Below: an extract from Terry Pratchett’s Richard Dimbleby lecture, Shaking Hands With Death, February 2010:
When I was a young boy, playing on the floor of my grandmother’s front room, I glanced up at the television and saw Death, talking to a knight. I didn’t know much about death at that point. It was the thing that happened to budgerigars and hamsters. But it was Death, with a scythe and an amiable manner. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I had just watched a clip from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, wherein the knight engages in protracted dialogue, and of course the famous chess game, with the Grim Reaper who, it seemed to me, did not seem so terribly grim.
The image has remained with me ever since and Death as a character appeared in the first of my Discworld novels. He has evolved in the series to be one of its most popular characters; implacable, because that is his job, he appears to have some sneaking regard and compassion for a race of creatures which are to him as ephemeral as mayflies, but which nevertheless spend their brief lives making rules for the universe and counting the stars.
I have no clear recollection of the death of my grandparents, but my paternal grandfather died in the ambulance on the way to hospital after just having cooked and eaten his own dinner at the age of 96. He had felt very odd, got a neighbour to ring for the doctor and stepped tidily into the ambulance and out of the world. A good death if ever there was one. Except that, according to my father, he did complain to the ambulance men that he hadn’t had time to finish his pudding. I am not at all sure about the truth of this, because my father had a finely tuned sense of humour that he was good enough to bequeath to me, presumably to make up for the weak bladder, short stature and male pattern baldness which regrettably came with the package.
My father’s own death was more protracted. He had a year’s warning. It was pancreatic cancer. Technology kept him alive, at home and in a state of reasonable comfort and cheerfulness, for that year, during which we had those conversations that you have with a dying parent. Perhaps it is when you truly get to know them, when you realise that it is now you marching towards the sound of the guns and you are ready to listen to the advice and reminiscences that life was too crowded for up to that point. He unloaded all the anecdotes that I had heard before, about his time in India during the war, and came up with a few more that I had never heard. Then, at one point, he suddenly looked up and said, “I can feel the sun of India on my face”, and his face did light up rather magically, brighter and happier than I had seen it at any time in the previous year, and if there had been any justice or even narrative sensibility in the universe, he would have died there and then, shading his eyes from the sun of Karachi.
He did not. Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday’s BBC Radio 3 Jazz Record Requests carried a memorable request. It was from one Jean Francois (sorry: I didn’t catch the full name), a friend of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, ‘Cabu’.
JRR presenter Alyn Shipton described Cabu as “a harmless, civilised and witty man” who loved jazz and , at the time of his murder, had been working on a book about Woody Herman. Cabu, apparently, loved the 1937 Cab Calloway recording of Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythm, although “he could never pronounce it.” This is in memory of Cabu, and a reminder that authoritarians, Stalinists and fascists invariably hate jazz:
Above: Hancock (left); McNally (right)
Above: the TV version
Radio 4’s The Missing Hancocks which commemorates the sixtieth anniversary of Hancock’s Half Hour, is a treat for listeners of my generation, who can just about remember the originals. For those who don’t know, the radio show ran for 103 episodes between 1954 and 1959 on the Light Programme and at its height was a national institution. The TV version ran from 1956 to 1961. Twenty of the radio shows have been “lost” (actually, wiped by the BBC in order to re-use the tapes) but the original scripts by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were rediscovered by the actor Neil Pearson and five (chosen by Galton and Simpson themselves) have now been re-recorded in front of a live audience at the BBC Radio Theatre.
It’s become something of a cliché to describe Hancock’s Half Hour as the first modern sitcom, but that description is probably deserved: it was certainly the first British comedy show to revolve around the characters and to dispense with catch-phrases, set-piece sketches and variety acts. And, on the whole, the shows still work today, largely thanks to Galton and Simpson’s brilliant scripts in which Charles Dickens meets Harold Pinter.
The recreations are superb and Kevin McNally does more than simply impersonate Hancock’s intonation and phrasing – he manages to convey all the pent-up frustration, self-righteousness and delusions of grandeur that constituted the Hancock persona. The rest of the cast are nearly as good, though the chap who plays Sid James doesn’t have quite the right voice.
In my humble opinion, this stuff stands up far better than most supposedly “classic” comedy, including shows of twenty or thirty years later, like the grossly over-rated Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the abysmal Only Fools And Horses, the enduring popularity of which remains the source of complete bewilderment to me.
Of course, it’s difficult to listen to these recreations without remembering the real-life Hancock’s sad decline and tragic end. And the scripts make a fascinating comparison with the show Galton and Simpson went on to write after Hancock effectively sacked them – Steptoe And Son.
This isn’t just nostalgia or show-biz archaeology – it’s genuinely “classic” comedy that still works.
This is part one of a brilliant 1964 BBC series on WW1. It contains the best archive film then available, and is narrated by Michael Redgrave. It gives due emphasis to the socio-political background to the conflict, including the role of the labour movement. Well worth watching the whole series if you have the time:
H/t James Bloodworth
Coatesy has some interesting stuff on France’s entry to WW1 here
[Please note that I shall be incommunicado for the next week or so. I’m hoping Rosie and/or one or two other occasional Shirazers will step into the breach while I’m away, but if not normal service will resume on my return – JD]
BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze is a superb programme that deals with serious issues in an intelligent, usually balanced, and often passionate, manner. Recent editions have included debates on the future of the NHS, assisted dying and the limits (if any) of freedom of expression.
Last night’s debate on Gaza was outstanding, even by the usual high standards of the show. If you didn’t hear it, click here.
Sarah AB, over at That Place gives a pretty good account of the discussion, but I’m reproducing, below, the assessment posted by one ‘Craig’, shortly after the broadcast, at a blog (new to me) called simply Is The BBC Biased? Quite clearly, whatever other reservations ‘Craig’ may have about the BBC, he was impressed by what he heard last night:
Tonight’s The Moral Maze was quite something.
To do justice to the thoughts it provoked would demand a post that took longer to read than it actually took to listen to the programme (and no one wants that), so I will simply sketch my initial impressions of it.
The panel contained two strongly pro-Israeli speakers, namely Melanie Phillips and Jill Kirby (making her debut), and one strongly pro-Palestinian speaker, Giles Fraser. The final speaker, Matthew Taylor, was happier to sit on the fence but dangled his feet on the Palestinian side.
The ‘witnesses’ were Colonel Richard Kemp and Dr Hugo Slim on the Israeli side, and Mehdi Hasan and Ted Honderich on the Palestinian side.
Michael Buerk gave a characteristically fine introduction (firm but fair).
Then came the first witness, Mehdi Hasan.
Mehdi (characteristically) was very canny in making repeated denunciations of Hamas, saying that they too had committed war crimes. Of course, that concession allowed him to repeatedly make his main point – that Israel is committing war crimes and that Israel is worse than Hamas because of its superior military strength and because it is ‘the occupier’.
His argument didn’t convince me but I can well imagine, unfortunately, that his fluency might have struck home with many a Radio 4 listener.
Melanie’s repeated attempts to talk him down, and both her and Jill’s attempts to get him to condone Hamas rather misfired. He was perfectly happy to condemn Hamas (#Taqiyya?) in order to make his condemnation of Israel tell, thus (in the process) somewhat taking the wind out of their sails.
Next came Colonel Richard Kemp.
He was very persuasive, making Israel’s case with considerable reasonableness (as opposed to Mehdi’s excitability). I suspect (and hope) that Radio 4 listeners will have responded well to his arguments.
Both Matthew Taylor and Giles Fraser gave him space to make his arguments and seemed rather hard-placed to argue with them. Giles, characteristically, was passionate but also seemed somewhat disarmed by Col. Kemp’s quietly-made points. It was a clear win for Col. Kemp.
Then came Ted Honderich.
Prof. Honderich is a philosopher. [I own an encyclopedia of philosophy edited by him]. He sought to make a philosophical case in defence of Hamas. Yes, really.
I suspect (like me) that most Radio 4 listeners will have failed to make much sense of his arguments. All I took from his contribution is that he thinks Hamas is good and that Israel is bad, and that he thinks that Hamas is justified in deliberately seeking to kill Israeli civilians. Philosophically-speaking.
I almost wish that Michael Buerk hadn’t cut him off so curtly from making his initial argument as I suspect that Radio 4 listeners would have been even more put off by the result. (Michael clearly didn’t like Ted Honderich). Partly as a result, Prof. Honderich made very little headway here.
His remarkable (and reprehensible) appearance was dominated by his spiteful encounter with Melanie Phillips. Insults flew in both directions.
Finally came Dr Hugo Slim, who put the case for Israel well, but who was also willing to give his hands a good wringing in the process. Giles Fraser tried to wax passionate against him but seemed to find him too likable (too liberal) to get into a proper fistfight with, and Matthew Taylor appeared to reach a meeting of minds with him
The final panel discussion was lively. Giles Fraser came out (extraordinarily) as being sympathetic to Ted Honderich’s pro-Hamas points (well, he is a Guardian editorial writer these days). Melanie Phillips tried to talk him down (and everyone else – until Jill Kirby made a good, pro-Israel point). Jill Kirby floundered somewhat, though she made some good points (first day nerves?). Michael Buerk had a dig at Giles for seeming to back up Prof. Honderich, and Matthew Taylor sat on the fence.
All in all, a fiercely balanced programme.
I did note that some people on Twitter denounced it as biased, though I couldn’t work out in what direction they meant (and was deeply unwilling to check their Twitter feeds).
You have just five days to catch the superb BBC 4 (that’s TV not Radio 4) documentary, Nat ‘King’ Cole : Afraid of the Dark, which deals mainly with the music, but doesn’t flinch from describing the racism either.
Nat was the first black artist to have a show on mainstream US television, but it only lasted for two years (1955-57) before folding due to lack of sponsorship. Nat (not his channel, ABC) finally pulled the plug, commenting “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
The contributions to this BBC documentary from from Nat’s widow Maria are extraordinary and often heartbreaking. Meanwhile, here’s a reminder that Nat wasn’t only a (very superior) crooner: had he never sung a note he’d still be remembered as one of the great jazz pianists:
Thomas with wife Caitlin
For no particular reason that I can fathom (the centenary of his birth is not until this coming October), BBC Radio 3 has decreed today ‘Dylan Thomas Day’. Oh well, this gives me an excuse to republish Kingsley Amis’s account of a meeting with Thomas in 1951. Amis had little time for Thomas either as a man or as a poet, as the following account makes clear. Surprisingly, and under circumstances that have never been made clear, Amis was appointed executor of Thomas’s estate.
This account was first published in the Spectator in 1957, republished in 1970 as part of the Amis anthology What Became of Jane Austin? and finally appeared again in modified form in Amis’s 1991 Memoirs. What appears below is from the latter, with the 1957 conclusion appended:
I met Dylan Thomas on a single evening in the spring of 1951, when he had accepted an invitation to give a talk to the English Society of the [University] College [of Swansea]. The secretary of the society, a pupil of mine, asked me if I would like to come along to the pub and meet Thomas before the official proceedings opened. I said I would like to very much, for although I had lost all my earlier enthusiasm for his writing, I had heard a great deal, not only in Swansea, of his abilities as a talker and entertainer of his friends. I arranged with my wife and some of our own friends that we would try to get Thomas back into the pub after his talk and thereafter to our house just up the street from there. I got down the pub about six, feeling expectant.
The foregoing paragraph is based on a brief account I wrote of this meeting in the Spectator in 1957. If I had known about him then what I have since learnt, I would still have turned up, but with different expectations. For one things, I would certainly not have entertained the idea of getting him along to my house then or at any other time, indeed, would have done my best to conceal its location from him. I will now go on with a version of what I went on to write then, cut and amended where necessary.
Thomas was already in the pub, a glass of light ale before him and a half-circle of students round him. The impression he made was of apathy as much as anything. Also in attendance was, I said in 1957, a Welsh painter of small eminence whom I called Griffiths. In fact this person was a Welsh poet of small eminence by the name of John Ormond Thomas and later known professionally, I understand, as John Ormond. In the course of the session he told us several times that he had that day driven down from his house in Merionethshire (north Wales, now part of Gwynedd) on purpose to see Thomas, whom he had known, he said more than once, for several years. Thomas seemed very sedate, nothing like the great pub performer of legend. He was putting the light ales down regularly but without hurry. After some uninspired talk about his recent trip to America, he announced, in his clear, slow, slightly haughty, cut-glass Welsh voice, ‘I’ve just come back from Persia, where I’ve been pouring water on troubled oil.’
Making what was in those days my stock retort to the prepared epigram, I said boyishly, ‘I say, I must go and write that down.’ What I should have said, I now realise, was something much more like: ‘What? What are you talking about? That means nothing, and it isn’t funny or clever, it’s infantile playing with words, like that silly line of yours about the man in the wind and the man in the west moon. Or the phrase in that story about Highlanders being piping hot. They weren’t hot or piping hot, but saying so is a bit naughty, I agree. Taff.’
Following on from similar focuses devoted to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Webern, March 7 will celebrate the great impressionist’s music through recordings dating from the 1930s to the present day.
Performers involved include pianists Pascal and Ami Rogé in a recital from Wigmore Hall (including a two-hand arrangement of Boléro), the Nash Ensemble, and New Generation Artist mezzo Clara Mouriz. There will also be a series of downloads called Ravel Revealed exploring aspects of his life.
Now, of course, there’s a lot more to Ravel than Boléro (my personal favourite is Daphnis et Chloé) but I couldn’t resist bringing you this 1934 film (below) as a foretaste:
Better than Torville and Dean, eh? George Rafters all round!