By Chris Rogers, Aug 16 2015 7:48PM
It’s often said that, along with sealed orders from the Prime Minister of the day instructing them what to do if they should surface during a nuclear war and find themselves cut off from their government, the commanders of Britain’s ballistic missile submarine fleet are also advised to see if they can obtain BBC radio as a way of checking whether their home country is in fact intact.
How fitting, then, that – some years after its drama department was last concerned with nuclear war – it is the BBC that has chosen to re-engage with the issue of what might happen if the worst comes to pass with this week’s screening of War Book, an independent feature written by Jack Thorne and directed by Tom Harper. It comes at a time when continuing tensions across the world, not least between Russia and Ukraine, remind us that the issue has not been entirely sealed away, and does so in a way that is impressively coherent and completely absorbing.
The film takes fact as its starting point, namely a series of theoretical war game scenarios practised by the UK government civil service since the 1950s that are aimed at testing responses to, and developing policy for, crises that could involve nuclear weapons.
Over three days, seven civil servants of differing grades and departments, a minister and a special advisor come together to take the roles of cabinet members and the Prime Minister and model a new ‘what if’ in which a nuclear device is detonated in India, seemingly by – or at least with the knowledge of – Pakistan. After the social, military, political and other consequences of this shocking event are explored, each new day’s role play is preceded by an update on the situation, a series of increasingly horrific consequences that escalate events dramatically.
Over the discussions and arguments that follow, each of the nine make their decisions based ostensibly on a fat pack of briefing notes from their respective departments but in reality tainted by their own individual and political prejudices, personal problems and moral beliefs. Adding to the pressure are a road haulage dispute that takes up their time outside the conference room at the end of each day’s exercise and, more disturbingly, hints that the fictional scenario they are testing might just have a more immediate application in the real world than any of them suspect. The climax of an increasingly tense and bitter sequence of exchanges comes when – ‘playing’ as they are the cabinet of the day that is then faced with the ultimate choice – each is finally called upon to make the ultimate decision. The question is, what will they choose, and will it be for the right reasons?
With the action confined to a single room for the vast majority of the film, this is a film of character and dialogue. Fortunately, both elements are strong enough to carry this. Each of the participants is carefully drawn, not as a selection of stereotypes but as a range of viewpoints. Each is given just enough of a public and private face to convince, and these are rationed out to keep the viewer’s attention.
In a very good cast, including two alumni of the superb Utopia, Adeel Akhtar and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Ben Chaplin immediately stands out as cock-sure SPAD Gary, needling idealistic liberal Tom (Shaun Evans) and actual minister and political rival James (Nicholas Burns) with snappy and funny put-downs but – in a neat piece of curtain-tweaking by Thorne – looking very convincing indeed when ‘playing’ the Prime Minister.
Thankfully, most of the civil servants ring true. Sophie Okonedo is exceptional; her words, delivery and body language convince utterly as exactly the right sort of senior civil servant to be in her post, both full time and as co-ordinator of the ‘game’, and I have seen quite a few to know. Finally (fittingly, given the subtlety of his deployment in the drama), none other than Anthony Sher appears and delivers a terrifically understated performance as the quiet, almost clichédly dull David, revealing only in the final scenes his true power and purpose.
Phoebe Fox, so impressive recently in the BBC’s Bloomsbury Group drama series Life in Squares, is here given rather less to do as the scribe and updater for the exercise (it was made in 2013), and is in addition given a rather thankless moment of sexual objectification as the subject of Gary’s winning but lecherous intentions. Thankfully, however, her emotional response to the final grim briefing report, which speaks of widespread domestic riots and racial murders as society breaks down in the face of imminent nuclear war, is entirely natural and convincing, and prefigures the quality of that work as Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa. Only the stridency of an unrecognisable Kerry Fox (no relation), acting as defence minister and struggling with a health secret, proved too one-dimensional for me.
Originally, War Book was written as a play. Across all of the cast the script provides potent and poignant lines as a variety of likely problems – border control, medicine rationing, food supplies – is thrown up, cleverly ratcheting up the level of hardship each option within these presents and the commitment necessary to stand by them. Luckily, although the piece was made two summers ago its topicality is astonishing given the current European migrant crisis, inevitable ongoing Middle East tensions and even home-grown industrial, social and party-political arguments.
My only criticism is that that tantalising plot point – emerging firstly from reasonably close attention played by the viewer, and then lines from Gary – that someone, somewhere, is watching closely and that this ‘exercise’ might in fact have a more immediate relevance to something very real and potentially very nasty is insufficiently developed and essentially left dangling, in favour of a more conventional (no pun intended) exploration of the morality of first-strike nuclear weapons usage. This is unfortunate since the elements are there for the taking and could have been tied together very neatly and very simply, making this film outstanding rather than merely very, very good.
Throughout, Harper brilliantly maximises the possibilities of the concept as a filmed drama rather than finding himself restrained by its theatrical origins, with nicely-judged moves and shots and a solid command of the edit. Importantly, he makes the interludes between exercise days – which could have been presented as moments of escape – as claustrophobic as the room-set debates, taking place as they do in courtyards and corridors with the true ‘outside’ kept firmly at bay.
It is clear that War Book draws on two well-established, separate but parallel strands of drama of this type – the ‘pre-apocalypse thriller’, perhaps. One is the American theatrical legacy of Deep Impact, Fail-Safe, Five Days in May, Colossus/The Forbin Project and the like. The second is the British single drama (interestingly, almost all made by the BBC) that inevitably plays out on a smaller but no less powerful scale, such as The Day Britain Stopped, The Man Who Broke Britain and Yellowbacks. More specifically, the Spooks series two episode I Spy Apocalypse from 2003, written by Howard Brenton and directed by Justin Chadwick, is a particularly important precedent, featuring as it does a sealed-room ‘Extreme Emergency Response Initiative Exercise’ in response to a supposed nerve gas attack on London with a double twist.
Thorne and Harper’s film is a gripping, thought-provoking and necessary addition to this canon, and deserves wider exposure and recognition as such.
By Chris Rogers, Aug 15 2015 11:22AM
It’s taken a long time for the fondly-remembered 1960s American television spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to reach the big screen again, after versions of some of its episodes were released as colour theatrical features at the time. First optioned twenty years ago, Guy Ritchie’s new film itself represents something of a victory snatched (sorry) from the jaws of defeat when original lead Tom Cruise pulled out. The release date was then put back by six months, and one press line this week described it as the least-anticipated of the many fantasy adaptations that have proved so bank-balance-increasing for the studios over the last couple of decades.
Personally I have fond if fragmented childhood memories of the series and its film versions as shown on 1970s and 80s UK television. The smart pairing of blond, cool David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin and dark-haired, smooth Robert Vaughan – with That Voice – as the wonderfully-named Napoleon Solo actually mattered less to me than the flashy hardware, sexy guns and the plots’ reliance on outrageous Bondian devices. Even then, though, I was conscious of Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant, driving theme tune, easily as good as that of Mission: Impossible, and the terrifically stylish action direction technique best seen in the opening of The Helicopter Spies that anticipates today’s speed ramping but does so far more fluidly.
Not being a fan of Ritchie, however, finding out that neither McCallum nor Vaughan – both of whom are still around – had been approached for cameo roles and knowing very little about any of the stars of the new film, I was wary of seeing it. Fortunately, though, I did, which is handy since it’s actually pretty good…
A dynamic, animated timeline opens the film, taking us from the A-bombs that ended World War 2 into the Cold War and the erection of the Berlin Wall via newsreel clips and press headlines. Soundtracked by Roberta flack's pumping Compared to What? it’s a super-stylish start, even if the song was in fact released in 1969, six years after the film is set. The timeline dissolves into the Wall itself, leading directly into the opening sequence in which ex-criminal turned CIA agent Solo (Henry Cavill) plucks defecting mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from the clutches of KGB agent Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and takes her to the West in an amusing blend of quips and action.
It very much sets the tone for what follows, as the two agents are forced by their respective bosses to work together to locate a rogue nuclear scientist who is himself being forced to work for an underground neo-Fascist group in Italy, with Gaby as his niece coming along as fake fiancée to Kuryakin.
It is of course a well-worn plot at every level, but that isn’t the point – the whole thing is carried out with great élan that you simply can’t help but enjoy it. There is some beautiful production design, a minimal amount of unconvincing CGI and action sequences that, whilst they rely on humour in general and physical comedy in particular, stay just the right side of slapstick and thus retain some in-context credibility.
Crucially, there is a surprisingly high level of wit in the dialogue, with a few exceptionally funny moments that are genuinely intelligent. This is embodied by the performance and line delivery of Cavill, who for me was something of a revelation. Looking completely the part and deploying an American accent that is not only entirely – and I do mean entirely – convincing (he is in fact British) but which cleverly echoes the cadences of Vaughan’s, Cavill dominates every scene. Bringing exactly the right sort of retro charm to the party, much as Harrison Ford did for Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he effortlessly walks away with the film.
In comparison I found both Hammer and Vikander curiously dull, the former perhaps lumbered with the weaker character (troubled son trying to compensate for dissident father) but not helping with a charisma-free performance and the latter simply not convincing, especially in her undercover role. For a film whose tone is casually light, there is, too, a startling and rather unpleasant shift in the middle with a sadistic ex-Nazi doctor whose introduction includes brief but still distasteful images of his victims and which leads to a prolonged torture scene with an electric chair. The rapidity and clumsiness with which the audience is taken back to the quips and capering seems to confirm the unnecessary nature of this insertion.
Thankfully, though, there is much to enjoy elsewhere, including much use of doubles entendre (almost all between male characters), visual and aural nods to a range of other films, the return of Hugh Grant, some more excellently-sourced songs and what is easily the funniest scene in the film, as Solo pauses whilst stealing a truck to enjoy an impromptu midnight feast to the sound of an Italian pop song whilst Kuryakin’s speedboat is relentlessly and silently pursued in the backgroud.
Enjoyably, Ritchie goes to great efforts to capture the period film-making style as well, including using a Sixties font for the opening credits and judiciously (and wittily) deploying split screen in some of the action sequences, although this last is at its weakest in the final assault on the Fascists’ base, becoming confusing and almost certainly covering budget limitations. He does, though, continue the strange distancing from the source material that the omission of McCallum and Vaughan suggests, failing to credit series co-creators Sam Rolfe and Norman Felton and not even bothering with Goldsmith’s theme music.
Overall, then, this was an unexpected treat, and all the more fun because of it. Whether we will need to open channel D for the sequel plainly set up by the closing-scene formation of U.N.C.L.E. from this disparate group is unclear. For now, it’s an amusing entertainment that is certainly worth your time.
By Chris Rogers, Jul 30 2015 5:53PM
An unusually spur-of-the-moment decision to see Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth and latest of the series, which is currently showing in London in preview, was driven by a friend’s suggestion, convenient chance, an earlier glimpse of a publicity still or poster and a brief press feature on co-star Rebecca Ferguson. Perhaps, too, my own opinion of the series instalments to date – 1 and 3 good, 2 and 4 bad – might have subconsciously pushed me toward the ticket window for 5; who knows. Anyway, act in haste, repent at leisure, right? Well…
It starts well. The opening sequence has star Tom Cruise as by-now veteran Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt running along the wing and then clinging, literally, to the outside of a massive A400M military transport plane as it hauls itself off the ground and into the air; we see this last in one fixed shot, looking back along the fuselage as the aircraft banks slightly, bathing Cruise’s face in sunlight. It’s impressive stuff and was done for real, more or less. As I say, a good start, albeit one that is very slightly misleading on one front – despite his status as character and actor, Hunt/Cruise is this time somewhat in the background, content to share the limelight with Simon Pegg in a beefed-up role for his Benji Dunn IT whizz and, especially, Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, of which more later.
Of course at its heart the film’s plot is little more than a selection of contemporary spy-fi tropes – the shadowy criminal organisation, the secret widget that has to be stolen, the impossi-tech – strung together, and they’re pretty familiar tropes at that, but I have to admit that in the first half at least it all hangs together nicely, as Hunt starts to encounter the dastardly Syndicate and the mysterious Ilsa, who may or may not be an ally. There are also some neat and rather serious nods toward real-world problems, echoing Marvel’s Captain America: Winter Soldier.
For me this was the strongest section of the film. There is a sense of genuine mystery as to whose side Faust is on as her and Hunt’s paths cross and re-cross in Vienna and elsewhere. A considerable amount of time is spent in London, and as with Skyfall a pretty non-glamourous view of our city is taken for the most part – the pair actually navigate twisting side streets through a rolling Victorian fog at one point, for example. It’s a welcome re-connection with one of the most successful aspects of Brian de Palma’s 1996 original Mission: Impossible film, with its Victorian garret off of a rainy, atmospheric Liverpool Street.
It’s also not the only time a recent Bond film came to mind whilst watching M:I 5 (no pun intended, though it works nicely), since importantly there is much that is refreshingly old-school about it and which recalls British thrillers of the 1940s, American crime dramas of the 50s and the heights achieved by the best of the Daniel Craig 007 films and one or two that came before.
This is no small part down to the stunning Ferguson, who pulls off what could have been a somewhat thankless female role with real aplomb and who – aided by some movie magic, of course, just as Cruise is – convinces whether she is taking down bad guys with Matrix-style wuxia moves, calmly talking business or, in the film’s stand-out scene, coolly stalking her prey through the ropes, sets and galleries backstage at the Wiener Staatsoper during a performance of Turandot whilst wearing a yellow evening gown and heels. Hypnotically but accessibly beautiful, and with a compelling accent thanks to her mixed Swedish-English heritage, she really carries the film.
It’s also credit to co-writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, who executes that second role with a high degree of competency and not a little flair in parts. He favours high camera angles, his view frequently looking down on a scene to give a God’s-eye view, tipping over the edge of buildings to make clear the drop to come or following a prowling character from above. His action direction is clear and crisp, mercifully avoiding the too-tight framing and quantum cutting that afflicts much contemporary cinema, and this is important since you certainly get a lot for your money, with endless fights, stabbings and shootings (justifying the 12A certificate but further distancing the series from its resolutely pacifist origins), double-, treble- and quadruple-crosses, a car chase and a bike chase, and so on.
Actually the two Moroccan-set vehicle chases balance each other nicely, with a tight, confined open-air market setting for the first followed by an expansive desert freeway network and mountain roads for the second. Indeed this last is a real adrenaline rush, aided by some extremely good digital work that convincingly places the principals right there in the scenes and, as with the plane, blurs the line positively between fake and real. The M:I series’ own, almost trademarked trope, the near-impossible penetration of a sealed vault, gets an original treatment here – though not entirely successfully, it has to be said – with an aquatic touch.
That terrific, extended sequence at the Viennese State Opera, though, is a revelation, and demonstrates McQuarrie’s skills in full as Hunt and Dunn take up positions in the packed auditorium to identify a face but soon become embroiled with not one, not two but three assassins in the wings, including the lovely Ilsa. A long sequence, it is played out with very little dialogue but lots of movement, by characters and cameras and in three dimensions as scenery and people are hoisted, jump and fight, yet we always understand what master craftsman John McTiernan calls the geography of the scene and so consequently there is real tension amongst the physicality, aided by some nicely-timed arias. The whole recalls
Eventually, and perhaps inevitably these days given the demands of such franchise vehicles, things do start to unravel, with one or two twists too many, but it’s a huge amount of fun and gave me a welcome boost after several cinematic disappointments lately. There's virtually none of the smugness of many of the previous films, and the noir touches, the properly rounded female lead and those sparkling action sequences make this one to seek out. Your mission this summer, should you choose to accept it, is obvious…
By Chris Rogers, Jul 2 2015 10:05PM
I first heard of Joseph Cornell’s ‘shadow boxes’ more than twenty five years ago when reading William Gibson’s SF novel Count Zero, set some 70 years into the future; in it, a lost Cornell original is subsequently revealed to be a fake, whilst a mysterious ‘maker’ is producing other works that resemble Cornell’s but which are clearly products of the new millennium. Gibson’s descriptions, with their subtexts of yearning, of time suspended and compressed, captivated me, although it was more than a decade before I finally saw a genuine Cornell, in Washington’s National Gallery. Now, more than 80 of the artist’s assemblages – flat collages, selected and arranged items, and, yes, those famous boxes – can be seen in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. And for me it was a revelation.
Cornell is a little-known figure on this side of the Atlantic, and perhaps even on the other. He lived with his widowed, domineering mother and disabled brother in the New York of the 1930s to the 60s, and worked as a travelling textile salesman, a job he hated. He enjoyed visiting the theatre, dance halls and the cinema and kept in touch with the art scene, but as New York grew up and reached out to the world, Cornell stayed put. He never left his home state, though he did eventually have the means to do so, and never married or had children. On the face of it, then, he perhaps mirrored the wider America, with its tendency to insularity and self-sufficiency. And yet…
Spending much of his spare time wandering local second hand shops and flea markets, Cornell bought countless numbers of old books, periodicals, photographs, prints, scrapbooks, parlour games, toys and trinkets, from which he made a variety of carefully cut flat collages that are startling and intriguing. But he also gathered a vast amount of paper ephemera – used stamps, sent postcards, hotel advertisements, railway timetables, maps – which spoke of travel, foreign lands, faded empires and lost pasts. Afterwards, ensconced in his kitchen or, later, his basement, he proceeded to select, modify, assemble and display this material in a way that is encapsulated in the subtitle of the RA’s exhibition – Wanderlust.
Cornell began “journeying in his imagination across continents and centuries,” as the exhibition describes the virtual voyages he generated from this repository, in search of “the innocent wonder of our early discovery of the world”. Cases, boxes and containers, some fronted with glass, hold multiple references to time, space and place in an ever-increasing intricacy of layers that belies their apparent simplicity. Many also address the preoccupations and worldview of childhood, perhaps in response to the limitations on Cornell’s own. Mostly made of wood, Cornell initially appropriated commercially available display cases or sample trays but later learned carpentry from a neighbour so that he could make his own. This also allowed him to tailor each to its intended use, and to incorporate drawers, hidden compartments and multiple physical levels, a substrate for the psychological levels he built upon them. They are all intriguing; some are astonishing.
The first box encountered on entering the exhibition is unusual in being quite representative, but it still projects (and contains) a sense of mystery and serves to introduce Cornell’s wider themes. In Palace (1943), a winter forest presses in behind the façade of an immense Renaissance-style building reminiscent of a royal residence from Europe’s gilded age; on closer inspection, each of its windows is a mirror, preventing any view inside and only reflecting its surroundings. At once many of Cornwell’s concerns come to the fore – the Old World and its grand ruling houses, faded elegance, the passage of time. Curator Sarah Lea describes it as his “sleeping beauty” work; in its impassive stillness and suppressed mystery, it reminds me of both the Overlook Hotel from The Shining and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, and it comes as no surprise to see hotels specifically featuring in Cornell’s later work. His use of mirrors here makes a clear statement; elsewhere, Cornell plays with them and glass and notions of reflection, transparency and refraction.
The subject of time is also central to Object (Soap Bubble Set) (1941); a stream of bubbles, each containing a fossil, emerges from a real clay pipe, the momentary contrasting with the eternal and the placement of both nodding to Surrealism. Cornell knew Lee Miller, whose marriage to Surrealist Roland Penrose may have influenced her own experiments with the movement, but firmly rejected its more outré aspects, calling them “black magic” as against his own white.
Cornell’s simpler boxes are charming as well as tantalising. With the delightful Tower of Babel and the Children of Israel (1938), a children’s game is composed from a small red cylinder, a box lined with architectural plans and some red balls, and the work comes with instructions as to how to ‘play’. Yet the religious title speaks of something more profound, the letters on the pieces have been cut out from a German Baedeker guide, whilst the plans are of the great cultural institutions of Berlin’s Museumsinsel that contain the nation’s treasures from the ancient world. Elsewhere, a circular pillbox made of maps contains dozens of similarly-sized discs cut from photographs, pictures and more maps.
A good example of his more involved pieces is Museum (1949), for which Cornell filled a box with dozens of small paper cylinders that are in fact containers. Some can be opened, and are found to hold the kind of objects gathered by children, but others cannot – their contents create sounds when shaken, all except one, which is silent. On a similar note, Untitled (Music Box) (1947) comprises a box about the size of a coffee can that is entirely sealed with wrapping paper and stamps. It, too, makes a noise when shaken but has never – I assume – been opened so the source of that sound remains unknowable.
But it was with his more complex works that his intentions and interests were fully demonstrated.
Cornell often revisited themes and indeed individual works, creating new iterations of previous objects that are together known as his ‘series’. Each of the Hotels series starts with an old hotel advert or poster and extrapolates a story from it. Thus an image of one, prominently titled ‘Andromeda’ (Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire, 1954), has a pillar placed in front of it with a length of chain hanging nearby, alluding to the mythological princess’s fate. Birds were also a source of inspiration, and for the Aviaries series Cornell fabricated a number of boxes that evoke different emotions including hushed wonder in the case of an owl cut-out perched in its natural habitat amongst tree branches behind deep blue glass to simulate night. And if Cornell was always concerned with time, with a range of other works that use star maps, balls standing for planets and similar items, he expanded the scale of his investigations to the cosmological.
Appearing to live life somewhat at one remove, Cornell created several boxes as tributes to people he admired as heroes and heroines, including artists, dancers and even figures of legend. He fashioned an entire life in The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Berenice (1934-1967). The whimsical fictional character Berenice is a young girl conducting scientific research, whose fascination with a Chinese pagoda leads to her parents buying it for her and transporting it to America to become her home. Blending original text, found objects and images, Cornell filled an entire valise with the resulting history, even though it was destined originally only for an experimental privately-published magazine. This concept is that of the epistolary novel, which was at that time fifty years old at least if one takes Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a starting point (and which continues to attract – see Doug Dorst’s ‘S’), but from today’s viewpoint one can also make links to other similar work, everything from the elaborate box sets issued by publisher Taschen, through the methods used to create eponymous volumes of Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books to more serious fields, such as the painstakingly falsified pocket contents of ‘William Martin’, the invented officer at the heart of the wartime Allied deception codenamed Operation Mincemeat.
What astonishes throughout is the richness of allusion embodied in Cornell’s work, and how he made great leaps of time and distance – to far-off lands, civilisations he never saw and people he never knew – yet contained them all in the same small space of a box. That, and the lack of sadness – although the exhibition reminded me immediately of Edward Hopper and his paintings, and both lived somewhat insular lives, producing art that speak of quietude and contemplation, Cornell and his works lack entirely Hopper’s loneliness and are neither depressing nor sorrowful, but alive and enticing; they speak of an intelligent, enquiring, precocious and romantic mind giving itself free reign. That said, it seems to me that much of the motivation for Cornell is found in the simple facts of his life. His works are therefore easily seen as being about escape – he couldn’t physically, his responsibilities being too much, and did so through his boxes.
But in the end, perhaps Cornell comments on our own lives too – we all, in one way or another, live in boxes, glazed to the outside, which others look into but cannot reach or touch. If that is true, go along to this wonderfully rich, superbly mounted exhibition and open yourself up. Who knows what you might find?
‘Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust’ opens on Saturday (4 July) in The Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1 and continues until 27 September 2015.
By Chris Rogers, Jun 25 2015 6:33PM
To anyone interested in why the new buildings that went up in central London over the last couple of decades look the way they do, the chance to hear the capital’s two most important planners during that period explain all is one not to be missed. Both Peter Rees, Chief Planning Officer for the Corporation – that is, the City – of London since 1985, and Rosemarie MacQueen, Strategic Director of the Built Environment for Westminster City Council from 1999 after many years in other roles, left their posts last year and so can now speak candidly about their tenures managing the architectural and infrastructural development of the two boroughs that drive London – the Square Mile to the east, ancient financial and trading hub, and the ceremonial, political, cultural and retail West End next door.
Last night’s Tale of Two Cities event, organised by the revitalised RIBA CLAWSA group and moderated by Daisy Froud, saw Rees and MacQueen compare notes before a live audience at the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre on the LSE’s Kingsway campus. The architecturally award-winning venue was chosen for its position on the boundaries of the two Cities, but it was difficult not to detect a parallel between its role as a new, even brash attractor for international students who want to study in London and the tension that often emerged in the discussion that followed between maintaining a distinct, rich and identifiable identity in an area whilst simultaneously striving to grow it and adapt it to new trends.
With the two Cities neighbours yet also – at least to some extent – in competition with each other, the issue of collaboration was the first to be raised. Unsurprisingly, neither MacQueen nor Rees could accept the suggestion of a complete merger of their councils’ planning functions. MacQueen noted that Camden and Islington would be a more natural fit if pressed, with Rees calling attention to the radically different sizes of the two Cities’ residential populations (8,000 vs. 235,000). Both, though, agreed that on specific issues informal soundings and the occasional pragmatic partnership arrangement, whether with boroughs, politicians or interest groups, had proven valuable.
Shared concerns included the presence of those residents, whose particular needs often run counter to those of business. Another was the influence, commitment and intelligence of central government, whose short-termism and lack of interest in real problems troubled both professionals; indeed Rees had contempt for the next layer of authority too, railing against mayoral obsessions with buses, cable cars and garden bridges. MacQueen didn’t demur but did point out that major pan-London infrastructure projects like Crossrail and the 2012 Olympics had needed a strategic body to deliver. Personally I suspect the truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.
The pair’s views on the relative dependency of each of the Cities on their main fiscal drivers was especially interesting as a topic. MacQueen saw Westminster’s mixed economy – tourism, leisure – as giving it genuine resilience, with small local businesses like newsagents and grocers not solely reliant on single large employers nearby and thus providing a cushion to their failure. Ostensibly somewhat perversely given his former role, Rees actually warned that global capitalism could threaten the wider city. His detailed explanation gave the reason; unlike in continental Europe, where renting is the norm and that capital is freed for local, mid-scale enterprise that benefits the many, here in London “excess money held by rich Russian criminals is pooling in septic tanks in [buy-to-leave housing in] Battersea, Nine Elms….” Rees also noted how the City proper was seeing insurers become the principal occupiers, banks having “overestimated their own importance.” He added further useful nuance by explaining how “the City was about merchant banking – advising companies what to do with their money – whilst Westminster remains the home of private banking; telling rich people how to manage their money.”
Of course the architecture needed to accommodate these different functions has seen the biggest change to the look and feel of the two boroughs in recent years with – most obviously – the vast ‘Big Bang’ floorplates of the City, built for hundreds of traders, contrasting with the long-lasting Georgian terraces of Mayfair, which comfortably house the mere handful of managers needed to operate each discreet hedge fund. Despite approving many of the former, very specialised, buildings Rees, speaking to me after the event, was confident their basic structure could be adapted equally easily to the smaller users typical of the latter. He was also supportive of the expansion of retail in the City as part of its widening mix of uses, which has seen the new generation of office blocks along Cheapside subtly altering their relationship to that thoroughfare by placing their entrances on side streets, in favour of shops along the frontage. Sharing an anecdote with me that might be called The Temptation of M&S in the Wilderness made his own part in this process clear.
Another similarity between the two boroughs is the effect of the need for conservation. With 13,000 listed buildings, around 75% of Westminster’s area falls within designated conservation areas but MacQueen maintained that the constant economic growth she spoke of earlier has nevertheless been achieved without compromising this important safeguard, noting the Crown Estate’s ongoing work in Piccadilly, Regent Street and St James’s. This is an interesting example since that landlord’s schemes, whilst broadly sympathetic to the existing building stock and producing some exceptional results at, say, the old Regent Palace Hotel, have nevertheless seen the loss of significant facades and alterations to street patterns that remain unproven. By allowing towers in certain areas such as Paddington Basin and Victoria, MacQueen added, a variety of spaces has also been provided. Rees did not offer the audience a City equivalent, perhaps remembering his successful attempt to persuade the Corporation to contradict its own ruling and permit Rothschild’s new head office to comprehensively breach height limits in the Bank conservation area, but in response to a point I made to him privately afterward about the long-derelict Victorian blocks along Old Threadneedle Street did point how Nat West was eventually forced by him to sensitively develop its holdings here – jealously-guarded since the 1960s in the hope of erecting another tower – behind retained facades.
Mention of residents had of course to lead to debate over affordable housing¸ and here again both were in agreement that things were now very difficult thanks to the current system of unenforced Section 106 commitments, calculating said ‘affordability’ on the basis of a fixed proportion of the local market rate regardless of that rate, and the apparent impossibility of councils being funded to do anything other than sell land to developers who then cherry-pick the best part of the site for sale to buyers and seek to offload the social rented element elsewhere. Solutions proposed to the audience revolved around empowering local groups, central government choosing to care and reversing the ‘brain drain’ of policing talent from local planning departments. More radical ideas were also advanced, MacQueen describing the compulsory purchase of suburban housing along well-connected radial routes and its replacement with denser dormitories as one option.
As for the future, Rees asserted that this lies in Shoreditch, not his old foe Canary Wharf and certainly not Dubai, predicting that in that state in years to come “the sand will blow back in and people will wonder what those buildings were for.” For her part MacQueen stressed that whilst it is small TMT (Technology, Media and Telecommunications) start-ups that are colonising Shoreditch, science R&D teams and component manufacturers are being welcomed in Westminster, around Kings Cross and other areas. It was a positive note to end on despite the gloom brought about by a shared view of the political climate.
Throughout, Rees was superbly articulate, passionate and controversial; MacQueen was quieter and more considered but equally clear. Both brought a wealth of experience to bear on the questions asked by Froud and the audience and gave much food for thought.
Ironically I attended this event at the end of a day spent mostly away from this fine capital of ours; arriving at Kings Cross, through the developing new quarter around Granary Square, and grabbing a bite to eat under the spectacular span of the new Western Concourse, it was good to be back. It was good, too, to go on and hear how some of this came about courtesy of an exceptional and likely unique opportunity, one that deserved a far larger audience.
With thanks to Michelle Yeung at CLAWSA
By Chris Rogers, Jun 19 2015 9:53PM
By chance, the public exhibition of the new scheme for 22 Bishopsgate, which I blog about below, opened in the same week as the London office of American design giant Gensler hosted a panel discussing some of the implications of their recent research into the possible future office market in the City of London. What kinds of businesses will the City welcome in years to come? What kind of building will they work in? will they, in fact, want to work in a, office building at all? Part of a wider project entitled Work in the City last night’s event, held in the comfortable surroundings of Gensler’s City-fringe Aldgate base as part of the London Festival of Architecture, proved to be an exceptionally thought-provoking evening and a useful contextualisation of 22 Bishopsgate and some of the other new blocks going up in and around the Square Mile.
The firm’s James Lawrence and Michelle Yeung opened by presenting a precis of their findings, which examined how the City of London – strikingly but accurately described by Yeung as “a global platform” for business – might change in the next few years, in terms of the mix of business types expected to occupy its streets and buildings, what those businesses’ employees might want and thus what their buildings might look like.
An increase in science and technology firms making their home in the City was predicted, bleeding across from the acknowledged adjacent hubs for that sector of Shoreditch and Old Street, whilst a desire for choice, autonomy, flexibility and different social experiences on the part of workers, who will increasingly have a succession of careers rather than one, was also noted. Work is increasingly being seen as an activity instead of a place, especially by the 40% of employees predicted by 2020 to be temps, contractors, freelancers and other ‘contingent workers’ who will not have a permanent loyalty to one organisation.
With this as background, where such people will work, and how, came into focus.
A useful summary of employers’ responses to previous drivers that reshaped their workspaces was broken down into three phases, broadly labelled as ‘Process’ in the 1980s, when IT first became realisable on a large scale and at desktop level, ‘Technology’ when this was refined in the 1990s, and ‘People’ in the 2010s, reflecting the new findings.
Fascinatingly, it became clear both from Lawrence and Yeung’s work and the contributions of the panellists and audience later that the single biggest change that overarched all three of these phases, namely the ability to work remotely (‘from home’), is now no longer seen as the solution to everything, something that chimes with my own experiences.
An unexpected but very welcome flying visit at the start of the evening by the practice’s co-founder Art Gensler himself, now aged 80, had in fact already set the tone for this part of the debate. Reflecting on the history of his firm as one founded in San Francisco in the earliest days of Silicon Valley, Gensler pointed out that even in 1965 the city was where it was at for many of the young workers in the area, as it was the place “where the girls are, and the action, and the bars, and the fun”. Crucially, he reported that clients today are seeing the same, with employees increasingly shunning home and the suburbs as work locations in favour of city centres.
This has led to new, very large and highly serviced buildings that seek to accommodate everyone on one floor, though this too is flawed since visibility, connection and even simply knowing where someone is are rendered difficult if not impossible in such places. Both parties, Gensler said, are therefore (re)turning to the kind of low-tech, loose fit industrial sheds (though the term should also be read as including brick-built factories and warehouses) that the Valley was built on originally. These are also cheaper and more intimate, giving back another feature that has been lost in the clamour for open plan – privacy.
Later, a Gensler employee in the audience and panellist Volker Buscher from Arup Digital pointed out in addition that some kinds of activity still require face to face personal contact in groups, as with discussions of the “life safety” aspects of architecture and the complexity of software writing. Antony Slumbers of Estates Today pointed out that this might in part be a matter of self-protection, since this tends to revolve around “unique, not repeatable” work because “if it’s repeatable, it’s code-able,” and if it’s code-able it’s capable of automation.
Perhaps recognising this tension, Lawrence and Yeung had incorporated into their work a conceptual study that looked at how building design might be flexed to respond to the increasing trend for contingent workers to occupy so-called Third Spaces – cafes, public buildings and so on. Imagining a “curated hub” and applying it to the Aldgate locale – which was, incidentally, the subject of a real-life redevelopment in the 1960s when it was REALLY on the fringe that saw a radical road system, new buildings (including what is now Gensler’s own) and a pedestrian subway network laid in – the pair envisaged a mix of specially-provided and found places such as street kiosks, roofs, lobbies and even, as Yeung mentioned to me afterward, niches in the facades of buildings (illustrated here in relation to their own) for short bursts of activity, all of which could be booked as needed via an app.
Of course this was essentially simply a thought experiment intended to spark debate as to what a middle way between the classic large corporate headquarters and a home office might look like, but in the context of my discussion on Tuesday with Renos Charitou about PLP Architecture’s plans for the reception area of 22 Bishopsgate, it is easy to see that such thoughts are not quite as fanciful as one might imagine. Security considerations would obviously loom large for at least two of Lawrence and Yeung’s options, yet as I pointed out from the floor last night there is an obvious and very successful precedent to build on in San Francisco’s very own ‘POPOS’ programme, whereby building owners not only permit but encourage access to atriums, terraces and other such corners of their buildings to create a network of ‘privately-owned public open spaces’ throughout the city. Admittedly this stands in opposition somewhat to the City’s current ‘Ring of Steel’ mentality, but still. And on the east coast, New York has a rich supply of publically accessible arcades, shopping malls and passages at the foot of Manhattan’s forest of skyscrapers.
It wasn’t, then, too much of a stretch, I felt, to extrapolate from Lawrence and Yeung’s model and consider a virtual spider’s web of physical third spaces with, at its heart, a corporate head office building that could as a result be much smaller but still provide the kind of added value that, as Buscher rightly noted elsewhere, has historically accrued to such edifices, such as prestige, brand identity, purposefulness, facilities and security. Although, I also mused to myself, would the architecture of such a ‘minicorp’ really spark the kind of immediate connection in the public mind between company and building generated by the mere mention of Chrysler, Sears, Wills Faber, Seagram, Boots, Hoover, General Motors or Pirelli?
Image aside, then, where such a building is needed, how will technology as well as culture change its appearance and functionality?
Buscher, drawing on his own work with information and communications technology but also expanding Lawrence and Yeung’s ‘three phase’ analysis, noted that that last great technological shift in the 1980s coincided with the deregulation of Big Bang and saw an explosion of structured and Ethernet cabling, audio-visual collaborative tools, power and cooling provision, raised floors and multiple screens on football-pitch-sized floorplates designed for trading. These have lurked at the core of most major Square Mile buildings over the last thirty years; indeed the granite-clad bulk of Beaufort House, by Renton Howard Wood Levin Partnership from 1987-89, loomed outside the seventh floor window of the Gensler building as he spoke by way of an example.
The current wave of mobile, digitised technology – which Buscher referred to as the “real time city” model – could now reverse much of that, he claimed, illustrating his thesis with the useful example of doing away with the big departure board at Euston station in favour of a direct connection between train operator and passenger via their mobile, so that the former will know where the latter is at all times and the latter is thus freed to spend his or her time before the train leaves as they like, rather than standing “like an act of worship” on a concourse. It thus follows, he argued, that the walls of that concourse, too, could fall away. Given airlines’ offer of check in via app and the lack of a ticket on, say, Stockholm’s Arlanda Express train, both of which work well in my experience, this is sound thinking and timely too given Euston’s imminent redevelopment. It would also have important and beneficial implications on the kind of tight city centre sites that stations typically appear.
More widely, if location, location, location is critical in the residential market it remains so for the commercial, too; recalling Art Gensler’s mention of former industrial areas being attractive to groups of all sizes, it occurred to me that London contains two hugely successful examples as well as one ripe for similar adoption and adaption that lies just a few minutes’ walk from Gensler.
Clerkenwell and Covent Garden were both once centres of small-scale but high-quality engineering, namely clock- and watch-making and coach-building respectively; interestingly, printing was found in both areas. Both are now home to the creative industry, with a range of technology and allied businesses
Walk out of Finsbury Square to the north east, and you enter a fascinating grid of streets containing an extensive sequence of post-war blocks combining office, warehouse and light industrial use. Their presence in such concentration reflects the persistence of large-scale manufacturing and the storage of finished goods very close to the City well into the 1950s. They form an appealing group, with a homogeneity of massing and expressed concrete frames infilled with a variety of materials including brick, mosaic and cobbles. These tough, robust blocks now finding employment housing a range of office support functions, including design, reprographics and mail-out, but it seems to me that with a ready clientele available in Old Street and around, itself a place where AHMM’s White Collar Factory architectural model is gaining considerable traction into the bargain, it would be an easy transition for this tight and surprisingly attractive little cluster to house tech start-ups, media, and rapid prototyping businesses and to therefore form a cushion between Broadgate and the Square itself rather than be swept away by the ever-increasing scale of both.
The final portion of the debate touched on the complex societal interactions and implications caused by previous and current changes to the commercial make-up of the subject area. Andrew Sissons, former head of regeneration at neighbouring Hackney council, summed this difficult area up in one pithy reference to the number of emails he used to receive from rich suburbanites who had moved back into the City complaining about the noise from the nightclubs, whose very success two decades ago had led the area to thrive.
So, what Work in the City is likely to mean twenty years into the future is uncertain, but this superbly enjoyable debate, ably chaired by Gensler senior associate Jane Clay, certainly made a valuable contribution to finding out.
By Chris Rogers, Jun 17 2015 8:21PM
The public has its first chance this week to examine the new City of London tower that will replace the ill-fated Pinnacle or Helter-Skelter on Bishopsgate, construction of which stalled four years ago at the seventh floor of its service core. The new scheme – a narrow glass form orientated toward the south west and with a twisting, stepped summit – is very different from the original design. The explanation lies in the changes that have occurred across almost every facet of the development in the ten years since it was conceived, including the new post-crash financial climate, changing regulations, fresh ideas on what tenants might want, a new developer and, not least perhaps, the departure of key members of KPF London, the Pinnacle’s architects, to set up their own firm, PLP Architecture, which has now brought the new
Models, plans, computer-generated photo-montages, artists’ impressions and video interviews with the developer, architect and a workspace expert are on show at the site itself until Saturday, and allow the overall concept and some of the details to be understood; chats with representatives from some of the partners involved, especially PLP, expanded this further.
Veteran property man Stuart Lipton, mastermind of Broadgate and many more, is now in charge. It’s notable that his piece to camera stresses not the new building’s height or shape, materials or cost, but rather the concepts that underlie its genesis. These include social or communal areas throughout the building, a mixed approach to tenancy both in terms of size and space and business sector and, most of all, the interaction the building will have with the street. Remarkably, the language he uses here is that usually deployed when discussing schemes further east, in Shoreditch or Old Street – he talks of storage for 1,500 bicycles, stairs to encourage meetings, double-height common/communal areas and building users encountering a variety of happenings within the lobby, from an Olympic rower giving a talk to a chef showing how to cook dinner. “You might be shocked,” Lipton teases, “by a new painting which will change every few months, or discover a new piece of theatre, via a programme that will be curated permanently” and which will deliver “a new life experience”. Perhaps, then, the string trio playing in the exhibition pavilion last night was making a rather more subtle point than just good PR.
Combined with mention of a library, auditorium showing films and more, Lipton is keen to portray a vision of 22 Bishopsgate as London’s “first vertical city” that will build on a great tradition in the Square Mile.
Of course it will also have to build on the site currently occupied by what the exhibition – with refreshing honesty – calls the “stump” of the Pinnacle, which will need months of work to demolish. Finding a way of replacing it that can contain Lipton’s ideas and make them flourish has been the job of PLP Founding Partner Karen Cook, from the US but in the KPF London office before the 2009 split.
In her contribution she explains the regulatory changes and tougher sustainability challenges that have been drivers for the new design, as well as the desire to promote more wellbeing that Lipton covers. Although 22 Bishopsgate will be 10m shorter than the 278m (912 ft) Pinnacle, it will still have 62 storeys and still be the tallest building in the City and Cook describes its role as “tying together the other buildings [in the cluster within which it sits] while at the same time being dominant.” Lyrically, she tells how its stepped, twisted top is generated: “One shoulder is dropped to acknowledge Tower 42, the other to let the roof of 122 Leadenhall Street sail past”.
In conversation, PLP’s director Renos Charitou calls the new design’s more conventional massing “sombre and fatherly”, contrasting this to what he refers to as the more feminine tone in which the Pinnacle was often discussed, what with its ‘skirts’ of glass. Pressed gently over media reports some months ago accompanying a leaked earlier version of the new tower that described its more pragmatic shape as simply reflecting the need to increase the amount of lettable space to make the scheme viable, Charitou accepts the point and contributes his own revealing experience, having worked on it as well – neither tenants, letting agents nor even fit-out contractors could understand the Pinnacle’s dynamic façade and tapering floors, he admits, making it a hard sell. But he also points out the altered planning landscape, whereby attempts to mitigate the fear a decade ago of super-tall towers in London by insistence on shaping the tops of such buildings to reduce their impact on the skyline led to the Shard, the Gherkin and (to a degree) the Heron Tower. Now, he explains, there is a wider acceptance of tall blocks and a concomitant relaxation on the part of planners as to their termination.
Countering, I pointed out that – given the extremely limited choice the public has in such matters – this is a slightly self-serving argument, since the more towers that are allowed, the more will appear, regardless of their style or height. The useful, attractive but rather disingenuous woodblock contextual model of that part of the City in which the scheme will fit rather proves the point, since whilst it does indeed show 22 Bishopsgate as “dominant” over the earlier generations of towers around it (the Aviva block in particular is dwarfed, though we will return to this shortly) the model also includes other super-tall schemes currently still on the drawing board, thus cushioning 22 Bishopsgate’s impact somewhat.
That said, the new design as a form does have merit; it recalls the classic inter-war skyscrapers of New York and Chicago. It will, though, be clad in glass and steel rather than stone or brick, ensuring its visual impact will be of a different order. Charitou noted that the biggest problem with such an expanse of glass – it appearing ‘dead’, especially at night – was under discussion, especially the degree of reflectivity necessary to prevent this whilst not creating the city’s biggest mirror into the bargain (on which note readers will be reassured to hear that the planners did, on this occasion and despite its resolutely planar surfaces, insist on proof another ‘fryscraper’ is not on the cards).
Returning to ground level, though, where most will experience the building, the manner in which the new block is to be knitted into its tricky site, tight amongst the City’s famous urban grain, yielded the most interesting discussion.
The building will extend across its site, most recently occupied by Crosby Court, the home of Standard Chartered bank, with glazed wind mitigation canopies bridging at least one adjacent road and touching the next building. A zig-zag plan for the lobby glass will break up the impact of the building, but there are more subtle ideas at work too. “If you can have the core as the edge of the street, you extend that street,” says Charitou, indicating on the ground floor plan how the security gatelines have been pulled back from just inside the doors to the lift cores, potentially permitting free passage through the lobby to those not intent on actually entering, as well no doubt as facilitating Lipton’s happenings. Airline-style roaming check-in via iPad is also in the air, apparently, which might prove interesting, whilst the gatelines will direct arriving users to the appropriate lifts.
Certainly there will be a public passage through the site, between Undershaft and Bishopsgate to the south of the building. Entrance to the top floor public viewiong gallery will be handled via the separate pavilion-style building on the other side of the passage, a neat security measure. Retail units will line the space but Charitous was keen to explain how the project is seeking to persuade the owners of the Avia site, which extends to the boundary of the stairs to the raised platform behind the building – all that remains of Crosby Square – and which includes the famous if bleak depressed plaza in front of their own tower to collaborate on an integrated public realm scheme for both. More retail and another entrance to the basement area are earmarked for the cut-out at the rear of 1 Great St Helens, a niche originally filled by Standard Chartered and another example of where the real interest in this project might ultimately lie.
The immediate surroundings of 22 Bishopsgate will also benefit from a decision – brave, given the number of workers expected – to keep large delivery trucks intended for the building out of London all together and have the necessary supplies brought to the site in small vans. The Corporation, for its part, is considering closing St Mary Axe to traffic. Closer examination of the material on show reveals the usual planters, raised beds and inevitable bollards to counter vehicle-borne bomb attacks.
So what to make of this nascent addition to the London skyline, certainly the next cause celebre after 122 Leadenhall Street, The Shard and the Walkie Talkie?
On the one hand it’s far too early to come to any definitive conclusions, of course. Charitou rightly noted that the final design is still in flux, at least as far as the details are concerned, and all of this is before the Corporation casts its eye (minus, this time round, Peter Rees as its Chief Planning Officer, providing another interesting contrast for Charitou and the rest of the team who worked on the Pinnacle. But the planform is compelling, and both I and Charitou discussed the ‘sculptural object in a landscape’ theory of tall towers and the age-old problem of how they meet the ground. The summit may prove to work well too, though it remains to be seen whether such a shape – set out at that height – can really sustain the attention when clad entirely in glass, Charitou’s final decision as to its exact type notwithstanding.
The ‘verticality’ spoken of by Lipton and Charitou – by which I mean the progression and arrangement of activity up the tower, rather than its actual height – offers some genuine opportunities. The pointed ‘tips’ of the floors will hold a variety of soft landscaping, areas of floor slab will have weak points within them to allow tenants taking more than one floor to insert their own means of connection that can be separate from the service core’s provisions, and the public gallery must be an attraction (subject to how it will actually finally look and be accessed, of course).
The crucial ground floor is also promising. The passageway, traffic measures and retail spaces should help avoid the horrid sterility that girdles the Gherkin, for example, and at least one of the display panels could be mistaken for part of Rogers and Piano’s Pompidou Centre competition entry at a glance. The exact level of permeability, actual and perceived, will be critical in confirming or refuting Lipton’s ideals, however.
As for that piece of sculpture, a look back (and, given the height of 22 Bishopsgate, down) at the Nat West tower of 1980 just over the road is as always instructive. This too was a high-tech, controversial super-tall tower with a lengthy and troubled birth. It too was envisaged from the start as a 600 foot sculpture standing in a public piazza, trading openness and permeability for height. It also brought more natural light to the lower levels of the tower and permitted neighbouring buildings to retain their rights of light. Its subtly complex geometry, in elevation and plan, repays closer viewing, its termination remains effective and its pedestrian experience at ground level (and higher) were especially thought through, given its links to the Corporation’s high-level walkway system. Long-since vacated by its single tenant, Tower 42 as it’s now known has quietly succeeded as home for small – often very small – occupiers who still need a central City base. Plus ça change…
The exhibition, at 22-24 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4BQ, is free and is open Mon-Fri 12-2pm and 4-8pm (closed from 2-4pm), and on its final day, Saturday 20 June, from 10am-4pm.
By Chris Rogers, May 3 2015 12:56PM
Anyone booking online to see Texas on their current silver anniversary tour is invited to submit a question to be put to the band on the day. Mine asked how, given the remarkable change in their sound since 1988, they regard that early work when they look back on it. I was curious because I’ve remained a fan but was one of those saddened by the move away from the gritty urban guitar and voice combo that broke them. Although it wasn’t one of those read out by Sharleen Spiteri at the London Palladium last night, my question still got an answer: the entire event, billed as An Evening with Texas with Spiteri talking audiences through the group’s 15-year history, was firmly grounded in the music, the style and the edgy steel guitar sound that saw I Don’t Want a Lover explode onto the scene a quarter of a century ago.
One of the first quips by Spiteri in what proved to be her very funny, supremely confident and occasionally moving hosting of the two-and-a-half-hour gig was to welcome the “older members of the audience,” although she immediately followed this by admitting that adjective could apply to her, too. It was the perfect start to what proved to be an superb evening, demonstrating that Spiteri is without doubt one of Britain’s foremost writers and performers, and not just when singing and playing.
The first half saw Spiteri run through the band’s beginnings, after opening solo with the current single Start a Family. It took, she said, four attempts to make Southside, their debut album, after an initial try with her dream US producer, Chic's Bernard Edwards. As a result of those difficulties, she said, it was her 18-year-old self’s demo recording vocals that made it onto the single release of I Don’t Want a Lover. She was then joined by long-time band member Tony McGovern on a rockabilly, guitar-only version of that classic track, before bassist and Texas founder Johnny McElhone and the rest of the group completed the line-up for a rare outing of their very good but ill-advised (“it charted at 67”) follow-up Thrill has Gone and, of course, the massively successful third single (and the record company’s recommended second release), Everyday Now.
For the rest of the night, Spiteri took us through highlights from almost every period of Texas’s history with the talents of McElhone, McGovern, drummer Ross McFarlane, veteran band member Eddie Campbell on one set of keyboards and newcomer Michael Bannister on another, plus two French brass players for the second half. There was of course plenty of banter with the audience and the band, covering weddings (not hers), kisses, jokes about Londoners being too staid and more (she opened my eyes to the connection between Serge Gainsbourg and Guitar Song, for example – it samples Je t'aime…) but it was the music that mattered, and the sheer variety of their back catalogue was once again made clear.
After those early successes the band remained popular on the continent but not in Britain or the US, until the triple triumph of Summer Son, Black-Eyed Boy and Say What You Want did indeed changed their sound and thus their fortunes, catapulting – as Spiteri mentioned – the group to another level altogether. All three are outstanding pieces, and were hugely acclaimed. There was also time for quieter moments, though, including the terrific Sleep from the less-well-known Red Book album, here a duet with McGovern rather than Paul Buchanan, and Al Green’s Tired of Being Alone, which kept the home fires burning in that fallow period. Nicely, Spiteri’s debut solo album, the hugely underrated Melody, was not only not forgotten, it was fully embraced, with its genesis (in her break up with her partner) explained, its endorsement as a project by the rest of the band covered and a note-perfect rendering of the smashing, Sixties-inspired Stop. That selection was important, too, for its reminder of how completely Texas is founded in soul music, something that has influenced their music consistently from the very beginning and which occasionally surfaces even amongst the glossier, more mainstream pop that really made their name.
And yet it must be admitted that one of the best aspects of the band’s work is their constant willingness to stretch their sound by collaborating with musicians and producers across a wide range of styles. Importantly they do this with new material, such as 1993’s Careful What You Wish For album which featured Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishul to great effect, and old. Indeed, many of their songs have received tweaks by New York-based Truth & Soul for the current album Texas 25, whilst previous modified versions have become – rightly – the new standards when done live. Thus Summer Son is always now performed with the extra pre-chorus bars that delay that fabulous life-affirming explosion of sound just enough to punch it into the heights of greatness, Say What You Want includes DJ Mark One’s scratching break (though more often simply an instrumental) before the final chorus whilst In Demand, originally (and still) one of the gentlest, warmest love songs of recent times, now comes with a fierce, fiery twist with an impassioned Spiteri stalking the stage.
The band worked brilliantly together; the absence of fellow veteran Ally McErlaine and his distinctive slide guitar was felt a little too keenly in the early songs, though the backing vocals of McGovern and Bannister were hugely helpful in completing the sound. The intimacy of the venue – about two thirds the size of the Hammersmith Apollo, the last place I saw them, but feeling and sounding even smaller – allowed the focus to be on Spiteri’s incredible voice, which remains the foundation of the group. It really is outstanding, and without a note out of place or a high not reached, whether powering through the big hits with full instrumental and vocal support or alone playing piano or guitar, she has simply never sounded better live, having seen her half a dozen times now over the last ten years.
A double encore began with Inner Smile, Texas’s Elvis tribute, the by-now ecstatic audience fully embracing its triumphant ‘Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah, yeah’ chant. The final song, following the 2013 tour’s River Deep, Mountain High, was an even more appropriate cover given what came before – a truly storming performance of Suspicious Minds.
This was a cracking evening. If you missed it try booking for their return to the capital in December, at the Roundhouse.
By Chris Rogers, Apr 17 2015 10:36PM
Simon Stephens’s new play-with-music, premiered last year in Germany and brought to the UK for the first time with last week’s opening at the Almeida, sets out to say something about our modern, inter/un-connected lives, using the four main characters of Bizet’s Carmen – five if you include an actress, tired by but obsessed with playing the title role – to do it. With Carmen, Don José, Escamillo and Michaëla recast as “a gorgeous prostitute, a tough-talking taxi driver, a global trader and a teenage dreamer” plus “a renowned singer”, we share the threads of their lives and see how they come together one evening in an un-named European city.
Sharon Small is The Singer, endlessly trundling her two wheelie cases (“One for drugs and clothes, one for the things I really need”) from city to city to perform the role Bizet wrote in 1875. Dislocated from real life by airport- and hotel-induced soul delay, she has only that role to cling to, inhabiting it far more than she inhabits the endless rooms where she stays that she books online when she gets the call to the next staging. Small is fun in the early scenes, bustling and babbling about her foibles and habits, before gradually donning wig and corset and getting into character.
Her character gets into her, of course, and into us, since Carmen (the character) is played by real-life opera star Viktoria Vizin. Singing Simon Slater’s compositions – part Bizet, part himself – in Gypsy costume, Vizin is energetic and acrobatic as she Greek-Choruses her way around, mirroring all the characters’ actions and supplementing their words with her own.
Spunky, stroppy Michaëla, played by Katie West, is the student whose empty life involves Skype-sexing her 63-year-old lecturer and railing about life in general. Hers is the most obvious vehicle for Stephens’s principal concern, the actually by now quite dated idea that lives lived on screens seem more real than real these days. Some melancholic musings on her life and the lives of others – “I feel the world would be lighter – not better, or more exciting, but lighter – without me” and a reference to “walking over hundreds and hundreds of graves” of previous citizens – are affecting, but far more of her lines are ballsy and they get the laughs to prove it so it’s as difficult to connect to her emotionally as it is to Small’s mostly ditzy diva.
Grounded Noma Dumezweni as the taxi driver seeks a re-connection to her daughter and, especially, her son. Hers is by far the most relatable character and she gives the most realistic performance, though as a result is also perhaps the actor least well served by the production.
The arrogant über-yuppie Escamillo, on the other hand, as essayed by the brilliant John Light and first encountered sprawled in a chair punching out his prescription of the three things you must do on arrival in any city (‘Streetview’ your hotel so you know where you are, stock up on your favourite snack so you won’t starve and hit the gym/sauna/pool so you look good) is wonderfully OTT. Prancing and stalking across the stage in preparation for his big deal, Escamillo gets some of the best lines. Other traders are “Smoking cigars of certainty”; “He enjoys my shirt,” he says, of the rich Mr Mystery who bankrolls him; and he feels sad when returning to this, his hometown, because “There are people who still live here.”
But terrific though Light is, even he is overshadowed by a stunning performance from Jack Farthing as the vain, preening, cool young gay prostitute Carl (’Carmen’). His opening line – “I got up, looked in the mirror – I looked fucking good’ – sets the tone, and he brings the house down with almost every subsequent reading, obsessing about his hair, his shirt and his big organ (“Sometimes I think the only fair thing to do is to warn people”). With some neat observations on the smell of new clothing, the usefulness of porn films in assessing a country’s animus and much more, he could have his own series. Again, though, the darkness of his character’s journey – here a nasty experience with a client – seems awkwardly, even jarringly at odds with what has gone before.
Each goes about their business, then, through a city that, whilst not quite looming into view in the “opulent grandeur” described in the publicity, can indeed be pictured in the mind’s eye surprisingly well thanks to some nicely geographic descriptions. It’s business which eventually brings them together, but in truth the actual level of linkage between all five even at that point is minimal, beyond a fatal traffic accident that sees a young biker dead in the road.
And that is the principal weakness of the piece, save from the lack of any genuine parallel with the original opera – if there was one apart from the names and the occasional snatch of aria, it eluded me. Because while their performances are all good – outstanding in the cases of Messrs Light and Farthing – each essentially takes place in a vacuum. All address the audience, direct their lines off-stage or on occasion look toward another actor but seldom interact other than some stylised movement. Indeed there isn’t a single conversation between them in the entire piece and although all of them do meet, it’s only in the sense that you might ‘meet’ a taxi driver, or ‘meet’ a pretty girl (or boy) the next time you get the Tube.
That, I suspect, is the point, of course, but a more profound execution is needed to drive that particular point home and achieve the kind of “deeply emotional” meaning the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Gould professes he sees in the play in his programme introduction. Interestingly the work that comes to mind most strongly in terms of what Stephens might have been aiming for but also what he misses is Lawrence Kasdan’s underrated film Grand Canyon, which explored very similar themes (albeit in a pre-digital age) but did so far more powerfully.
Stephens was inspired to write the play by conversations about and with another real-life Carmen performer, Israeli star Rinat Shaham, and many of her thoughts appear in Small’s dialogue almost verbatim judging by interviews Stephens has given. But this feels like another story altogether, unsuccessfully pushed together with the disconnect idea, and Small’s light-hearted interpretation for much of the play undermines any attempt to take the role into the rather darker aspects of Shaham’s concerns too.
Make no mistake, this is effective theatre beyond the playing: Lizzie Clachan’s design harks back to Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III with its use of the Almeida’s bare brick apse, set-less stage and superb, dynamic lighting (by Jack Knowles), the on-stage cello duo of Jamie Cameron and Harry Napier is a pleasure to hear when they are not straining against a slightly too loud recorded soundtrack, and the use of a simple Tube-style digital display to show everything from incoming text alerts and airport arrivals to song lyrics is a nice touch.
But overall, this feels like a new play that seeks to say something equally new about fractured relationships and disconnection on the streets, but which ultimately – and ironically – becomes a little lost in its own sense of self.
By Chris Rogers, Mar 30 2015 9:20PM
“You can’t switch it off, it’s real!”
Another week, another new play exploring our apparent addiction to small-screen nastiness, and like The Nether, Mike Bartlett’s Game – in its final week at the Almeida – also asks questions about the nature of a simulated reality and our responsibilities within such a construct. The object of Jennifer Haley’s play was the internet, a virtual escape of relatively recent coinage; for Bartlett it’s that old saw, television. And in that contrast lies the problem.
To be fair, it is the later sub-genre of observed reality television that is Bartlett’s target, and I use that word advisedly since – as the poster and programme cover make clear – gun sights are a crucial tool in the story. Ashley and Carla are a young Liverpudlian husband and wife struggling to get a place of their own, a job and start a family. They accept an offer that seems perfect, in one respect – they can stay in a posh new flat rent-free, and live their lives as they choose. The catch, which they are aware of, is that paying customers are stalking them with rifles for a screen-based entertainment show…
To say more, even at this stage, would spoil things for those still going. Suffice it to say a running time of just an hour suggests things might end badly for at least one person. They do start very well, though, with a brilliantly absorbing opening that showcases Miriam Buether’s innovative design and Sacha Wares’s direction, whereby the audience is split into groups and seated in one of four large ‘hides’ with remote-controlled blinds that each give a different view of the two-level, in-the-round (technically, ‘in the square’) apartment set. We’re observing the couple ‘live’, you see, our view mediated only by fine mesh-like screens.
Screens of another kind are mounted above the viewing windows, showing both close-ups and alternate angles of the action but also the rest of the cast, for periodically actors enter each of the hides in character as the ‘hunters’ and the ‘warden’. Their dialogue, and that spoken on stage, is captured by radio mics and fed to the audience via headsets. Since the entire play is essentially vision-mixed live like the great TV dramas of the 1970s, we are also its directors and well as its audience.
And that is the point, of course, albeit one made rather simplistically, as we watch a succession of clichéd customers – the laddish stag do, the ladetteish teenage girlfriends, an engaged Sloane couple and their best man – occupy one of the hides and take their shots, the patient warden David the only constant apart from the couple. Seven years pass, rather unrealistically (given the frenetic pace if nothing else), and a son appears. There is a momentary frisson when it becomes clear he, too, is – in every sense – ‘game’, but any sympathy soon evaporates as things simply rattle along with no room for anyone to breathe.
Whether the Game occurs on television or a videogame console is carefully never spelled out, but if a channel zapping/progress level metaphor is intended, it doesn’t really work. When the start of the final scene appears to suggest one way out that would give the previous sixty minutes real bite but eventually merely confirms that we are also asked to empathize with quiet ex-soldier David and his difficulties adjusting to civvie street, it becomes obvious there is simply too much going on, too fast.
That is certainly Bartlett’s strength when it comes to the wholly contemporary dialogue, though, which is delivered to a rhythm as rapid and realistic as the sublime Shakespearean blank verse for his brilliant King Charles III was slow and stately. Both ring true, and both have plenty of knowing, blackly comic lines. There are jokes about loyalty cards and Orange Wednesdays-style deals. Explaining the increasingly desperate attempts by the owner, John (the excellent, wearily cynical Daniel Cerqueira) to keep hold of his customers and keep up with the competition, David mentions that “There’s a whole village somewhere, with a gun on a jeep”, whilst the bitter sniping (pun intended) of middle-aged, middle-class couple hunters Florence and Paul drew plenty of laughs.
Wares also knows her stuff. As well as that opening, where the intermeshing lines of the on-stage and in-hide scenes (one seen and heard by all, remember, the other heard by three fourths of the audience ‘in their heads’) slip beautifully into the spaces left by each other like a smoothly oiled set of gears, there are some great multi-angle shots where the cast is seen looking into remote cameras, looking at the stage, looking at us.
The trouble is that all this feels tired and unoriginal, and it lacks bite.
The great Nigel Kneale already covered – indeed, predicted – this kind of thing no fewer than 47 years ago with The Live Life Show in his The Year of the Sex Olympics, whilst Doctor Who (yes) managed an effective satire on voyeuristic entertainment with Philip Martin’s Vengeance on Varos way back in 1985. Even novelists have done it better – see Stephen King’s The Long Walk (1979). The ‘real’ programme mostly obviously at the centre of Game's worldview – Big Brother – is itself almost 20 years old, and surely beyond satire.
There might be something fresh to say about the such shows, such as whether an immersive audience is in actuality a captive one, but Charlie Brooker’s deeply disturbing Black Mirror episode White Bear said it far better than Game. Bartlett’s work thus feels like an after-dinner conversation brought hurriedly to life with some smart visual moves but not nearly enough time spent on building characters and the running time to allow that. That the programme contains a scrapbook-style layout of stories that apparently inspired him – a MailOnline piece about two-way mirrors installed in a nightclub loo, figures on armed forces suicide rates, even a Journal of American Medicine report on the link between extended videogaming and erectile dysfunction – bears this out. The cast do their best, but it’s a struggle, and with a nice touch of what I suspect is unintentional irony, they don’t even get a curtain call yet do have to do two performances a night.
‘Game over’ says the final on-screen graphic, predictably; ‘Reset’ might have been more appropriate.
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