Find out what we’ve been up to, where we’ve been and what we’re thinking.
In our Best Western hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria, they advertised a ‘Sky Bar’. Customers at the otherwise ‘average’ hostelry were urged to visit this penthouse drinking lounge that offered beautiful views across the city. On arrival at the Sky Bar, myself and my crew, Alex Fouracre and Stuart Wareing, found ourselves to be the only customers. The Sky Bar was a symphony of plush white leatherette and chrome, there were indeed panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows showing the glittering lights and possibly more salubrious parts of town than our own in the distance. In the middle of the room was what looked like a white piano converted into a cocktail bar, in fact it was an electric keyboard embedded into what looked like a Hollywood baby grand. A microphone and PA system awaited a Sinatra and a Grace Kelly who never came. We arrived on a Wednesday so maybe understandably the Sky Bar was quiet. We left on a Sunday; on the Saturday night before, we were again the only customers.
Taking a taxi into the city centre, our driver spoke proudly of his country in broken English, all the while gesturing to landmarks as he went – the socialist realist sculptures in the Borisova park, now a favourite with skateboarders, the Eagle bridge, the beautiful Russian church (sadly covered in scaffolding else we would have got a shot of it) and then the turning for the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the university, and the modern, slightly, kitsch statue of St Sofia. The writer, Miroslav Penkov, with whom we are making a film with his mentor Michael Ondaatje tells us that the city of Sofia is named after a tiny orthodox church and not Sofia herself – Sofia actually means ‘Holy Wisdom’. Miroslav knows the labyrinthine history of his country so thoroughly and tells it so engagingly that it makes me think that he should front a series for Bulgarian telly….or even UK telly for that matter. It was Bulgaria that invented Cyrillic script; the country has had at least two empires, survived Ottoman rule and several Balkan wars. Bulgaria became part of the German Axis in World War Two but declined to send its Jewish population to the concentration camps. They finally succumbed (if that is the right word) to Soviet communism in 1946 (apologies for the précis of a very complicated history). One landmark our driver didn’t point out was a billboard for Marks & Spencer, as sure a sign as any of the death of the Soviet era.
The next day we filmed in the Alexander Nevsky cathedral with Michael and Miro. Michael was fascinated by the characters depicted in numerous paintings and frescos, Miro giving him a running commentary on their contributions to Bulgaria’s huge, entwined religious and political history. Even the avuncular Bishop came out to greet us and thankfully asked for the lights to be put on so that we could bring the ASA down on the Canon C300. We filmed an interview with Miro at his parents’ apartment. Mr and Mrs Penkov are both doctors who started their careers in the soviet system; they treated us to a lovely tea of Baklava and other Bulgarian sweets.
On the last day of the shoot we visited the Rila Monastery, about an hour and half outside of Sofia, with its wonderful, complicated frescos showing Orthodox Christian scenes and depictions of hell that might well have made you think twice about sinning before the age of mass media. On the way back we stopped at a country cemetery, not just because I am fascinated by graveyards (see previous blogs) but to get some shots to go with a piece Miro read us from one of his brilliant short stories. The graves in Bulgaria are still post-communism secular, many have cans of beer and Rakia, offerings from friends and relatives missing their drinking companions.
As we left Sofia’s brand new, Tracey Island-like airport, I find myself thinking that apart from Marks & Spencer’s, how wonderfully different Bulgaria is from the UK and only three hours away.
In the streets of San Francisco lurk the legends of my youth, or at least the ghosts of them. Here to film the remarkable dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher, we stayed at a hotel situated a short walk from the City Lights bookstore – the hangout of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Kerouac. As I waited to check out with a book of slide guitarist Ry Cooder’s short stories, a young English chap asked the cashier whether they had a book called ‘On The Road’ by someone called Jack Kerouac?
Jim, our local, Korean-born sound recordist, guided us to a restaurant on Fillmore, the original location of the famous music venue of the West Coast scene: Fillmore West. The venue was run by notorious rock-manager-hard-man, Bill Graham. I used to read about concerts there by The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mountain, Cream and The Allmans in my inky NME while chewing on Maynard’s Wine Gums; a Thursday treat in my teens.
Our hotel was at the bottom of Taylor Street; at its vertiginous hilltop is where Steve McQueen gunned his muscle car in ‘Bullet’ (Directed by Brit, Peter Yates, btw). Frisco was also the scene of The Band’s last ever concerts, at The Winterland Ballroom. If you are ever disconcerted about the state of modern pop you can cheer yourself up by watching Martin Scorsese’s film of these concerts, ‘The Last Waltz’, maybe the best rock documentary ever made. The Winterland is now demolished so no point in asking Jim to make a detour to see it.
For an American town San Francisco has a bohemian vibe unlike other places on the west coast – a short stroll out of the hotel means being accosted by “Veteran here!” panhandlers, prostitutes, drug addicts, the mentally ill or a combination of all. Jim tells us that a few years back the Governor closed the state mental homes and now they populate the streets in a fairly benign way if you don’t mind saying no. Some of these street people look like old hippies wearing faded ‘Deadhead’ T-shirts, straggly beards and faraway eyes – they probably went to some of the concerts I read about in the inky NME. One night Bill Turnley, our NY based cameraman, was offered ‘tricks’ by both male and female hookers on a short walk to get a cold drink. Bill loves SF as he has fond memories of hitchhiking from Indiana to work on a Mexican college friend’s prune ranch after graduating.
But San Francisco is changing as a new elite bohemia has risen up around Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple – the new bohemians drive BMWs and if they have addictions they are expensive and come with even more expensive cures. House prices are on the up, and to an old hippy (sort of) like me, it seems the place might lose the very thing that makes it special.
San Francisco is also home to one of my favourite contemporary rock artists, Chuck Prophet. Prophet is a surviving bohemian of the old kind, a never-really-made-it-big performer and songwriter who relishes his freedom and, that rare thing in an American, his cynicism. Chuck’s last record, ‘Temple Beautiful’, was about the fast-disappearing SF of old: each track documenting incidents, both political and social, from its recent history. Bill tells me about the gay district known as Castro – Chuck’s song ‘Castro Halloween’ is about a vicious attack on an annual gay celebration and also about the gay mayor, Harvey Milk, murdered by a political opponent who managed to legal his way to an innocent verdict.
Chuck is in the UK and Europe this October. If you really like music go and see him – he is also very funny. Chuck’s new recording, ‘Night Surfer’, is another excellent 45 minutes, worth anyone’s money: download, CD or vinyl.
Next stop, Bulgaria.
There has been quite a lot of controversy about sound of late. Audiences of the BBC’s Jamaica Inn complained of poor audio quality: the actors were mumbling and the dialogue was lost under music and sound effects, they complained. More recently the Beeb have come under attack for the same kind of problems with their retro crime series, Quirke. When I saw the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis at a London cinema (who should have known better), the sound delivery system was wrongly set up, rendering most of the dialogue inaudible (there was nothing wrong with the Coen brothers’ sound mix because I checked it on the DVD). So sound, and the skills surrounding it, are mostly forgotten or ignored until something goes wrong. Soundmen have long accepted that they are the second-class citizens of the crew compared with their more glamorous counterparts in the camera department.
Many of you will know I am of a certain age – an age before the luxury of digital. After leaving The Royal College of Art film school I was apprenticed to some film editors in Westbourne Grove where I slaved over sixteen-millimetre film bins and brown magnetic sound stock of the same gauge. I also made tea and coffee and answered the phone expertly. After seven years of art education I felt I had reached my true metier, dear reader.
We edited films on the trusty Picsync, a Moviola and a Steenbeck. Both picture and sound were cut and joined using heavy-duty film joiners with specialist Sellotape. The joiner had two blades; one made a straight cut for the picture down the edge of the frame, the other blade made a diagonal cut in the sixteen mm sound stock – magnetic sound signals are diagonal apparently. The joiners needed regular adjustment and cleaning with an evil-smelling solvent; my job as well. Syncing up the sound and picture to the clapperboard was also my job and the editors I worked for wanted it done quickly and accurately. The synced-up rushes would then be numbered so that the editor could keep track of the sync while hacking things up to make the story work.
As you might imagine dusty trims bins and constant re-cutting of the sound track made for a fairly inhospitable environment for the analogue sound signals embedded in the flimsy brown mag stock. In hot weather the glue from the tape would make its way onto the tracks and would have to be gently cleaned off with the evil smelling solvent. We quite often had to re-transfer sound from the original location-shot quarter-inch tapes.
When the cut had been approved and we had ‘picture lock’ the cutting room became a sound track-laying suite. The editor would spend the best part of a week (for a sixty-minuter) laying all the sound off onto separate tracks using the Picsync, which had a gang of four tracks so you could see and hear each different effect. In between each section of dialogue, effects or music, all on separate tracks, we laid in blue Mylar spacing.
At the end of the week we would arrive at the sound-mixing studio with at least six or seven film cans containing up to twelve tracks of sound the same length and in sync with the picture. Another one of my jobs was to produce a ‘dubbing chart’ – an A3 map of exactly what we had laid and where we had laid it – neatly labelled and coloured-in using crayons (I knew that art training would come in handy one day.) The dubbing mixer was another skilled person who was carefully recruited; one of the editors I worked with, Charles Davies reckoned there were only three really good mixers in the London area and he would wait until his top men became free to mix the films he edited. Charles edited our award winning documentary The Enigma of Nic Jones.
So this is a ramble and I’m sorry, but what I’m trying to say is; before digital, which revolutionised sound in terms of quality and what you can actually do with audio, we spent a huge amount of time getting sound right. What you could hear and how it sat in the mix was argued about, done and re-done again until it was as right as the brown stuff and sticky tape would allow us to get it. We always played tricky sections through the small TV-sized speakers on the desk rather than the huge studio quality speakers under the screen. If anyone was mumbling, then all sorts of EQ-ing and other measures were brought into play to make sure the audience could hear the mumbler. If it was drama then there was always the final straw of Foley where the artists could re-voice their dialogue completely.
Some editors are going to get upset with me now… I never became a film editor but I served an apprenticeship (a proper one not the reality TV thing). One of the disadvantages of the digital film future we all now live in is that certain aspects of craft training have been lost along the way. So now we have some really fantastic picture editors who don’t really understand sound or what the sound mixer will have to do when it comes to the very last (and possibly most important) moment in a film’s production. The sound mix is the last chance to polish the narrative and add other layers of experience to the story. It is also the last chance to sort out the problem of the mumbling actor or noisy background. More importantly, there is now a whole generation of producers and directors who have never experienced sound in film as another dimension as important as 4K Alexas, drones, Steadicams, 3D and so on.
Crossing onto the Tybee Island Expressway most Frats visiting the spring-break seaside resort probably wouldn’t notice they were crossing Johnny Mercer Boulevard. Indeed they might miss it because they would be looking for the turn-off for the only large supermarket, to stock up bulk on beers. Mercer’s boulevard is a clue that one of the world’s greatest songwriters was from around these parts – he wrote the words for Moon River, Lazy Bones, One for my Baby and literally hundreds more. I saw Mercer when he appeared on Parkinson in the early seventies and never forgot what a funny old cove he was. He also sang a few of his favourite songs beautifully. The Bonaventure cemetery where he and his family rest is a Goth’s dream, a rambling graveyard of huge marble monuments, family plots, southern oaks draped in Spanish moss. Indeed it has been a film set; as we enter, a young guy asks me where it was they shot the sequence in Clint’s ‘Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil’. At the Mercer family plot is a nervy blonde woman giving a scant tour to a bunch of sightseers. But she reminds us, or maybe we forgot, that Johnny had a lifelong love affair with Judy Garland, and many of his songs must have been written for her or at least with her in mind. Ginger, Johnny’s wife, was clearly long-suffering, as Johnny also liked a drink or two, but there they are lying alongside each other in the shade of the mossy trees with the Savannah (Moon?) river flowing quietly nearby.
At Graceland, you can move around Elvis’s pile with an audio tour if you wish – I like to do my own imagining. In fact it’s quite a small place, the ticket office and gift shop and car collection have been kept across the road, so the house is mercifully as The King left it on the night of his death in August 1977. On this chill, March day only a few customers are with us as we pass through the living room/dining room, the legendary kitchen and jungle room and down to his basement den decorated in yellow and black. In the Racket Court is another leisure area and an upright piano, he was singing around this on his last night apparently. So much of my youth is embedded in this place it feels quite strange to be so close to The King at last. For people of my generation Elvis kick-started something that enabled the Beatles, and therefore enabled me to be sitting here writing this. I wouldn’t say he is a godlike presence but the fascination I sensed when, at the age of four, I first became aware of The King, continues.
In the garden are Elvis’s grave and those of his parents, Vernon and Gladys. A small plaque commemorates, Jesse, Elvis’s twin who died at birth. I find an orange, Dunlop guitar pick in my bag and place it at the base of Elvis’s grave alongside a faded flower and a teddy bear left by someone else.
Macon is a grand old Georgia town; the façade of 1812 B&B where we stay could be a movie set for any Southern romance…’Quite frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ We discover that the 1812 is on College Street, which runs directly down to the Rose Hill cemetery, where Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band is buried next to his bass player mate Berry Oakley. Walking down the street we pass gorgeous Southern mansions complete with Doric columns and porches. Easy to imagine the wealthy of the nineteenth century striding across the white-painted verandas or fanning themselves, exclaiming at the heat or the price of pecan nuts. Unlike Mercer’s grave at Bonaventure, Duane’s proves a little more difficult to locate. Two elderly guys on Harley Davidsons are cruising around looking too. Both Duane and Berry were killed on their Harleys, so it adds a frisson to the barmy afternoon to have the soundtrack of the grunty V Twins; almost as if the Rock ghosts were hovering above us. Duane Allman was one of the great blues rock guitarists of his generation, by the time of his death at 24 in 1971, he had already immortalised his sound by being the creator of the unmistakeable rolling riff and slide solo on Eric Clapton’s ”Layla.” In the end we spot the plot and guide a couple of Silvertops who have driven their drop-head Mustang into the cemetery on a similar quest. The gravesite is now fenced off due to fans celebrating the lives of their heroes by anointing the marble topped memorials with beer and reefers.
Talking to Gloria, the landlady at the 1812, Duane’s surviving brother, keyboardist and gravel-voiced singer, Greg, often stays at her B&B and is on “good form and doin’ well after his liver transplant”. The Allman’s band, too, recovered from the double deaths of two of their key members little more than a year apart, and after many line-up changes they still survive and are loved in Macon. Our young waiter at the excellent Dovetail restaurant told us that the Allmans used to hang out in the cemetery as teenagers and even named an instrumental, ‘Little Martha’ after one of Rose Hill’s inhabitants, Martha Ellis who had died when she was twelve.
As a student I was a big fan of the SDP. That is, for some reason, not as easy to admit now as it was in 1981 when Britain’s political landscape was changed forever. Some have argued that the SDP allowed Thatcher and her stormtroopers to rule unopposed for more than a decade but the Gang of Four certainly broke the mould. Amongst them was the late great Roy Jenkins, a superb biography of whom has recently been published. (‘A Well-Rounded Life’ by John Campbell).
Jenkins lived a rich and fulfilled life. He was widely mocked and nicknamed ‘Woy’ by the press and the public because of inability to pronounce the letter R but from humble origins (he was the son of a Welsh miner) he made friends across the entire spectrum of British society. There were rumours of affairs – with both men and women – but nothing so scandalous as to rock the foundations of Parliament. He was described as a class traitor because he was known to share his love of good wine with many a Tory grandee but in government he oversaw some of the most significant social reforms of the 60’s and 70’s.
His life was certainly interesting but it was the manner of his passing that has made him, for me, a legend. Not for him the long decline into senility and incontinence that awaits so many of us. He died on January 5th 2003, just a few pages short of completing a biography of President Roosevelt. It would have been his 23rd book. His last words to Jennifer, his loyal and tolerant wife of 62 years, were to ask for ‘two eggs, lightly poached.” When she came back with them, he was gone.
Walking around the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art recently, I suddenly found myself becoming a huge fan. Her work is deeply personal but immediately takes a ‘known’ place in the viewer’s psyche. Bourgeois worked in all sorts of media: fabric, bronze, found objects, drawing, painting, poetry, embroidery. But in all her pieces she serves her message by placing you somewhere near her initial idea or thought, only ‘near’ because there is a mystery in all of it too, some of the motivation must have been very private but she takes you tantalisingly close to the most intimate of moments. The work portrays all the emotions from love and hate to humour and anger. The pieces are beautifully made no matter which particular material she chooses, there are no arbitrary ‘mistakes’ or bad moves, only the necessary and the functional, it seems; each work directed at the heart and the brain through the eye of you.
So when you walk away from the gallery the work of Louise Bourgeois all stays with you, a story she has told with no beginning and no end, the scenery of a dark and exciting voyage about being a human.
Above all the work looks ‘young’, much of it is, Bourgeois worked until she was very old. There is one piece in the show that was made very close to her death in 2010 but it looks as though she was going to carry on the next week or next day with the same solid exploration, innovation and creativity. Bourgeois looked for the images and materials that most exemplified her innermost soul and never ran out of ideas or imagery to tease us.
That word ‘innovation’ was bandied around quite a lot last year in this office, I notice now that we even have a cabinet minister for innovation. When I mentioned to my son, who works for a branding/advertising agency, that we were making a film about innovation, he commented that it was a ‘slippery’ word… what does it really mean? Innovation may be the new word for ‘creativity’ – another word that is drawn out in almost every walk of life now as if we needed to define it and align ourselves to it. In days gone by we probably didn’t need to use words like innovation and creativity because our daily lives and work were dependent on our artisanal skills, our ability to make something or to be part of the making. There was a sequence in Jeremy Paxman’s BBC1 series Britain’s Great War where he visited The Shuttleworth Collection of ancient World War 1 aircraft. Paxman took a flight in a Bristol F.2B, an extraordinary evocation of innovation and creativity, using available skills and materials in the service of a modern idea – Flight.
In the digital age our artisanal skills are not so evident but somehow we need to remind ourselves of their attraction and function. The trouble is our education system (and modern industry to a degree) has worked against our very strong artisanal gene, the desire to create. Now we need a cabinet minister and conferences about creativity, and we are asked to make films about innovation to encourage our industries to think creatively.
When I sit down at my kitchen table, the Fylde Ariel guitar on a stand in the corner responds with a little open chord. It’s as if it’s reminding me that it’s there. But what it’s really saying is “I am so responsive, I have been so well crafted that you don’t even have to touch me, I’m responding to your footsteps, the vibrations they make as you walk across the floor”. My Ariel was made by Roger Bucknall, Fylde’s founder. The guitars are made in a tiny factory on the outskirts of Penrith, about as far away from the music ‘industry’ as you can get but everyone from Pete Townsend and Martin Carthy to Cliff Richard has got one. You can’t buy a Fylde off the shelf, you have to ask Mr Bucknall to make you one and he quite openly tells you it will be between six and nine months before you see it – and then asks for fifty percent up front. I should say that the price of a Fylde guitar does not seem to be cheap; you would quite rightly expect something very good indeed for £1800 for an entry-level piece. When you take delivery of your Fylde guitar many months later, having almost forgotten that you had ordered it, the instrument will exceed all your expectations. For a very average player like myself, you will hear the guitar’s musical possibilities in a completely different light because you will be able to hear every nuance of every note anywhere on the scale. Not only that, when you look at the guitar you see that it has a lovely simplicity, almost like a piece of Shaker furniture; it doesn’t shriek its presence but when you look closely it is the most beautifully crafted wooden object.
Anyway this isn’t about guitars but about the notion of ‘luxury’, because when the Ariel made its little open chord “hello” the other day it made me reflect upon the nature of luxury. On the surface of it The Fylde is a luxury item but it will go on giving pleasure and saying “hello” to people long after I have left this mortal coil. In fact most solid wood guitars like the Ariel will improve with each passing year. As long as no one sits on it, it will be there forever; a testament to Bucknall’s skills and the Cedar and Sapele trees it came from.
I am not a wealthy person but I enjoy ‘luxury’ in relatively inexpensive items. I am aware that for many, luxury is about cars, expensive hotels, the best address, the best table at the best restaurant etc, but in the spirit of the almost-done age of austerity here are a few things that make me feel I’m in the lap of luxury:
Wearing cologne everyday, Jo Malone hand soap, Egyptian cotton sheets, cuff links, Richard James socks, English Breakfast tea, music, Gibson J45 guitar (good as a Fylde but in a different way) Guardian iPad edition, Condor touring bike and Anthony Hudson who looks after it, Moleskine note books, Lamy rollerball pen, leather shoes, paintings by Mali Morris, John McLean, Jeff Rigden and Roger Hilton, Hyacinths, novels, large bath towels, Americano coffee every day, Philippa my dental hygienist, Lumix GX7 and 20mm pancake lens, Schmincke water colours and Midas Touch travel brushes, my garden and Siggy who looks after it, Proudfoot Ltd’s office in Clerkenwell and the people in it, Wendy’s crimson painted toenails, even in winter, Fred Perry Harrington, BBC4, Chris Morphet, Mike James, Marc Rovira, (cameramen) Andreas Törner, Charles Davies, Matt Spurr (editors) Simon Couzens (sound mixer).
‘My name is Clare Elwell, I’m a Professor of Medical Physics at University College London, and I like brain imaging and swimming. And doughnuts.’
When we visited Clare on Wednesday I was somewhat enchanted by the nuts-and-bolts creative chaos of the workshop she shares with her colleagues. Tubs of components, rolls of wire and a soldering iron or two sit alongside coloured maps of brain regions. On the bench opposite is a slightly unsettling array of plastic babies’ heads with various markings and devices attached to them; Clare tells me the decapitated doll bodies are languishing in a cupboard somewhere. Also to be found in in the lab were a homemade quad-copter with fetching blue and red LEDs, and a drawer labelled ‘BANANA CROC’. We wheeled out a large imaging unit named MONSTIR to make room for filming and asked Clare about her extraordinary work.
The team at UCL, in collaboration with Sarah Lloyd-Fox and the Birkbeck Babylab, is working on a safe, cheap and unobtrusive method to look at babies’ brains, which could give vital insight into the effect of malnutrition on brain development in infancy. Clare explains it much better than I could, so keep an eye out for our upcoming video for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation!
One of the most insightful things said at the The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Weekend was by Harvard professor Homi Bhabha, who said, “A great work of art is impossible to forget because it is difficult to remember…..a work of art should be an unfathomable experience, you know it, but you never know it”. I thought yes! – it’s not often that someone says something that seems to encapsulate what it’s all about, describing why (more…)
Our eagerly awaited documentary on folk legend Nic Jones is revealed to the world tonight!
Nic Jones was the rising star of the folk world in the early ’80s. His 1980 record Penguin Eggs remains among the top 100 albums of all time and he was playing sell-out gigs up and down the country.
Driving home late after one such performance, he collided with a brick lorry. He was lucky to survive. The resulting injuries destroyed his career and left him unable to play guitar in the intricate, percussive style he had pioneered. Last summer, after almost three decades, he returned to the stage with his son, Joe.
We follow Nic in his return to performing and speak to his family, friends and fans about his journey and his legacy.
Packed with guest appearances from fellow musicians, this moving tribute to Britain’s lost folk hero is a treat for your ears and your eyes. Catch it tonight at 10pm on BBC4.
“Gorgeous, moving tribute” – The Guardian
“Affectionate and perceptive” – The Daily Telegraph
“Director Michael Proudfoot’s biggest tribute to Jones is understatement, largely remaining faithful to his [Jones’] cheery nonchalance about the cruelty of fate and the dark humour of his son, Joe…” – Colin Irwin, MOJO Magazine
“It’s a lovely, lovely film.” Mark Radcliffe reviews the documentary on BBC Radio 2, with a beautiful track from one of the comeback gigs: