers outside the Stokes grocery store that evening. It was just the military practising at nearby Shorncliffe Camp. Or so they thought. Continue reading “25th May 1917 – the WWI air-raid that blasted Folkestone into a new age of violence”

Bob Dylan: things really have changed

Bob Dylan: Bournemouth International Centre (5th May 2017)

The lights go down. There’s a sense of anticipation that almost crackles in the air. Which Bob Dylan are we going to get tonight?

Will it be good Dylan or bad Dylan? Brilliant Dylan or atrocious Dylan? Over the past four decades I’ve seen them all. I’ve been listening to his music even longer.

The answer comes as the man himself appears in the spotlight and opens the show, as he has every night on this latest leg of his famed Never Ending Tour, with Things Have Changed, his Oscar winner number from the turn of the millennium.

Things certainly have changed as we will discover in an evening that mixes Dylan classics with his American songbook covers. His voice is stronger than it has been in years, his five piece band is superb and Bob himself seems almost chirpy. I say ‘almost’. He’s as idiosyncratic as ever, performing either from the piano which he plays rather badly or striking attitudes with the microphone stand from the back of the stage. He does an almost imperceptible jig here, a shuffle there and an occasional self-conscious hand on hip pose. He looks like a rather camp gunslinger but the music is amazing and his vocals are masterful.

The growl and yelp of yesteryear seem seriously under control. Songs from across the decades somehow gel in a manner that they have no right to. Duquesne Whistle, Stormy Weather and Tangled up in Blue sit happily side  by side. Highway 61 Revisited and Melancholy Mood do not seem strange partners at all. 

As for his recent elevation to Nobel Laureate for Literature? Four songs in and he’s already referenced everyone from Ovid and Percy Bysshe Shelley to Duane Eddy and God. He’s very well read, it’s well known.

Intriguingly Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest supplies no fewer than five songs. Great material but there is of course even greater material missing. It’s an argument that could go on for ever. You’ll never please everyone. 

For me the most telling moment came during the encores when before closing with a wonderfully faithful to the original Ballad of a Thin Man, Dylan performed a pleasing sounding but ultimately perplexing version of Blowin’ in the Wind which he delivered as a jaunty croon-along ditty.

Was he being ironic? Or is it just that things really have changed since he first wrote that song as a 21-year-old making an anguished plea to the world to stop killing and wars? 

I suspect that 75-year-old Bob Dylan now knows that his words may have earned him millions but they’ve sadly done little to bring peace to our increasingly unstable world. Blowin’ in the Wind is, at the end of the day,  just another song.

Jeremy Miles

Bona to varda their jolly old eeks

Round the Horne: 50th anniversary tour, Lighthouse, Pool

What never ceases to amaze and delight about Round the Horne is that half-a-century ago it not only got past the notoriously over-zealous BBC censors but became required Sunday lunchtime listening for families all over Britain.

Laden with gay innuendo and camp as could be, it was broadcast at a time when homosexual relationships between consenting men were not yet legal and being outed as ‘queer’ could destroy reputations and even lead to lengthy jail sentences. Yet at the height of its popularity (it ran for two years from 1965) an astonishing 15 million listeners tuned in. It managed to entertain middle England and its maiden aunts with barely a hint of controversy.

Of course Round the Horne was also marvellously funny and, though it made a mockery of the callous law against homosexuality that would eventually be repealed in 1967, it certainly wasn’t an exclusively gay programme. It worked because it was hosted by the ultimate straight man, Kenneth Horne, written by a brilliant team including Barry Took and Marty Feldman, and packed full of genuinely inventive comedy and marvellous characters.

This 50th anniversary stage production catches the flavour of that original radio show perfectly. Its main players – Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick and Betty Marsden – live once more courtesy of Colin Elmer, Alex Scott Fairley and Eve Winters. 

With Julian Howard McDowell as Kenneth Horne and Alan Booty as continuity presenter Douglas Smith the audience is treated to a re-run of a couple of classic shows as they are recorded at the BBC’s Paris Theatre in Regent’s Street. There’s even a sound-effects man, Miles Russell, to add appropriate noises, music and authenticity. 

It works a treat. All the familiar faces are there. Rambling Syd Rumpo, Daphne Whitethigh, Seamus Android, J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock, Dame Celia Molestrangler and Pinkie Huckaback, and of course Julian and Sandy. Great stuff and, to borrow their own polari phraseology, I have to say it was bona to varda their dolly old eeks again.

*Round the Horne plays Lighthouse at Poole again tonight (Saturday 18th February

Jeremy Miles