Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Too Many Santas

Winter, Royal Military Canal nr. Winchelsea 14"x10" Watercolour


Well, someone has to say it and this year it's my turn.

I wasn't in the best of moods. It was the day before Christmas Eve and I was on my way to the Post Office to pay the surcharge on a letter that couldn't be delivered due to insufficient postage. Waiting to cross the road I was unexpectedly hit from behind and consequently almost stepped into the path of an approaching bus. Prepared to apologise for being in the way (as only an Englishman can in such circumstances) I looked round to see a young child wearing a Father Christmas hat and a cotton wool beard, holding a gun. He had been so engrossed in his running battle with another small Santa that he hadn't noticed me. I walked on.

As I continued I had the strange idea that the bus I'd just seen was being driven by Santa Claus. The next minute another bus came along towards me and, lo and behold, it was being driven by another Father Christmas in full costume: hat, tunic, beard, everything. As pretty much all the bus drivers in this part of the world are consistently miserable and unhelpful, the sight of two dressed in outfits inextricably connected with happiness, jollity and fun, jarred - it looked wrong - really wrong. I don't want to see a bus driven by a grumpy b*****d dressed as Santa – ever – and I really don't want to see more than one bus driven by him or her - it's doubly wrong. I passed several more Father Christmases en route – mostly out shopping or selling the Big Issue – so by the time I arrived at the post office my mood hadn't lightened at all.

I've mentioned the grumpiness of the local bus drivers but they are as nothing compared to the staff at the post office. They are so intimidating that there have been a couple of times when I was sorely tempted to have a stiff drink before visiting the post office. It can be a harrowing experience especially if the poor customer wants anything out of the ordinary such as postage for an unusually shaped parcel; postage to any country outside the UK; help completing an official form; etc. - basically anything other than buying a first class stamp. The only time they smile is when my innocent looking envelope touches the sides of the impossibly narrow slot used to decide between merely expensive or ludicrously extortionate postage. I don't have a drink, of course, because the golden rule of post office negotiation is to keep a clear head and a poker face.

Imagine my dismay as I walked in the door and saw that every member of staff was in costume. Two Santas and one elf. Not only jolly hats and costumes but also full make-up and probably boots to boot. Luckily I didn't have to speak. They took one look at the card instructing me to attend the local post office and pay the excess postage (plus handling charge) and sent me up the road to the sorting office.

I was charged £2 excess postage on the letter which was unstamped and addressed to 'The Householder'. It was from a local estate agent wishing me 'Season's Greetings' and asking if I wanted to sell my house. They will shortly be getting a similarly unstamped and oversized letter from me wishing them a Happy New Year.

Did I mention it was raining?

Happy Holidays!

Friday, 4 September 2015

Cilla and I

'Cinema' 50cm x 70cm Acrylic on Board

I fell out with Cilla Black in 1971. In fact she almost had me sacked from my job at the London Palladium. I was in my early twenties working as a theatre electrician, mainly as a way of getting a union card so that I could get into films. Among the shows I worked on was 'Aladdin' a classic Palladium pantomime starring Cilla Black.

One of my stage jobs was to 'page' Cilla's microphone cable. Paging a cable was basically keeping any trailing wires from tripping the performer. To do this I had to stand at the side of the stage, out of sight of the audience, with the microphone lead coiled in my hand. When Cilla moved towards my side of the stage I had to reel it in and when she moved to the other side I had to let it out. Simple. At least it should have been simple. Except that sometimes she would run across the stage – and fast. 

The sequence in question was near the end of the show; a filler to give the stage-hands time to prepare for the next big scene. She was good at working an audience and in this five minute section she would get them to sing along. To make it more entertaining she would get one half of the crowd singing one thing while those on the other side sang something else. To encourage the audience Cilla would run, full pelt, from one side of the stage to the other. At this point I was either furiously reeling in the microphone cable or letting it out as quickly as possible.

Although they couldn't see me I could see the audience. I loved watching them, their total concentration. Adults and children immersed in wonder. They were the embodiment of Coleridges idea of 'suspension of disbelief' so completely were they taken in by the spectacle before them. The audiences were, quite simply, beautiful. I often thought about painting them. In fact many years later I was commissioned to paint an audience; a cinema audience full of 1950s and 60s British film stars (see above).

But you don't want to know what I was looking at or thinking about – you want to know what happened next.

Cilla was running across the stage away from me when the microphone cable slid under a piece of scenery and stuck fast. The cable went taught, her arm was pulled out straight and she came to a very sudden stop. The force was so much it was a miracle that the microphone and its cable stayed connected. Somehow she stayed upright and kept hold of the microphone. The audience, who thought it was part of the act, loved it but I got a look from Cilla from across the stage that told me I was in deep trouble. There was nowhere to run and when she came off stage I got the full force of her anger. I can't repeat what she said but the gist of it was that I was an extremely low form of life at a very low position in the pecking order and that I would never work in the theatre (or, if she had anything to do with it, anywhere) ever again. She said this using the minimum of words - four, if I remember correctly, two of which were new to me.

In those days even the smallest human error was a sacking offence, no second chance. Amazingly the stage director, Tommy Hayes - a fearsome man who ran the stage with an iron fist in an iron glove, took me to one side and told me it would be OK if I just kept out of Cilla's way for the rest of the run. Which I did.

So I survived to page another cable another day which was, if I remember correctly, that of the, even less predictable Tom Jones...but that's another story...

Monday, 27 July 2015

What Do Artists Do All Day?

Giotto - The Last Judgment - Arena Chapel, Padua - 1306

A recent BBC Four television series asked the question 'What do artists do all day?' and repeatedly came up with the not very surprising answer that, on the whole, artists spend their day making art. Even so it's been a fascinating series - at least it has been for other artists.

In 2014 I became the 15th President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours which has given me a lot of things to do other than making art, the most enjoyable of which has been the opportunity to spend time with other artists talking about what we do. What has been surprising and enlightening in this is not the diversity of what artists do all day but the similarities, the shared experiences. It seems that while the making of art varies in many technical respects there is one universal constant - the thorny and intractable problem of how to turn an internal idea (a thought) into an external piece of art (a physical reality). Pier Paolo Pasolini sums it up beautifully in his 1970 film of The Decameron. The artist Giotto, played by Pasolini, appears during the film as a link between the stories taken from Boccaccio's book. Throughout the movie he and his assistants are seen working on a fresco in the Santa Chiara Church, Naples. Near the end of the film Giotto dreams of the Last Judgement which he will later paint in the Arena Chapel in Padua (see above). At the very end of the film Giotto and his assistants have finally completed their work in Naples and while they and the monks are celebrating he walks away from the group towards the painting and, standing alone, speaks to himself the final words of the film - "Why make a work of art...when it is so good just to dream?"