1 May 2009

"When your race is run, and you already know..."

Yesterday's Men by Madness. As vibrant and enjoyable as the nuttier end of the Madness discography remains all this time later, songs like this are the ones that remind us of the musicianship and professionalism of the band.

Much had changed for Madness by the time this 1985 single was issued. Mike Barson, pianist and default songwriter, had left because he had married a Dutch woman and relocated to Amsterdam. The band had set up their own label, Zarjazz, and were already in the throes of new projects which would eventually herald their decision to split, along with a general feeling, not least within the words of this song, that previous peaks were never going to be revisited.

We'd not heard from Madness since the glorious, complicated One Better Day more than a year earlier. Although they were still only in their mid to late 20s, there was a feeling that a band previously known for being youthful, exuberant and not weighed down by politics needed to grow up. Certainly there is a nostalgic bent and a sighing acceptance of the times within Yesterday's Men - the title itself is a giveaway - and it ambles along, gently and commandingly, with some smart and understated saxophone.

Madness got into trouble for not being political in their early days, hence the issue of Embarrassment, but even as their career mainstreamed itself they never bothered too heavily with political statements. Famously, they wrote about buying contraceptives, living in a two-up two-down, getting caught in a monsoon and witnessing a death via myocardial infarction, hardly a threat to people's opinions but nonetheless expertly crafted and worthy songs. It was their willingness to have fun, make fun and be fun that kept a wide span of audiences all transfixed; pop kids were attracted as much as the ska second wavers of the late 70s. But with Yesterday's Men, it was clear that they wanted to make their own point; one that showed off their musicality even though the most evidently skilled musician in their ranks had beetled off to play happy marriages.

To make up for the seriousness of the song, the video did the job that all Madness videos do - to embellish the song's meaning while making us laugh, or at least chuckle. Each member, being introduced by a 1985-typeface caption, appears individually at the beginning, climbing into a dustbin or being squashed by a falling tree (then being seen to do the opposite by crude reversal of the videotape), prior to a few standard Madnessisms with the aid of some zebra crossings. And when Atlas chucks the earth away, only for it to rebound back and knock him clean off his feet - well, that's slapstick I can still laugh at now. Maybe that says more about me than anyone else.

I think also this song, along with One Better Day, gives Suggs real credit as a vocalist. The brand of music Madness made and the subject matters therein often meant that vocal quality was never the greatest priority, but he still delivered it. Reeling off a 100mph list of school memories in Baggy Trousers made textbook singing both irrelevant and impractical, but the more thoughtful stuff allowed him his moment.

Yesterday's Men
got to No.18 in the charts, and Madness released Uncle Sam as a follow-up, another delve into politics which questioned the serving American regime of Ronald Reagan through the eyes of a veteran GI. Despite the crucial presence of a whistled Sailor's Hornpipe underscore, it became the first Madness single not to reach the UK Top 20.

Madness took the decision to disband shortly afterwards and Barson returned for (Waiting For) The Ghost Train, an anti-South Africa tirade. Worthy as the subjects were, Madness had become serious. However, writes speaks warmly of Yesterday's Men, for which he was the lyricist, in his liner notes on the Utter Madness compilation, stating it was "a joy to write and record" and claiming it incorporated jazz, reggae and "a heap of irony". One assumes by this he meant that the band knew better than anyone that they were long past their prime. This song at least made it clear that whatever their relevance, they were still more than proficient.

30 April 2009

NHS "Trust"

My father-in-law, 90 this year, is in hospital. He had a fall at the end of last week and was admitted without physical injury but certainly in an element of confusion, which remains to this day. He doesn't appear to have had a specific brain malfunction, thank goodness (he can still tell us about being in Basra in 1943 without any problems, but also managed to recognise me when I turned up to visit him, which was a relief) but there is something plainly wrong.

The problem is, we still don't really know what it is. This isn't because his case is so baffling that he has defied all the finest medical brains that the NHS Trust in Hull has to offer; it's because it took five days - five days - before he was seen by a consultant. That means that from last Friday morning until yesterday afternoon he was in a hospital bed, confused, not knowing why he was there or what got him there.

I read NHS horror stories as they obviously make good copy. Like many political innovations of standing, it has an issue which relies on the principle rather than the practical. The political phrase "the principle of it is widely accepted, but the way it works isn't" could apply as much to the NHS as it did to the poll tax, the desperately damaging local government taxation scheme brought in at the end of the 1980s and about which Douglas Hurd uttered those very words.

From looking at the way my father-in-law has been treated, it seems to be more apposite than ever. Upon his admission, he was shifted from a medical ward to the geriatric ward. That's fine, except nobody told us - his family - and therefore we turned up for visiting hours at the wrong side of a large hospital and then wandered freely but aimlessly around a ward, staring intrusively at all the patients because he was no longer in the bed where we'd earlier left him. Eventually we found out from an apologetic and - needless to say - hideously overworked nurse that he had been moved and she gallantly directed us to where we needed to be going, removing 15 precious minutes off the 60 allowed during visiting hours - 60 minutes for which, I should add, we had paid more than three quid for in the car park. Oh, and this car park was now at the opposite end of the hospital too, so we would have to leave my father-in-law ten minutes earlier than planned so we didn't risk a ticket. For all the inefficiencies in the medical side of the NHS, their parking staff certainly make up for it.

We got to the geriatric ward and found that it was locked up because the visiting hours were earlier there. We pressed the buzzer and waited, and eventually a knackered-looking nurse, just off duty, let us in and told us where we could find him. I'm guessing that this nurse probably broke some crazy rule about allowing visitors outside of hours by showing us where he was, bless her, but anyway ... Eventually we found the old chap, sitting in a chair next to his bed, his hands shaking from the Parkinsons Disease that has riddled him for a year or more.

The on-duty nurses were great with us, but we've discovered in the days hence that the adage about geriatric patients being less well regarded by the NHS because of their age is, sadly, true. There seems to be less inclination to find out what's wrong with any urgency, it's harder to get information about medication or allergies into the heads of the staff, and in my father-in-law's case, communication between different shifts of nurses has been poor. One immediate suspicion of his GP when he first fell at home was that his new anti-Parkinsons pills had a side-effect. Immediately he came off the pills, which brought back his shaking but stopped the imbalance. As soon as the nurses changed shifts at the hospital, they were giving him the pills again and - you've guessed it - he had another fall.

The NB got to hospital one day to find him wearing a T-shirt and trousers. He never wears T-shirts, and the trousers weren't his. A nurse explained that they were hospital clothes and he had been incontinent, which did him a great disservice; what had actually happened was that he had not been asked once over the previous 12 hours if he needed the lavatory. Upon this revelation, the nurse mentioned he had a bottle he could use - but any man with shaking hands cannot relieve himself that way.

At the moment, we have a confused man of 89 in a ward where nobody knows not only what is wrong with him but what basic standards of care he should be entitled to have. I hate to trot out the old line, but if a man who worked very hard from the age of 15 to 66, as he did, wasn't paying stamps for his own care in his old age, then what exactly what was he paying for? All we've had so far is lack of communication over his whereabouts, his medication and his need for basic hygiene care.

He's a proud bloke, my father-in-law. He's tall, distinguished and decent, a bit of a granny magnet when dolled up (and he knows it), and he doesn't deserve this, and his family who look after him tirelessly for the rest of the time don't deserve it either. Indeed, all we've had for definite from the system so far is a threat that we'd be sued if we didn't get him to hospital after his initial fall in the first place. Look what has happened - or not happened - since we acted upon that threat and got him to hospital. He'd have been better off at home where his family could care for him; instead, his family have been questioned and probed but told absolutely nothing.

29 April 2009

"My nephew Nicholas!"

A friend's teenage daughter has just acquired herself a role in her school production. I didn't ask, rather rudely in hindsight, what the production was, as I was too busy recalling my one spot of board treading in my youth.

When I was 14, I was doing GCSE Music (a revelatory pupil, me - I was a wizard at playing Walk Like An Egyptian on a Yamaha keyboard) and we were all encouraged to take part, either in the school band or choir, in the summer production which the drama department had chosen.

As it turned out, a few of the music students were quite keen on auditioning for acting roles. Given that it was a musical, and therefore solo singers were needed, this was deemed a good idea and so the two departments came together to find their leading boys and girls.

We were doing Smike, the pop adaptation of Dickens' tale Nicholas Nickleby. The modernised production featured the boarding school Dotheboys and one small lad's rescue from the victimisation of his headmaster by the benevolent young assistant, Nickleby. The part of Nickleby was the major one, and needed to be played by a mid-age lad, around 14 or 15. Chris Tyas and I auditioned, and he got it due to being able to hit the high notes better on Don't Let Life Get You Down. As consolation, I was handed the role of Nickleby's elderly uncle Ralph, who wasn't required to sing but had one key scene.

Working on the play was incredibly hard, but also one of the most joyful experiences I had at school, though aside from the success of the football team and my liaison with a gorgeous girl who lived on Roslyn Crescent, I didn't have many others. The drama teachers, Mr Deakin and Miss Kott, worked very long hours, with amazing patience, coaching all the kids with speaking roles in basic acting, stage direction, interpretation of the script and so on.

If you don't know the story, then essentially Dotheboys Hall ("... is a very nice hall and a very nice place to beeeeee!") was a dilapidated but reputable boarding school in Yorkshire, Dickens-stylee, where the kids were heavily disciplined in harsh but approved Victorian manner by the head, Mr Squeers. The kids were roundly whipped for even the most minor of felons (and often despite the absence of the most minor of felons) and fed solely on brimstone and treacle ("good for young people, helps to keep their appetite at bay!") while the Squeers family luxuriated in proper meals and better accommodation. This regime changes when Ralph Nickleby (me) blackmails Squeers over a dead boarder for whom he had unwittingly continued to pay and forces him to give his keen, inexperienced nephew, Nicholas ("here I am, and Nickleby's my name!"), a job as his assistant. Slowly but surely, young Nickleby begins to influence the boys and forces an uprising over the Squeers family, with young Smike the focal point of the revolution.

I hope that's a) comprehensible; and b) accurate. I'm sure I'll be marked down if not. The musical, which was put together by Simon May in the 70s, used the Victorian saga as a long imagination sequence, stemming from a modern day English lesson in which Nickleby (as Mr Nicholls) was teaching the Dickens book to a class.

I dread to think how tough it was for Chris and the other leading players, who were essentially in the play throughout. I had one simple scene to learn, in which I introduced Squeers to Nickleby and told him he had no choice but to give him the advertised job as the head's "able assistant", as I'd otherwise report him for making me continue to pay the boarding account of a kid who'd copped it.

That condenses it reasonably, I think. The actual script was far better.

As I didn't have a song to sing, for which the audience and windows still offer blessings to this day, I rarely saw the rehearsals which knitted the music with the drama. The actors who had to sing were learning their songs at the piano with the music teacher at lunchtime, then rehearsing their lines with the drama teacher after school. Only in the last couple of weeks were the two conjoined, when we had two full play rehearsals, one of which had an impromptu audience of future first years who were on their tour of the school, ready for their arrival in the September.

In the three days prior to opening night, we had two dress rehearsals. I didn't see or know much about my costume until I saw it. I had cream satin breeches, black boots, a frilly white shirt, a bow tie, a royal blue jacket and a top hat. I looked a right malcolm, but once the whole cast had been dolled up we looked superb as a group. Other teachers were recruited as make-up artists and I had all sorts of stripes and shades plastered on me to a) do the necessary job as far as the lighting was concerned; and b) make myself look wrinkled, as I was supposed to be playing a pensioner. To capture this image further, my boring blonde, fringed hair was centrally parted and I was, to all intents and purposes, ducked upside down in a large pail of talcum powder, creating snow white hair. I was told not to sneeze under any circumstances - difficult when even breathing prompted white dust to fall before your nostrils - as all the talc would fly off. I looked like one of those Sunday Sport characters who were 14 years old but with the looks and frailties of a centenarian. At the very least, my reflection told me I needed to start investing in Head & Shoulders.

The amount of talc required was measured, I remember, by the amount which fluttered into the light when, as dictated by the scene, I had to remove my top hat. At the first dress rehearsal there was a titter or two as all this powder cascaded around me as I sat down and took the topper off. Next day, less talc. Eventually, I looked like the Ralph I needed to be.

We had three performing nights in total before an audience of parents and teachers, plus a few students who came along to giggle, heckle (though none dared, in the end) or watch jealously as they'd not got a part. My parents and grandma came along. We were in three groups - the actors and stagehands, the choir and the musicians. A mate of mine was the lead guitarist and as the lights went down and the curtains closed, he was required to play the opening bars of the theme from Smike. He did so brilliantly.

I watched the play from the upper gantry, where the changing areas (or sixth form lecture rooms, as they were normally known) were based. I had to clamber down a sheer, vertical gantry ladder - in boots and breeches and top hat, remember - prior to my scene, as did the other supporting cast members to another classroom which acted as the wings, prior to entrance. I can still remember the sheer terror of that ladder as I considered the noise I'd make and the ruination of everyone's work I'd cause if I fell.

My scene, on each evening, went fine. No speech garbling, no memory loss, no needless improvising. Upon stage exit, again I had to return to the upper gantry and watch the rest of the play. At the end was a rock 'n' roll song called Dotheboys Rock which the kids playing the school class sang and the rest of us joined at chorus time. The deputy headteacher who addressed the audience at the end of each night was congratulatory of us and my parents politely said I'd done well. The only thing I got wrong was going to see them for some reason during the interval, and Mr Deakin saying I'd ruined the moment by being myself while still attired in character.

I didn't exactly get the acting bug, unlike one or two of the other cast members who went on to do Theatre Studies at A Level, but I did enjoy it. I auditioned for a role in the next year's production, Rats, but then decided not to do it because of GCSE revision. That one was based on the Pied Piper story. Chris Tyas, whose role also luckily allowed him to slow dance with Annalise Quest onstage every evening, is now a successful entertainment entrepreneur, while the lad who played Smike did, I understand, go on to a stage career.

I hope my mate's daughter enjoys her production. I just remember having the best time on the one I did, and I can still remember my whole scene, word for word, plus a good handful of the songs. I spoke to Chris Tyas on Facebook recently and pointed out the similarity of the verse melody to Human by the Killers, and the verse melody to Don't Let Life Get You Down, the big showstopper he sang on each of those three nights. He was justifiably nonplussed.

Photographs were taken of the show by cast members and teachers alike but I've not seen any since 1988. I suspect it will stay that way.

28 April 2009

"You're related!"

So then, Coronation Street has broken the last taboo and has incest as a storyline.

There will be guardians of our values who will, via the right wing press, wail and gnash their re-whitened teeth at this, but at least it surely means that the dreadful Colin Grimshaw won't be around for much longer. He's no Ted Sullivan and I'm astonished that the writers believe that Rita, a woman always so protective of herself from any potential beau with a masterplan, would happily take his name and essentially sign her nest egg over to someone who was portrayed from the start as a chancer and charlatan.

I did initially wonder whether it was absolute necessary to have Jason and Julie sleep together before the truth came out, as Julie's sourfaced mother had been looking daggers at the Grimshaw grandad for weeks, making it quite obvious what was ahead; the sort of clanging "hey, and then guess what?!" moment my despairing father would say, mid-snore, that he had written while sitting on the toilet. But then I suppose she would have told Julie had she been present in the pub when her daughter got her claws into a reluctant but inebriated Jason.

Instead, she found out through idle gossip (of course) and even then wouldn't tell Julie the truth unless she knew for definite that they had done the evil deed. Ultimately, of course, it wouldn't be soap (or drama as a whole) if she didn't eventually reveal all to not just Julie but the whole pub at Colin's 70th birthday do, leaving Eileen feeling aghast, the freshly-engaged Rita heartbroken and Jason just plain unclean as he densely worked out he'd just hidden the sausage with his aunt. It was terrific.

What was more terrific than any of this climactic bluster, however, was the touching scene of wonderful understatement between Rita and Norris as the pompous old get warmly wished Rita well, despite his disapproval of her liaison with Colin, and told her he would always be her closest ally. With the revelation that followed, it secures for the viewer the added relief that Norris will not be going on any pan-Europe jaunt in the camper van with Mary, but instead continuing one of the best comic partnerships in soap for a good while longer.

And one last Coronation Street compliment, as an unrelated aside - Fiz is absolutely brilliant.

27 April 2009

Foul ... and a miss

The World Snooker Championships are on the telly at the moment and therefore most regular BBC2 programmes will be moved, delayed or just ditched altogether to accommodate it. And, well, so be it. Snooker still generates a sporting audience.

I've watched it on television all my life though as I got older, I began to pick and choose the tournaments. The world championship is a gimme, as is the Masters. I used to like the World Doubles Championships (the only time Tony Meo won anything as he hooked up with Steve Davis) but that was back in the 1980s.

It was just comfortable watching the snooker. A combination of David Vine, Jack Karnehm, Clive Everton and Ted Lowe patiently explaining the game as it dragged itself gently along was somehow appointment viewing. There were no ex-pros in the commentary box with them and none acting as pundits alongside Vine in the anchor's studio. It was unfussy, respectful stuff and yet remained very technical and, despite its image of smoky halls which preferred not to allow women along, very highbrow.

A criticism that is levelled at snooker today is that it lacks personality within its players. That's not entirely right, though it is easy to come to that conclusion. Personalities come in all shapes and forms, and I think there's as much to be had from Peter Ebdon wildly punching the air and breaking the tension with a huge "Come ON!!!" after downing a vital black as there is from Ray Reardon offering a chair to his opponent, provoking mega laughter from the stalls, because said opponent was too short to reach a pot, even with the longest available rest.

A good test of where snooker's standing lies in media circles is the number of adverts which have featured high-profile players. To be honest, I can't think of one. I don't know if Ronnie O'Sullivan has ever appeared in an advert, and he is the obvious one. But back in the heyday of the game, there were three memorable examples of snooker crossing into commercial endorsement, to wit:

1 - a childhood, adolescent and finally fully-grown Steve Davis eating Heinz Baked Beans on toast while analysing the position of the plate, cruets etc, and chalking his knife.
2 - Jimmy White watching his opponent break off and then thinking "I'll just clear this table before I have another Softmint" prior to doing exactly that in speeded-up time while his opponent got upset.
3 - John Spencer miscuing a red off the table and right into the gentlemen's area of referee Len Ganley, whose angry response was to crush the red into a pile of fine powder on to the table, prompting Spencer's opponent Terry Griffiths to say "I bet he drinks Carling Black Label".

Sadly, I can only find the latter of these on YouTube, and here it is for your enjoyment.

Not sure who the commentator is on it. I think it may be an actor trying to be Ted Lowe, though the great whisperer himself did appear on the Davis/Heinz ad ("Really ... interesting") and also voiced the Campbells Meatballs commercial in which the boy's devouring of said spheres of flesh was compared to clearing a snooker table.

Davis is actually probably the best personality, as the media would have it, in the game right now as he is still relatively successful while also being probably the most admirable exponent of self-awareness and self-deprecation of anyone in the public eye. He was a total bore and a rotten entertainer as he won endless titles in the 80s but soon realised that embracing this ironic "interesting" tag first given to him by Spitting Image would be the remaking of him for when his form ever dried up. Hence his appearance on an advert which used the "interesting" buzzword. Davis is also a funny guy, genuinely, as anyone who remembers his cameo turn at the Comedy Store will attest.

After that? Hmmmm, it's tough. O'Sullivan is a genius at the table but his personality mainly just prompts people to wonder when he is going to complain about something or threaten to quit the game next, as he has done yet again this week upon his early exit from the tournament. Jimmy White will fill any theatre or arena the world over but doesn't qualify for enough final stages. The rest take the game far more seriously than their predecessors ever did, even though the game remains as important to today's players as it was to the gentlemen who put upwards of ten million on to a channel's viewing figures a generation earlier.

Anyway, I'll keep watching. The technicalities of the game are still as worthwhile as ever - and it's easy to say that when you are like me, an abysmal snooker player - and only the presence of John Virgo in the commentary box spoils it for me these days.

If "proper" personalities in snooker chalk your cue, then remind yourself of this. If you're hearing or viewing it for the first time, I quite envy you...