Sunday, 29 June 2014

Film: Cold in July

Moseyed off down the road this evening, in light rain, to my local cinema, for the early evening showing of Cold in July. The nice lady again gave me a replacement for the voucher I gave her, which means I still have an extra one for emergencies. She then chose a seat for me, which meant, obviously, that when I went in, I sat somewhere completely different.

I read an interesting review of this film in the last Evening Standard, which does film reviews on Fridays - and it's pretty much right on the money. Of course, it's set in Texas. To be fair, I've never yet been there, but it does have the reputation of being the most trigger-happy state of the Union. The basic story is that an upstanding citizen - Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under), married to Vinessa Shaw, keeps a gun that belonged to his father, but never actually uses it. He confronts a burglar with it one night, panics, his finger slips, and he accidentally shoots the guy dead. Unfortunately, it seems that the dead man's father - a shaven-headed and menacing Ben Shepard - has just been paroled from prison, and comes looking for revenge. HOWEVER - our upstanding citizen discovers that the cops are definitely up to something, and ends up investigating further with the assistance of an old army buddy of Ben's, now turned private investigator - a delightfully OTT Don Johnson.

It's set in 1989, which allows the story to progress without people finding out stuff for themselves on the internet, so they need someone like Don Johnson. However, the setting also allows them to include the most rockin' soundtrack (literally). Observe the quaint period touches - clunky phones attached to the wall: payphones: a satellite phone (Don Johnson's, of course!) that comes with a small satchel attached - presumably for the battery: VHS. Don Johnson, of course, is in his element - a now-wrinklier version of Sonny Crockett.

It's beautifully made. The direction is terrific, the acting is terrific, the action scenes really scary. The score, as I say, is fantastic. As the newspaper review also pointed out, the last third of the film is just wish-fulfilment; basically, our upstanding citizen learns how to be a real man, and protect his family with a gun. That doesn't detract, however, from how well made it is - it's (generally) a joy to watch, even if you don't really appreciate the ending message.

Tomorrow, The Golden Dream, most likely..

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Film: Return to Homs

Return to Homs was showing tonight only, in Clapham Picturehouse. As we learned at the Q+A, there's a Picturehouse initiative to screen documentaries that would otherwise find it hard to get publicised - and that's what tonight was. As usual, I checked early in the day - but it didn't seem to be booking out, so I didn't bother booking.

I've been there once before, so roughly remembered the drill - train to Clapham, then a bus to Clapham Common. I looked up the time of the last train I'd need to get in order to get there in time, looked up the letter-names (Stop G, Stop K) of the bus stops I'd need to go to, travelling in both directions, and the bus numbers I'd need - and took most particular care to note the exact name of the stop I'd need to get off at in Clapham Common. There are a lot of similar-sounding stops around there.

After a day of lounging around, I was, of course, tight for time - as usual - for my train. However, after nearly giving myself a heart attack getting to the station, I was two minutes early - just enough time to get my breath back before it arrived. I knew to head right from the station for the bus stop, on the other side of the road, beside the bridge - which had a bus parked at it as I approached. As it drove off, I was able to confirm that yes, that had been my bus. Well, but there were two I could take, and the other one happened along shortly afterward. I noticed, as we passed Clapham Common, that there seemed to be stages set up there - dunno what that's about, there's just too much happening to keep track of it all! Confusion ensued shortly afterward, when it turned out - as we sped past the street I needed - that, despite Google Maps calling the stop "Clapham Common", it's actually "Clapham Common Station". Oh well, I got off at the next stop and walked back. Just as well I was early (the trains only come at 15-minute intervals, so that can happen).

Clapham Picturehouse is, shall we say, snug. I bought my ticket without problem and made for the toilet. By the time I emerged, the lobby - such as it is, being crammed into a tiny space with screens and ticket desk to the sides, a space marked out for concessions, and running into the bar - was packed with people who had arrived early for the film. We all had to wait - another film was still running inside. When that audience came out, of course, there was chaos, everyone trying to squeeze in different directions. The people ahead of me had all booked, I noticed, and come with their confirmations.

They hardly needed to book - the place was only half full. This was what they term a "special event", and no ads were shown. Instead, we were launched pretty much straight into the most visceral, the most disturbing, war film you are ever likely to see. Forget anything you've seen from Hollywood - this is real war footage, shot in and around Homs over a period of two years (August 2011 - August 2013) and focusing on a young man, once named as Asia's second most promising goalkeeper, now a militia leader.

The film rapidly progresses from covering excited young men, shouting about how they'll bring down the corrupt government, composing slogans and patriotic songs and broadcasting them online - to the hell that ensued once the government attacked. We are led right into the middle of the siege of Homs, with families trapped by government troops that patrol the streets with tanks and snipers. We see militia smashing holes in the walls between deserted apartments, for easier access - and smashing smaller ones through the walls facing the streets, to give them somewhere safe to fire from. The furniture is still intact in the apartments that haven't been shelled - one scene shows the subject of the film firing on government troops while standing between two wardrobes that still contain clothes and pillows.

Most of the film takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape of half-demolished buildings and rubble. As the militia leader explains at one point, he doesn't care about the government troops - he just wants to clear an escape path from the city for the innocent civilians that are trapped. We see people being shot, we see corpses. And the cameraman whose face is pixelated in the beginning of the film doesn't appear in the second half of it - he was trying to cross the border with footage, we were told in the Q+A, and the taxi driver noticed he was hiding something and reported him to the border guards. He was arrested, and hasn't been seen or heard from since. That was over a year ago. The others were luckier - smuggled bits and pieces of footage hidden around their bodies, smuggled camera pieces in the chassis of their car. They found it safer to travel with a woman in the front - guards were more respectful.

The Q+A was attended by the director, and a representative of Amnesty International, who are campaigning for the right to have humanitarian aid brought into Syria. The director was asked what his purpose was in making the film. He replied that the story needed to be told, and the media have their own agenda and can't be trusted - cinema is the only way to tell the truth, he said. When someone mentioned Obama's pledge to help the Syrian people, he chuckled. "Talk, talk, talk," is all he said. He has a point - this has been going on for three years, and no-one's helped them yet. Indeed, at one point in the film, the militia are shown composing a protest song against the UN.

A number of screenings have been organised around the UK, in conjunction with Picturehouse cinemas, until the 10th July. See here for further details. As we left, they distributed flyers about how you can organise your own screenings - see here for more. There's also a link on the film website about organising your own screenings in the US.

As I arrived at the bus stop, so did the bus - as one woman remarked, it nearly took her head off, it came so near! And as we lurched back to the station, remarks went along the lines of "He's just learning to drive, isn't he?" "He's started celebrating a bit early." "He's testing the brakes!" "I know - he's been playing too many computer games.." Me, I guess he was near the end of his shift and wanted to make it come that much faster. Anyway, it was a relief to get off safely. The last Overground of the night was much more sedate - people coming home from Glastonbury featured. For example, the tanned and healthy-looking young couple opposite me - he wearing a rock t-shirt and shorts, she in wellies, but otherwise not looking like the welly-wearing type (much too groomed). Also, the wellies were suspiciously clean. Although I didn't actually see a Hunter label.

PS Pity the poor guy who was just coming down the steps as we were going up, having got off the train at West Brompton. That was the last train of the night, and he didn't even realise it, as it pulled away before he got to the bottom. And there he stood, waiting for a train that would never arrive, and the guard on the other platform had to call across to him. Ah well..

That's two very heavy documentaries I've seen in three days. Tomorrow, something lighter - Cold in July, in which a homeowner accidentally shoots dead an intruder and is hailed as a local hero. Until the dead man's father is released from prison and comes a-lookin' for him. Stars Michael C. Hall (better known as Dexter, also starred in Six Feet Under), Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson. Conveniently, it's showing in my local cinema, so no public transport required. Oddly, they had originally scheduled three screenings tomorrow, but it's since been reduced to two. Never mind, I'm sure I'll cope!

Friday, 27 June 2014

Exhibition: Building the Picture

I'm not normally really one for art galleries, but wandered along this evening - since they open late on Friday - on the doddery old District Line, to the National Gallery, where they're running an exhibition called Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting. It's free, as is the gallery itself - this is the norm in London, and it's a fantastic thing.

I knew to head from Embankment up Villiers Street, then diagonally along Duncannon Street. You really can't miss it after that - it's the important-looking building across the road. As I crossed Trafalgar Square, I noticed the stages already set up for the Pride festival, next month. I hear Conchita Wurst is to perform..

As I mentioned, I haven't been inside the National Gallery before. I'm consistently amazed that such gorgeous buildings don't charge admission - the entrance hallway is absolutely stunning. I climbed stairs with black marble walls to get to the central hall, which was a riot of colour - the paintings hit you immediately. I'm glad, though, that I printed my own map from the website - the only desk I could see was unoccupied when I arrived. Which also meant I couldn't get an audioguide - but then, all the paintings have miniature descriptions beside them, anyway.

It's not far to the Sunley Room, where this exhibition is held - just head straight along the central hall, it's at the far end from the entrances from the square. There's a small room to the right, where they're showing short films related to the exhibition - I stayed for the end of the one that was showing when I arrived. All are available, as are the paintings themselves, to view on their website - some with audio descriptions! Really a fantastic resource - kudos to the webmaster.

The room that you enter for the exhibition is tiny, but it spills into the room next door. Just follow the paintings with buildings in them! I visited this exhibition because I love mediaeval and Renaissance paintings, and have always found the depiction of buildings in them rather spooky - all those ethereal, half-finished buildings: archways from nowhere, leading to nowhere: windows that open on impossible landscapes. They're all here. For some paintings, the descriptions point out architectural features that refer to identifiable buildings in Florence - there are accompanying maps.

When I was done looking at unearthly buildings, I had a wander around some of the gorgeously costumed subjects of the portraits. Saw some I recognised. I had a wander over towards the major exhibition of the moment - Making Colour - which is a ticketed event, taking place in the modern wing. It was completely sold out for tonight though, and don't even bother heading over there if you can't get a ticket; you won't get anywhere near it. Never mind - I swung by one of the two gift shops I could see, on my way out, and bought - of all things - a purple velvet-covered pencil, for my friend who's into both purple and stationery. Sadly, I couldn't get into the larger shop - despite still being able to see customers inside, and the fact that it was 10 minutes before the scheduled closing time, the door was already locked. Anyway, mindful of what it must cost to keep such a gorgeous collection, in such a sumptuous setting, and employ staff to stop us running off with the paintings - I upped their suggested donation of £4, and considered the evening a bargain at £5.

The stairs down from the entrance proved challenging, what with me needing the rail (bathmophobia strikes again) and everyone wanting to sit beside it, hang off it, and generally get in my way. I managed eventually, via a circuitous route. I was starving by the time I got back to Villiers Street, so decided to eat in La Piazza, as usual - where I had pasta, for a change. I can recommend it. Service was unusually quick - Friday night, I guess - until I had finished my meal, when I had to wait until the food was ready for the table beside me before they would clear my table. So, still some way to go with the service, it seems.

For tomorrow (with Skylight still standing-room only), there's a very good film. Return to Homs is a film made by a native of Homs, in Syria, about two of his mates - also from there - and how the war has affected them. Showing in the Picturehouse, Clapham, the trailer looks terrific - and there's a Q+A afterwards with the director.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Film: Watchers of the Sky

I'm back!! Yes indeed, I actually didn't go anywhere the last two nights - apathy for the films, combined with nice sunny evenings, meant I just didn't feel like it. I stayed home instead - got a few things organised, including starting an online German course by Linguaphone, for which I got a massive discount with Time Out offers..

But I'm back in the saddle tonight. I went to Watchers of the Sky - now, this is one I meant to go to ages ago, but something else came up. It was showing tonight only, in the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I was glad to get another chance to see it. Went straight from the office, which meant that the Tube was packed, of course. I had something of a crisis on the stairs leading down to it, with someone coming against me - on the rail, of course. And me needing the rail, with my bathmophobia. Anyway, I survived. Ironic that the guy I noticed on the platform as being outstandingly cute turned out to be the exact same guy that I ended up crushed up against in the carriage a few minutes later! Mind you, he was spottier up close..

The ICA - like most things, I suppose - is easy to get to when you know how. Passing through the barriers at Piccadilly Circus, take the exit straight ahead, marked Regent Street. Continue straight ahead, down Regent Street, to the end - where the statue of the Duke of York stands. Proceed down the steps, and hang a left at the bottom. Ah yes, more steps. Now, it was quite sunny and mild at this point, and there were people sitting on the steps. At the edges. Where the rails are - no rail down the centre, here. Gave me a moment's pause that - but there were just two couples, one on each side, but at different levels - and there was a flat bit between where they were. So - ahem - I had to go all the way from the left, where I started, to the right-hand side to get the rail down to the next flat bit (to avoid the first couple), and then walk all the way across the flat bit to get the rail down the left-hand side (to avoid the second couple), which led me to the bottom. Lordy, what a fuss..

There was a larger queue than I've seen before. As I bought my ticket, she explained to me that it was actually cheaper than advertised, because there was no Q+A, as advertised. Ok fine. The screen was already open, and I chose a seat. The screening was in association with DocHouse, which holds regular screenings of documentaries, together with Q+As, at a few venues around town. I must say, they have a terrific programme. Anyway, someone from the organising committee made an announcement before the show began, to say that the person they'd lined up for the Q+A hadn't been able to make it because of a family bereavement.

Which is actually a shame, because I would have loved to hear someone give an insight into some of the issues that this incredible film deals with. It's interesting - the last time I went to a film, I was delighted it wasn't a documentary. However, some documentaries merit their high rating. This film should be required viewing for EVERY HUMAN BEING old enough to understand. It's about genocide. It's about a man called Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term. A Polish Jew whose entire family perished in the Holocaust, he fled to the States in 1941. Frustrated that the Nuremberg Trials didn't go far enough in condemning what happened, he spent the rest of his life lobbying the United Nations to recognise the crime of genocide.

But it's about more than his story. We meet some amazing people - the lawyer at the UN who worked with him, and came from a refugee family himself - the United States ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, who was a correspondent in the Bosnian war and is now a tireless campaigner against genocide - the crusading Argentinian lawyer whose family disowned him when he prosecuted the junta and who now prosecutes in the International Criminal Court - and then there's possibly the most amazing story of all. The final character is the refugee whose entire family was killed in Rwanda, and who now runs refugee camps in Eastern Chad: a gentle man, who chokes up when he talks about his family, but feels that his role is to help others. Revenge, he says, can do us no good - its only effect is to bring trouble for our children, and our children's children.

There are many powerful messages in this film. There's Lemkin's frustration at the Nuremberg trials, where they believed that such a thing could never happen again. Of course, we've since seen that it not only can, but most probably will. Again and again. We see some examples in the film - Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria. We can all think of more. And the one thing of which you can be sure, if this happens in your neighbourhood - as the film points out very clearly - is that no-one will come riding in to help you. Governments talk the talk, but rarely walk the walk. The Rwandan genocide only ended when the Tutsis fought back. Nobody came rushing in for any of the other victims either. A mother living in a refugee camp in Chad, when interviewed, confides how one of her sons has already been killed, another has lost an eye and she's afraid for his life too, and now her teenage son is ready to join the rebels. He has no choice - no-one else will help them.

And yet.. we have this unsupported band of idealists in the UN, issuing arrest warrants for people like Omar al-Bashir (still at large and awaiting some army - any army - to come arrest him). We have people like that brave Rwandan Tutsi who runs the refugee camps in Chad. And we have the lawyer who worked with Lemkin, who tells us the story behind the film's name. Relates to Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer who persuaded the king to build him an observatory. Well, he'd been there 25 years, and there was a new king, who wanted to know what went on there, and sent some men to find out. Brahe explained that he'd been watching the sky. "Whatever for?" "Well," he said, "I now have incredibly accurate measurements of the movements of the stars. I thought it might give me an insight into the meaning of the universe, but, well.." "So what was the use?" "Well," he said, "when someone else comes along to discover the meaning of the universe, I will have saved him 25 years work..!" Indeed, apparently, when the first astronauts landed on the moon, they had a copy of Brahe's measurement tables with them.

Astonishing film. Infuriating, emotional, beautifully expressed. Keep a close eye out for it.

It was raining when I came out - at least the steps were clear! Coming back on a much emptier Tube, I found myself sitting opposite a member of the UK Under 15 Fencing team. Fancy.. Then I got home and discovered I had been supposed to be somewhere else! I had a ShowFilmFirst free ticket to a concert - was convinced it was tomorrow night, it turns out it was tonight. Oops! Well, I can fairly guarantee that this was better. And it leaves me free to go to the National Gallery tomorrow night - I've been wanting to all week, but they only open late on Fridays. They're running what sounds like a fascinating exhibition, on architecture in Italian Renaissance paintings. Well, I've never been before, but I do love Renaissance art. I was going to go on Saturday, but if I go tomorrow, that'll leave me free on Saturday to go to Return to Homs, a terrific-looking documentary, showing that day only, about two young lads from Homs whose lives have been utterly changed by the war. So, works out well for me then!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Film: Belle

I liked the look of the trailer for Belle, but, as usual, it depended on how it was rated on IMDB. And, while it had a good rating, it just wasn't good enough last week - 7.3, where I was struggling to get through the films rated 8 and above! And then, its rating rose to 7.4, and more to the point, I eliminated 44 films from the top of this week's film list, because they weren't showing today! not at a time I could make, anyway. And so, I was down to Belle.

It's showing at my local Vue cinema, so I could walk. It's been mild all day, but overcast, and sure enough, when I opened the door to leave for the cinema this evening, it was raining. Never mind, I had a hood - and was going to be late if I changed. So off I went. My coat was nicely wet by the time I got there, but what the hey. I handed in a Vue voucher when I was getting my ticket - didn't realise it was the expired one, but she took it anyway and gave me a replacement. So now I have two.

Despite having chosen my seat, I still preferred the one beside it. Go figure. Anyway, the place was quite empty. I was just in time for the trailers - nothing caught my eye. And then we were into the film. Based on real-life events, this is the story of (Dido Elizabeth) Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a British naval officer and a black woman, born c. 1761. Her father brings her back to England, to the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice - played by Tom Wilkinson. He and his wife - Emily Watson - take her in as a playmate for their other great-niece - Sarah Gadon, also seen in The Moth Diaries, where she played Lucy, and A Dangerous Method, where she played Jung's wife. She's about the same age, and has lived with them since the death of her mother. They have a liberated attitude towards "mulattos" and have her educated to the highest standards - in all respects, they treat her just like her cousin.

Until the girls grow up, of course, and Belle's cousin is in the marriage market. Belle, however, is in a tricky position - she is not considered good enough to marry into her father's family's class, but too good to marry beneath it. And what she most fears is ending up like Lord Mansfield's spinster sister - Penelope Wilton - who keeps house for him, but leads a lonely life. But things start to look up when the sons of Lady Ashcroft - Miranda Richardson - start to show an interest in the girls. Also hovering in the wings is a young man by the name of John Davinier. In real life, he was a gentlemen's steward - here, he's an ambitious young lawyer working with Lord Mansfield, who's currently considering the important case of the massacre of slaves aboard the trading ship Zong.

Firstly, it looks stunning. The sets, the grand houses, the costumes, are breathtaking. While the manners of the film at first seem stilted, they are true to the period, and are soon lost in the drama of events. Minor liberties are taken with the facts - as I say, John Davinier wasn't a lawyer. Also, Belle's cousin was hardly penniless, as in the film, and Belle, in real life, received not a penny from her father - it was Lord Mansfield who provided for her. But, you know, why let the truth get in the way of a good story? And this is one such. You get a vivid sense of how frustrating it must have been for her - leading a privileged life, but unable to participate in it fully. The only others of her colour that she saw were of a much lower social standing. Her story plays out against the backdrop of the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom - exciting times, and you do get a sense, in this film, of being on the brink of something very new.

Absolutely better than your average corset-and-wig drama. Recommended.

With standing tickets only available for Skylight for the next couple of days, it's a film again tomorrow - I have a choice of two. The winner, I think, will be Camille Claudel, the story of Auguste Rodin's lover, who went mad. The 1988 version with Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu - not the remake with Juliette Binoche, which isn't supposed to be as good. A long film, but promising. And I get it for free - it's only showing at the Odeon Panton Street, and I've earned enough Odeon points for a free film. Finally..

Concert: Bill Whelan Gala

Bill Whelan is the Limerick-born composer of Riverdance, which, in conjunction with some avant-garde Irish dancing, became the memorable interval act for the last Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Ireland, in 1994. Well, you know, we might not have won it since (which is why we haven't hosted it since, either), and that year was the third time in a row we'd hosted it, so it nearly bankrupted us. But you have to admit its legacy, in the form of a blockbuster show, but also in the sea-change in international (and indeed Irish) opinion of Irish dancing. It sexed it up. Nobody had ever thought of Irish dancing like that before. It was new, it was exciting, and this was the music that drove it.

Anyway, Limerick being this year's City of Culture, they decided to hold a gala celebration of Bill Whelan's work, featuring the National Symphony Orchestra, with James Galway on flute, in the University Concert Hall, Limerick. Given that it concided with a weekend I was back, it was the thing to go to, so we set about booking tickets. Not that easy, mind - not if, like my mother, you favour Row P - the one with the aisle in front of it and the rail to leave your coat on. Unfortunately, there was only one seat left there, right at the edge! We could have got seats together further back, but finally decided just to get that end seat for her, and the one behind it for me.

So, that was on this weekend. As usual for this venue, we decided to eat in the bar in the Castletroy Park Hotel, across the road from the university, beforehand. To be honest, it's not the most terrific, but it is convenient. There's a Chinese just across from it, but she doesn't eat Chinese anymore. And there is a new restaurant on campus, but there are a lot of steps up to it, which she doesn't fancy. So, the hotel it was again, then.

There was a wedding in the hotel that day - we were lucky to get a table, as they hadn't gone in for the meal yet. I must say, they were a fashionable bunch, and we enjoyed people-watching while we waited for our food. We had the same as usual. I started with mushroom soup, which was really very good - very rich though, and maybe not the thing for the unusually warm weather! For mains, I had crispy chicken, she had fish. Both had a breadcrumb coating, both coatings were burnt. Otherwise, the meal was ok. Service was very efficient. We were fed - we've just had better, especially for the price.

We decided to skip dessert, now that they sell ice cream at the concert hall, and given that that was all we wanted anyway. We arrived good and early, got a good parking space, and installed ourselves at Cafe Allegro, to the side of the concert hall, which wasn't open yet. My mother gleefully plonked herself in a prime position on one of the sofas overlooking the entrance - they're comfier than the tables, and it's a good vantage point to survey the other audience members as they arrive. And my, did we have fun! The show had sold out, and it seems that the boutiques of Limerick were raided for the occasion. They do like to dress up, Limerick ladies, and several stunning outfits were in evidence. Unfortunately, the stall selling programmes and ice creams took forever to open, so we were waiting quite a while for both!

Despite repeated, slightly frantic announcements, begging us to take our seats by 7.55 - with the live broadcast, timings had to be adhered to - the crowd, predictably, was in no major hurry. Neither were we - we figured, with seats at the end of the row, we would do well to wait until most people were seated, so we wouldn't have to keep getting up to let people in. We timed it pretty well, and most people were seated by the time the show started - some latecomers were seated after the first number, some others - two couples - couldn't take their seats when they arrived, and spent quite a long time standing near us, watching the show from the side stairs. My mother, by the way, was very chuffed with her seat, cosily tucked in the corner, and wiith no door directly behind her to create a draught.

The show - main part at least - consisted of four Bill Whelan compositions. The first, An Cistin (The Kitchen) - part of the Connemara Suite - was designed for interplay among violin, orchestra, and feet. So, in front of the orchestra, a raised platform was placed, upon which a male dancer entertained us mightily. This was followed by the orchestral arrangement of Riverdance itself - and you do forget what a dramatic piece it is. It's easier to remember the first part - a haunting, delicate melody - but I never seem to remember just how powerful a crescendo the piece reaches at the end. All that was missing was the troupe of dancers that you always associate with this piece. And by the time they finished, and we were into the interval, the audience was relieved to release their pent-up glee by leaping collectively to their feet in a hearty standing ovation.

After the interval, we had more of the Connemara Suite - Inishlacken, named for an island off the Connemara coast, which features an interplay between two violins. And then James Galway finally appeared, for a specially commisioned piece called Linen and Lace. A reference to both his and Bill Whelan's native cities - Limerick, famous for its lace, and Belfast, famous for its linen - Bill Whelan composed it at the request of James Galway, who wanted an orchestral piece for flute. So, the piece interweaves musical nods to both cities - more militaristic for Belfast, with the percussion featuring strongly: more flowing for Limerick, with the flute weaving a melody over the orchestra, and the sound of the trotting horses for which Limerick is also famous. And then, (most of) the audience got a shock when the section sitting in the choir seats, behind the orchestra, rose to their feet near the end of the number, true to the name of their section, to burst into song. A terrific concert, in all.

Honestly, we're not huge fans of James Galway, and we left before the encores. But you know, the handy thing was, of course, that it was broadcast live on the radio, so we could listen to the last pieces in the car on the way home, and still beat the crowds! ..and then it was too late to blog, and I had to be up early next day, and by the time I had to leave for the airport, I still hadn't had time to do more than start this post. And then I ran out of time last night as well - hence the lateness of the update! But hey, I got it in before I went to anything else, eh?

Speaking of which, I was looking at going to Skylight tonight, where Bill Nighy plays Carey Mulligan's ex-lover, who shows up one night in her apartment. But of course, with such big names appearing on stage, and me just looking today - was I going to be successful? Well, I could have got a standing ticket at the very top of the house... NO THANKS! Instead, I decided to look at films, and it turned out, when I checked my list for availability for today, that fully 44 films at the top of the list are not showing today - or not at a time I can manage. So that, finally, led me all the way down to Belle, and I'm delighted about that. The trailer looks gorgeous - a costume drama, it's set in England in the 1700s, where the lord and lady of the manor - Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson - get a shock when their nephew appears with his mixed-race daughter (Belle), asking them to take care of her - he's a naval officer, and I guess he has to get back to sea. They come to love her, and raise her alongside their own daughter, but as the girls grow up, the differences in their status become apparent. Belle's cousin seeks a wealthy suitor - Belle is considered unfit to even eat with her family in company, let alone seek a suitor like her cousin's. However, she is of too high status to marry just any poor man. Enter a penniless lawyer, crusading for an end to slavery.. Ooh, it is nice to have a film like this rated highly for a change - you get tired of documentaries!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Film: The Fault in Our Stars

I haven't read the book on which the film, The Fault in Our Stars, is based. And I don't normally go to teen movies. But the trailer for this didn't look too bad, and it is very highly rated on IMDB. And that makes me surprised that the thing is only showing on Thursdays! Maybe it just hasn't officially premiered yet, or maybe there's a symbolism to it, I dunno. But anyway, along I trotted tonight. Literally, as it was on in one of the cinemas I can walk to - the local Cineworld. So, given that they give a discount for booking, that is what I did.

As I was heading out the door, my flatmate was getting ready to watch the match. Couldn't believe I wasn't going to watch it. As I passed the local pub, they were just playing the national anthem. Hey-ho. I wished them well and continued on my way.

Naturally, my card didn't work at the cinema. Neither was there anyone on-hand who could have helped me to retrieve my booking. Be warned - make sure you have your booking reference number when you come here. Which I did, and made my confused way upstairs. Complicated cinema, this. I had chosen a particular seat during the booking process, but discovered, when I got in, that I was to be sitting right beside a large group of teenage friends. Eh, no thanks. I took the one behind instead. Handy for them too, for when yet another friend took up and was glad to get the seat I should have had!

And so to the film. For those who don't know, this is about a teenage boy and girl, both cancer sufferers, who meet in a cancer support group and fall in love. As the tag line goes, "Cry hard with a vengeance". Her parents are played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, who has one of the least notable parts in the entire film, and very little to do. Willem Dafoe shows up as the irascible author of our heroine's favourite book, whom she - or rather her boyfriend - contacts to ask him some questions about it. And I knew I recognised his assistant from somewhere - she's played by Lotte Verbeek, who, it turns out, played Giulia Farnese in The Borgias. Well, put her in period costume - or at least put her hair up - and I'd have known her immediately!

Well, they're absolutely right. This is a Grade-A weepie. I didn't think, for the longest time, that it was going to get me, but it did. I don't think it'd be too much of an exaggeration to say that there wasn't a dry eye in the house by the end. There was snuffling from all sides. The poor girl behind me asked me for a tissue, but I didn't have a clean one. The guys were at it too. It's inevitable, really. I thought the lead guy was going to irritate me - he looks a bit like someone I used to know, and didn't like much - but he even won me over! These kids are unfeasibly intelligent, witty, good-looking and spot-free. They're great fun to be around, and should have everything to live for. And cancer is taking everything from them. You don't have a hope of not crying at this. Bring a hankie. Bring several - you can pass them around.

Rest assured though, it's absolutely not mawkish. I can actually recommend it.

Oh, and it's not a spoiler to say they go to Amsterdam in the course of the story. It does appear in the trailer, after all. And looking lovely too. And it's nice to see what's in the attic of the Anne Frank house - I didn't make it up that final ladder, myself. Although WHAT a girl with an oxygen tank was doing, dragging herself first up all those steep stairs, and finally up a ladder, is beyond me. And it's a bit incredible to me to think that a local, as their companion, the author's assistant, likely is, didn't know there wasn't a lift. But anyway.

So anyway, back to Ireland tomorrow, and on Saturday we have tickets to the Bill Whelan Gala Celebration at the University Concert Hall. Sold out now, we have seats one behind the other - there was only one left in her preferred row! (That's the one with the aisle in front.) Broadcast live on Lyric FM, it features the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, with James Galway on flute. Bill Whelan is the chap that wrote the original Riverdance Suite, on which the subsequent enormously successful stage franchise was based. And it's all in conjunction with Limerick being City of Culture this year.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Musical: Kiss Me, Figaro!

I was dying to get back to The Scoop this evening. I mean, you sit on hard stone steps, the sound is frequently drowned out by ambient noise - but it's gorgeous on a sunny summer's evening, the view is spectacular - if you sit on the side I generally do, no matter what level you're at, you can see Tower Bridge. If you're standing at the top and looking in that direction, you can also see the Tower of London. If you're there after dark - and the events of late summer run until after dark - the lights of the City are spectacular. And as for the cold, hard steps, cushion hire is only £1.

The day had an unpromising start - there was even drizzle. But by lunchtime, the sun was peeking through, and the rest of the day was gloriously sunny, although temperatures didn't recover to the heights of recent weeks. Still, it wasn't freezing, and it was sunny, and it was good enough.

I didn't leave work until about 5.40, leaving it a bit tight to get there by 6.30 for the start of the show. Anyway, I made a dash for the station, arriving just as the Tube did. I had to change for the Jubilee line at Westminster. Now, I could have predicted - and did - that this was not a great time to get the Tube. Getting onto the Jubilee line at Westminster has to be one of the blackspots. As I got the escalator down to the Jubilee line - the District line runs at the highest level, as does the Circle - the escalator beside ours was creaking alarmingly. I wouldn't blame it.

The first two Jubilee line trains that arrived were too packed to cram onto - but at this station, at this time, trains come at a rate of one per minute. And I made it onto the third. Now I forgot to mention, in my last post, that on the Tube last night, there was a first for me - I saw someone doing a headstand. For the benefit of her friend, who was attempting to take a photo while simultaneously giggling uncontrollably. Fair play to that lady's sense of balance, for she did this while the train was moving. Similar contortions were required on the Jubilee line this evening at rush hour. I've rarely been so squashed. Luckily, I was only going three stops.

We gratefully unfolded ourselves from the train at London Bridge. I hadn't had a chance to pick up a Standard, but managed to grab a discarded one at the side of the escalator. This station was the first where I noticed they were giving current World Cup results on the platform indicators - very helpful. As I hurried down Tooley Street, I noticed a sightseeing bus stopped in traffic, with a couple of people standing on the upper deck, very interested in my side of the road. Of course, they were looking at the original site of the London Dungeon..

Now, if you look closely, you can see the two ominous, cloaked and hooded figures flanking what used to be the entrance. And the sign over the door says "Enter at your Peril". Very atmospheric - although the new location is handier for the tourists. More central, and closer to other attractions.
Well, I wasn't hungry yet, but I stopped into the very convenient food branch of Marks & Spencer, on the way to The Scoop. My mission was not food, but their individual (plastic) glasses of wine. Sadly, they were sold out of them. Never mind, I was in a hurry anyway. I scooted down there, and hired a cushion - the chap explained that the hire charge would go to a children's charity. Great - just give it to me and let me in, they're tuning up already!
The show was Kiss Me, Figaro! by the Merry Opera Company. Apparently, they play here every year. This is a delightfully silly romcom, set in a travelling opera company that's nominally staging La Boheme. However, the plot is mostly concerned with the romantic entanglements of the two lead singers. Being a travelling opera company, there are plenty of excuses to break into numbers from all kinds of sources - other operas (interestingly, all the operas are sung in English), but also Irving Berlin and Gilbert & Sullivan.
As I say, the ambient noise is a problem, and you miss many of the spoken pieces if the speaker is faced away from you. However, I never lost the gist of the story, and there's no problem hearing the singing. Which is magnificent. They can carry a tune, these people, as well as do a funny turn. There's a guy over the side on keyboard. And it struck me, as this beautiful music wafted up between the skyscrapers - I am truly spoiled. We all are, who have the chance to hear music of this quality in the middle of a city, on a beautiful sunny evening - and for free, too. Several passers-by stopped to watch for a while, and I can imagine what a lovely surprise they must have had, hearing this as they were going about their other business. And when a quartet of singers launched into the Flower Duet from Lakmé by Delibes, it wasn't the breeze that brought tears to my eyes. It was chilly by the end, but I wouldn't have missed this for the world! Plays for just two more days, go see it f you possibly can.
For tomorrow, I've booked to see The Fault in Our Stars. It's rated very highly, but for some reason has a limited release, although based on a book that seems popular - maybe it's still in preview. Anyway, it's about a teenage boy and girl who fall for each other in a cancer support group. Her parents are played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell. Weird seeing him outside of True Blood! And then it's back to Ireland for the weekend, and on Saturday night we're headed to the University Concert Hall again, for the sold-out Bill Whelan Gala Celebration. It's a celebration of the music of Bill Whelan - he's the guy that wrote the original Riverdance suite - in conjunction with Limerick's year as City of Culture. Features the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, with James Galway on flute. Never fear if you want to hear it and haven't got a ticket - it's being broadcast live on Lyric FM, Ireland's classical radio station. As it is, if my mother was to have a seat in her favourite row - the one with an aisle in front - I had to sit behind her, there was only one seat left in the desired row! And so it came to pass..

Film: Omar

Well, it's about time I got to see Omar. It's been at or near the top of my list since last week, and I finally got around to it last night. Only showing, like the film the night before, in the Odeon Panton Street.

I forgot to mention, in my last post - when I was describing directions to here - when you're exiting Piccadilly Circus station for Haymarket, don't take the Haymarket exit. It just brings you up through Cool Britannia - which is fine if you want to buy something, but is otherwise irritating. Come up through the Eros exit instead - this brings you up by the Eros fountain, which is just a few yards further along.

After last night, I've finally earned enough Odeon points for a free film. :-) Although, knowing my luck, it'll be ages before I go to the Odeon again..

Right then, to the film. Kudos to the filmmakers. This is, without doubt, the paciest and most exciting thriller I've seen in YEARS! The action centres on Omar, a young Palestinian fellow living in the West Bank. By and large, he's an upstanding citizen. He holds down a steady job, and he fancies the pretty sister of a childhood friend of his. He's been carefully saving money to build a home for them, so he'll have the right to ask for her hand in marriage.

Thing is though, her brother is leader of the Jerusalem branch of the PLO. Or some offshoot of it. Anyway, he ropes Omar and another childhood friend into an attack on an Israeli army base, during which they shoot and kill a soldier. Predictably, all hell breaks loose. Shin Bet comes looking for suspects, and Omar is arrested, incarcerated, and rather graphically tortured. He's not the one that pulled the trigger, but he won't betray his friend, of course. Here begins a game of cat-and-mouse, with the Israelis trying to get him to give up his friends, and his friends wondering whether he's already done so. Meantime, he's afraid to tell his girlfriend anything, she's beginning to wonder what he's hiding, and we, the audience, are left completely unsure which side he's going to come down on! Or indeed, who's really telling the truth at all.

It's pacy, as I say; it's exciting, and the chases take place on foot through the back alleys of the West Bank. And on top of walls, and on rooftops. Omar is spectacularly good at free-running, might I add. All that climbing that he has to do over the separation wall, to see his girlfriend, undoubtedly helps. And for all the gritty story of the fighting and imprisonment, there's a parallel love story that's really sweet, betraying what a young lad he really is.

Go see this if you get the chance, it's excellent.

Of course, it was over too late to do the blog last night, hence the delay. Tonight, the plan is to head back to The Scoop, weather permitting - it was looking iffy, but thankfully it's brightening up now. It's a production of Kiss Me, Figaro! by the Merry Opera Company.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Film: 112 Weddings

The film for this evening, 112 Weddings, is only showing in the Odeon Panton Street. I went to the early evening showing.. it's near Piccadilly Circus, so the Piccadilly line it was! So, a brisk walk to Earl's Court. The train was packed.. usually is, on this line, especially at this time - I had to stand, both ways. When you get there, you need the Haymarket exit - it's not immediately obvious; follow the signs for the Trocadero initially. When you exit, double back, take a right at the horse statue for Haymarket, and a left onto Panton Street. I remembered the way - pretty much - this time!

Mind you, I was somewhat delayed by one of the more interesting street entertainers I've seen..

Look carefully.. it's Yoda, complete with walking stick. Or, in this case, I guess, floating stick..

Anyhoo. When I got to the cinema and bought my ticket, I had a pleasant surprise - I'd forgotten that you get a 25% discount as a member, for Film Fan Mondays!

Despite this, the screen was practically empty. There were a few trailers, for films I might be interested in, and the feature started. This is a documentary, made by a New York documentarian who shoots wedding videos on the side, and was interested in what happened to the couples afterwards. He's shot 112 in all.. don't worry, they're not all featured! As he explains, he contacted them, and some had moved away, some were divorced and didn't want to talk, or just didn't want to talk for other reasons. In the end, he got eight couples to agree to talk to him, their interviews interspersed with shots from their wedding videos.

And what an interesting and engaging film it makes! These are interesting people, quite eloquent for the most part. Some are very funny. Most are still together and have kids, some have very sad stories to tell. Two of the couples that talk to him are divorced - actually, of one of these couples, only one of the two people agrees to an interview. It's a fascinating peek into other people's lives, of course - but they're also asked their views on marriage, how things, and their opinions, have changed since the wedding day, what the hardest thing has been since. Amidst all the fun, there are some very serious stories. And it's absolutely gripping. All the great themes of life are here. Strongly recommended.

As I was walking back to the station, an American couple asked me whether they were headed the right way to "Trafaglar" Square. I've only been there a few times, never from where I was then standing, and I wasn't sure. "Never mind," they said, and continued in the same direction. Of course, I was now curious, and consulted the first map I found - they're prominent on the main streets here. Well, they had been heading in the right direction, so I didn't feel too bad. As I rounded the horse fountain on my way back to the station, I noticed that Yoda had left. Floated off, I suppose. I also noticed a man in a suit sitting on the edge of the fountain, wearing a clown mask. And I noticed his scarf, which was the same that Yoda had been wearing..

Anyway! Tomorrow, having rejected a couple of films on the simple grounds of weirdness, top of the list is Omar, a love story centring on a Palestinian terrorist. From the trailer, it looks excellent, and but for going to The Scoop last week, I would've gone to this. About time I saw it - also showing exclusively at the Odeon Panton Street.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Film: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Yes, readers of yesterday's blog - it was indeed raining today. Had it not been, the plan was to go to a free, outdoor screening of Chef, a new comedy about a top chef whose boss - Dustin Hoffman - fires him, and who starts a food truck instead. Scarlett Johansson is in it, as is Robert Downey Jr., who plays his ex-wife's other ex-husband. I see Scarlett's hair is still black. And the chef also directs. It's showing as part of the East End Film Festival.

And then it rained. Well, not immediately, mind - I was busy looking up how to get there earlier today. Google Maps said to take the Tube to Stratford and walk through the huge shopping centre, then through the Olympic Village. Unfortunately, none of this was on Streetview! and I haven't been that side of Stratford Station before. Fortunately, I noticed that the route took me past the local Holiday Inn.. and sure enough, they had some decent directions on their website, involving "turn left at such-and-such shop and take the escalator". That kind of thing. And I was just getting into the nitty-gritty of it when I noticed that it was raining.

And, indeed, the day wasn't that warm either, and it just wouldn't have been pleasant to sit outdoors for a couple of hours. So, Plan B kicked in, and I went to The Magnificent Ambersons, directed by Orson Welles, nicely restored and showing in the BFI. It wasn't booking heavily, so I saw no need to book a seat, and just headed into town when the time came. Mind you, it took me a bit longer than usual, what with no Tubes running through West Brompton this weekend - planned engineering works - so I had to walk to Earl's Court. Anyway, I arrived with minutes to spare, and settled into my plush seat. Love those BFI seats.. apologies to the lady at the end of the row, who took it most ungraciously that she should be disturbed at all for me to get in, despite the fact that the film hadn't started yet, and all she had to do was swing her legs sideways, there being no-one beside her! Before the screening started, someone made an announcement of apology that it was rather chilly - the aircon was broken. Can't say it bothered me - but then, I had to trot a bit to get there in time, and frankly, was glad to get my coat off..

Now, they always give out programmes before these things, but I hardly had time to read mine before the film started. I did know that it was directed, and the screenplay written, by Orson Welles. Turns out it was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and concerns the young scion of the Amberson dynasty, who has a high opinion of himself, but finds that none of what he considers his proper due is necessarily permanent. Anne Baxter plays his long-suffering girlfriend. Joseph Cotton plays her father, who has the temerity to court the poor little rich boy's widowed mother. And Orson Welles, never one to be left out, narrates.

'Twas a lovely thing to watch. There's always a kind of soothing quality to films that Orson Welles was involved in, I think - not sure how he managed that. Maybe it's the quality of his voice. Anyway. Most of the action takes place in the grand old Amberson house - there are some snowy scenes, involving sleigh rides, in the beginning of the story, which concerns the relentless march of progress, and laments the old ways. To some extent, we're colluding with the spoilt rich kid in that. But it is a classic, and a delightful way to pass a Sunday evening. Despite a generally good restoration, there is a small continuity break right near the start - I was glad I'd already seen the first five minutes on YouTube. And, in my opinion, Anne Baxter grins far too much - she seems to have little else to do. But I recommend it, to lovers of old films. It's showing again on Tuesday evening, if you're in town.

Coming back, I passed my third busker of the day. The first who showed himself to have any talent, he was playing a mournful classical air, and as I passed, I saw he only had 20p in his violin case. I stopped around the corner and dug out a £1 coin - I don't like to be fiddling with cash in front of them. And then I returned, and threw in my coin. He inclined his head in thanks. And just after I rounded the corner again, the air switched to a much jollier one. :-)

Tomorrow night's film is looking like a documentary, called 112 Weddings, about a pair of wedding photographers who decide to revisit the couples whose weddings they've photographed over all these years, and see how they're getting on! Showing in the Odeon Panton Street, but we'll see how I feel after dinner!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Dance: Dreams of the Orient

I would've headed into town first today, to see the Naked Bike Ride. And then.. for the first time in ages.. it rained! And didn't look promising. So I skipped it. Anyway, I was knackered after yesterday's zoo expedition, and besides, I already had a free ticket, courtesy of ShowFilmFirst, to Dreams of the Orient this evening. So, I had a nice, relaxing afternoon instead. Heard low-flying planes at one point - not sure whether they had anything to do with the Trooping the Colour.

When it came time, I readied myself to head to Croydon. I was there not so long ago, for yet another show courtesy of ShowFilmFirst, so pretty much remembered how to get there - train from West Brompton, either direct or via Clapham Junction, to East Croydon. Turn right from the station, and Fairfield Halls are around the corner to the left - you can cut across a plaza. It's faster to take an express train from Clapham than to go direct from West Brompton. Anyway, I checked with TFL and no planned engineering works this weekend are affecting the bit of the Overground that runs between West Brompton and Clapham Junction, so that was ok. The very useful Which Platform? website informed me that I would need Platform 13 at Clapham Junction, and Google Maps told me that the trains are run by Southern, whose timetables informed me that there was a train about every 10 minutes, in case I missed the one I was aiming for, and that the single fare from Clapham was £7.30. Not that I'd be paying separately - Croydon is still inside the London travel zones, and valid for travel with the integrated Oyster card, which is both cheaper and handier.

The Tube isn't running through West Brompton this weekend. Now, when that happens, they close the main doors and open the side gate for access to the Overground platforms, as long as the Overground isn't also affected. This is really handy for me, because the gate is closer from my side. I was early for the train, but it was pleasant to stand on the platform with the mild breeze that was blowing. The train was pretty busy when it arrived, and I had to stand - but it was only two stops. I was just in time to miss the train before the one I was aiming for, at Clapham, and in plenty of time for the one I wanted. Just as well I didn't go any later, really - we had a couple of unscheduled stops on the way.

I took the shortcut across the plaza this time to get to the venue - I hadn't been sure of my way last time. Arrived at the venue at about 6.55 - the show wasn't actually scheduled to start until 7.30, but if you have a free ticket, you're supposed to show up half an hour early. I doubt they enforce it, but I do try to hold to that. Unfortunately, I arrived at the same time as a whole load of free ticket holders, and had to queue. When I exchanged my voucher, she automatically gave me two tickets, and I had to give one back. You are allowed up to two, y'see.

I was thirsty, and bought a bottle of orange and passion fruit juice, but there was no point in buying anything more substantial to eat - as usual, there was nowhere to sit! As it was, I ended up leaning against a stair-rail while I drank. It turned out that there was a classical concert there this evening as well, and a lady who asked me whether I had a programme, and then gave me one when I said I didn't, thought that was what I was going to! Nice of her, all the same. They certainly have a full schedule at Fairfield.

I went in as soon as I could, but the start was somewhat delayed by the steward frantically running around, evicting people who had just sat where they wanted, and ended up in other people's seats! For heaven's sake. Mind you, I know that the free tickets are allotted without capacity for special requests, so maybe that was the problem. A lady was wandering the aisles, distributing free programmes, so I took one. Turns out that the show was the brainchild of an English woman who became besotted by the Arab world as a kid, and never lost it. When she discovered bellydancing, she found her vocation, and is now an award-winning dancer herself, who founded a dance school, and finally conceived this show, which features a handful of other award-winning dancers of various nationalities, as well as a general company of dancers, and several story changes, designed to highlight different dance themes.

Is it any good? Yes, it's good! It's unashamedly populist - has all the elements you'd expect from a popular show based on the Arabian Nights. We start in the sultan's harem, with spinning dancers brandishing flowing veils. Various storylines allow for different dancing styles, and gorgeous costume changes. We also see a sorceress / fire-eater, ghouls, genies, and assassins. There's just one main male dancer, who alternately plays the sultan, and Sinbad, as required. And the lady who conceived the show, who must be nearing retirement age, also comes onstage, telling us the story of how she came to love this culture, and even participating, briefly, in the dancing. It's sweet - you can tell it's really her baby!

The dancers are terrific - every bit the equal of an exceptional one that I saw years ago in Istanbul. The dancing also incorporates elements of ballet and salsa - apparently the dancers choreographed their own routines. And the music is intoxicating.. rhythmic bellydance music, with some of the Scherezade Suite by Rimsky Korsakov thrown in for good measure. I don't know where, or even whether, they're playing again, but I wish them all the best.

I had just a few minutes to wait for the train back to Clapham - a good thing, because it turned chilly. And when I got there, the incoming train that terminated there and would shortly be heading towards West Brompton had just arrived, giving me somewhere warm to sit. Oh, and the total fare, for a return journey from West Brompton to East Croydon, via Clapham Junction? £4.60, on Oyster. I benefitted from a cheaper weekend rate, but still.. no arguing with it, Oyster is great value for money!

For tomorrow, I see that the East End Film Festival is showing a free, outdoor screening of Chef, the new film where a top restaurant chef gets fired by his boss - Dustin Hoffman - and starts a food truck. The guy who plays the chef also directs. Robert Downey, Jr. plays his ex-wife's other ex-husband. Scarlett Johansson seems to play the love interest, by the looks of the trailer. Looks good - but this is dependant on decent weather, otherwise I'll wait and pay to see it with a roof over my head! Still, if it works out, it'll have been a cheap weekend.. Plan B, if it rains, is The Magnificent Ambersons, restored and playing at the BFI - it was directed, in 1942, by Orson Welles. Good either way!

Friday, 13 June 2014

London Zoo Lates

Helen was in town today, and we decided to go to the Zoo Lates this evening. Now, we decided this well in advance, as you have to - the zoo generally closes at 6, but has taken to offering "lates" for over 18s only on selected Fridays during the summer. On these days, the zoo closes at 5, and opens for "lates" customers from 6 to 10. Last admission during the day is an hour before closing, and for the "lates" at 8pm. The "lates" have proved exceptionally popular, and this week's and last week's sold out. So, booking is essential, and we availed of a half price Time Out offer.

The next thing was to figure out how to get there. Now, it's on my side of the city, and generally, things on my side of the city are quick enough to get to. If I'm to travel over to the other side of the city, I might expect to spend an hour or more in transit - not if I'm travelling to something in the west. This goes to show, however, just how tricky it can be to get around if you're not travelling along one of the main transit routes. London's transport network is intricate, and covers most popular routes like a spider's web, but there are areas where it falls down. The zoo is one of these. There doesn't seem to be a really convenient way to get there if you don't have a car.

We elected to take the Tube to Hyde Park Corner and a bus from there. It was just as well I noted the letter applied to the particular bus stop we wanted - Hyde Park Corner is chaotic. Six major roads intersect there, and you really need to know which direction you're headed in. Despite our destination being to the north, upon reading the bus map that's handily located at the exit to the Tube station, we discovered that our required bus stop was to the south, and thus determined which of the six exits we should take! So, complicated, but not impossible.

Of course, our bus was at the stop as we approached, and left as we got near. Only to be expected. About 18 different bus routes use that stop, and what with the heavy rush hour traffic, the indicator just couldn't keep up, so it was fun to guess which would be next - and there was a constant stream of them. A bus on the route we wanted arrived in due course, and we spent what seemed like forever on it, as it crawled through the traffic. At least we were on the upper deck, with something of a breeze from the open windows - much needed in this heat. And we could spend our time perusing, from our high vantage point, all the posh shops of Mayfair and Berkeley Square.

Now, it had seemed to us, from the online bus route map we consulted, that we were to disembark at Regent's Park Barracks, which we did. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that there was another bus stop, further on, which would have saved us a bit of walking.. and which was directly opposite our return bus stop, which was named for - Regent's Park Barracks! Hmph. Anyway, we trudged on, and some deal of trudging was required, in the heat. About 15 minutes, I'd guess - and that from the nearest bus stop! No, not handy to get to at all - and much further again to the nearest Tube station. I pity anyone coming here with small children.

We finally made it to the entrance. Make sure to take one of the convenient, yellow, folding zoo maps on the way in - this is a big place, with lots to see. Helen's priority was the big cats, so we made our way first to the tiger enclosure, then the cheetahs and lions. We were graced with the presence of a magnificent adult tiger, who reclined and posed for the cameras. They had three cubs some months ago, whose den is visible on "cubcam". They have a huge enclosure, and the walkways weave through it, with viewpoints from different angles - we also managed to catch a glimpse of one of the cubs exploring, and another asleep behind a tree.

The cheetahs were unconcerned by the attention, but happily their sleeping area was in plain view to us tourists. One slept, the other glared at us, and we got photos of both. In the lion enclosure, one of the two lionesses visible caused great excitement when she decided to go for a run - but then she settled down languidly. The other paced relentlessly, obviously unhappy. Various people speculated that watching us was making her hungry..

Some photos here. Helen's camera has a better zoom, and she managed better photos than I did. See here.

The cute and furry creatures were more snap-happy, delighted to pose and frolic for the cameras. As Helen astutely remarked, the student-types more than made up for the lack of children at the event, with their antics. Most of the entertainment, which we avoided, seemed geared to them - and I had to wonder what brought these people to this event at all. The bands playing had no connection to the zoo - they could have gone to see similar bands anywhere, probably cheaper. Why drag themselves all the way out here? The silent disco, when we passed it, seemed dead in the water, with about three people at it, standing forlornly to the side.

The food festival was more successful - a large range of stalls arranged in a circle. Indian food and hot dogs featured strongly. Helen's fancy was taken by a "British Food" stall, and I queued for a burger, before realising that this was the collection queue, and I needed to order and pay first. It took forever, but I was delighted with the burger when I got it - it was the simplest on the menu, but it's been a while since I had one so tasty. The chips that came with it were a bit salty though, and I didn't have many.

When we finished, it was just after 9, and there were a couple of animal enclosures we were keen to see before 10, when the place closed for the night. Only.. the animal enclosures, almost without exception, close at 9! Now hold on a minute, no-one told us that! Sure, I noticed a sign to that effect on the tiger enclosure, which we'd visited first - but nowhere else! That should really have been made clear in the terms and conditions for this event. It's as though they really didn't expect people who came to the "lates" to be actually interested in the animals. As Helen remarked - and I agree - it was ok for what we paid, but had we been paying full price, it would definitely not have been worth it.

At least the exit was closer to the bus stops, and we made our way back - something of a rush for Helen, who had to travel quite a distance outside of London, and pointed out that the trip to the zoo took nearly an hour each way from my place! It's a great facility, and they have some good initiatives. But it's a real slog to get to, and there's way too much to see in the time allowed for the "lates". If you are interested in the animals, that is. Definitely not worth it at full price. But if you want to go during the daytime, and you're prepared for the journey to get there, I do recommend it as a venue.

Tomorrow, I'll take a trip into town to peek at the Naked Bike Ride - assuming I'm not too wrecked after tonight! And tomorrow night, ShowFilmFirst provided me with a free ticket to a dance performance called Dreams of the Orient, at what seems to be their preferred venue - Fairfield Halls in Croydon. Busy, busy, busy me..!