Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Lost Arts

Regular readers may know that, in real life, I have something to do with the bloody Council. Up until December of last year, I worked in an eleven storey office block originally built for the National Coal Board in 1966. It was an interesting building, but it had its limitations. Despite what the Daily Mail might say, Council Offices aren't usually full of gold jacuzzis and million quid art installations called 'Dignity', instead they tend to be slightly smelly, with mismatched furniture, rattly windows and thin walls packed with asbestos, and this one exemplified the type. They don't tend to have any sort of design scheme or interior theme, but you will definitely find a preponderence of Kid's Art. While I was there, I used some free time to go around snapping some prime examples.

A particular favourite of mine.

Not sure what this is getting at, but the colours are nice.

'Death of a Rainbow'?

Local authorities are really about social care: education, housing, planning, old people, young people, people who need help, so kid's art not only reminds us of what we're doing it for, it also softens and humanises utilitarian areas. It's rarely seen by the public, so it's not there to try and convince them we have hearts, it's just there because it's nice, it's colourful, it's available, and it's free.

A decent Pollock tribute.

Fat finger painting.

I have often pondered the process by which these paintings and drawings end up on our walls. Was there a competition at some point, a 'liven up the grey lives of council officers' drive? Or did somebody just scoop them up from a store cupboard or a skip and think 'we've got eleven floors of nothing where the most visually stimulating thing is a fire extinguisher, we'll have all that'?

And what of the youthful artists? Did they know their art was to be displayed? Do they realise it's still on display many years after it was painted, perhaps years and years after they have left school. Did any of them become professional artists? Are any of them dead? Do any of them now work in the office and cringe or flush with pride when they see the work of their younger, more colourful self? Who can know?

Pre-pubescent Pop Art.

Serious stuff. Definitely painted by a disgruntled teenager.

The building still stands, but is now empty and waiting to be demolished. The thousand odd staff who worked there have now been 'decanted' (bizarre phrase to describe the movement of solids, let alone people) to a brand new, climate controlled, pastel coloured office across the way with very little of anything of an artistic nature to distinguish different floors. Right up until the day before I moved offices, I had intended to claim at least one of the pictures for myself (probably the top one) but, with just twenty fours hours to go, a team came and took them all away to put on the walls of other drab council buildings out in the field. At first, I felt a little sad but soon realised that it was only right and proper: this lost art should go back to be potentially reunited with its makers. The idea that a thirty five year old man might suddenly reconnect with his fifteen year old self as a result of a chance visit to a Council Office is to good to resist.

Next time: Landscapes and Still Lifes.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Stone Me!

Marianne Stone cockneys it up as 'Hasim Bay's Landlady' in Hammer's 'Curse Of The Mummy's Tomb' (1964).

Friday, 26 April 2013

Sparrows Can't Sing

'Sparrows Can't Sing' ('Sparrers Can't Sing', originally) is a film by celebrated theatre director, Joan Littlewood. Joan ran the Theatre Workshop, a company designed to make drama a 'living event', i.e something any audience could relate to and get involved with. To this end, she recruited working class actors to give her productions energy and immediacy, later establishing her own theatre in Stratford East.

Littlewood's only feature film is a loose, semi-improvised story filmed on location in the East End featuring a love triangle between cockney's Charlie, Maggie and Bert. Charlie (James Booth) is a merchant seaman who has been away for two years. In his absence (he hasn't bothered to write) his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor, very sweet) has moved in with Bert (George Sewell), a married bus driver. When Charlie comes home with a suitcase full of exotic presents from his travels, he is dismayed to find that his house has been knocked down and that his wife and kids are nowhere to be found.    

The Rovers Return.
Maggie and Bert and the kids live in a brand new flat in a high rise. When Charlie finds this out he demands to see Maggie, so he can have his 'conjugal rights'. After a load of running around, some tense scenes and some high farce, Maggie eventually goes back to Charlie as she'd always planned to do, and Bert goes back to his wife as he'd always planned to do. It's a funny old life being bottom of the pile, the message seems to be, so take your pleasures where you can, expect some ups and downs and no hard feelings. It's a fair snapshot of of the complex and occasionally chaotic lives of some ordinary people, and it's told warmly and affectionately, without any sense of snobbery or sneering or moral superiority.   

I like everything about this picture.

The film is also a great historical document, and the glimpses of the old and the new East End it provides are priceless. Much of the action revolves around the Stifford Estate, Stepney, built in the same year as the film was made. It's amazing to see the estate in its pristine, just opened state. It looks clean and spacious and modern - and none of the numerous pieces of public art have been vandalised.

Wickham House, Stifford Estate, Stepney, built 1963.

Exterior Mural.

Interior Mural, with Murray Melvin.

Interior Corridor, with Murray Melvin.

Low Rise Flats, Stifford Estate.

The Estate was demolished in 1999, although the magnificent, fat arsed Henry Moore statue ('A Seated, Draped Woman') which once adorned its approach had been removed two years previously and taken to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Last year, it was controversially announced that Tower Hamlets Council wanted to auction off 'Old Flo' (as it is informally known) to help towards a deficit caused by public spending cuts, although it was withdrawn from sale in December because of a dispute over which local authority actually owns it.  

'A Seated, Draped Woman' in situ at the Stifford, 1963.
The film has an extraordinary cast, all Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop alumni. Alongside Booth, Windsor and Sewell you will also spot Roy Kinnear, Jack the sleazy Conducter and Blakey the Inspector from 'On The Buses' (who also wrote the play the film was based on), the fantastically arch Murray Melvin, Queenie Watts, George AND Mildred, Dave out of 'Minder', George A. Cooper, Victor Spinetti and Harry H. Corbett.   

The East End version of 'Grease'was not well received...

George Sewell glowers.

Murray Melvin tits about.
I love Murray Melvin, he makes everything he's in instantly camper and more interesting. As a penultimate note, it is worth mentioning that, for the US market, this English language film was given subtitles, but I'll bet that Ethel and Abner must still have wondered what the heck was going on.

The last shot, just after Charlie and Maggie toddle off, reconciled but still arguing, seems to hint that this is the end of a chapter, not the last page. Charlie will go off to sea again, and Maggie will find another Bert, on and on into middle age when they'll get too old to keep at it and finally plonk themselves down on whatever they've got when the music stops, like a game of emotional musical chairs. East Enders, eh? What a Soap Opera.

The final shot.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Strictly Come

Piper Alpha and Omega

John Piper (1903-92) is best known as a painter and printmaker, but photography played an important part of his practice throughout his career as an artist.  He rarely used photographs as sources for his paintings, more as an adjunct, and they share with the work of fellow artist-photographer Paul Nash an artistic sensibility and questing for a deeper understanding of the British landscape, its spirits and (pre-)history.

Does this selection of images suggest an unexpected mash-up of M.R.James/Arthur Machen with a Shell Guide book? It works for me.

Hopfield at Horsmondon, Kent

Backwater of the Thames, Lechlade, Glos., 1936

Infant School

The Root-house, Badminton, 1974

Llanwnda, Dyfed

Glass at Cherington, Warks.

Harvest Festival

Howard Monument, Rudbaxton, Dyfed

Font at Toller Fratrum, Dorset

Cheer up mate, might never happen...

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Top of the Tops

Charles and Ray Eames were the dynamic duo of American post-war design. I have to confess that as a callow student I was a little disappointed when I learned Ray was not Charles' gay partner as I imagined, but his petite wife of many years, and her contribution to the Eames aesthetic was just as significant as her husbands.

The Eames Office not only created furniture and architecture of renown, but were among the first multi-media designers of their age, incorporating slide-shows, exhibition design, product design and philosophy into their practice.

The Eames short films are among my favourite works from their oeuvre, which often drew on their vast collection of 'stuff' - anthropological gewgaws amassed on their global travels.

Here we present two versions of Tops.  The first version was shot in monochrome to be included as a short segment of the popular Stars of Jazz (1958) TV series, and can be considered as an experimental work in progress, albeit with a jazz soundtrack. Nice.

This was followed in 1969 by a longer colour version with a fantastic spacey jazz score by Elmer Bernstein. A comparison of the music on both films gives a good illustration of the psych influence on jazz during the 1960s.

Dig the simple visual poetics. Away out!

Monday, 22 April 2013


Landscape, 'From The Tea Rooms of Mars...To The Hellholes of Uranus'
RCA, 1981 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

A Boy, a Girl and a Bike

Blatant pro-bike, anti-car propaganda from long before anyone ever heard of a carbon footprint, A Boy, a Girl and a Bike tells of the endearingly high-spirited adventures of a cycling club in the Northern mill town of Wakeford.  The club's leading lights include feisty mill girl Susie (Honor Blackman) and her sweetheart Sam (Patrick Holt).

Honor at t' mill

One day Susie's knocked off her bike by car-driving posho David (John McCallum), who rapidly falls for her in the way men in romantic comedies tend to for women who are rude to them.  Personally I'm more interested in the charms of the extra with the moustache.

At their first meeting, David buys Susie a puppy as a token of his affection.  Given he's able to buy a dog off a market stall for next to nothing to give a girl who doesn't even want it, I'd guess animal welfare wasn't a major priority in 1949.  The briefly-glimpsed dog seller is Gerald Lawson, look-and-soundalike brother of Mounds and Circles favourite Wilfrid.

Despite going steady with Sam, Susie's not overly discouraging of David's eager advances, and gives him the idea of joining the club -where he renounces his car after falling for the charms of a cycle in the country as rapidly as he did those of Susie.  But which of her two suitors will she choose? Sam's a bit boring but she and David are from different worlds.  He comes from a very nice middle class family, while hers is your standard ee by gum Northern working class affair.  She's even got Thora Hird for a mother, for goodness' sake.


Not posh

After David stops to help Susie with a puncture on the way to the club's annual camping holiday the two end up getting pissed in a country pub and raucously arriving at the campsite late at night.  This brings Sam and David's rivalry to a head and the pair engage in a spot of physical activity.

Not the marrying sort

But when, just before an important road race, club member Cyril Chamberlain (who looks like he's wearing his toupee back-to-front) gets carted off by the police as an army deserter, David steps in take his place.  Working together, he and Sam lead the Wakeford club to victory.  Hurrah!

The social structure of Wakeford remains untroubled, as David eventually decides to concede Susie to Sam: "She's lots of fun, but I'm just not the marrying sort," he explains

The most engaging of the film's various subplots features 17 year old Anthony Newley as Charlie, a Cockney tearaway involved with an illegal betting ring run by crooked garage owner Maurice Denham (giving it the full Ecky-Thump with flat cap and whippet).  To pay off a gambling debt, Charlie steals a bike from one of the club members, not realising it's a foreign model that can be easily identified (if he were to take part in wholesome activities like joining his local cycling club he would've known that).

Even at this stage in his career Newley's an incredibly charismatic presence.  Here he is tearing it up on the local dance floor.

One of the best things about the film is its gorgeous location shooting at Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, the gorgeous scenery used at its best in the scene where Charlie runs across country to dispose of the bike after it's identified.

A Boy, a Girl and a Bike also features a pre-peroxide Diana Dors as club hussy Ada (insert joke about her being the Bike of the title).  According to her autobiography Dors lost her virginity to crew member Egil Woxholt (brother of film star Greta Gynt) during the making of the film.  But not on camera.

And here's Ms Dors cosying up to future Doctor Who producer Barry Letts.

The splendidly jolly scene where the club members shelter from the rain in an old barn and have a sing-song was later recreated (not very accurately) for TV Dors biopic The Blonde Bombshell.  Keeley Hawes may not look much like our Di but their names rhyme, and that's the main thing.

The opposite of "grim up north", A Boy, a Girl and a Bike shows life in a northern industrial town as carefree, happy and full of fresh air and exercise.  Its geeky enthusiasm for all things bike-related is strangely loveable, with Honor Blackman earnestly delivering lines like "I don't think I've seen fluted cranks like that before," and a specialist knowledge of different types of brake cable leading to the recovery of the stolen bike.  The film's cheery outdoorsiness might be hokey, but its also strangely infectious.  If I was able to sit on a bike without instantly falling off I'd head out for a ride right now.

For more cycling fun, here's Cyclists' Special, a charming 1955 British Transport Film just as keenly evangelical about the wonders of two wheels as A Boy, a Girl and a Bike.