Saturday, December 29, 2007

Cary Grant in Cardiff

Back in 1961 Cary Grant was in Cardiff promoting his new flick The Grass is Greener, a so-so romance which co-starred Bob Mitchum, Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons.

At the Gaumont Theatre on Queen Street a trailer of the film was shown to a sold-out audience. When it ended Grant himself appeared from behind the curtain. He immediately apologised for not being Ella Fitzgerald (who was also in Cardiff at the time performing) before taking questions from his fans. During the 30 minute interrogation he revealed his fondness for shooting love scenes; and declared that he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather be than... Cary Grant. He went on to stress that everyone should enjoy being themselves and celebrate their uniqueness. What a charmer.

With the applause still ringing in his ears Grant and his wife Betsy Drake headed off to a function at the Angel Hotel. This event attended by the press, local celebs and film people was a less happy affair. After Grant answered yet more questions, what seemed like the whole gathering (80 in number) expressed their desire to be photographed with the Hollywood legend. His congenial demeanour became increasingly strained as people queued up to be snapped with him. The actor barely had time to touch his hors d'oeuvres much less his dry martini. His wife looked on at the undignified circus with a bored expression. By 9.30pm the couple had had enough and headed off for a late dinner.

Bristol-born Grant was no stranger to Cardiff. As a child he often visited his aunt and uncle who lived in Lisvane Street in the Cathays district of the capital.

Friday, December 21, 2007

British Ballads

British Ballads by Anthony Reynolds is a pastoral affair set mainly in the domestic sphere. Not that this is a small scale effort you understand, on the contrary it frequently scales epic heights.

Opening track I Know You Know is a lush syncopated ballad that signals the decline of a relationship. The confessional tone continues in Those Kind of Songs.

House-husbands will be delighted by Bread and Wine and A Quiet Life both of which extol the virtues of staying indoors. The latter tune wittily listing the pitfalls of venturing forth into the outside world: dog shit, children, and rude shop assistants all lay in wait for the unsuspecting agoraphobe.

The ominous and unsettling Country Girl wouldn't feel out of place on a Nick Cave album. It's a pastoral tale but as any reader worth their salt will tell you there is always danger lurking in the undergrowth. Vashti Bunyan's breathy vocal only adds to the eeriness.

The Disappointed is simply wonderful. A soaring, cinematic ballad of failure and doomed romance - it really is an absolute jaw-dropper of a tune. A tolling bell sounding like the death-knell of every hope and dream you've ever cherished. It sounds as though Reynolds has got the London Philharmonic in for this one but it's actually just Fiona Brice doing a great job on strings.

Where the Dead Live is another ballad on the grand scale. The impact here though is less immediate, the song somewhat undermined by its rambling baroque structure. It's a grower mind and at going to press it is steadily insinuating its way into my affections.

Step forward Colin Wilson, famed writer on the occult and celebrity tent-dweller. Wilson here lends his venerable vocal to Rupert Brooke's famous poem The Hill. For his part Reynolds adds eerie sonic doodlings to the track creating a textually interesting, otherworldly piece.

Just So You Know is another lush orchestral number - this time a dreamy love song dripping with melancholy and regret. Once again Reynolds is aided and abetted by Vashti Bunyan with former Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde also lending a helping hand.

The record ends appropriately enough with a Song of Leaving. Stylistically too this is a departure being the only conventional pop song on the album. It reminds me of Aztec Camera and Pulp in its melodic breeziness. And despite the sorrow of parting an energetic and defiant way to conclude proceedings.

British Ballads is unashamedly romantic, frequently melodramatic, occasionally overblown (in the Brel/Diamond sense) but, god forbid, never dull. Once again Anthony Reynolds has proved himself to be a songwriter of considerable talent.

*British Ballads by Anthony Reynolds is released by Hungry Hill records and is on sale now.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Me and Willem Dafoe

Back in the day (that'll be 1986 then) I went to see a theatrical production by the Wooster Group from New York. At the time I had no idea they were one of the coolest theatre troupes on the planet.

The Wooster Group specialise in experimentation. The work I saw at Chapter Arts, Cardiff, entitled The Road to Immortality (Part Two)* certainly fitted into the 'weird' category. Linear plotting was jettisoned in favour of a collage of theatrical set-pieces, video sequences and live music.

As I recall the work linked the witchcraft hysteria of the 1660s with the drug counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s in America. Essentially they took the trial scene of Arthur Miller's Salem-set play The Crucible and intercut it with texts from the likes of Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley and Jack Kerouac.

What I recall most were the sudden shifts in tempo of the production. Scenes were manically speeded up, slowed right down again, and incongruous disassociating events introduced. Some actors wore period clothes others modern dress. The performance was meant to reflect, I think, an LSD drug trip although at times it seemed more like an amphetamine rush.

At one point in the drama they invited members of the audience to shout out names of counterculture writers. I must have been trying to impress the girl I was with because I yelled out "William Burroughs!". One of the actors immediately turned to me and began reading/reciting a chunk of Burroughs prose.

It was all rather extraordinary. Despite its kaleidoscopic structure the piece had a strange intensity and an innate theatricality that I've seldom seen bettered since - certainly not on the stage anyway.

After the show in the bar at Chapter Arts I spotted the unknown actor who had delivered the Burroughs speech to me. He was drinking alone. I wanted to go and have a quick chat with him about the play but the girl I was with was jabbering on about something or other. And then he was gone. The next time I saw him was on the big screen - it was Willem Dafoe.

The real stand-out performer in the production though was a guy called Ron Vawter. He went on to become a brilliant character actor turning up in flicks like Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs, and Sex, Lies and Videotape. Many's the time I've elbowed a companion in the ribs when he's been on the box and declared: "I've seen that bloke in Canton".

*Although the play was performed in Cardiff under the title The Road to Immortality (Part Two) it is more usually known as LSD (Just the High Points).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Marc Lawrence at the Prince of Wales

Next time you're in mediocre Cardiff boozer (and former theatre) the Prince of Wales raise a glass to Hollywood bad guy Marc Lawrence.

If like me you enjoy watching old b/w American gangster movies you'll be familiar with his pock-marked face. Menace was Lawrence's cinematic speciality. Amongst the classic flicks his sinister mug appeared in were Dillinger (1945); Cloak and Dagger (1947); Key Largo (1948); and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

In 1950 his Hollywood career came to an abrupt end after he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. At the witch-hunt he admitted to being a former member of the Communist party and even named a couple of other 'co-conspiritors'. He left for Europe soon afterwards.

He spent most of his European sojourn in Italy where he eked out a living making westerns. However in 1958 he was in Cardiff for a week at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Lawrence was starring as tough stevedore Eddie in Arthur Miller's banned play A View From The Bridge. Because the play had been vetoed by the Lord Chamberlain only members of the Prince of Wales Theatre Club were allowed to go and watch it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the drama basically Eddie the docker fancies his 17-year-old niece Catherine; can't get it up anymore for his wife Beatrice; and exercises his frustrations by beating up homosexual men. You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to work out what Eddie's problem is. By all accounts Lawrence was absolutely electric in the role.

He stayed at the Park Hotel while he was in Cardiff. Apparently he noticed his name had been wrongly spelt on the posters put up around town to advertise the play. He wasn't at all happy. New ones were printed up immediately and Lawrence's name put at the top of the bill. Well you wouldn't want to upset the fella now would you? Not with that face.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Snap! in Newport

In 1971 a mixed media exhibition entitled Snap! arrived on tour at Newport Art Gallery. It featured work by, amongst others, Gerald Scarfe, David Bailey and David Hockney. The exhibition had already been a big success at the National Portrait Gallery in London. But in Newport things would be much different.

A councillor, Clive Venn, had decided to prevent three satirical drawings by Gerald Scarfe from being shown. According to him two of them were no better than "lavatory wall art" and the other was disrespectful to former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

When Gerald Scarfe got wind of this he left his Chelsea home and headed straight for Newport. Who were these politicians to sit in artistic judgement of his work he quite understandably wanted to know? His drawings made up approximately one quarter of the exhibition and if three of them weren't going to be shown then NONE of them would.

When he arrived at the gallery a big row ensued. Gallery workers refused to take down his pictures. An enraged Scarfe headed out to Woolworths to buy himself some screwdrivers - he would remove them himself! When he got back the cops had turned up. They listened to both sides of the argument and concluded that the works were the artist's property and he could do whatever he liked with them. Scarfe removed his pictures.

Meanwhile the relevant committee at Newport council held an emergency meeting. Peter Jones, a member of the Welsh Arts Council turned up to plead Scarfe's case. According to Jones he was made to wait for ages, then given a mere ten minutes to discuss the issues. He was treated "like a lackey and an errand boy" he said. The Council decided that the exhibition should continue without Scarfe's pictures.

Ultimately it was the Welsh Arts Council who closed down Snap!. They arrived with two furniture vans and dismantled the entire exhibition, much to the bemusement of the general public who were in the gallery at the time still viewing it.

So, what were these drawings that Newport Council were so keen to prevent their citizenship from seeing? Well, one was a portrait of artist Aubrey Beardsley; another, Women's Liberation Front, depicted a naked woman sporting a spectacular phallic erection; Harold Wilson and the Gnomes of Zurich, showed Harold being shafted by one of the aforementioned gnomes.

Oddly enough I once interviewed Gerald Scarfe and asked him about this very incident. I wondered if he bore a life-long grudge against Newport and the Welsh? As I recall he seemed quite philosophical about the whole business - the exhibition ended up touring other parts of Wales he said and anyway it was all good publicity. So there you go.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rachel Roberts and her Drink Problem

Rachel Roberts was a brilliant stage and screen actress who ended up dead in Los Angeles after a barbiturate overdose.

Her ability to get completely rat-arsed and embarrass herself at social gatherings was legendary. At a party attended by Hollywood star Robert Mitchum and his missus, Roberts, as usual, got royally sozzled. Dropping to her hands and knees she padded across the floor to where Mitchum was standing. After pawing his leg and making barking noises she attempted to open his fly with her teeth. Later she would tell husband Rex Harrison that she was just pretending to be a Welsh corgi.

Her appearance on the Russell Harty chat show was so drunken the tapes had to be expunged. During recording she called Harty "a silly cunt", slagged off women's libbers (apparently all they needed was "a cock up their cunt or their arse") and proceeded to sing The Lady is a Tramp while the studio audience roundly booed her.

In LA, at Verita Thompson's (former lover of Humphrey Bogart) Mexican restaurant, the drunk Welsh-speaking actress shocked one and all by stripping naked after a dare made by her black hustler lover.

At another party in Los Angeles Roberts scraped some skin off author Gavin Lambert's nose with her fingernail. Lambert (one of the great writers on Hollywood) had to go to the bathroom to put a plaster on his profusely bleeding schnozzle. When he returned and accused her of scarring him for life she said: "Well, people have to live with their scars."

An ironic remark, as when she killed herself in 1980 - overdosing on Nembutals, Mogadons and an unidentified acid solution - her corpse was found covered in lacerations. In her suicidal state she had wandered through rose bushes in her garden before crashing through a glass screen in her kitchen. She was discovered dead on her kitchen floor with the kettle still boiling.

Somehow between the non-stop boozing, pill-popping, sexual promiscuity and her eventual suicide she managed to put in some fantastic acting performances. None better than her three different roles in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! (see pic).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Real Wrexham

Post-devolution Wales has witnessed a kind of Klondike rush to reclaim and redefine its culture. But it is in literature that this process seems to be most pronounced. Authors have been falling over themselves to rewrite Wales from the inside - just look at recent book titles: Cardiff Dead, Aberystwyth Mon Amour, Dial M for Merthyr, Swansea Terminal. And this doesn't even include writers like Niall Griffiths and Tristan Hughes who've forced us to re-examine neglected (dare I say unfashionable?) Welsh locales with fresh interest.

And then we have the recent Library of Wales reprints which resurrect forgotten or overlooked fictional works. The choosing of these books does nothing less than establish and shape a canon of Welsh writing in English. Quite a responsibility for those involved.

A non-fictional instance of this process of redefinition is the Real series edited by Peter Finch. These psychogeographic meanderings through Welsh towns and cities have already taken in Real Cardiff and Real Newport and now Grahame Davies presents us with Real Wrexham.

What I most enjoy about the franchise - apart from the detective-like uncovering of obscure local facts - is the notion that such workaday spots as Wrexham, Newport etc are as worthy of investigation as say, Venice. And why the hell not? How often in travel literature do we have to put up with some white-suited snob purple-prosing their way around some famous historical ruin or other?

The kinetic energy in these books is also a delight - that constant febrile sense of movement. Another engaging feature is the way that time becomes concertinaed so that a multitude of pasts are to be found lurking in the present.

And so it is with Real Wrexham - that Welsh Cinderella of a town. Streets and suburbs are tramped; buildings explored; the dead conjured back into life. There's Wrexham lager and Elihu Yale; a werewolf and St Giles' Church; Richard Nixon and CS Lewis; Hightown "skyscrapers" and the Blue Lagoon.

But ultimately it is not the constant revelation of interesting factual tidbits that makes this book so enjoyable. Rather it is Davies' subjective engagement with the town. That unique personal response to place that we each experience - there are, after all, as many real Wrexhams out there as there are inhabitants of the town.

Fortunately for us local-boy Davies is able to articulate his version of Wrexham with all the honesty and enthusiasm of the discerning insider. And this is what makes reading Real Wrexham - and the Real series in general - so much more satisfying than flicking through some dry and dispassionate guidebook.
*Real Wrexham by Grahame Davies is published by Seren and is on sale now.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Trocchi and the Vietnamese Pig Incident

In 1965 a bunch of weird beards gathered at the Park Hotel, Cardiff. Most of them weren't even wearing ties. A poetry conference was taking place in the city as part of the Commonwealth Arts Festival. Amongst the stellar line-up of bards were cult writer Alexander Trocchi (see pic), Michael X, George Macbeth, Adrian Henri, Mike Horovitz, Dan Richter (Kubrick/Lennon collaborator), Brian Patten and future Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka.

The poetry conference turned out to be a turbulent affair. There were bust-ups, walk-outs, accusations of hooliganism, and an incident involving a Vietnamese pig.

It was decided early on at the conference (by Michael X) that a cable in the form of a poem should be sent to "fellow poet" Mao Zedong urging him to use poems not guns in China's border dispute with India. Even this act of benevolence caused a ruckus. A breakaway group of poets decided to draft a petition to the queen instead, which they believed would be more effective.

Over the following days poetry readings and discussions were held at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre, curated by Trocchi. He was also behind the "happenings". When it was announced that happenings would definitely be taking place two Cardiff girls volunteered to dance naked at the events. Trocchi turned them down saying: "We're not out to shock for shock's sake." He went on: "It's impossible to say what will happen in advance. A happening after all, isn't meant to be a solidified hunk of reality. This thing has been building up even before last weekend - we must do something."

On the last night of the conference a black Vietnamese pig was prevented from entering the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre where a poetry reading was already underway. Poets struggled with theatre officials as the black 200lb pig, hired from a zoo, squealed noisily. The officials were already fed up with the poets who, they claimed, had turned the place into a pigsty by grinding cigarettes into the carpet and putting their feet on chairs! According to Trocchi the appearance of the pig was intended as a lament for the Vietnam war.

Later that night the poets decamped to the Jackson Hall for the happening. There was discordant music; poets screamed and bellowed on stage; a New York composer scraped domestic utensils across a microphone; a girl in a transparent gown did something involving paint and feathers; someone scrawled "God, Gin and Gasworks" across the walls; there was performance art and audience participation. In short, everyone was having a great time. When the happening ended, legend has it that the audience, poets and artists made their way in a Bacchanalian procession down to a nightclub in Butetown (Tiger Bay) to continue the fun.

But that wasn't the end of it. A Sunday newspaper claimed that riotous behaviour instigated by poets took place at the Park Hotel. It was alleged that certain poets annoyed other guests with their late night revelry and pranks. Shoes left outside rooms for cleaning were stolen, leaving irate guests with no option but to appear at breakfast in their socks. New footwear had to be purchased by the Park Hotel. It was also claimed that sheets were dumped into a bath; and a "disgusting suggestion" made to a hotel telephone operator. Obscenities were also scrawled across a notice board. Apparently the high jinks got so bad that hotel staff threatened to go on strike. All of which was later denied by the poetry conference organisers.

Sounds incredible. The Park Hotel (now the Thistle Hotel) ought to put up a plaque.