Friday, 27 November 2015

On Stage at the York Theatre Royal

I persuaded my husband to watch this on iPlayer with me last night only to find him appearing in it - there he was, a blurry stooge, lurking at the back of the stalls. And then goodness me, some blink-and-you-miss-them shots of our daughter too, flitting across the stage in her pink coat and running between the seats. I had completely forgotten that there was a camera crew present when we went to the York Theatre Royal open day in March. The theatre threw open its doors to the public the weekend before it closed for a multi-million pound refurbishment. We had a fun afternoon trying on costumes, playing with panto props, seeing the Green Room, chatting to the stage door manager and standing on the stage seeing an actor's view of the world.

My husband released his inner David Leonard...
The Dreaded Lurgi?

And our daughter enjoyed being the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg...

Back then, they expected that the work would be finished and the theatre open again by now. But unfortunately, as soon as you take up a floor up in York you inevitably find archaeological remains, if not a Roman legion or two, and the Theatre Royal was no exception. Once the excavators had dug through several tons of panto sequins and 1930s cigarette packets, they unearthed the medieval foundations of the St Leonard's Hospital. It was previously thought that these had been demolished by the Victorians. So archaeologists had to have their field day, and the theatre refurbishment was delayed by several months.

So for one year only, the famous York Christmas panto has had to move to the National Railway Museum. Dick Whittington And His Meerkat is about to open, and it's going to be an interesting one. Berwick Kaler will have had to rethink his standard routines in order to stage them on what is basically a long railway platform. The NRM has been hosting the Theatre Royal all year, but only for train-related plays like The Railway Children and In Fog And Falling Snow. Hence the set design, as both involved, er, trains. Real, proper, live, huffing, puffing engines. In Fog And Falling Snow, which told the story of railwayman George Hudson, also featured in this BBC On Stage documentary. The only professional in the cast was George Costigan - the 200 others were all members of the community. Playing Mrs Hudson was none other than Rosie Rainbow, one of York's stalwart children's party entertainers, who does an excellent line in bubble and snow discos.

Now that our daughter has started school, we no longer go to the Railway Museum every other week. I kind of miss it, and I kind of don't. It's an amazing place, with free entry, and the streamlined Duchess of Hamilton is still my favourite train in the whole world - a thing of great beauty. But, truth be told, over the past five years I have probably run up and down the ramps beside the Bullet Train just a few times too many. It's been nice to see my daughter not only grow taller (so I don't have to lift her up to see the model railway or inside the Royal Carriages any more) but actually grow interested in trains. At first it was all about the ramps. Then the Thomas Ride-On machines. Then the wooden Mallards for sale in the shop. Then riding on the Road Train to the Minster and back. And then one day, it was about the real Mallard. And the gigantic engine transported home from China. And the operation of the turntable. And the fact that the Queen could have a bath between stations whenever she felt like it.

Thomas Ride-on



Model Railway

The big engine from China
 (never paid enough attention to learn its name, sorry)

So we have all grown up a little, and learned a lot. Stripey the Monkey usually stays at home these days too. (Apologies for him blocking the view of the trains there.) He is as dirty as an old firebox these days anyway, and I doubt he'd be allowed in.

The next episode of On Stage was about the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. I half wondered if my husband and daughter would appear in this too, since we usually end up on the beach outside the theatre every time we go to the Lake District, feeding the ducks or skimming stones. Although never with a film crew behind us, so no, they didn't. We don't get to go in to the theatre and watch a play, since our daughter doesn't really do Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare yet. But I am glad that, thanks to this series of documentaries, our unique but cash-strapped northern theatres are getting some much deserved screen time.

The beach outside The Theatre By The Lake, Keswick

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Great Continental Railway Journeys: Freiburg to Hannover

German Romantic poetry 
Michael Portillo arrives in Freiburg liked the well-heeled public school boy that he is, adorned in a racing green blazer with white pinstripes. He is here to discover the meaning of Germanness. In 1913, the year of his Bradshaw's, Germany was still only recently unified. It was still trying to carve out a national identity, and hadn't yet started the First World War. Shame on me, four sentences in and I've already mentioned "the war" in the same breath as Germany, like Basil Fawlty and The Sun newspaper before me. Back then it seems that we Brits liked Germany as a holiday destination a lot more than we do now. Schiller and Goethe had filled our heads with Romantic nature poetry, and we had fallen for the Brothers Grimm, whose disturbing tales from the forest had been made a lot more wholesome in translation. In fact, we liked travelling to Germany so much that around 6,000 of us were trapped behind enemy lines when World War I broke out.

Most of us were after a cuckoo clock. Some of us still go all the way to Germany to buy one, as evidenced by the customers in a shop in Triberg in the Black Forest. In the shop, Portillo has a go at carving a leaf under the watchful eye of the master carver. Afterwards the carver allows Portillo to keep the leaf as a "souvenir", too polite to say that it's because the result is too shit for him to use. Apparently, the traditional triangular shape of the Black Forest cuckoo clock was inspired by the roofs of new houses built along the Black Forest railway. And originally the cuckoo clock was intended to be a "cockerel clock", but this involved the internal bellows having to play too many notes.

Soon Michael is tucking into a Black Forest Gateau, at pains to point out that we leave out the most important ingredient - the boozy Kirsch - in the English translation. However, the most significant ingredient in his slice appears to be thickly whipped cream, which of course makes it very authentically German. The slab is gigantic, mouthwatering, covered in dark chocolate shavings, and sums up so much of what is marvellous about the world. "Yummy," as Portillo says.

Soon Portillo is heading north to Heidelberg, where I lived for a year in my early twenties. (I always knew this slide of Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof, taken while changing film rolls en route somewhere, would come in useful one day.) Here Portillo's theme of Romantic poetry continues. He wonders why the city has been such a pull to artists over the years, inspiring emotionally charged dramatic works from the likes of Turner to Brahms. An academic claims it has something to do with ruins being fashionable, and Heidelberg's ruined Schloss halfway up the Koenigsberg is certainly spot-on as far as ruins go. What Portillo doesn't know is that there is another ruin directly above where he is standing on the Philosophenweg - it's a former Nazi open-air theatre known as a Thingstaette, built to put on plays of Norse legends for the Volk of the 1930s, now abandoned and overgrown, and beyond creepy.
Heidelberg Schloss, spot on as ruins go

View of Heidelberg from the Philosophenweg
Nazi Thingstaette on the Heiligenberg

Portillo moves on via double-decker train to Frankfurt Main Hauptbahnhof, Germany's busiest railway station, which is a lot more architecturally appealing than Britain's busiest railway station, Clapham Junction. Portillo thinks we need more double-decker trains in Britain. He is possibly right. They could go a long way to solving commuter overcrowding.

Frankfurt Rathaus

In Frankfurt, Portillo visits the surprisingly silent and hi-tech stock exchange, meets a patronising TV journalist charged with explaining finance to the masses, and looks thoroughly undignified trying to get his chops round a Wurst. He also visits the Goethehaus to learn more about the man billed as Germany's Shakespeare.


"Mainhatten" skyscrapers

European Central Bank

And then on to Goettingen, which is famous for its university. Most of what Portillo sees there he could have covered in Heidelberg, since that is also a city with an ancient university (older than Goettingen's) that has produced a number of Nobel-prize winning scientists and has a tradition of Borschenschaften (fraternities). Heidelberg also has a Studentenkarzer (prison) with the same black heads silhouetted on the walls by naughty students of the bygone age. And it has pubs full of pictures of fencing matches and men with facial scars.

Gaenseliesel, Goettingen, kissed and decorated by graduating students

But it turns out Portillo is really there to see Goettingen's wind tunnel, built in 1907 to aid the study of aerodynamics, so people could build aeroplanes less likely to fall out of the sky. Now the research centre has a model railway where people use a catapult to fire engines along a track at 400km/hour. They make the sleek high-speed ICE trains Portillo is using seem like clanking old steamies.

Hannover Rathaus

Portillo's final stop is Hannover, where I have only ever spent an afternoon. Portillo visits its spectacular Rathaus (city hall), which signifies Hannover's importance at the time of the Kaiser, when it was built. Given that I have a photograph of the view from the top of the Rathaus dome, I must also have travelled up the unusual curved lift with sloping floor that Portillo rides. Yet I have absolutely no memory of doing so. Maybe my host was feeling stingy and made me take the stairs. Maybe the lift was closed for refurbishment. Or maybe my vertigo just means I have blocked the experience out entirely.
View from Hannover Rathaus

My afternoon in Hannover was at the end of a month-long interrailing trip I took aged 25, finally done with study but not yet in the world of work. I was trying to brush up my German ready to seek employment. I travelled by train all the way from Luebeck in the north of Germany to Lugano in Italian-speaking Switzerland, which makes this the first of Portillo's railway journeys that I have covered in its entirety, and more. Thanks to the kindness of friends, I didn't pay for a single night's accommodation during the whole trip. I mostly slept on floors, with the odd blissful night on a futon (if such a thing is possible). In Lugano, I had to cram into a narrow single bed with a Danish architecture student. As it was the days before wifi and mobile internet, I finalised my itinerary by sending postcards from one destination to the next and making fleeting calls from coin-guzzling payphones. Yet I was always met on time at each station by whoever I was visiting: it seems that in the pre-Instagram era somehow we coped.

I always refer to the trip as "the march for open windows" owing to the Germans' fear of draughts and penchant for stuffy rooms, which made some of the long train journeys unbearable. In answer to Portillo's quest, for me, Germanness is about strange dichotomies. It's Ordnung surrounded by decadent cake. It's an open-door policy in the midst of blinding bureaucracy. It's the vegetarian health freak in a country whose restaurants serve up the Schlachtplatte (slaughter plate). It's the hypochondriac who on the one hand regularly takes a Kur, peers obsessively into a Flachspueler (stage toilet) and plays team sport, but chain smokes on the other. It's the cultural hybrid of someone who loves David Hasselhoff for his music as much as they do Beethoven. It's rimless glasses to see with, and men wearing jackets so brightly coloured that it's clear they don't use them. (Heck, some of them make Portillo's look if not stylish then at least very much at home.) But for all this, it's a place I love - and miss. If only for the cake.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Million Pound Mega Yachts

Got £185 million to spare? How about this little something from the Monaco Yacht Show? It has its own pool, sauna and beach club, and a dance floor (pole optional) that can double as a heli-pad. A spiral staircase encloses a 200-kilo chandelier made of Murano glass that probably isn't to your taste. The bathrooms are all made of marble, as are the £20,000 vases which can get chipped on rough seas. (A bit like your head against the rectangular sinks.) The catch? Well, the lounge is very purple. So purple that the estate agent feels he should show the room last on his tours. Oh, and the hull's probably about 30 feet too long to be allowed to park anywhere other than the marina in Monaco, so you might not be able to get very far.

Got £1.85 to spare? How about this charity shop Grandpa Pig boat, complete with retractable cabin, ship's bell and annoying tune? I'll even chuck in Grandpa for free. (He's purple too.) "Welcome aboard, me hearties!"

Sometimes you just gotta accept there is a life out there that you will never have. No sign of Grandpa Pig on a mega yacht. (But then they don't have retractable cabins either.) There is just an army of silver service waitresses keeping the champagne on ice and the bedsheets ironed.

I have no idea how much time these yacht owners actually spend on their boats. Since they must have at least a dozen mansions and villas to visit as well, perhaps while attending the matches of all the Premier League football teams that they own. And some of them have television appearances to make (Afternoon, Lord Sugar!). And surely they occasionally have to go out and earn some more money, most of which (on this programme) seems to stem from car bumpers? No, the yacht is just a thing on a wish list when you have run out of diamonds to buy. It sits there, waiting for a decadent party or global circumnavigation that may never come.

What is clear is that none of these yacht owners have any sense of style. Or of environmental responsibility. It can cost £2,000 just to start up the engine. But I guess if you've made your fortune selling cars, fuel is as an expendable a commodity as everything else. Sod marine diversity and all that.

But nothing will look glamorous if your guests don't have their sea legs. (Maybe that's why they never leave port.) I hope someone remembered to fit the sick bags. One yacht has a carpet that has suffered visible "dog damage". Said dog has either puked or pissed all over it - I don't want to know. But if it smells as bad as it looks, it might start devaluing the yacht into Grandpa Pig's price range.

I've written about Monaco before. Somewhere that I didn't even begin to fit in. I got it so wrong. I was wearing a Per Una skirt for starters. I spent most of the day walking through underpasses and tunnels and finding the pavement in front of me removed for roadworks. Pneumatic drills rattled all around. I ate spaghetti bolognese outside a Portakabin shared with the ferryman, and travelled there by bus from Nice for a Euro. I didn't dare seek out any real restaurants or shops in case they didn't let me in. Besuited heavies appeared on deck the instant I approached a yacht on the harbour boardwalk to take a photo. But hey, at least I justified that day's security bill.

I wouldn't want one of your stupid boats anyway. Until you perfect the retractable cabin, even if I got lucky at the Casino, I'll stick to P&O Ferries.

Casino at Monte Carlo

Monday, 16 November 2015

Peep Show

Peep Show is back for its final ever series. Possibly not before time, I would say, as Mitchell and Webb have long outgrown it in terms of career, family, newspaper columns and their constant panel show appearances. You see too much of them elsewhere these days to still believe them to be Mark and Jeremy. Mitchell and Webb never actually shared a flat in Croydon, stole each other's duvets and girlfriends, or wasted their lives in dead-end bands or dead-end clerical jobs. But somehow you think they did, and they just don't do it any more. So if they want to be convincing QI panellists, they kind of need to leave Mark and Jeremy behind for good.

Yet they have slipped back into the roles so comfortably, like jelly out of a mould or an eel into a river. Mark and Jeremy are just the same in their bitter love-hate relationship and can't-live-together-can't-live-apart needy dependency. They still make me laugh with their never spoken aloud one-liners, whether on the subject of futons, juice or apologies. The unique camera angles remind me of when our daughter takes photographs - everything wonky and at the wrong height and someone staring at her with a slight look of horror that screams "DON'T DROP IT!".

Peep Show camera angles
Super Han(d)s, at three-year-old height
Don't drop it!

It's only natural for a woman to wonder what a man is thinking, and Mark and Jeremy tell us, proving that it's not just about the stereotypical football scores. There is anarchy, anger and angst tucked in between. There is William Morris. And Napoleon.

Jargon-loving Johnson still spouts bullshit in his new bank meets car showroom. But Super Hans has gone sober, Dobby has moved to New York and Olivia Colman is too busy solving murders to appear...(dare we hope?)... yet. Jeremy is living in Super Hans' bathroom, which is the ultimate depiction of the London property rental market, where people - if they are single and aren't proper bankers - can end up sharing poky flats at exorbitant prices into well beyond middle age. "I mean, it's not Number One Hyde Park Palace or anything", says Jez. No, it's a sleeping bag in a bath, with a kettle for a kitchen and Super Hans regularly barging in to use the loo. The only thing that gives you comfort is the knowledge that Jeremy is unlikely to be paying Super Hans any rent. But soon Jez is evicted by Sober Hans' fiancee after he takes the flak for a cocaine incident. Super Hans feels guilty enough about this to bury Mark's smug new flatmate (Jerry) in his sleeping bag, shove him in a lift and waterboard him with beer. And that's it - Mark and Jeremy are back together, whether they really want it or not. And they do want it, really.

Mark and Jeremy's flat may be in Croydon, but the opening credits of the first five series were filmed in Crouch End, where my husband and I bought our first flat. We got our microwave from that television shop. The shop was called Power House or Power Point or Power Ranger or something Power-based that I can't remember now. Whatever, the microwave power it supplied is still going strong, 12 years on. But the shop isn't - it became a fancy Italian delicatessen and cafe about halfway through our Crouch End residency.

The microwave

Spiazzo in Crouch End, once the television shop on Peep Show

Behind Mark, you can see Hornsey Town Hall, and behind Jeremy, Walter Purkis The Fishmonger.

Hornsey Town Hall
Crouch End Broadway and Clocktower, with Spiazzo on the right

When Peep Show went into HD, they re-filmed the credits, and relocated them to Croydon High Street. Which is kind of as it should be. But I miss the little pastiche of Crouch End, our London home. I think Mark and Jeremy could have been a lot more harmonious, and possibly even happy in Crouch End. Instead of bitching on the sofa, they could have gone for a brunch at Banner's, a bun from Dunn's, Thai food at O's, tapas at La Bota, or a date night at Bistro Aix. Or they could have joined the comedians Downstairs At the Kings Head, where the audience can touch the ceiling and the heckles are a paragon of politeness. Or they could have stared at the celebrities on street corners and a Time Lord, a newsreader and half the cast of EastEnders in the gym. They could have shopped in a Londis where zombies roamed in Shaun Of The Dead, or tripped on pavements littered with prams. Crouch End - that little bohemian village in North London with no Tube but an awful lot of Bugaboos.

Dunn's Bakery
King's Head, with its low-ceilinged comedy club in the basement

I am part of that London generation that grew up with Mark and Jeremy. I wouldn't call myself grown up now so much as grown old. But Mitchell and Webb have definitely grown up. And now it seems it's finally time for Mark and Jeremy to grow up too. Adios, el Dudes.

Thursday, 12 November 2015


So it's farewell to Lewis, again. It looked like ITV might kill him off in a letter bomb explosion, but at the last minute they sent him off with lovely "I cut up dead people" Laura into the New Zealand sunset instead.  It was such a sudden change of heart that Lewis only had time to pack a baby vest with a dodo on the front. But he did get another chance to wear the Hawaiian shirt he wore in the first ever episode, which was the last time he went on holiday. Hathaway served as airport cabbie then too - turns out he has kept the sign all these years.

Auckland sunset from Achilles Point

Lewis claimed he had tried travelling but hadn't liked it, which is why he ought to stay behind in Oxford watching philandering Maths researchers get blown to smithereens and archaeologists uncover corpses in wells. But then he finally realised that academics will never stop murdering each other so he ought to just leave them to it and enjoy his retirement instead.

As for New Zealand, what's not to like? Apart from the 24 hours on a plane it takes to get there. Especially with a screaming baby for the nine-hour leg from Singapore to Auckland. (Goodness, I'd be a lot more sympathetic to that now.) And the tedious customs procedures. New Zealand is the only country where my backpack was immediately pounced on by sniffer dogs. Not because I chose it for my first ever drug smuggling attempt, you understand, but because the backpack had at some point contained sandwiches and the dogs are on the hunt for food. They aren't hungry (or at least I hope they aren't), but you can't bring in any fresh produce. Or mud, for that matter. (Traveller's Tip - for an easy way to get dirty hiking boots professionally cleaned, just walk them through the Nothing To Declare Zone of Auckland airport.)

But New Zealand is also the only country where I have sat in a hot tub overlooking banana palms and an azure bay of ocean within an hour of arriving. God, after what felt like days on a plane, that was one of the best moments of my life. Thank you to the Best. Auckland. Hosts. Ever. I hope Lewis and Laura can come and stay with you.

What else awaits our favourite copper in the Land Of The Long White Cloud? Well, probably a lot of long, white cloud - and rain, and cyclones. But between the tropical storms the sun will shine, and go round the sky a different way, which may be a little disconcerting at first.

A Maori marae in a cyclone, Rotorua
Lewis will have to learn the Haka, or at least the Hokey-Cokey in Maori, so he doesn't embarrass himself at a rugby match or a hangi concert. He may also have to learn to prefer wine over beer.

Pinot Noir on the vine, Wanaka

And he may have to develop a penchant for adventure sports. In Oxford, the only people thrown off buildings were corpses, but in New Zealand it's a national pastime.

Queenstown. Something death-defying was inevitably happening behind me.

Lewis may also find the scenery a little more enchanting than never-ending sandstone quadrangles and the buses choking up the Cowley Road. It'll be more JRR Tolkien*** than CS Lewis, but with just a touch of Lewis Carroll. (Hm, I just wondered - did Colin Dexter name Lewis after Oxford authors more famous than him?)

Lord of the Rings country

Puzzling World, Wanaka
But if Lewis does end up missing those Oxford cerebral types teetering on the spectrum, he only needs to head to The Giant Jersey in Geraldine. It's a knitting shop that not only houses the aforementioned world-record holding jumper (and thankfully no Giant Gyles Brandreth to put it in), but also a reproduction of the entire Bayeux tapestry made out of three million knitting machine cogs. It took the owner 25 years to build it, and he will take almost as long to tell you about it.

Because nearly everyone is still stuck in that shop listening to the knitting machine man, New Zealand's crime rate will be lower than Oxford's, Lewis will be relieved to hear. (Or at least it will be until he gets there. We may find Oxford's drops a bit now in return.) The only explosions he is likely to witness will be geothermal. "These used to be the basketball courts", our host in Rotorua told us during a drive round the city, "Only they erupted."

Lady Knox Geyser, Waiotapu

Blow hole at Pancake Rocks

There may be earthquakes too, something which doesn't happen very often in Oxford. One of Oxford's college namesakes, Christchurch, was thankfully still intact when we were there. Lewis won't have heard of Christchurch College though, which means he may go round asking people where the city called Wolsey is. But it's OK - they probably won't understand his Geordie accent.

Christchurch Cathedral

Ah, I jest. Just get out there and enjoy it, Lewis. All those miles and miles of amazing mountains, lagoons, beaches and bush. May there be no Maoris murdered and plenty of late-night cake. (That's not a euphemism, by the way - late-night cake is a genuine thing in New Zealand. We Brits binge-drink, they eat baked goods, and that's the main reason I wanted to emigrate.)

I left my heart in Wanaka

Milford Sound, where a storm was brewing and the sandflies munching


I will miss Lewis. But I look forward to Hathaway, the spin-off spin-off. (Don't deny that it's going to happen. Laurence Fox will get bored of singing eventually.)

The (Laurence) Fox Glacier

***Yes, I know Tolkien lived in Oxford too. I am referring to the films.