After The Screaming Stops

People complaining that Bohemian Rhapsody is a sanitised, plodding account of stadium-level superstardom needn’t wait for an alternative trip to the cinema that has all of the guts and tension of the real thing: After The Screaming Stops is a no-holds-barred documentary following the fortune of late-80s chart toppers Bros. They may not seem the most obvious subject – the relatively brief period during which their star was in the ascendant has perhaps dimmed our collective memory of how brightly it shone. But directors Joe Pearlman and David Soutar have made a searingly brilliant film, a portrait of Matt and Luke Goss that manages to glance into the abyss of the music industry without losing its intimacy.


Key to its success is the decision not to focus on the past, but the present. The brothers have independently led successful careers since making a financially ruinous fresh start in the early 90s – Matt has a residency at Las Vegas and Luke is a film actor and director in Los Angeles. The significance of their decision to leave the UK becomes more apparent throughout the film, which follows their journey back to their town of birth and a reunion to perform together for the first time in 28 years at the O2.

Also key to the film’s success is that it lets its subjects do the talking. Matt, a dapper figure with a penchant for bandanas and licking things, behaves in a way that leans towards self-parody, though we glimpse a far more fragile interior. Luke is the quieter of the two, thoughtful and deadpan, but again concealing a darker, brittler side to his personality. They make for an immensely entertaining double act, both intentionally and unintentionally funny, though to the film’s credit they are never treated as subjects for mockery. I predict that audiences will find them endearing company whether or not they had any previous interest in the brothers Goss. Mind you, the rapturous audiences at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival and the female hordes glimpsed in the film suggest that a fair number of people out there do have an interest – perhaps once a Brosette, you’re always a Brosette.

I wasn’t. (Were boys even allowed to be Brosettes?) I was a bit on the young side, and my loyalties were firmly committed to the church of Jason Donovan. But Bros represented something a little more grown-up than the manufactured pop of Stock, Aitken and Waterman; I was musically aware enough to recognise the virtuosity of Matt Goss’ vocals and to be impressed that they co-wrote their songs, and the subject matter seemed very adult (they sang about ‘issues’ – drugs! racism! materialism!), a stark contrast to the bouncy love songs of the Hit Factory.

The two worlds collided in a blissful Christmas 1989 when Jason Donovan and Matt Goss dueted for a second and a half in Band Aid II (more thrilling to my ears than a hundred Bonos), and by lucky chance the shift in my musical tastes had come after my brother and I had made Christmas lists, so he ended up with a Kylie album that no longer looked so appealing next to my copy of The Time. In arty black and white printed onto slightly silver card, Matt and Luke shirtless and staring moodily from the cover, it was by any measure the sexiest cassette on my shelf. (Come to think of it, it probably still is.)


I only recently discovered that the album was perceived as something of a failure at the time, hitting only number 4 in the charts and going merely gold after the four times platinum achieved by its predecessor. Apparently the critics were a bit sniffy about it too, which surprises me even now, because objectively it’s a more interesting, ambitious piece of work, from the structural and harmonic complexity of ‘Madly in Love’ to the edgier guitar-driven funk grooves on side B and the poignant balladry of ‘Sister’. The first single ‘Too Much’ is arguably the best pop single they made.

But ‘Chocolate Box’ (‘their best song so far’, said my friend Stephen, the biggest Bros fan in my class) only reached number 9 in the charts, and After the Screaming Stops touches on the field day the media had over that. ‘A few years earlier I’d have given anything to get to number 9,’ Matt Goss says, still baffled by the relentlessly negative treatment they received. And although the point is not hammered home, one of the things you come away with is a sense of just deep the wounds inflicted by the media can be.

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The UK press hated Bros. Even at my tender age I was aware of some of the attempts to whip up scandal, the ‘Craig is gay’ rumours, and the tediously frequent ‘Bros split!’ headlines, as if newspapers thought that by printing it they could make it true. In a way, they succeeded. In an early 90s interview, Terry Wogan mentions that the press have been ‘trying to kill you stone dead for about a year and a half now,’ before gently adding ‘I don’t think they mean any harm to you, it makes headlines’. You can see in the brothers’ faces that they’re not convinced. And why would they be? The onslaught must have felt pretty personal to such young men and the relentless schedule and media circus had already taken its toll – although the film doesn’t touch on it, the band’s third member Craig Logan ended up in a wheelchair with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and in one heartbreaking sequence we see them wheeled onto television, broken smiles fixed on their faces, within a day of hearing that their sister had been killed in a car accident. Ultimately the pressure and the critical mauling would drive apart not only a band, but a family.

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Why did the press hate them so much? It’s not clear. Perhaps as Wogan says, ‘it seems to be a very British thing that as soon as somebody really succeeds everybody attempts to kick the ground from under them and destroy them’. Or maybe the press felt like the neighbour looking out of the window at the endless rows of young girls hanging around outside the Goss’ London house desperate to catch a glimpse of their idols (‘They’re just sitting there like dummies!’) – and don’t the media hate feeling left out? Just out of curiosity, I glanced through a review of the sold out O2 reunion, and there it is again: the snark. The mockingly parroted tagline ‘the biggest reunion in pop history’. The sarcastic acknowledgement that Luke can ‘hit the right parts of his drum kit in the right order’. Perhaps some critics are simply intimidated by genuine charisma – because whatever you make of Matt and Luke Goss, there is plenty of that, onstage and off. Either way, when they talk about the press as if still processing a trauma, you begin to get a sense of what was casually inflicted all those years ago.

It becomes abundantly clear in After The Screaming Stops that these are just some of the wounds that have never had a chance to heal, and we are treated to some spectacular scenes of sparks flying in rehearsals. Some reviews have made shorthand references to Spinal Tap or the Gallagher brothers, but both comparisons do the film a disservice; having so carefully invited us into the respective worlds of Matt and Luke, the undeniably entertaining arguments turn on a knife edge; there is a point in the film when it becomes unclear whether you’re watching a bittersweet comedy or a slow motion car crash. It is a moving, even haunting journey, and by the time it finishes, it may surprise you just how much you’re invested in an 80s pop sensation making a successful comeback.


After The Screaming Stops is in cinemas from today and on DVD and digital release on 12th November. You can check out the screenings here and you absolutely ought to get to one if you possibly can. You’ll thank me, I promise.

Worth Rescuing: Never Let Me Down

In 2008, David Bowie released a new mix of ‘Time Will Crawl’ from his much-derided 1987 album Never Let Me Down. As much a rerecord as a remix, this version stripped the song of its 80s excesses, jettisoning the heavy reverb and electro-kit of the original and inserting an everso tasteful (and everso noughties) string quartet and a new drum track. ‘Oh, to redo the rest of that album,’ said Bowie. Problem is, the ‘MM remix’ not only fails to improve on the original, it sort of neuters it. Its original power is gone, along with some of its surprisingly artful changes of texture – I’ll swap the meandering string quartet for the original’s prominent piano and the third verse textural build-up any day, echoey drums and all.

Nevertheless, the album’s original producer Mario McNulty has taken Bowie at his word and a new version of the album is what we’re going to get. The appetisers dropped onto the internet so far have done little to alter my feeling that the project is destined to be no more than a worthy curio; on the new version of ‘Zeroes’ the light-entry-add-drums-later build is almost identical to the ‘Time Will Crawl’ remix and similarly diminishes the sense of grandeur. Bowie’s voice doesn’t just sound 30 years behind the rhythm section, but about twenty metres behind them as well, and ironically (since it is an attempt to rescue the song from overproduction) this layering of old and new elements eventually becomes incoherent. This is even more the case on Beat Of Your Drum, Bowie’s lonely vocal trapped behind a wall of arty strings that neither sits happily with the chugging middle aged rock texture reached at the chorus nor with the spirit of the song itself. And whatever the artistic merits of the new contributions, it doesn’t half sound contrived. Most tellingly, on the revamped ‘Zeroes’ Bowie sounds as if he is singing sharp throughout; there are technological reasons that would explain tuning discrepancies if tapes from 1987 haven’t been properly matched to 21st century machinery, but knowing that Bowie tended to lay down his vocal last and that he had a masterful knack for pitching his performance (in a literal sense) to match the context, my suspicion is that he sang on the sharp side to match the energy and pomposity of the late-80s production. Stuck against (or behind) a more restrained backing track, it sounds wrong.

This retrofitted Never Let Me Down is guilty of doing both too much and too little. For all of its anachronistic tinkering it leaves the track listing intact, as if production is the beginning and end of the album’s problems (it’s not) and as if every song on it is worth rescuing (I refuse to believe that even the presence of the great Laurie Anderson can make the execrable ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ bearable). There are a whole load of issues to be addressed to reveal this album’s hidden qualities, and I hold the uncommon view that production isn’t really one of them – take it or leave it, the overblown quality of Never Let Me Down is the sound of 1987, and if we’re going to start meddling with that then why not also rerecord the rhythm section on Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, both of which could do with beefing up a bit? In any case, the overproduction is less egregious than people remember, the content just needs presenting in a more flattering way.

I had a go at fixing it myself a while back and the result completely transformed my experience; to my surprise (because like most people I never came close to loving this album), it has been on my metaphorical turntable regularly. So, whilst it’s never going to convert anyone for whom echoey programmed drums and 80s bombast are anathema, here’s a proposal for revisiting Never Let Me Down without it sounding as though it were recorded in two different centuries…


The Problem

Arsalan Mohammad’s excellent Album to Album podcast recently discussed the problematic ‘toploading’ of Let’s Dance, all Side A hits and Side B dross. That’s the 80s for you – stick the singles at the beginning, then filler all the way. Never Let Me Down certainly has the big hitters on Side A, while Side B begins with the half-baked ‘Glass Spider’ closely followed by the utterly crapulent ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, but if you make it as far as the rest of the album it’s not all bad – the problem is that the three tracks that follow are pretty much exchangeable in tempo and tone, with near-identical intros and a relentless 120bpm beat (plus a weird tonic-dominant-tonic relationship which makes them feel even more part of the same breath). What Side B is desperately crying out for is variation.

So pacing and structure are all wrong, but the problem goes deeper than that. The album’s grappling with prostitution, war, the environment, war and, erm, girls, is often lazily assumed to be disparate and a bit laughable (there’s nothing more embarrassing than a middle aged rocker doing ‘issues’), but in fact the underlying themes of isolation and anxiety, under the inevitable shadow of nuclear oblivion, suggest something approaching a Concept (capital C). The spoken prologue to ‘Glass Spider’ is the giveaway: this is middle aged Bowie’s answer to Diamond Dogs, with the former’s dystopian future replaced by a dystopian present. Bowie’s 80s decline is rightly characterised as the moment he started following trends rather than leading them, but in Never Let Me Down we perhaps see an attempt to cut a slightly different path. A concept album could hardly have been less fashionable in 1987, and like Diamond Dogs it was designed with a grandiose, theatrical tour in mind (conceived as an arty, experimental venture, even if it was received as pretentious folly).


Any such ambitions were watered down by the millstone of EMI, for whom Bowie was supposed to be making lots of money, and who put the kibosh on his original plan to record short, uncompromising songs in a style that Iggy Pop was making his own. The era’s penchant for slow fade-outs kills any sense of continuity, and the conventional tracklisting puts the final nail into the coffin of any creative intentions.

Why Is It Worth Rescuing?

All of the above. Flawed ambition is better than no ambition, and after Bowie’s complete disengagement from Tonight and even his let-Nile-Rodgers-do-all-the-heavy-lifting approach to Let’s Dance, at last we have Bowie committing to a project. Rather than just turning up to sing, Bowie worked long, disciplined days during Never Let Me Down‘s three month recording period, writing and experimenting during the sessions as he had in his most fertile periods, and for the first time since Scary Monsters playing on some tracks as well. Yes, the lyrics leave a lot to be desired, veering from completely-on-the-nose to insipid (though just occasionally striking gold on the way). But for all that it’s not his greatest period of songwriting, the material was pouring out of him again – his previous album had been a couple of new songs padded out with covers and rehashed Iggy Pop, and almost half of Let’s Dance reworks existing material (with some pretty uninspired stuff in the remainder), but this time he ended up with material to spare.


You can hear it in his singing. It’s not clear at what point Bowie realised that the album had fallen short of his ideals (he certainly promoted it as if he believed in it, at least initially), but he belts the songs with full-throated brilliance, giving the kind of vocal tour de force that we hear on ‘Heroes’ and Lodger, whether it’s the wild falsetto in ‘Day-In Day-Out’, his cod-Lennon ‘Never Let Me Down’ or his biggest, Basseyest croon on ‘Beat Of Your Drum’. Miraculously, the nuance and energy of his performance manages to cut through the excesses of the production – for this alone, the album deserves a second chance.

Replacement Tracks

Quite why Bowie was so enthusiastic about ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, apparently one of the first tracks he insisted should be a definite, is hard to tell – perhaps it has something to do with his brief infatuation with Mickey Rourke. Whatever the reason, I’ll be happy if I never hear it again, and it will have no place on any version I’m putting together.


Thankfully, Bowie’s newly regained enthusiasm for recording left plenty of bonus material with which to give more shape and variation to the album as a whole. I’ve cheated slightly and included ‘When The Wind Blows’, which may not come from the same sessions but was probably recorded while the Never Let Me Down demos were being laid down, and it certainly fits thematically (he was recording it when he heard about the Chernobyl disaster, which inspired ‘Time Will Crawl’). The presence of Erdal Kizilcay and the heavy guitar lick in the introduction mean that it happily slips into the Never Let Me Down sound world, and one his best melodies from the period, coupled with a vocal that moves from tender to icy in a single sweep, adds some much-needed lyricism.

We also find a more delicate sound in his version of ‘Girls’, a song written for Tina Turner but which works rather better in his hands – hardly surprising, given the Jacques Brel pastiche it clearly is. Bowie half-croons, half-croaks the song before growing to full Scott Walker intensity at the chorus – it’s hardly ‘My Death’, but there is some real magic in the first verse, subtly scored with piano to the fore (Philippe Saisse almost channelling Mike Garson in his chromatic embellishments). It kind of loses its way after that, the sombre chanson vibe giving way to guitar and dirty sax, but the single edit it doesn’t outstay its welcome and again we have a distinct new colour to break up the album.


Then there’s ‘Julie’, a song that begins with an understated, countryish verse, then breaks into a heartfelt and rather gorgeous chorus. Perhaps its slightly sixties vibe is what saw it relegated to the B-side of ‘Day-In Day-Out’, but by leaving it off the album Bowie denied us arguably the most beautiful thing to come out of the sessions. Definitely worthy of a place.

Finally, and surprisingly, I’m including ‘Too Dizzy’, though it’s a difficult one to get hold of. ‘I never want to hear that fucking song again as long as I live!’ said Bowie, and he did a pretty good job of erasing it from history, deleting it from every reissue of the album. For years I wondered what horrors the track might conceal, imagining it sitting a couple of songs after ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ and being the one that Bowie was embarrassed about! What a surprise, then, to finally hear it and find it guilty only of enjoying itself a little too much. Is the lyric misogynistic? A little, but it’s got nothing to rival ‘China Girl’ for jaw-dropping awkwardness (both lyrically and musically, that is, as well as in the video and Bowie’s live performance toe-curling Chinese accent). I hear the argument that the track is a camp mess, and I’m ignoring it, because if there’s one thing this album badly needs it’s a sense of humour.

Track Listing

There’s no question as to how this album ought to open: ‘Glass Spider’ is barely a song in its own right (it’s little more than a repeated refrain), but with its dramatic monologue it makes sense as a prelude. It’s a shame the twinkly synthesiser that kicks it off (or fails to) is so insipid – it needs something like the saxophone shriek that heralds in Diamond Dogs – and for want of anything better, I’ve given it a bit more ceremony by splicing in the cello hits from the beginning of the instrumental version of ‘When The Wind Blows’, along with some of the electronic screams from the opening of ‘Zeroes’ (another callback to Diamond Dogs). It’s not brilliant, but I think it’s better – and it creates a deeper sense of continuity with what follows.

Spacing out the stand-out tracks (which, to my mind, are ‘Time Will Crawl’, ‘Beat Of Your Drum’, ‘Zeroes’ and my additions of ‘When The Wind Blows’ and ‘Julie’) and giving the order of the tracks a little more light and shade, this is what I ended up with:

  1. Glass Spider
  2. Beat Of Your Drum
  3. Day-In Day-Out
  4. Time Will Crawl
  5. Girls
  6. ’87 and Cry
  1. When The Wind Blows
  2. Zeroes
  3. Never Let Me Down
  4. Too Dizzy
  5. Julie
  6. New York’s In Love
  7. Bang Bang

There’s a hypothetical Side A and Side B there, though neither would fit on an LP because, as you’ll see, I’ve added much more than I’ve taken out. That’s partly a lack of discipline (I am a bit of a completist and tend to feel that more is more) – a neater version would leave out ‘’87 and Cry’, ‘Too Dizzy’ and ‘New York’s In Love’ – but hearing them in this context I didn’t feel them to be either superfluous or objectionable, and repeated listenings haven’t changed my view.

Cover Art

One thing we can all agree on is that the cover design for Never Let Me Down is an absolute car crash, horribly of its time and a headache to even glance at. Coincidentally, when I searched for alternatives to grace my iTunes catalogue I plumped for a very similar image to the one the Parlophone’s new version is using, one of Greg Gorman’s outtakes from the same photo session. But where the official version has really fouled up is in keeping the shoddy and frankly ghastly cut-and-paste ‘David Bowie’ logo – given the extent to which they’re trying to erase the 80s from the music itself, you’d have thought they’d find a different font. I settled for the logo Paul Belford contributed to the V&A Changing Faces Of Bowie print; the simplicity of the design and vaudevillian style of the photograph have a kind of timeless feel which, if it doesn’t match the sound of the album, at least doesn’t contradict it.

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The Result

My copy of the EMI reissue of Never Let Me Down has sat virtually as new in my CD collection for years, mainly fulfilling its role of ensuring there’s no gap in the chronology of the spines. Whereas my ‘special edition’, as I said, continues to enjoy repeated listenings.

I’m not saying it’ll work for everyone, but I didn’t make it for everyone, did I?

Death Sentence premiere

We’re delighted to announce that Death Sentence is getting its first screening at the 2nd Film Noir Festival in Paris this week. It will be shown as part of the official selection at the 3pm short film screening on Friday 28th November.

As well as the fact that subtitles make it look ten times artier than it did before, one of the many thrills of this opportunity has been to give the film and altogether more evocative French title: PLUME FATALE. Credit where it’s due, that was the clever idea of our subtitler, Stephen Wilkinson.

(Plume = feather, hence quill, therefore an abstract reference to a writer’s pen or writer/wordsmith. But in the masculine it is also is a bed/bunk, therefore an abstract reference to a marital bed.)

(Fatale needs no explanation.)

Check out some of the sexy new subtitles here:

Attack of the Clones

Here’s a problem which came to a head when I spent half of last night’s (very enjoyable) episode of Doctor Who thinking that Keeley Hawes’ character was the same as the recurring ‘Missy’ we have been introduced to, who is actually played by Michelle Gomez, a completely different person.

A silly mistake? I know Doctor Who isn’t mine any more, but it’s fair to say I still take more than a casual interest, so I refuse to believe I was the only person who had this problem. Okay, I was tired, and it has been a few weeks since we saw Missy – but I don’t merely put my confusion down to the fact that they have been given a sort of similar physical resemblance (power-dressed in black, power hairstyles piled and pinned, power make-up heavily applied, power cheekbones – go on, I dare you to deny that they’re more than passingly similar…).


No, what cemented my confusion was the fact that they have both been written with the same character. You know the one: everso sophisticated, polite yet snarky restraint, schoolmarmish and very emancipated. In fact, in describing this villainess-by-numbers, I realise that we’ve seen it in previous episodes of Doctor Who: I’m thinking of Miss Foster, Miss Kislet and Madame Kovarian.


It is becoming pretty obvious what kind of woman Doctor Who writers are terrified by.

All of them fine actresses delivering fine performances, by the way – just delivering fine performances of the same character. The only substantial female villain in recent years who doesn’t fit the template is Diana Rigg’s magnificent Mrs Gillyflower, but that episode, The Crimson Horror, was atypical in virtually every way, a darkly comic Victorian runaround that had as much in common with The League of Gentleman (hardly coincidentally, also Mark Gatiss’ finest script for the show). Rigg’s tour de force breathed life into a caricature that might have been played by Gatiss himself in a different context: surely Doctor Who doesn’t need to be doing madcap steampunk absurdism to earn an interesting villainess?


There isn’t the slightest possibility that the rich tapestry of male villains on Doctor Who could ever be confused. But for whatever reason, the series seems to be stuck with a very singular approach to women. Maybe it’s Freudian.

Why aren’t the female writers doing a better job writing female villains, you ask? Ha. Only one woman has written for the series since its return. One. Count ’em. (Count ‘er, I mean.) One. She was already working on Who as a script editor, so she already had a way in for her two stories. It may be irrelevant, but they were both stinkers anyway.

For a really good episode of Doctor Who written by a woman, you need to go back to the supposed last gasps of the ‘classic’ series. You’ll discover that the final story before cancellation was written by Rona Munro (whose trilogy of historical plays just finished a run at the National Theatre, no less). You’ll also discover that she anticipated the Russell T Davies’ council estatey social realism by 14 years, laced her episodes with heavily submerged sexual metaphor and managed to slip the word ‘tosser’ in before the watershed. (Oh, she also wrote beautifully for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, reinvented a classic villain, understood the potential for the series to bridge two worlds and got the balance of exciting and frightening just right – in case you’re in any doubt that it’s a really good story.)

That’s the kind of brilliant female writing talent the production team should be actively seeking – specifically female, because a) the series plays an aspirational role in the lives of young boys and girls, and b) because it is clearly lacking a dimension which female writers would undoubtedly bring with them. Before we have another silly debate about whether the next Doctor should be played by a woman, there are far more pressing gender issues the programme needs to address.

Oh, and late 80s Doctor Who, on just four stories a season, had brilliant female villains.




The Met have made the shameful announcement that they won’t, after all, be broadcasting their performance of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer to cinemas across the world. Shameful, in a general sense, because of their failure to stand up for freedom of expression in the arts due to an interest group’s dubious claims that it might ‘ferment anti-Semitism’. (How long before performances of The Merchant of Venice are banned or James Joyce’s Ulysses is pulled off the shelves? Both are more problematic than Klinghoffer in their treatment of Jews, but it’s no solution to pretend that they never happened.) But the Met’s decision is specifically shameful because said interest group has a political agenda in ignoring the complexity and importance of this work.

The Anti-Defamation League claim to exist to ‘protect civil rights for all’ (in this case, then, perhaps ignoring the fact that freedom of expression is a civil right). Their concerns were that the opera could be used ‘as a means to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism’. That’s quite a leap of logic: the opera is a dramatisation of events in which anti-Semitism played a part, but as librettist Alice Goodman (who not insignificantly was born a Jew) points out, ‘there is nothing anti-Semitic in Klinghoffer apart from one aria, which is sung by an anti-Semitic character and is clearly flagged as such.’ It stretches my credulity to breaking point to imagine neo-Nazi groups adopting a modern aria as some kind of anthem, let alone sitting through an entire opera exploring the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its consequences.

But it is the complexity of the opera’s outlook that is really at the bottom of the ADL ‘concerns’. They quote the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer as saying that the opera attempts to ‘romanticise, rationalise, legitimise and explain’ the murder of their father. The accusation that the events are romanticised doesn’t really stand up to artistic scrutiny (unless you consider opera inherently romantic, in which case you need some Berg in your life), but as for rationalise, I wholeheartedly agree: the whole point is that terrorist acts are not irrational, at least not in the minds of those who commit them. Does it make terrorists more scary if we rationalise what is running through their heads, show what they have in common with us, that they are thinking human beings rather than purely ‘evil’? Yes it does, and rightly so. It is also vital if we are going to understand and tackle the issue of terrorism at its roots. That is a long way from legitimising their actions.

Klinghoffer’s daughters may object to the murder of their father being given an explanation, but writing it off as a meaningless murder is to do him an injustice and to invite the same kind of events to happen again and again. The ADL are unable to see such a nuanced perspective as anything more than ‘implicit justification of terrorism’ (one suspects they haven’t bothered to sit through the opera anyway), but the people at the Met (who surely have) ought to know better: the arts are a vital way of understanding the world we live in and Klinghoffer is one of the most significant recent works on this subject, the reason I suggested many years ago on this blog that every politician ought to be forced to watch it.

By preventing the broadcast of this opera, the Met are preventing engagement with the issues it raises; they are restricting education and discussion. They are bowing to a one-sided political stance and perpetuating an unhelpfully divisive view of a conflict which will only ever be resolved with mutual sympathy and understanding.

And yes, they are also limiting the audience for a Bloody Good Opera.

New ways to read Dickens

When I read my parents’ Penguin Classics edition of David Copperfield at the age of 17, I loved it so much that I went out and bought my own copy, in what I then considered a rather handsome Everyman edition, at least for my meagre income at the time. It isn’t especially handsome, in fact, but it contains all the original illustrations, is edited by a man from the University of Kent and has a nice picture of St. Paul’s Cathedral on the front. All excellent reasons to take it off the shelf and revisit it, which I got around to doing a few weeks ago.


The novel remains every bit as wonderful as I remembered – a little more, in fact – though this reading brought with it a couple of discoveries that I hadn’t anticipated.

The first concerns my handsome, self-funded teenage purchase, which at the end of page 254 threw up the sentence ‘having my boots cleaned over and over compliment he had paid my relation’. Further investigation revealed the reason was that page 254 was unexpectedly followed by page 223, with the subsequent 30 pages repeated all over again but pages 255 to 286 missing altogether.

I fumed for a bit. So much for my handsome Everyman edition and Malcolm Andrews from the University of Kent. But I decided that 17 years after making the purchase I couldn’t reasonably expect a refund.

Not being prepared to read Dickens on a Kindle, I decided to invest in a really handsome edition of David Copperfield to make up for the disappointment: I wanted hardback, I wanted faux leather binding, I wanted gold trimmings. I spent many obsessive hours researching what was available and ended up with this:


That’s 36 volumes of Dickens. Sometimes I overcompensate for disappointment.

My other discovery was more literary and I’m surprised it hasn’t been discussed more often, though not that I didn’t notice it at 17 years old. I’m talking about the psychological complexity of the central character when it comes to gender identity and sexuality – perhaps Dickens revealed more about himself than he meant to with this, his ‘favourite child’.

David Copperfield is feminised from the opening chapter, by an Aunt who expects him to be born a girl, and who later rechristens him with the non-gender specific name of Trotwood. What is it that Mr Murdstone finds objectionable about young David, except that he has been brought up to be a bit girly? Murdstone’s whole attitude reeks of forced masculinity, from the moment he takes David boozing with his loutish friends (the Murdstones are themselves a fascinating study in predatory fundamentalism; Murdstone’s need to subjugate women, aided by his sexless sister, speaks volumes about his own insecurities). At school, David becomes a wife figure to Steerforth, reading aloud to him in bed and acquiring the nickname ‘Daisy’ – Steerforth, like David’s Aunt, seeks to feminise him from the word go (for presumably rather different motives):

‘You haven’t got a sister, have you?’ said Steerforth, yawning … ‘If you had had one, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her.’

As for actual wives, David’s relationship with Dora (the most pathetic female character ever committed to typescript) is written about in the same terms as his childhood infatuation with Little Em’ly, all romantic imagery and idealised yearning, and the unhappy reality of the marriage is that he ends up treating her as a child – she even begs him to call her his ‘child-wife’. His second marriage grows out of ‘sisterly affection’, his love for Agnes developing ‘in the withering of his hopes’ and having a platonic domesticity from the off.

No, if you want real passion then you have to look again to Steerforth and David’s extraordinary outpourings of desire whenever he describes or remembers him. The most erotic thing we hear about David’s married life is seeing his wife’s hair in papers; Steerforth is the only person we see undressing David and putting him to bed. And look at the way Steerforth dies – he is dragged fighting into a sea that explicitly mirrors a tumult in the depths of David’s memory, in a chapter full of elemental, virile imagery, reducing him at the end to the sleeping form David recalls gazing at long into the night in his schooldays. (Dora’s death, by way of a comparison, is represented by the last gasp of a dog.)

No wonder Steerforth’s betrayal hits David so hard. It has a similar impact on Rosa Dartle, an extremely complex character who more than makes up for Dora’s two-dimensional femininity (Steerforth’s attitude towards both his mother and Dartle make it explicitly clear that he is sexually aware); Rosa is one of many female characters in the book for whom a heated awareness of passionate, sexual love leads to unbridled misery (Martha, Emily, maybe even Betsey Trotwood if you’re looking for reasons as to why she emasculates the only men she associates with). Dickens seems to be saying that innocence is bliss, and David’s apparent bliss at the novel’s end is only achieved through an almost wilful naivety. Do his schoolboy passions and night of drunken abandon hint at what he is striving to repress?

Far be it from me to restyle David Copperfield as an archetypal model of closeted Victorian homosexuality, a virginal counterpart to Dorian Gray.

But he sort of is.

Voices that will not be drowned


I can’t possibly let this day pass without at least a mention of Benjamin Britten. It’s impossible for any British composer of my generation to deny his influence completely, though while I was at university it was fashionable for jumped-up wannabes to do so; I wasn’t one of them, though I kept my love of Britten quiet when fellow wannabes were writing him off, because it seemed like the kind of thing that would make me look naive. So, let me put the record straight: as a child, then as a teenager, and now as an adult, a musician and an occasionally professional composer, I love Britten. I don’t claim to like all of his music, or even that it’s all great music (though plenty of it is), but his influence remains substantial, and one reason sticks out in particular:

Benjamin Britten was the last great composer to truly understand theatre.

A bold claim? Maybe. I’ll stand by it. Because for all the fine stuff I’ve read about Britten’s significance in his centenary year, nobody else has said it, and somebody ought to.

Of course it is often accurately stated that he single-handedly rehabilitated British opera, but that rehabilitation went far beyond writing first rate music, it was an exploration and expansion of the boundaries of opera as a form of theatre. Peter Grimes had popular appeal on the scale of a West End musical (‘Sadler’s Wells! Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman!’ as the possibly apocryphal route 38 bus conductor is oft quoted) because of the power of its storytelling as much as the accessibility of his musical style. He formed his own touring company to bring opera to wider audiences and in doing so introduced theatrical pragmatism into the scale of his work, which didn’t stop The Turn of the Screw from being a masterpiece. He did historical drama with rigorous attention to detail, achieving both factual and psychological accuracy. He produced interactive theatre for children and amateurs, without it sounding amateur or patronising. By his last opera he was pushing the limits of structure and theatrical fluidity. Bugger the rehabilitation of British opera, he was a great dramatist full stop – and that is in spite of the variable quality of his libretti, because the drama always came from the notes of the score. In fact, there’s precious little in his output that isn’t dramatic in some way – it’s what made him such an adept writer of songs.

It’s something I became acutely aware of two weekends ago at the excellent Bychkov-conducted War Requiem at the Albert Hall – another work that had immense popularity on its release and (probably not coincidentally) has had a backlash of snobbery from the artistic elite. I could point to the bits that are less successfully musically, but listening to it live I realised that it didn’t make any difference to the impact it had as a reflective, impassioned and utterly remorseless work. Thanks to Britten’s instinctive sense of drama, deft use of juxtaposition and the ability to produce massive effects with the tiniest gesture, in performance the work is greater than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts.

Why do I feel Britten was the last great composer to achieve this? Because his consummate understanding of theatre is something subsequent great composers have somehow failed to pick up for themselves. Modern operas are often vast, impressive, musically tightly wrought and artistically experimental. They are also all too often really serious and nearly always outstay their welcome. And theatrical? Not that I’ve seen or heard. (And yes, you can hear theatricality in a great opera score – indeed, my first experience of Peter Grimes was lying on my bed as a teenager following the libretto as a CD reduced me to tears.) Somehow, music that is in any aspect subservient to drama has become the (admittedly rare) property of film, theatre and musicals – none of which are currently the domain of the genuinely great composer (I say that with respectful knowledge of the very very talented people working in those areas).

This is a far more useful thing to take from the Britten celebrations than the column inches eulogising about his empathy with the human spirit or about the pain of the loss of innocence and pacifism and closest homosexuality and blah blah blah – look, there’s plenty of video footage of the man and he doesn’t seem that miserable. Yes, he communicated the pain of being a human being brilliantly because he was a brilliant communicator – but let’s not forget that he also had a great sense of humour. Albert Herring is a sublime comic opera and A Midsummer Night’s Dream does the funny bits far better than a certain recent West End production I’d prefer to forget about.

Where are the 21st century comic operas? (Or to clarify, where are the 21st century operas that are actually funny?) Perhaps composers are so desperate to be taken seriously that they consider an actual comic opera a bit trivial.

Well, Britten didn’t.

I leave you with glorious evidence that Britten knew that opera singers could be funny as well as scary. And that opera could be for kids as well.

Hopes and bones

There’s something really special about finding yourself in the presence of something artistically unique that hasn’t been discovered by many other people. It’s not that I don’t like sharing things.

Well –

Okay, I don’t mind sharing things, but there’s nothing more irritating than a casual enthusiast, is there? Like how everyone’s a Bowie fan now, and those of us who actually bothered with him when he was ‘dead’ and know full well that he didn’t go off the radar for even remotely ten years don’t get any credit for it. Because now everyone‘s an expert, aren’t they? Like the ‘expert’ DJ the BFI got in for their Bowie party, the one who told me I wasn’t allowed to request ‘Look Back in Anger’ because it’s an Oasis song. Yeah, if you’re going to share, share, but don’t just nibble at the edges, right?

– but it’s not that I don’t like sharing things.

There’s just something nice about getting there before everyone else.

One such special moment was when, many many years ago when I was youthful and optimistic and rehearsing what turned out to be merely the first work-in-progress run of The Rise and Fall of Deon Vonniget, my co-star (yes, it was still a two-hander back then!) introduced me to a man called Archie Colquhoun, and a small group of us sat in a candlelit cafe and listened as he recited, in lyrical Scottish tones, some unexpectedly beautiful and brilliant poetry. I blogged effusively about it at the time and, in a sideways kind of way, compared him to Dylan Thomas (well, ‘a Dylan Thomas’, whatever that means – how many Dylan Thomases were there, Lark?).

I mention it now because a couple of days ago I received an email out of the blue from somebody who has videoed Archie reciting some of his poems. He was kind enough to think I might be interested to know about it, since I once compared Archie to Dylan Thomas (or a Dylan Thomas).

I feared that, what with the candlelight and the generally emotional state of being a) youthful and optimistic and b) doing a show, I might have exaggerated quite how magical this man was. So what a delight to discover that both the poetry and the delivery are every bit as wonderful as I remember.

Watch it now, below.

See? I like sharing things.