Monday, 4 August 2008

Vashti Bunyan

"Why should you say I could love any man, have his children and still be free? Go on voting, striking and fighting. Go on searching, fighting and loving."

How Do I Know.

As a lyric in isolation, this sums up everything that draws me and concerns me about feminism. Men and women both work these days, and earn roughly the same, but while being born female is fate, motherhood is made the destiny of a lot of women. It's a privilege to have somebody to care for, but motherhood also seems the ultimate prison. All mothers are single mothers at the end of the day. Once that decision to be a mother has been made, there's no turning back. It's nothing less than traumatic. Yet, we're still pretty much expected to make that transition of freedom to non-freedom.

Vashti Bunyan wanted most of all in life to be a pop singer - something she still upholds as being the dream she had for herself. What she did instead was release some folk tunes, then turn her back on what she saw as her ambition failure, to take two years to head to Donovan's commune in the Isle of Skye. It took two years for her to get there, and by the time her and her boyfriend Robert arrived, it had closed down. Still, some spiritual wisdom: it's all about the journey, not the destination - and this inspired an album.

Nonetheless, her and Robert set up home and raised children together, but Vashti didn't sing again for 35 years. The reasons aren't completely clear. Perhaps she didn't feel like it. Arguably she was just content with family life. She busied herself in domesticity - which she enjoyed, but there was still a renunciation in place. Her children knew snippets of their mother's past, but she never so much as sang to them.

Still, it was wanting to share her past with her children, and the advent of the Internet (which made clear to her how much she had grown into cult status in the meantime, and also just how many of those scratchy old tapes were issued in compilations) that prompted her to make a new album, entitled Lookaftering. Making this album was an experience she enjoyed returning to.

And, yes, in her own words, she felt like a flower unfolding after all that time.

Listen to this. Buy this.

Vashti Bunyan, born in London in 1945

Friday, 18 July 2008

Ruth Madoc

Did you know Ruth Madoc went to RADA?

Did you know she played Fruma Sarah in the film Fiddler on the Roof? Did you know she looks and sounds spookily like my Mum (especially in the 80s when Mum had her trademark short, straight hair, and her accent was at her strongest)?

We remember her as the 'vamp from the valleys' in Hi de Hi, of course, and the Wispa ad - with her longed for love object, Jeffrey. Actually looking again at that ad, she's hot - what was Jeffrey thinking? Jeffrey, the gauche, bumbling Hugh Grant of his time - with all the passion of a wet Pontins' tea towel, was an unworthy longed-for suitor. Was he really worth hanging around in a banana coloured uniform for?

On stage, Ruth has done everything from Shakespeare to musicals - co-starring with the late Harry Secombe in Pickwick, and even portrayed an 80-year-old Jewish mother in Gypsy.

She played the daughter's role in the stage version of A Taste of Honey, and while no Tush, I bet she was great, and was less of a mousy victim than Tushingham's foray. It would have been interesting to see.

In 2000 she played the role of Mrs. Ifans in Very Annie Mary alongside fellow Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce.

But life was not always smooth for Ruth. She was brought up by her Grandparents in a small Welsh town near Swansea because her parents were nomadic and couldn't settle to a life of child-rearing.

She was, and still is, greatly loved as a symbol of Welsh freshness with anyone old enough to remember balancing a French Fancy on their knee, while tuning into Hi-de-Hi.

Ruth Madoc, born 16 April 1943 in Norwich but brought up in Llansamlet, near Swansea.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Floella Benjamin

Did you know Floella was the first to appear fully pregnant on British TV (in Play School)?

For a woman whose ambition was to be Britain's first black bank manager, her life took a totally different course. There just weren't black bank managers back then, but ethnic minorities were accepted into the theatre, and so that's the way she went.

There weren't many black people on TV during the 70s and 80s. The TV channels were becoming more senstive to the fact - especially in representing children - firstly in the 60s and later on with Derek Griffiths, but in the main, they were vastly outnumbered. Notwithstanding, she thrived on television. The main allure of her was that she genuinely loved being around children. She wasn't merely adorning the shop floor for the career bump-up.

Sourcing pics for this post, there were hundreds of her, and not one without her beaming.

Floella starred in two of the upper echelons of Play for Todays, from one of its golden eras (the late 70s). In 1979, she starred in A Hole in Babylon, about a seige in an Italian restaurant that goes wrong. Waterloo Sunset, (also 1979, the year that brought us the dazzling
performance of Jonathan Pryce in Trevor Griffith's 'The Comedians') is a play about racial disharmony in a poky London flat. A young man and his elderly relative live on a mostly West Indian London housing estate and the pivotal scene involves the naive old woman dusting her face with cocoa in order to fit in, but they take it the wrong way.

A few years prior, in 1975, she starred in another Play for Today, The Floater - where she was lucky enough to appear alongside Richard Beckinsale (who played a solicitor's clerk acting for his sick wife).

She also appeared in many films (mainly playing a nurse) but 'Black Joy' is a film of note about a naive African immigrant arriving in Brixton - with Norman Beaton as the wise-arse, no-good rude boy she falls in with. Floella plays Beaton's non shit-taking wife. Vivian Stanshall's in it
too, as a pervy vicar.

In more recent years, she was cast in Doctor Who and there's the Floella Benjamin Award at Exeter University (which also gave her an honoury doctorate), where up to £1,000 is given to promising students to help improve their future job prospects.

Predictably, but admirably, she runs a lot for charity these days.

Floella Benjamin OBE (born in Trinidad, 1949)

Monday, 26 May 2008

Pam Ayres

Pam Ayres was born at Stanford in the Vale in Oxfordshire.

She went to same school as my younger brother in Faringdon, and to this day lives down the road from where my family live.

As kids, my older sister was mad about her poems, and being a younger sibling, whatever tickled my sister's fancy, piqued my interest. 'I wish I'd looked after my teeth' prompted me to brush regularly, morning and night. This poem was also voted into the Top 10 of a BBC poll to find the Nation's 100 Favourite Comic Poems.

I discovered poetry at around the age of eight, thanks to her, and I learned to write poetry by reading her, basically. I used to write volumes of the stuff.

Her feeling for rhythm and wit was inspired by Lonnie Donegan.

Pam Ayres MBE (born 14 March 1947)

Friday, 16 May 2008

Claire Grogan

Some personally related facts about Claire Grogan:

1. I have her name as a middle name.

2. I once wrote to Jim'll Fix It to meet her and perform on stage with her. I wrote in my best handwriting and got my Dad to proof-read it, but two weeks after depositing in a shiny red letter box, another little girl from the Bristol area was selected instead of me. Watching TV that night, I think that was my first, heart-sink, kick-in-the-teeth moment. But of course, that's life, and so thanks to Ms Grogan for giving me the first tangible taste of NOT FAIR.

3. Gregory's Girl is one of my favourite British films. Grogan's also starred in Irish favourite Father Ted, of course, as the Sinead O'Connor pastiche - and not a bad Dublin accent too - could even rival mine at a push.

4. And what's this I hear about a story of a marriage between her and David Hepworth? Somebody please clear this story up for me.

Claire Grogan (born, 17 March 1962)

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Hanna Schygulla

The first of my German heroines here. Fassbinder is of course, a genius, and I couldn't imagine any other actress being cast in these films - and making them come alive in the way she did

Hanna Schygulla met Rainer Werner Fassbinder while taking an acting class in Munich, and began working with him at the Munich Action Theatre.

Fassbinder casted her in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) - as an insolent working-class girl, confident in her ability to break hearts of either sex - using her looks to get ahead while refusing to surrender her independence.

But it was her role in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) which finally brought Fassbinder the acceptance he sought -confirming Schygulla as his ideal actress.

She's in other Fassbinder films too, and she's in Wenders' Falsche Bewegung (Wrong Movement) but it's her role in The Marriage of Maria
Braun which resonates (first picture above). She was perfectly, ever-so-slightly wooden and fitted Fassbinder's haughty, vaguely grotesque role amazingly well. She is so synonymous with Fassbinder for me, it's as if they were meant to meet.

Despite Fassbinder's amazing talent, these films would have been a lot poorer without her, and no doubt her strong character was an asset. He was a spoiled, tempestuous drama queen to work for, by all accounts.

Hanna Schygulla (born 25 December 1943)

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Margaret Lockwood

The first time I saw Margaret Lockwood in film, I was around 15, staying at home with flu from school, and miserably tucked up on the sofa watching The Wicked Lady.

As a young girl, not only did I think she was beautiful, but I loved the typecast roles of a gold-digging minx she played in this film and others. They suited her, but they were a disappointment to her own acting ambitions.

Recently there has been a Lockwood season at the BFI and I have indulged in a couple of afternoons watching The Man in Grey and Jassy. The former is actually a hugely enjoyable film - with a script amusingly identical to The Wicked Lady, but that's okay, because if she had been in twenty films that are a variation of The Wicked Lady, I'd be happy. The second film, Jassy, is a bit daft and unfortunately shot in colour and this doesn't detract from her beauty, but she seems less mysteriously mischevious somehow.

The woman should always have played a gun-toting social climber. In her acting career and in her personal life she was uncompromising. As Phil Norman notes in his book 'TV Cream's Anatomy of Cinema', 'at RADA,
she refused to kowtow to the strangulated 'how verreh verreh love-lay' diction drilled into the other pupils'. Apparently too, she had a filthy, kitchen hand's laugh and a crude tongue that would make a naval officer blush. Less of a wicked lady, more of a minx, in my opinion.

And so...until our next merry meeting 'heroine addicts'...

Margaret Lockwood (born 15 September, 1916 )

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Jilly Cooper

In the 70s, there was only one Queen of the columnists . and this was Jilly Cooper, and what a sexy young filly she was too.

I've recently read three of her books from the 70s/80s - not those nonsense novels about being horsehipped by a man in a tuxedo, but whimsical guides. These self-survival offerings cover topics ranging from the secrets of a long marriage (and believe me, there are some real pearls of wisdom in there), to how to survive being a step-mum (very candid, rivalling anything being published now), to how to have an 'affaire' and get away with it. Classy.

Jilly on men: ' I find I resent the fact that I can't live without them, that they hurt me emotionally, that I hate yet secretly enjoy being bullied by them, that they can do tasks domestic far better than I can, that they enjoy the company of other men so much, and on the whole prefer a bat to a bit on the side'. (Super Men and Super Women, Magnum Books, 1977).

She is for some part, at least, a woman after my own heart. Before landing a job as a writer, she undertook umpteen office jobs - a bit like myself, and she writes with clever wit about the horrors and benalities of office life.

A full list of her non-fiction, which I've read and enjoyed hugely, is here.

Jilly Cooper (born 21 February, 1937)

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Paula Yates

I love Paula Yates - always have done.

The other night I ploughed through hours and hours of Tube footage, and some good tracks were unlocked from the memory, but what really held me aghast were those dresses. I want every single one of them.

Well documented is the confusion over her origin. Until May 1997, she believed that her father was her mother's husband, Jess Yates. However, a DNA test proved that her biological father was Hughie Green, presenter of Opportunity Knocks.

She'll always be an epitome of girly randomness but she was also the near-perfect madonna (she took her children absolutely everywhere with her), and her death was a sharp intake of breath 'WHAT?' moment. What a shame she died so young; a heroine of the first order.

Who else would have persuaded rock stars to pose in their underpants?

Here she is getting down and flirty with Simon Le Bon.
Paula Yates (born 24 April 1959)

Wednesday, 12 March 2008


I've always been a punk sympathiser - liked people who are a bit different from the rest. I've always admired strong women with multi-coloured, back-combed barnets (well, I did when I was 7).

The first album I bought with my own money was Anthem. This was Toyah's most successful album - with hit singles "It's A Mystery" and "I Want To Be Free" within. The other songs are mindfully awful, but that's okay; what 7 year-old girl was really listening anyway?

I just lay belly-down, gazing admiringly at her, determinedly peering into the future - dreaming of a day when I could get away with hair like that. I never bothered of course. Toyah was the woman I dared never be, but there were to be plenty of others ...

Toyah Ann Willcox (born May 18, 1958)

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Joanne Catherall

There are two Human League women, so I have to be ruthless.

I have chosen Joanne over Suzanne - which is odd because my name is Suzanne, but Joanne is a brunette like me and this wins hands-down every time in the role model stakes. Now there's a female thing! Do men like other men because of their hair colour?

Joanne was a teen singer. Plucked from the streets of Sheffield by father-figure Phil Oakey, the girls rose to fame by smearing on the blusher to nuclear effect, and by, well, merely looking so bored. This was ultimately their appeal because their singing was flatter than a clubbed slice of Hovis, but still, maybe this was their appeal too.

Here is a wonderful clip of the Human League in the first episode of OTT singing Do or Die. Look out for Joanne's Siouxsie Sioux type eye make-up under that uncompromising fringe.

Joanne Catherall (born 18 September 1962)

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Long Distance Clara

As a kid of around 6 or 7, I used to really look forward to Pigeon Street - not for Mr Macadoo and his pals, mind you - no, for Long Distance Clara. Long Distance Clara was a woman on a mission. In a strictly male dominated world of trucking, she was a red-haired, no-nonsense, can-do kinda girl - punctually 'picking up and dropping off' her wares.

'She can drive across the Sahara - nothing's too far away'. Well, exactly.

'Always on time, she's never late'. A tip-top feminist role model.

Long distance Clara appears between 06.12 and 07.52 in the clip below.