Friday, 7 March 2014

Zandra Rhodes

Around the age of twelve, I became interested in fashion and it started with a pair of yellow dungarees.
Of course, being twelve in 1986 ensured I didn't have to seek out fashion, because fashion sought out me. Rather, I was positively clobbered over the head with it, a bit like Timmy's mallet flying towards my head at lightening speed. Because in the Eighties, fashion was hard to ignore.

My opportunity to step out into the world of patent plastic and clashing neons happened when Mum handed me The Catalogue and for the first time. This time I was allowed to choose for myself. So, like my heroine Keren Woodward, I chose banana-yellow dungarees, and I complimented this with banana eye-shadow. Before I knew it I was hot-footing it down to Chelsea Girl in High Wycombe's Frogmore. And thanks to that now defunct shop I became the proud owner of a cerise shirt dress, matching cerise tights and patent-pointed ballet pumps. To complete the look, I lazily and predictably selected a cluster of cerise bangles. Needless to say I looked exotic that Christmas, in the same way a giant morello cherry would look if it were invited to sit on my Nan's sofa in Ebbw Vale, cautiously sipping a glass of sherry.
I remember the Madonna-inspired lace gloves, my first purchase from the newly opened centre in Milton Keynes, (imaginatively labelled the Milton Keynes Shopping Centre). And who was responsible for this unique, unmistakable explosion of madness? One woman only. Zandra Rhodes.
Starting out in the Sixties, Zandra only really came into her own in the Eighties. Designing demented fairy gowns for Diana like this one, she was unparalleled in visually marking a decade. And who better to showcase her bat-wing designs? Freddy Mercury will do.

Zandra Rhodes, CBE, RDI, born September 19, 1940, Chatham

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Maeve Binchy

I once read an anthology of Christmas stories while recuperating on the hottest day of the year. Such is the power of Maeve Binchy.

Taking time out from editing my own novel to dust off this blog takes a fair splattering of motivation and the surprising news of Binchy's death after a quick illness resulted in a genuine swallow hard moment. I was a fan and with two books of hers yet to read on my shelves (on a beach somewhere hopefully), I still am.

I first stumbled across her work ten years ago. I picked up Tara Road in a car boot sale in the early noughties, so I'm a bit of a late-comer but sadly for her estate she hasn't profited from my fandom. I've never bought a book of hers from a bookshop but I would like it to be known I was hooked by her Dublin streets.

I wonder, if like all those homeless northeners lured here to London in the eighties by the promise of an Eastenders community spirit, whether the same happened in Ireland. With intertwined characters in neighbouring streets all falling in love but perhaps more importantly, looking out for each other, she sold Ireland to the feckless. We know this sweet and increasingly outmoded image is fallacy but that's the job of the exceptional dramatist, to lure us into a world and make us buy the dream. She managed this.

Accessible and simply written, I wonder if Binchy's books would fit under the 'intelligent women's fiction' umbrella (as adopted by The Bookseller recently, before swiftly disappearing again) because as former Irish Times columnist and London editor, they rarely come smarter than her. Sure, she's no tense experimenter like Maggie O'Farrell or sculptor of the forgotten word like Rachel Cusk, but unlike these two she wrote books I couldn't put down. As an emerging writer myself, I have some idea of how phenomenally difficult this is to achieve.

Maeve Binchy (born County Dublin, 28 May 1940)

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Jan Francis

My introduction to Jan Francis, was like most people, as Vince Pinner's straight and elegant girlfriend in Just Good Friends.

From the off, it's clear Penny is from another world. Blessed with sprouting from a better class of family than Vince, she had opportunities Vince hadn't. He had the temerity to jilt her, yet she remains convinced he's the missing piece of the puzzle. In many ways she's right. Vince represents daring, risk, spontaneity, simplicity and relaxation. These are all elements missing from her own safe, neurotic upbringing and ghoulish first marriage. Through him she needs to experience opportunities for growth. Vince offers her an irresistible package, and the viewer a universal truth: opposites attract. What's less clear is how this mutual arrangement - when both have flirted with the other side - will shape-up long-term.

It's this unease which forms the spine of the comedy, and what Jan Francis brought to the role of Penny was an engaging balance between naivity and shrewdness. Francis is confident and self-possessed as Penny. With wit Penny would bat away the superbity of her mother. Penny is confused and frightened, yet to take pot shots at her own mother while living under her rules, is brave. Francis adds dimension and plausibility to the role.

 The pairing with Paul Nicholas resulted in many corporate opportunities, including adverts for Schreiber kitchens, Cadbury's Wispa and Lloyds bank. Francis's first TV appearance is widely reported to have been in 1971, but actually it was in 1969 for The Ken Dodd Show - Doddy's Christmas Bizarre (aired on Boxing Day) - now missing, believed wiped. An archive trawl reveals her looking suitably foxy in this newspaper teaser...
Before a long career in television she was a rep actress and dancer. Salvaged from her successful, but occasionally erring career are highlights which include playing a TV Producer in the 70s thriller Casting The Runes, a worthy addition to a notable decade of television suspense. She appeared in some best-forgotten telly too, of course and lest we not neglect 1975's Churchill's People (as yet not reissued). Most recently, Francis appeared on TV in May 2011, in an interview for The Comedy Genius of John Sullivan.

 Trivia Fact: Jan Francis wasn't the only actress to play a Penny Warrender on TV. There was a Penny Warrender (played by Sandra Dickinson) in the 1983 series TRIANGLE.

 Jan Francis (born 5 August, 1947, Westminster, London)

Monday, 19 September 2011

Andrea Arnold

Andrea Arnold is a rare specimen. She's a female director who takes her inspiration from the underclass, but not the glamorous kind - the ill, the infirm, or the gangland heroes - just the invisible people. The type of struggling souls dismissed as 'chavs' and 'hoodies' are sucked up off the rain-soaked streets, the flash bulb is aimed straight at their souls and we see them for the first time.

Arnold's an artist. She knows how to shoot in an interesting way, with stimulating effect. Just as important as the subject matter, is her wish to captivate us - with music, with sound, with silence, with strident candour and divested humanity.

Red Road (2006), a feature length film about a voyeuristic but isolated woman, secured her a Bafta for Best Newcomer. Before this, in 2005, for Wasp, she won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. Wasp is less than half an hour long but already her future career is evident in a tale of a disenfranchised single mother hoping for a fulfilling future. In Wasp, Arnold's ability to put ordinary lives austerely under the microscope is an indicator of where her film-making wings will span.

Further awards surfaced for 2009's Fish Tank. Cemented by now is the fact we have a director to watch and enthuse about. A surface tale of teen abuse, Fish Tank is layered. There are complex forces at work in protagonist Mia's life. She's used by her mother's boyfriend, but she invites him in. She's vulnerable but she makes choices at every turn. Nothing's straight-forward in her life, and it's the kind of life that's dexterously brushed away by most.

A proud moment at this stage was when Arnold fought off competition for another BAFTA (in 2010 for Best British Film). Yet another accolade, but once again one still felt compelled to punch the air with pride. As glib as it sounds, she is, after all, doing something remarkable. She's not alone. Samantha Morton proved with her TV movie The Unloved, she's a talented film-maker. Arnold's not the only British woman making stylish and exceptional inroads into British celluloid history, but she's a woman in a man's field and she's mowing down the competition at every opportunity.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Caryl Churchill

Churchill is an incredibly adventurous talent from the glut of ambitious playwrights known as the modern socialist dramatists. David Hare, David Edgar and Howard Brenton - among others comprised the MSDs. All had a social conscience and an impressive flair for experimental theatre, but Churchill undoubtedly wears the crown for the female vanguard of innovation.

Churchill is considered so because she's lyrical and historically erudite as well as deconstructing. She can mould characters from one act into another, crossing centuries and gender as she does so, (as in Cloud 9 from 1978) and she expects the audience to work hard at keeping up - or fail to grasp the message of the play. Churchill doesn't pander to or placate the lazy audience. You pay your money and then you start work.

Top Girls collates women from different centuries, religions and ethical bases and puts them at the dinner table - with one thing in common: they're all miserable. Written in the early 80s, this is clearly a wafer-thin smokescreen for the dawn of Thatcher's Britain, and is the era in which the second half is set.

The play opened in 1982 at the Royal Court in London, and Churchill was annoyed by a certain female journalist's write-up. The assumption by Julie Burchill that the play discouraged women from working because, frankly, it's all too miserable, annoyed Churchill. She responded by saying the work was a comment on the failure of capitalism to fulfill basic needs in general, gender notwithstanding.

Churchill is known for her non-naturalistic writing, feminist themes and the questioning of personal and political power. Under the loomingly dark and earnest subjects of her plays, there shimmers inventive prose.

In Far Away - a play oft-collaborative director Max Stafford-Clark described as 'an elliptical, political fable, surreal and powerful', the character Joan asserts:

And I know it's not all about excitement. I've done boring jobs. I've worked in abbatoirs stunning pigs and musicians and by the end of the day your back aches and all you can see when you shut your eyes is people hanging upside down by their feet.

Her imagery is powerful and lingers long after a scene change.

Caryl Churchill (born 3 September 1938, London)

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Suze Rotolo

Dylan's girlfriend for three years during the early 60s, Rotolo was the daughter of American Communists, and it was this unusual upbringing that shaped her values. She had an innate wish to explore and question American cultural and civil matters.

With this background, it's not surprising she wouldn't lose her identity to Dylan during their close and mutually beneficial relationship.

Her creativity and interests continued to develop during their time together. In fact, she introduced Dylan to the work of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and it was during her time as a theatre lover and set designer that she pointed him to Brecht. They were both writers that were to be forceful influences on his own work.

Rotolo, increasingly worn down by a need for individuality in the midst of an escalating and claustrophobic fame package, moved further into an interest in civil rights, and ultimately away from Dylan. Torn, she chose further study over loyalty to him and eventually, unsure of a future with a dreamy and evasive man, she left to study in Italy for six months. During this time, Dylan wrote 'don't think twice, it's alright' about her.

In her excellent autobiography A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties she accounts for their break-up gracefully. When Dylan began spending more time with Baez - professionally at first, and then casually but totally, she covers the events without bitterness; this being only a small part of her story.

Rotolo had a talent for writing and she wrote about her life easily and lucidly. In terms of her career, her book art sold until the end of her life.

A New Yorker and the girlfriend of a legend, she was foremost a child of immigrants – those who had had it tough, and consequently she never lost that feeling of being on the periphery. She said of her difficult childhood: 'But it's not until adulthood that you realise how cruel life is', and here her sadness is shown in her choice of words - not 'can be' but 'is'. She always felt she needed to work that little bit harder and not forget how to be in control of her own future.

Suze Rotolo (born November 20th, 1943)

Friday, 20 May 2011

Hazel O'Connor

As a kid, Toyah and Hazel O'Connor were my role models.

In my defence, there are reasons why I sometimes conflated the two in my young brain. Both Toyah and O'Connor were ex-art students and singers with a commercially diluted punk bent, and both were influenced by Bowie.

With hindsight we know Toyah's presence on our screens has been longer lasting - having enjoyed better luck than O'Connor, and Toyah has revelled in a successful stage career (the highlight being to star alongside Laurence Olivier).

But O'Connor has the edge as a recording artist.

A big break in the form of a lead part in Breaking Glass (1981) propelled O'Connor to almost instant stardom – but only for a while. In fact, O'Connor was set against Toyah for a role in the film. Toyah wasn't selected, and after some internal rearranging, O'Connor was chosen to be the lead. Toyah - already established as a result of appearing in Jubilee and Quadrophenia, wasn't the appropriate choice for a rock star on the rise.

It was O'Connor's time to shine.

The film charts a young punk star - Kate's rise to fame, and ponders the theme of fortune being a poisoned chalice. Kate - a young woman coming up against a formidable and manipulative record industry – was a plot that was to strangely mirror O'Connor's own career.

As a result of her uncommonly brutal and protracted disputes with her record company Albion, O'Connor didn't fully have the chance to develop artistically. Her legal grievances escalated over the years, and as they did so - in an age-conscious world, she grew older and less marketable.

The tedium of legal dealings - invariably and understandably ate into her creative fervour, and this is a shame because we'll never know how good she could have become.

She was persecuted. Signing her record contract when stressed and upset, she made a wrong move that was to have diminishing consequences. Having first taken legal advice (and she was sternly told the contract wasn't worth the paper it was written on) she made the mistake of ignoring this advice. Protracted skintness and a subsequent low moment, meant she signed along the dotted line.

In the ensuing years, what happened to O'Connor would have been enough to send anyone bitter. Whatever she earned was greedily taken back from her. Her label justified their behaviour by saying money should be clawed back to cover recording and touring expenses. This meant O'Connor worked extremely hard – almost to breaking point, and was left with nothing:

'I haven't got any money still. I'm not going to have any money for years, if ever. There were times when I thought if I wasn't naturally strong I might have done myself in...At one point I had writs arriving every week. Such bastards! How dare they treat me like this.'
O'Connor 1985

Will You is one of the best tracks of 1981 - which is praise indeed, because it was a particularly strong year for unusual and brave chart music. In a short space of time, and musically at least, she eclipsed Toyah. She was capable of innovation - producing lasting songs that were richer and texturally denser than Toyah's forgettable ditties.

But on the back of most of her singles - industry crimes against her aside, it remains questionable whether she had the raw talent to go the distance. She did though, have moments of undoubted accomplishment.

On balance, Will You is partly a stand-out song from her short career because it's unlike most of her others: it is very good indeed.

Will You has more than a smudge of Patti Smith in the vocals. As with If Only, this Patti Smith emulation is a credulous style choice, and perhaps she could have further developed this tonal quality. But just how good she could have been – or not - we shall never know.

Hazel O'Connor (born 16 May 1955, Coventry, England)