Tuesday, 21 December 2010

There will be an empty seat - a poem

There will be an empty seat,
a smile missing, a voice, a touch,
There will be an empty seat,
an absent breath and nothing much
to those that may look on in happiness and joy,
but to us, my love, to us,
there will be an empty seat.

A glass of wine will go untouched
by the usual pair of lips,
no chatter and no laughter
in between the gentle sips;
A cracker will go unpulled,
a paper crown shall have no king,
And we'll be missing a single voice
in the carols that we sing.

Little things that didn't matter
will not happen anymore,
A kiss and a hello
as you neared our front door;
the jokes you used to tell,
and the stories of the past,
nothing now you're gone,
nothing really lasts.

Yes we'll laugh and smile
and we'll talk the whole night through
until Boxing Day approaches
and there's other jobs to do;
We'll be merry and happy
and in a spirit of good cheer,
celebrating the season
and toasting the new year;
We'll keep our old traditions,
we'll open presents and give some too,
we'll eat, drink and be thankful,
but all the while we will cry for you,

all the while, as we laugh,
there will be a tear in our eye,
a sadness in our hearts,
and a longing to know why,
and when we're all alone,
with the sky a deeper colour,
maybe we'll remember
our final moments with each other.

There will be an empty seat,
a place we've left for you,
in the hope you might come back
and do you all you used to do;
There will be an empty seat,
and we'll look upon it and cry
for everything we've lost
and everything that has to die;
There will be an empty seat,
a Christmas candle will go unlit,
there will be an empty seat
where you, you used to sit.

Dedicated to my grandfather Harry who passed away this year and to everyone who is without a loved one this Christmas. 

After being kind enough to read the poem, Stephen Fry sent me a message, saying, "It's very very fine. Congratulations. Your grandfather would have been so extraordinarily proud of you xxx".

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Impossible Place - Review

Before I begin, it essential that I make my confession; I know the people who wrote, starred in and created this film. In fact, quite a lot of them are very dear friends of mine, friends, indeed, with whom I have shared stage. Nonetheless, the ever professional reviewer that I am (or at least try to be), I endeavoured, as I sat in the cinema for the film’s premiere last night, to be as unbiased and impartial as possible. And now, as I write the review for that film, I shall strive to work with the same professionalism.  Right, glad that’s out of the way.

“The Impossible Place” is the second feature length film from the budding film and theatre company, PurpleCoat Productions, which is headed by Mr Karl Falconer and Mr Calum Green. “The Impossible Place”, being a student film, is a low budget production and utilises the talents of very capable, but nevertheless untrained, aspiring actors.

What struck me most as I watched this film last night was just what a gargantuan achievement it was. It has been a year (maybe a little over) since the idea for the film was conceived. The screenplay was then produced by Karl Falconer, who, together with his colleague Calum Green, brought the story to life – casting roles, filming scenes all over Liverpool (and elsewhere), directing shots, getting the right sets, props and costumes, adding special effects, working on ADR et cetera, et cetera. The stress and fatigue for everyone involved, cast and crew, must have been enormous. As an onlooker, I can only stare in amazement. What one must remember is that PurpleCoat is not a large company with infinite funding at hand; it is a small organisation, run by two overwhelmingly determined and talented students. It would be easy to sit and pick faults with the film, but for this fledgling company to produce a full length feature, and a full length feature with some quite brilliant aspects about it, is simply astonishing and something to be admired.

However, that does not mean to say that the film is perfect. It, like everything else, has its flaws. One would have liked a bit more substance in a few scenes. The screenplay is fantastic, there’s no doubting that, but at points, I felt that more could have been done; emotions could have been better developed. For instance, at one point Geoffrey tells Oliver that he has cancer. The scene is a powerful one – but it could have been even more powerful: with a little bit more speech, a more poignant reaction. There were areas of high drama that, at times, were not pushed to their full potential.

The film is a sci-fi thriller, and, as with all dramas of this genre, the plot is crucial to everything. The storyline is gripping, and, for the most part, we are able to follow it. However, there is a lot of jumping in time – be it several thousand years or just two. At points, the audience is left a bit dazed as to just what is going on onscreen. One key area for improvement would be to make things a little bit clearer. This can be achieved firstly by ensuring speech is not drowned out by the soundtrack, which it sometimes is. And secondly, the captions at the bottom of the screen that inform the audience of the current location and time need to remain there for longer, be easier to read and to not be cut off at the edge of the screen – as they consistently were. But, it is important to note that “The Impossible Place” is the first of a trilogy, so many loose ends have been left unsolved deliberately.

The special effects, bearing in mind the budget, were brilliant and convincing. I have no idea how any of it was done – which, surely, is the sign of a good magic trick. I am sure, with a higher standard of equipment and industry expertise, they could be even better – but this, naturally, can only be achieved with commercial funding. One area of technical wizardry was the construction of the magical realm wherein the High Council dwell. That really was marvellous. The characters, once in this realm, had a kind of buzzing aura surrounding them, as did the three members of the Council. The leader, played by Douglas Austin, harnessed balls of electric light to summon and dismiss people from the Council, which looked remarkable.

For me, the performances of all involved were excellent. There was not one actor who didn’t have a moment of brilliance. However, the stand-outs came from Karl Falconer as Oliver, an eccentric and magical time traveller who is still susceptible to the pains of love and friendship, death and loss. Falconer’s portrayal of a peculiar and witty hero, juxtaposed against someone racked by grief and guilt, is marvellous. Also, Chris Hogan’s creepy Bernard and Elena Stephenson’s Taylor make for an unnerving and complex partnership. Both actors, for me, were stars of the film and delivered thoughtful and beautifully nuanced performances. Hogan’s Bernard is at once funny and terrifying, pitiable and villainous. Stephenson’s character, perhaps the darkest of all, is deeply mysterious and oddly endearing. Her relationship with Siobhan Crinson’s Rachel is one of the best parts of the film. Another great performance, and the last I shall mention in this review, came from Rhiannon Wolff as a somewhat odd and perplexing character. She seems to know Oliver, yet Oliver does not know her; she pops up in several scenes, seemingly out of place but no one bats an eyelid. We have no idea who she is or what role she plays in the storyline, but something subtle tells us she is important (for which the writer, Karl Falconer, ought to be admired). Wolff’s portrayal is crazy, a joy to watch and also very funny – an incongruous and unprovoked “quack” which her character comes out with at one point in the film is rather hilarious.

What I would most like to point out is this – “The Impossible Place” is an immensely enjoyable film. What we witnessed at the premiere was the culmination of months upon months of work, but in the end, the effects, the shots, the screenplay and the performances all came together to produce a highly watchable and engaging film. Yes, it has its flaws and faults, there are areas for improvement and I doubt an Oscar is on the cards.  But this is a low budget, independent film – there are lots of terrible films like that, but this is most certainly not one of them. The sheer volume of work and tenacity that went into the making of this film is overwhelming. As a professional, I applaud them all. As a friend, I am so happy for them and I feel so blessed that I know such talented individuals. Everyone involved has achieved something spectacular and for that they should feel proud. “The Impossible Place” is a great film and, as it enters the festival circuit, I can say that only a fool would fail to see its potential. Based on this film and on the rest of their work that I have experienced, I believe PurpleCoat Productions has a bright future ahead of it. Look out for PurpleCoat because they are going places.
Star rating out of 5 for “The Impossible Place”:

If you would like to learn more about PurpleCoat Productions, you can visit their website at www.purplecoatproductions.com

Saturday, 18 December 2010

A yuletide play that leaves one out in the cold

"A Christmas Carol" is a festive classic, a story known and loved the world over and a heart-warming tale of one man's moral awakening. What better time for director Rachel O' Riordan and the newly relocated Library Theatre Company to stage this story turned play than during the weeks leading up to Christmas?

However, the production leaves quite a bit to be desired. The choral singing in which the ensemble cast engages is certainly unique, if not a little out of tune. What is more, one never really connects with David Beames' Scrooge. Granted, from the offing, Beames does a great job of establishing Ebenezer's unforgiving meanness of spirit and incessant greed for money. The scene in which a pair of kindly Victorian philanthropists ask Mr Scrooge for some money for the poor is done with poignancy and a sardonic humour. Beames' deliverance of that famous line, "If they would rather die, they better do it, and decrease the surplus population" is powerful and stingingly evil to the ears. However, the transformation from money-counting-devil to Christmas-loving-angel is not really that convincing. Beames' reformed Scrooge lacks the conviction and believability that his unenlightened one possessed. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that one stops believing in anything Beames' Scrooge says after he is pulled up on a pair of all too visible stage wires in an act of "flying". 

Then there's the dancing. And the music. Maybe it's just me, but I've never thought anything of Dickens' works as a musical. Yes, there's "Oliver!" but I don't much care for that. However, this production is not a musical, it merely contains scenes of choreography and singing - would they would do away with all of it. The score is an oddly assembled medley of Christmas carols, sang by a cast with a very varied vocal range...and ability. Couple this with some of the most ridiculous "dancing" you've ever seen (at several points, the whole cast lift their arms up in the air and spin round like jewellery box ballerinas) and one is left with a very sour taste in the mouth.

The plays also lacks rhythm and pace. It is always a danger with such a well known story that the audience become bored, merely awaiting the next scene rather than concentrating on the present one. Sadly, O' Riordan's production is nothing special - it is what it is: a staging of one of Dickens' most well know (and overdone) works with nothing different or unique about it. It plods on and we lose interest rapidly. 

It does, however, have some good points. 

The set, a wood panelled wall with two curving staircases on either side and a Cathedral-like door at its centre, is beautifully imposing and overwhelming Gothic. This is very effective in strengthening the ghoulish feel of Dickens' masterpiece. 

The stand out performances come from Lisa Kerr's Belle, who pulls at the audiences hearts when she tells the young Scrooge that she is leaving him, and Kath Burlinson and Abigail McGibbon's philanthropists, who, though only brief parts, are real highlights of the play. The pair also give wonderfully eccentric ghosts, the former as Christmas present, the latter as Christmas past. 

In general, this production of "A Christmas Carol" is disappointing. Though it has some excellent aspects, the play overall is underwhelming, slow and, at times, quite poor. Personally, I think the Muppets did a much better job. 

Star rating out of 5 for "A Christmas Carol", Lowry:

Friday, 10 December 2010

The protests and the vote - why we have won

Yesterday, the House of Commons voted in favour of one of the Coalition government's most divisive and controversial policies - a rise in university tuition fees. It was a sad day: for democracy, for politics and worst of all, for education. Thanks to the measure, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds,  intimidated and worried by the thousands of pounds of debt they will find themselves in, will be discouraged from going on to higher education. As a direct result, universities will become even more elitist than they already are and society as a whole will suffer. This will be proven true in time. But for now we must focus on the present.

There are two hopeful things that we can take from yesterday's vote. Firstly, the Liberal Democrats are finished. Never before in the history of British politics has a party gone from such hysteric public support and popularity to such bitter hatred and disgust. During the election, many Lib Dems signed a pledge saying that they vowed to oppose any policy that tried to increase tuition fees. Nick Clegg and his party made a promise to students, the people to whom he should be thankful for his party's seats. He broke that promise. The Lib Dems may wish to argue that "that is how coalition politics works" and that they can't possibly get all of their policies passed. Tosh, utter tosh. It was students who put the Lib Dems in power it is therefore students whom the Lib Dems should be championing and supporting, not the Conservatives. Tuition fees was a key aspect of the Liberal Democrats' campaign and to simply cast that away to please the Tories, to place power before principles, is utterly disgusting and frankly unforgivable. I was one of the many who dared, yes dared, to dream, to believe and to hope that the Liberal Democrats were different - a party of the future, a party committed to a new type of politics. They have shown themselves to be opportunistic, spineless fools and I shall not make the mistake of supporting them ever again. Be assured that Clegg's party will pay for what it has done - at the next general election, they will be obliterated.

The second hopeful thing is the evident success of the protest movement. Thanks to the overwhelming public backlash against this unfair policy, the government's majority was reduced from 84 to just 21. This shows that action works. In the weeks leading up to the vote, students and members of the public took to the streets to voice their opposition to a rise in tuition fees, and also to cuts in general. Many said it would achieve nothing. They were wrong. Protest has made a clear and powerful impact, and it may not have stopped the motion, but it certainly weakened it and the iniquitous Coalition. And we mustn't stop here. As members of a free democracy, we must exercise our right to protest - a right some, a major policing figure among them, would like to take from us. You can be sure that tuition fees is not the only unfair policy the Coalition has up its sleeve, and as the true nature of this government reveals itself, we must do all we can to oppose and disrupt. The worst thing that could happen as a result of this vote is that we, the public, lose our tenacity. With determination, with intelligence and with a clear moral agenda, we will stop the government - indeed, the process has already begun.

But by protest, I mean peaceful protest. Violence is simply unacceptable and it is completely deleterious to the movement. It is, of course, only a small monitory who cause the violence we have seen at the protests, a minority, it is crucial to point out, intent on deliberately provoking vandalism and fighting. Students and citizens alike must condemn the immature, short-sighted boisterousness we have witnessed and always seek to rise above it - for it only results in harm and in no way benefits the cause. The attacks on the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, for instance, were deeply unacceptable and the purpurators should be dealt with accordingly. But please understand, I am in no way justifying some of the tactics used by police - a number of whom are more thuggish and savage than the anarchist rebels. Both the media and the police force need to seriously re-evaluate the way they deal with the protest movements, because at present their way of doing things is wrong. News stations, as they have done and are doing, should not provide a slanted, biased impression of the protests and the police should, at all times, only use violence as an absolute final resort. Presently, their methods are too brutal and often inhumane.

What we have witnessed over these past two months or so is democracy in action. Together and as a collective, we, the people, have opposed an inherently inequitable and unmerited policy; we have left our classrooms, our lecture halls, our places of work and taken to the streets; we have voiced our clear, unforgiving resistance to the rise in university tuition fees and cuts to public services. And we have won. Yes, we have won. The policy may have been passed, but we have won in a larger sense. Our actions have slashed the government majority and will continue to do so. But more than this, my generation has become politicised - something I have dreamed of and wished for for years, but never thought could happen. How wrong I was. My peers are joining and supporting me in my opposition to the government. People, for the first time in many years, are interested in politics. Everyone has an opinion. And as a society, we have mobilised and marched onward in the cause of justice and equality. There is work to do yet, but if that is not winning, I don't know what is.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

There is still a place for the monarchy in Britain

The following is my opening speech to be delivered at the annual Schools' Debate on Tuesday 7th December, the motion being: There is no place for an unelected head of state in 21st Century Britain". Our team has been chosen to oppose the motion. 

N.B. This is not my personal opinion. In a formal debate, one is assigned a side for which to argue, one does not pick. I am personally a republican, as I have said in this post

Inscribed on the shield of the United Kingdom’s coat of arms is the British monarchy’s famous motto, “Dieu et mon droit”. It is French, meaning “God and my right”, and it alludes to an age-old tradition of the Divine Right of Kings – the belief that our monarchs were appointed by God, and therefore infallible. It is, of course, nonsense. The Queen was not picked by some divine force, nor has any sovereign in the history of the British Isles ever been subject to heavenly selection. They are in their position solely because of birth. Random chance. This, as we all know, has not always been an accepted viewpoint. In the past, the Divine Right of Kings was a solemnly held belief, and anyone who dared contest it was likely to find themselves either chained up in the Tower or swinging from a noose. But times have moved on. Progress has been made. And we have now reached a stage in our history where the Queen or King is not seen as God’s representative on earth and an unquestionable, supreme figure of absolute authority.

Some people, however, would have you think differently. Militant republicans often act as though we were still living in the past, still the citizens of an undemocratic country, being ordered about by a hereditary tyrant. But the truth is that the monarch has no real power. Not anymore.  The Queen or King, I concede, still has to sign legislation to make it law and still has to “ask” whoever wins an election to form a government in his or her name. But the point is that these are mere formalities, traditions that we’ve chosen to keep. If the monarch ever dared to publicly express a political opinion; to refuse to make something law after it had been passed through our democratic, legislative system or forbade the winning party from forming a government, then I would not be defending their role in modern Britain. If anything of that sort ever happened, it is certain, absolutely certain, that the government and the people would immediately have the monarchy abolished. As citizens of a democracy, we rightly expect and demand freedom and justice. The monarchy does not infringe these rights, and if they ever did, then they’d be scrapped sooner than you can say, “Grab the corgis, Phillip; we’ve a revolution on our hands!” The monarch, in today’s Britain, is merely a figurehead – a representative without any power, but rather under national order to remain neutral at all times.

What is more, the Royal Family earns this country millions of pounds every year through tourism. Go to Buckingham Palace on any day and you are guaranteed to find an American gentlemen in an unwise shirt and with an ostentatiously large camera taking pictures of the royal residency and hoping to catch a glimpse of the Queen in her dressing gown and curlers. The monarchy is this country’s main attraction. The global community flock to This Sceptred Isle year upon year to marvel at royal castles and palaces; jewels and paintings; garden and halls et cetera, et cetera. Abolish the monarchy and you do a great ill to 21st Century Britain's ailing economy - and you also put millions out of work: the tour guides, the experts, and the charming BBC Royal Correspondents like Jennifer Bond, among others. 

In addition, the monarchy is to the UK what an argument is to a dinner party – it makes it that little bit more interesting. In an increasingly republican age, I think that maintaining our heritage, keeping our traditions alive and not defaulting to a rather dull presidential system is something to be encouraged. The royal family makes this country unique, it makes us fascinating. The UK, more than any other state in the world, is renowned and famous for its monarchy. Getting rid of the Royals may well damage our national identity, our power and purpose as a player on the world stage, and thus be deleterious to our position in the 21st Century.  

In conclusion, I believe there is still a place for our monarchy in modern Britain. The Royal Family was stripped of political power long ago, and any attempt to reclaim it on their behalf would undoubtedly result in abolition. The political procedures in which the monarch must participate are mere tradition, and as much a part of the United Kingdom as tea and conversations about the weather. And what exactly is wrong with a bit of ceremony? It’s attractive, it’s uplifting and it’s an integral aspect of our national heritage (not to mention the millions of pounds it generates annually). The monarchy, however old-fashioned, however traditional, is still part of our modern identity. The royal family is a central thread of cotton in the great tapestry of Britain, and I for one don’t wish to unravel it. Though on a personal note, ask me again when it’s Camilla’s turn to take the throne, and my opinion may have differed.