Archive for October, 2008

‘Holy Cities’ – Glasvegas and David Holmes album reviews

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 30, 2008 by gtam80

It would be easy to fill this review with descriptions of how these albums have, between them, borrowed variously from The Jesus and Mary Chain, Neu!/krautrock and Phil Spector. More intriguing than that however is how both ‘Glasvegas’ and ‘The Holy Pictures’ are very much products of their respective cities – Glasgow and Belfast. Owing to the remarkable and long-standing social and cultural similarities and interactions between these two close-knit post-industrial municipalities it is interesting how each artist has interpreted their respective city – central to each album – in starkly different ways, each invoking different memories and languages to conjure a snapshot of home.

Of course this isn’t a sociology essay, and we want to know what the music is like. At first Glasvegas do admittedly come across as ‘Mary Chain stooges at a talent show with a dead ringer for Joe Strummer leading the parade. Yet their somewhat monochrome image betrays a deep and original package, meaning that they stand apart from many of the current crop who often appear to have lazily picked a band from previous generations to ape. Glasvegas’s ability to tell stories – refracted through an incredibly forceful soundscape – about less than fashionable topics such as football violence, the death of a father and other themes which would probably be anathema to many on the bandwagon makes them seem somewhat antiquated, yet it is this ability to walk against the tide that means they are wholly essential to making pop music interesting. However it often feels that Glasvegas have tacked Glasgow onto their songs in the same way that other bands have tacked their forebears onto their art. ‘Flowers & Football Tops’, ‘Geraldine’, ‘It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry’ and ‘Daddy’s Gone’ have all established themselves in people’s heads over the past few months whether it be from constant rotation on music channels on television or BBC fare such as ‘Football Focus’. These songs will endure, but the long-term future of Glasvegas remains less certain as it seems that they have used up all their reference points in one heady record.

Their longevity is questionable. Everything is arguably set up for them to be a one-album wonder – from the novelty name to their fixed image and preoccupations. They may provide a more accessible insight into the darker side of Glasgow – and indeed wider contemporary British – city life than their compatriots Errors and Mogwai, but after the initial untamed thrill of ‘Glasvegas’ has worn off you cannot help but feel somewhat short-changed.

If ‘Glasvegas’ is a very personal and dark glamorisation of a city’s underbelly, then ‘The Holy Pictures’ by David Holmes is a scrapbook of the artist’s youth in Belfast during a period which stands in stark contrast to the current post-ceasefire ‘peace process’ era. While many songs on the album may sound whimsically in tune with the current positive mood, Holmes actually bemoans the loss of an intensity which the Troubles brought to both himself and the dance scene in Belfast in general during days which people often describe as being among the city’s darkest. Indeed, in a recent interview with Lisa Verrico in The Sunday Times Holmes described how he missed the visceral edge of the dark days in Belfast and the sense of escapism that his semi-legendary club nights in the Art College provided. All of this is wired into the sound of ‘The Holy Pictures’.

Indeed the marvellous lead single ‘I Heard Wonders’ has been promoted with a video which depicts the spirit of change and optimism that 1968 visited upon Europe and the USA. While the fortieth anniversary of that momentous year has provoked much debate regarding its long-term implications in Northern Ireland in particular, Holmes eschews direct political debate and has concentrated on making a very personal album which has universal appeal. ‘The Holy Pictures’ is dotted with moments of true beauty – none more beautiful than on the album’s piano-led swansong, ‘The Ballad of Sarah & Jack’ which is Holmes’s tribute to his parents. The song is so powerfully tangible that it evokes lamentations for a Belfast which has disappeared completely – the days of dance halls and an era of comparative goodwill that existed so tantalisingly and so briefly immediately prior to the explosion of the Troubles in the late 1960s. It probably isn’t histrionic to suggest that this might be one of the best local songs ever and should soundtrack any documentary footage of early to mid 1960s Northern Ireland.

While both ‘Glasvegas’ and ‘The Holy Pictures’ are respective attempts to come to terms with home towns which share so much in common, David Holmes’s subtle imagining of a bygone Belfast is more appealing than Glasvegas’s bombastic majesty. ‘The Holy Pictures’ may be David Holmes’s masterpiece, but he still has much more in the locker. Paradoxically by rejecting the current trends in indie music, Glasvegas may run out of steam more quickly than one would anticipate. How I wish they would prove me wrong.

Source: Brazen City, September 2008

Documentary adds to political unease

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

The recent local television documentary about the IRA’s 1983 Maze prison breakout was ill-timed. At a juncture when suspicion still exists between the two overarching political communities in Northern Ireland, a programme celebrating the escapades of a group of terrorists seemed glibly out of touch with the current sense of unease. Indeed the surreal sight of Gerry Kelly reminiscing about shouting orders at prison officials put one in mind of a piece of Sinn Fein propaganda that might usually be sold in one of the party’s constituency offices or gift shops, but not broadcast to the general public. While these stories, as part of a Troubles history, are interesting it is the fashion in which this particular one was told that could spread yet more negativity through one half of the community in particular.

The tone of the interviewees ensured that the programme was as controversial as its title suggested – for instead of recalling events that occurred during some of Northern Ireland’s darkest years in a manner befitting such an era the jolly tone, almost Dan Dare-like, throughout much of the documentary was a stark juxtaposition to a recent book by the journalist Susan McKay in which she allowed victims of paramilitary violence to recount in grim detail their horrendous experiences. Not so in this programme, where the IRA-related crimes were airbrushed out and the violence which occurred during the prisoners’ breakout was mentioned almost as an afterthought despite a prison official losing his life.

It almost seems as though a certain slot on Monday evenings is being filled with controversial Troubles-related programme making for the sake of it, without considering the effects of such programmes on the wider public’s opinions regarding the peace process. Indeed a subsequent documentary on Marie Jones’s play ‘A Night in November’ is sure to have made people incandescent. Jones appears in the advertisement suggesting that on that night in November 1993 at Windsor Park the sectarianism of Northern Ireland football supporters had reached an epoch. Again it must be questioned what the benefits are of rerunning this play and the accompanying documentary at a time when Northern Ireland’s fans have been officially recognised as among the greatest in Europe.

Now is perhaps not the best time for such partisan programming. If anything a ‘shared vision’ should be encouraged by celebrating the positives of Belfast and Northern Ireland both historically and in the present.

Source: Belfast News Letter, September 2008

Football’s excesses reaching fever pitch

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

If I were Spurs manager Juande Ramos I’d have been tempted to give long-time Newcastle United supporter and Manchester United fetishist Dimitar Berbatov the sack months ago. Unfortunately for Spurs that would have potentially meant shelling out millions of pounds in ‘compensation’. Berbatov’s unwillingness to muck in and do his bit for the club that plucked him from the German league in 2006 has been one of many increasingly sour episodes in English football this summer – the other notable case being Cristiano Ronaldo’s slavish tantrums at not being allowed to break free of his bondage at Old Trafford and join Real Madrid. The only mildly amusing aspect to the ongoing Berbatov and Ronaldo controversies was being able to watch Alex Ferguson’s face turn a different shade of crimson and purple each day as he bemoaned the bullying tactics of Real Madrid who, once intent on getting their man, are as persistent and obsessive as Robert Graysmith was in his pursuit of the ‘Zodiac’ killer.

Berbatov spent the summer prowling the perimeter fence of White Hart Lane, dreaming of an escape to pastures anew in Manchester where the likes of Garry Birtles and Neil Webb carved out a niche as also-rans after leaving fine careers behind them. Both of course furthered their profiles (more in terms of girth than stock) at Old Trafford, but hardly set the footballing world alight. Things have changed now and Berbatov’s addition to Manchester United’s electrifying array of talent is enough to make any neutral fan salivate.

Yet it is the attitude of these players – Ronaldo and Berbatov – that typify the excesses of the English game in the first decade of the ‘noughties’. Indeed it is telling that a major football publication only this month predicted that the long-term impact of this era will be fondly remembered only marginally more than the 1970s which was rather surprisingly judged to be English football’s darkest era.

While there are still a few stragglers who seem to realise how privileged they are to be getting paid astronomical wages for playing the sport they profess to love, there are many more players who are fanatically gorging on the bulging pots of gold that clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid can put in front of their snouts.

Something of the Corinthian spirit of football as a sport that can be enjoyed both by the spectator and the player has disappeared. Ticket prices increase as supporter’s wages remain static or fall. While the FA may celebrate the contribution of Manchester United to the rich legacy of English football, they might do well to remember that it was that very club, during its heading days in the late 1990s and early millennia that disrespected the FA Cup in order to do a whistle-stop promotional tour.

As things stand, the top-heavy top four in the English league continue to feed off the lower Premier league teams. In turn teams such as Spurs harvest youthful talents from Football League teams for paltry amounts of compensation at tribunals – just ask Crystal Palace fans – and the whole repetitive cycle depressingly continues.

Source: Belfast News Letter, August 2008

New Troubles film reflects importance of television drama

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

The filming of the forthcoming BBC drama ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ began in Belfast last month. Written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) the work will star local actors Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt. It purports to be a fictional tale based on the memories of the real events surrounding the murder of 20 year old Catholic James Griffen in 1975 by the UVF. The film is said to tell the story from the perspective of both the victim’s brother (Nesbitt) who as an 11 year old witnessed the murder and the gunman (Neeson), himself a teenager at the time. Patrick Spence, the current head of Drama for BBC Northern Ireland told the BBC NI website that ‘Northern Ireland is a society emerging from conflict. We wanted to develop and produce a single film, which, in a responsible way, marks part of that transition.’

While ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ may be regarded as an attempt to represent a Northern Irish society coming to terms with the legacy of the Troubles, it might also be said that it demonstrates a gradual acceptance that the conflict, which has informed day to day life in so many ways for the past 40 years, is now a topic which can be used as a reference point for a new and rich vessel of local television drama.

In recent decades there has been a rich pool of local writers and actors who have succeeded in having their work transmitted. For example Gary Mitchell’s excellent play ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ was shown by the BBC, and the classic ‘Billy Plays’ which starred a young Kenneth Brannagh lived on to become a trilogy after its first instalment initially aired as part of the excellent ‘Play For Today’ series. In both works the Troubles loomed large, inviting various narratives that are both unique to this country and applicable elsewhere.

In other parts of the UK screen writers have been unafraid to confront the negative aspects of their respective societies. Indeed some of the best English drama in recent years has relied on the issues that have characterised the changes experienced in that country; post-industrial decline, racism and the effects of Thatcherism flavoured excellent episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s work such as the dystopian ‘Cracker’ and more recently, the underrated ‘The Street’ where the simple pleasures of day to day life are staged against a backdrop of impending social and economic pressures.

Northern Ireland is coming out of the worst of its negative history, yet reservations about the recent past and the reality of a society that in parts is still very much divided and violent make for a combustible mix; similar in tempo if not context to the issues that have consumed McGovern’s imagination.

From initial reports ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ looks to be a promising addition to what has, throughout the UK in the past 35 years, been a uniquely regional brand of television drama. Yet it would be a mistake to close the book on Troubles-related drama thereafter. A cursory glance at Susan McKay’s latest offering, ‘Bear in Mind These Dead’ or the hefty ‘Lost Lives’ suggest that the past 40 years have produced many stories that demand to be told whether that be in private or – in the case of ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ – communicated to a wider audience through television drama. If classic British television drama has demonstrated anything throughout its rich history it is that ordinary people’s stories are compelling, and in the case of Northern Ireland’s quest for a lasting peace – valuable.

Source: Belfast News Letter, June 2008

Just Another Saturday in the City?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

With little or no fanfare the BBC recently gave permission for a series of critically acclaimed but rarely seen instalments of its much lauded ‘Play For Today’ series to be released on DVD. For those of us under a certain age who have relied on any means possible to view many of these classic television dramas, the opportunity to finally get to see lovingly restored screen adaptations of Glaswegian playwright Peter McDougall’s excellent ‘Just Another Saturday’ (1975) and ‘Just A Boy’s Game’ (1979) is a real treat. In its golden age ‘Play For Today’ was an important base for exciting and dynamic social commentary which tackled many controversial issues throughout the 1970s and early 1980s; one of the most high profile examples being the original adaptation for the BBC of Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’ (1977) with its scathing indictment of the borstal system. Given last year’s suggestion by Peter Hain that there should be an increase in local television drama in Northern Ireland, the release of Peter McDougall’s ‘Play For Today’ collection on a modern format should provide an encouraging template for any aspiring local dramatists and directors who feel that they can provide a reflection of contemporary Northern Irish society. Although McDougall’s work is based in a different era, its situation on Scotland’s west coast means that it has a deep emotional and cultural resonance for a modern Belfast which, as has been demonstrated by Peter Shirlow and Brendan Murtagh in their recent work ‘Belfast – Segregation, Violence and the City’ is still very much a divided city. Therefore underneath the blithe depiction of non-strife that has been projected by ‘The Hole in the Wall Gang’ and others there is a bleaker side to our society and one that perhaps needs to be transmitted into the wider public’s consciousness, and what better medium than local televisual drama?

McDougall’s work, directed by John Mackenzie for television is filmed in a grainy documentary style – in part due to its shoe-string budget. It is often impossible for an engaged viewer to distinguish drama from reality and that style is what gives it much of its power on the small screen. Among these recent DVD releases the most high profile and perhaps most pertinent for Northern Irish viewers would have to be ‘Just Another Saturday’, supposedly originally written by McDougall at the behest of ‘Z Cars’ star Colin Welland whose London house he happened to be painting. Inspiringly McDougall had apparently never read a book, never mind written a drama script yet he was able to draw on his real-life experiences; those of working in the shipyards and being a drum major in the Orange parades in Glasgow (an activity which is shared by John McNeil, the main protagonist in ‘Just Another Saturday’) to create a series of stirring social commentaries. In a similar manner to local playwright Sam Thompson who wrote about sectarianism and bigotry in the Belfast shipyards, McDougall captured Glasgow, a similar city, in the midst of crises. The shipyards which like Belfast had provided so much employment to manual workers in the surrounding areas were in decline. The constitutional status of Scotland was under considerable debate, sectarianism was a societal and institutional malady and the Northern Irish conflict was spiralling out of control across the Irish Sea (Graham Walker provided an erudite analysis of some of these themes in his 1995 book ‘Intimate Strangers – Political and Cultural Interaction Between Scotland and Ulster in Modern Times’). Indeed, having been filmed in 1975 ‘Just Another Saturday’ was, like ‘Scum’ deemed so controversial at the time that its broadcast was put back for some years. Apparently during its production the head of the Glasgow police force banned its creation on seeing the script, predicting that the piece would cause social disorder during its filming and eventual screening.

In many ways the themes played out in ‘Just Another Saturday’ were relevant to the Ulster situation in the 1970s and are perhaps still just as pertinent for Belfast in the year 2007. While things are improving incrementally, it is hardly yet a cultural Xanadu. Although there are some who seem to bask in this notion, the flipside of this perceived utopia is that there has actually been a persistent decline in many communities in Belfast and beyond which have yet to taste the benefits of the ‘peace process’. Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell, who despite having his play ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ televised, has often encountered trouble in attempting to get his message across and is a dramatist who in a similar fashion to McDougall has constantly tried to project through an artistic medium the intense problems facing working class communities – in Mitchell’s case Protestant communities in Belfast as they come out of the protracted conflict. McDougall and Mitchell, while possibly unaware of each other, undoubtedly share a common narrative in that both have successfully critiqued their respective similar backgrounds and the inherent machismo, violence and divisive institutions that have dogged them and their communities, especially in a shared experience of post-industrial decline. Indeed the central characters in Mitchell’s ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ and McDougall’s ‘Just Another Saturday’ are faced with contextually similar though circumstantially incongruent choices about their destiny and identity. For Kyle in Mitchell’s play the narrowed definition of his role as a post-ceasefire Loyalist paramilitary have come to bear along with the political and economic pressures of that role (John Hill – ‘Cinema and Northern Ireland – Film, Culture and Politics). For John McNeil, the young drum major in McDougall’s play it is a matter of coming to terms with his previously concrete convictions about Orange pageantry which has been abused by Rab Williamson, who was up until the Saturday in question something of a role model for McNeil. The institutions of paramilitarism and Orangeism, which are respectively central in the urban communities written about in ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ and ‘Just Another Saturday’ come in for unflattering scrutiny in each writers’ works.

No matter what our individual opinions on the institutions subjected to analysis in these works are, it is vital that a new generation has the opportunity to appreciate Peter McDougall and John Mackenzie’s classic work from the 1970s. In ‘Just Another Saturday’ and ‘Just A Boy’s Game’ we get glimpses of social ailments – violence, bigotry and misogyny – that are still sadly prevalent on both sides of the divided city in Belfast. Perhaps if someone acts upon Peter Hain’s advice about the importance of local television drama they’ll first take a took at these DVDs, Gary Mitchell’s work and tomes similar to it in the Nationalist community and aim to give a balanced view of a society which has yet to fully transform.

Source: Fortnight Magazine, December 2007

Will it be hard to feel nostalgic about England’s current footballing elite?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

By now there will be either royal blue or red and white ribbons draped over the European Cup. The English media will proudly boast that UEFA’s showpiece final bore witness to a tussle between the top two Premier League sides for the right to be Europe’s elite. Yet something will feel slightly amiss for those who are nostalgic about English football’s rich history, and in particular the for the real glory days of English club sides.

Throughout the recent domestic league season Manchester United have correctly won plaudits by serving up their characteristically perfect blend of strong-willed defensive shut-outs and majestic attacking flair while Chelsea have, on the other hand, produced doggedly determined essays in pure grit that might only have attracted the odd dour-faced fan of Italian football which had all self-flagellators tuning in to Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons throughout the 1990s.

For all the flair and panache that those presently at the pinnacle of English football are possessed of, it still doesn’t feel like the ‘all-English’ protagonists are actually all that English. Fans of the Premier League should rightfully feel proud that Ronaldo, Tevez, Essien and Ballack have graced their stadiums over the past nine months, yet something of the buccaneering spirit that made top-flight football in England such a joy to watch has been replaced by a diluted version of the game that puts one in mind of the theatrics of, say, the WWF wrestlers of the 1980s. The demand for success at the big English clubs puts one, perhaps cynically, in mind of an essentially all-European rather than all-English European final.

Understandably the current pedigree athletes that compromise the majority of the players at United and Chelsea need protection from the pitfalls of unnecessary injury – the pitch at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium was, at the time of writing, causing some concern – yet it does make one pine for an era when bumpy surfaces were just one of the many challenges that professional footballers had to rise to on their travels. The worst that any team had to endure in the recent Premier League season was Wigan’s pitch at the JJB Stadium which admittedly, by mid-winter, looked like the cast of The Wicker Man had reunited and attempted a daily recreation of the May Day festival procession on it (though the playing surface was eventually relaid for United’s final day, title-winning visit).

The rumblings of discontent about playing surfaces over this past season in particular bring to mind a stark contrast in footballing cultures – the Nottingham Forest team which, under the curation of the genius Brian Clough, dominated Europe in 1979 and 1980 with their brand of free-flowing attractive attacking football yet had to endure continental and domestic pitches which were more akin to potato fields than bowling greens along the way.

I fancy that the highly paid current crop would struggle to adapt to the playing surfaces that faced Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Aston Villa when these sides thrived throughout English football’s heady days of the late Seventies and early Eighties. No matter how good or bad last night’s final was, and despite the fact that Liverpool have twice got to the final along with Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea over the past three years, it’s hard to imagine anyone becoming misty-eyed and nostalgic for the new glory days of English football in Europe: 2005-2008.

Source: Belfast News Letter, May 2008

Are there limits in comedy?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

A new film, Three and Out, starring former The Office actor Mackenzie Crook has fallen foul of ASLEF – the train driver’s union; the reason being that there is a perception that the film makes light of the very serious issue surrounding people committing suicide on railway lines and the effect that this has on drivers.

The comedic merits of the film are unimportant, but when Crook was challenged on the red carpet by a protestor about the content of the film and the real life implications for train drivers who had been affected by the issue it raised an important question about comedy and its possible limits.

Comedians have argued that it is their job to push the envelope and, like the court jesters of yesteryear, speak about the kind of issues that others are too timid to confront. It is interesting then when the often abstract ‘artistic license’ nature of comedy is confronted head on by the real subject, or those closely related to that reality. After Crook had told the protestor to reserve judgement until he had viewed the new film, the protestor offered to accompany him to the premiere. According to reports in the media Crook fudged the awkward proposal by telling the protestor that he didn’t think that would be allowed.

Comedy has played an important role in what is becoming an increasingly hysterical society in which people have become closer than ever before thanks to new media and social networking sites. This has had both its positives and negatives. The furore that surrounded the Brass Eye ‘paedogeddon’ special in 2001 was a tactful and positive contribution in that it admonished people’s hypocrisy in general and the irresponsible behaviour behind a certain red top’s ‘name and shame’ campaign in particular. Similarly the brilliant English comedian Stewart Lee subverted audiences around the United Kingdom in 2005, including one in Belfast, when during a routine about suicide bombers and the post-September 11th global trauma he asked the paying public to give a retrospective round of applause for the IRA. Some people were disgusted by the joke, failing to recognise that the butt of the joke was in fact the IRA – ‘decent British terrorists’ according to Lee.

The present culture is one where people seem to relish being offended. Comedy is inevitably all about perspective and choice. While one person may find a certain routine hilarious another may find it grossly offensive and vice versa. One wonders if the members of ASLEF, while of course valid in their objections to the film, have as individuals found humour in similar dark subjects that had not affected them personally. Three and Out may not find its place in cinema history but the footnote that has accompanied its release in London has re-opened a debate that will surely continue at various points for hundreds of years.

Source: Belfast News Letter, April 2008