31 January 2010


Last week I half promised a glimpse of Sophie and the unicorn, but I am not sure they are yet fit to be seen. Instead I offer two little items I think are worth looking at, for their curiosity value if nothing else, and perhaps for the verses I have just composed to go with them. (The acting job, by the way, is not quite a deal yet so the less said the better.)

I went to the Turner exhibition again and, unlike last time, didn’t feel the need to sit down once. Canaletto’s famous painting of ‘The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day’ (c.1733-4) drew my attention; just now I am looking at the reproduction in the splendid book published for the exhibition. Canaletto must have depicted hundreds of people in this painting, tiny figures on the gallery of the Doge’s Palace, the crowds of finely dressed people in the square, a whole cargo of grandees on a giant gilded gondola, but peripheral to the great event, yet central to the picture and in the foreground, is a rowing boat containing five men, drifting to a mooring. The men might almost be stagehands, waiting to serve the magnificence of the scene, but detached from it. Somehow, once one has spotted them, they become more alive on this Ascension Day than any of the celebrants, and their undramatic story more fascinating. I see that the picture is on loan from the Royal Collection at Windsor. I once performed at Windsor Castle, narrating a Gilbert and Sullivan concert – Iolanthe – along with Donald Sinden; if I ever get a return gig, I will be sure to take a look in the Grand Corridor and to renew my acquaintance with these commoners, these five immortal mortals.    

Two Limericks for THE ONLY
My beachcomber's lucky technique
Discovered this fragment: unique!
It was found at low tide
Near the Tate at Bankside
'Found Art' - or is that too oblique?

Oh 'Only begotten' pip-squeak
(I'm serious, not tongue in cheek)
Semi-precious of gems!
Cast ashore by the Thames
How I value your modest mystique.

Sussex Pebble
You were not the only pebble on the beach
That's the lesson that our elders used to teach
Though your gaze suggests a soul
It's delusion: rock and roll
And acts of God can surely put you out of reach.

24 January 2010


I have been offered that job I was auditioning for, by the way. I am not being coy, but I can’t tell you what it is; my agent sweetly phoned me last thing on Friday, so that I’d know the news before the weekend, but the deal is not done yet. I had been recalled, and the second audition was so much fun that it was almost a consummation in itself.

An actor friend of mine bought a cheap device from Tesco which enabled him to project a large image of a film actress (remembered from his youth, some ten years back) onto a wall of his flat. He had pushed the contrast so that it was a simple two-tone image, easy to reproduce in paint. He showed me a photograph of the result, and if the auditions don’t work out for him, he could have a future as a hands-on interior designer. It’s a stylish little decorative masterpiece.

We met in a Christmas TV Special, The Clash of the Santas, some eighteen months ago. He works as a regular in a German TV series but, being perfectly bilingual, has worked in theatre here. He offered me a ticket for the Festival Hall last Thursday, not having found anyone else with classical taste free to go. I arrived late, but was rewarded with the fifty-minute second half – Mahler’s gigantic 5th Symphony. We were sitting in one of those pull-out drawers high up on the side, and it was while looking down on the Philharmonia Orchestra that I had the unoriginal thought that the symphony orchestra must be one of humanity’s greatest achievements. 

Going a few stops on the bus today, I stood near a violinist who sat modestly cradling her instrument, and I remembered the exquisite sound issuing from the string section far below in the Festival Hall; the bus was crowded and her face did not invite conversation (in fact, if one talks to a stranger on a London bus, one sometimes causes alarm or is assumed to be mad). If she was an orchestral player, she must be used to extreme behaviour, but there she sat, prosaically, as if melody and eccentric communication were far from her thoughts. She might have been amongst that string section on Thursday being conducted by Leif Segerstam who looks like a huge Henrik Ibsen (or Darwin), so portly that the very slow walk to the podium seemed a trial, but once there, he was soon appearing to dance, and twice he mimed singing at the first violins to spur them on in their cantabile.

One often wonders what difference these conductors’ gestures make; certainly any one of the players had his or her work cut out fulfilling the obligation to manifest Mahler’s magnificence. The whole experience made me determined to drop into the concert hall as often as I drop into art galleries. One needs to remind oneself how magnificent life can be. One spends so much time going prosaically from A to B – somehow, thank God, protected from the cruel extremes of life we hear about on the news. Whilst there is yet time, one should not pass up the chance to be in the presence of a masterpiece. Last week a friend castigated me: ‘A blog is meant to be full of immediacies, not polished, sophisticated reflections.’ I hope he is happier this week!

I have a ‘masterpiece’ of my own to complete – as I mentioned last time, it is the realization of the picture my character was painting in Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase last month. I have completely re-landscaped its garden. Maybe next week I will sneak in a glimpse and this loose talk of masterpieces will cease.

17 January 2010


The other day, on the way home from an audition in town, I went to the big Turner exhibition at Tate Britain. His canvases are hung with an impressive array of the Masters and contemporaries he emulated, rivalled and ‘sought to outdo’: Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain, Titian, Poussin and Canaletto to name but a few. An extraordinary privilege to have such a sumptuous display a mere Tube ride away.

Turner’s seascape, ‘Helvoetsluys’ is there, the canvas on which, famously, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy, he added a finishing touch of red in the form of a floating buoy near the centre. Now the canvas hangs again next to Constable’s ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ for the first time since that original exhibition in 1832, when Constable declared: ‘Turner has been here and fired a gun.’ I had heard the tale but here was the ‘reconstruction’. It is one of the curator’s more dramatic coups.

One is sometimes tempted to compare Turner’s efforts unfavourably with the Old Masters, realizing that they weren’t called Masters for nothing, and then one is astonished to see the matter quite the other way round, finding perhaps a Turneresque touch of light and life that renders an Old Master almost academic, until one’s eye falls on one of Turner’s trees, clearly an amateur botch compared to the painter next along; then one realizes that the ‘superior’ trees are Turner’s too.

I will have to go again, spend longer, and practise a more sophisticated response to this exhibition which would astonish any one of the artists if they could only come back to see it. For those of us who can see it, spoiled as we are by the familiarity that comes with the rich hindsight the galleries now bestow, and the availability of superb books of reproductions, perhaps it’s necessary to practise being freshly astonished ourselves.

Meanwhile, certainly not rivalling anyone, but emulating the artist I have just played, Donner in Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase, I look askance at ‘his’ – my – Sophie and the unicorn each day, and promise myself to finish the ‘unfinished’ painting – say by the end of next week. It will make an illustration for the diary I kept whilst doing the play, as well as being, I suppose, the first realization of the picture, which was first ‘seen’ on the radio, and certainly appeared with its back to the audience in our staging.