Jam and Jerusalem: a review

•November 24, 2006 • 10 Comments

French and Saunders, two of the most venerated names in British comedy, have written and produced a new comedy based on the lives of a group of WI women in a Devon village where Not Very Much Happens. It takes a dream cast (Saunders, French, Joanna Lumley, Doreen Mantle and Maggie Steed) and in effect flushes them down the loo, with no attempt being made to clean the bowl afterwards.

Lumley wisely wears so much prosthetic makeup that she can’t be recognised, and also wisely, given the inability of the ‘director’ to direct comedy with any comedic rhythm, hardly speaks. This is the mark of a true pro, pushed into a no-hope project by personal loyalty.

Saunders also looks like she’s trying to keep a low-ish profile. Unlike French, who mugs and gurns for the camera in a manner likely to wilt whatever laurels she may have left to rest on.

A gem from the BBC website attempting to big this crud up:

“It was during the [filming of the] church scene – for the GP’s funeral – that some members [of the cast] had to stifle the giggles.”

Well I’m glad someone had a laugh.

Twilight: Photography In The Magic Hour

•November 8, 2006 • Leave a Comment

A review of the exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, 10th Oct – 17th Dec 2006

Pulling together eight contemporary artists whose photography is made at dusk, this exhibition is likely to disappoint or confuse visitors who expect a ‘photographic exhibition’ in the traditional sense. As the blurb says, these works are by artists whose medium is photography and consequently the space in which the show is being held is, at any given moment, half-filled with giggling schoolboys and confused-looking tourists whose overheard take on the proceedings could best be paraphrased as ‘I could do that with an Instamatic.’

In other words, many of the photographs are grainy, blurry, and not at first sight, particularly attractive. And whilst it is a given that anyone who snickers at the Turner shortlist must have an etiolated aesthetic, the staging of the exhibition at times adds to the mild feeling of hysteria. The curators, extending the twilight theme to the entire hanging rather than merely the collection itself, have chosen a moody and very muted blue lighting scheme that ensures the near illegibility of the guide pamphlet which, being printed in pale silver on white, might as well be presented in invisible ink. The result is that the visitor must strain the eyes and crane the neck into any shaft of light if he or she wants to follow the rubric.

In the room devoted to the work of Boris Mikhailov, all the works are hung at a distance of around four feet from the floor. I counted five people during my visit who walked in, stooped in the half light to look at two or three works and then simply gave up and walked out. This is a great pity since the work is fascinating, presenting a reconstruction of the post war hardships of the Ukraine, a period which has left little real photographic record. Tinted blue and with an artful patina of dust and scratches, Mikhailov’s ‘At Dusk’ series was made at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and offers, in fleeting glimpses, a sense of how the larger forces of history turns humans into incidentals, always being moved on or left behind. This work deserves a better presentation.

The Big Names in the show are Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. These are the sort of men who share representation with Emin and Whitread and whose limited edition prints crop up in major collections and sell for large sums. They share a devotion to the highest possible production values in their work, with huge prints in which not a speck of grain can be seen and where the exposure is masterful. The thing that separates their work is truth: Cewdson’s shots are intricately stage managed, still shots from a movie the plot of which they infer whereas DiCorcia’s series Hollywood – also known as The Hustlers – takes real male prostitutes and puts them in real locations which reveal something about not only their situation but also about the values of the society they serve. In one shot, a subject is seen through the window of a Diner and inside on the counter, at the same level as his groin, is a hamburger. Meat. In another, a subject is posed on the railings of a cheap motel in a semi-crucified pose. A third image shows a muscular and unshirted black man in a supermarket carpark with the word ‘Market’ visible on the shop sign behind him.

Possibly the most moving shot in the show is DiCorcia’s Marilyn; 28 years old; Las Vegas, Nevada; $30. The title refers to the subject’s name, age, place of birth and the payment he received for posing. Indeed the payment is central. The picture depicts a young hustler in a Marilyn Monroe wig and lipstick, pouting uncertainly from a doorway. Slumped in the de-focussed background is another man (customer, dealer, pimp?) and a background of traffic and lights. And in this beautifully lit Marilyn’s expression is contained a distillation of all that makes this series of photographs stand out: she is beautiful, she is doomed, and she knows both of these things. She is Marylin, and all that history has made of her. I stared at this picture for a very long time. It is rich, vibrant and sad.

The messages in Crewdson’s work are both more constructed and more allegorical. Stage sets from the 1950′s presented in massive, flawless C-type prints, they show a David Lynchean world in which something sinister lies behind the twin sets and pearls. In one shot, an immaculately coiffed mother stands by her car, groceries dropped to the ground, as her scratched and bruised daughter cowers half-naked in the headlights. Her younger sister (Now you just stay in the car, Dear) stares out from the passenger seat, knowing that she now knows things that she is not supposed to know and that what she sees makes her both excited and afraid. In the twilit background, appliances glow warmly through perfect suburban windows. The girl has been raped by suburbia, by America, by the manufacturers of appliances and the distributors of groceries.

Another, far simpler shot shows a misty small town main drag lined with anywhere stores. In the background a supernatural fog billows, fantastically lit. At the centre of the image, stopped at traffic lights, stands a car with a girl in the passenger seat. The driver’s door is open and he is gone, as is everyone else. That’s it. It’s up to you to imagine what has just happened and what might happen next, like a cliffhanger at the end of an episode of a sinister drama series. In effect, Crewdson’s work turns all American life, particularly that of the suburbs, into a place where unexplained events bubble under the surface and where strange things happen in the woods. Whether this is a facile conceit or a deeply allegorical revelation is even less clear.

Works by Bill Henson, Lang Yue, Chrystel Lebas, Robert Adams and Ori Gersht are also presented. Of these, one stands out as being truly exceptional: Henson’s Untitled (most of the works in the show are called this and I personally find it irritating) shows a beautiful woman, her moon-silver face streaked with one enormous tear and her lips just visibly crimson in the gloaming. Her head, neck and décolletage emerge from the blackness and nothing else is shown. It is a masterfully executed and understated work, an oil painting made with a camera, and another one to stare at for a long period of time.

The exhibition ends on the 17th December 2006. It has received high critical acclaim.

Mile High Series 1: A Review

•November 3, 2006 • 3 Comments

Mile high, originally screened in two series totaling 39 episodes between 2003 and 2005, is a much overlooked addition to the canon of edgy British soap opera.

Employed by the budget airline Fresh, its characters get to have more sex, drugs and sturm und drang per episode than most of its viewers could fit into a year – without hospitalization, at least. Indeed, hospitalization is a common theme as the sexy young crew overdose on booze, pills, violence and physical intimacy. There are hookers working the aircraft lavatories, grooms-to-be getting seduced by gay air stewards on their stag nights, abortions a plenty, accidents with hash brownies, psychopathic passengers and more, so very much more. There’s no love triangle that doesn’t turn into a tesseract, and no flirtatious smile that doesn’t end up with a shag in the galley.

Series Two Cast Photo

Despite this unpromisingly formulaic approach to plot, the good folk at Hewland International (makers of the show) manage to avoid the fate of similar series (Footballers’ Wives springs to mind) by recourse to the oldest and increasingly rarest trick in the book: believable characterization and high quality ensemble acting. These people don’t just overspend on their credit cards and their emotional and physical reserves; they get hurt, they show it, and we believe it.

When the groom-to- be gets seduced by Will, the in-your-face gay steward, he doesn’t just get seduced, he gets to be a different person – and so does Will. When Janis, the Wagon Dragon From Hell, is offered the chance of love by a handsome young steward almost half her age, her brittle carapace cracks to reveal genuine confusion and pain. In other words these characters may repeat their mistakes episode after episode but they learn what this does to them and, like real people, they try and fail to change. It is this that stops Mile High from turning into panto, and this that makes a repeat viewing capable of revealing strands of characterisation, nuance even, that got missed in all the action first time around.

The three key characters, Lehan, Will and Janis, manage to last all three series by dint of their own unique triangle: because Will is gay and Lehan and Janis are not, none of them can have sex with each other. Like characters in a formula horror movie, it’s the lack of sex that saves them, allowing them to continue chasing kicks while they slowly realize that what they are really looking for is love.

Janis, played with enormous skill by Jo-Anne Knowles (name me a British soap she hasn’t appeared in) is one of the most subtle and believable anti-heroines on screen at the moment. A comparison with Tanya from Footballers’ Wives is instructive: Tanya is pure pantomime, eternally and enjoyably wicked, but fundamentally unchanging and therefore unbelievable. Janis, who on a good (bad) day can be at least as nasty, is more Shakespearean: there’s a tragedy at the heart of her and it shows.

The show is screening again on Sky One at the moment, with Series Two having just started. You only have to look at the time slot it gets (around 1 am weekdays, varies) and the poor showing of advertising in the breaks to deduce that no one has a great deal of faith in it any more. This is a great pity. Give it a go and tell me if you agree.

Trouble in Paradise: Saint Geran, Mauritius

•October 30, 2006 • 1 Comment

I Visited the One&Only Saint Geran, Mauritius in Feb 2006. This is a belated review.

THE DREAM

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I am deeply immersed in a version of Heaven known as the Abercrombie and Kent website.
‘Acclaimed cuisine, polished service and golden beaches…’ croons the blurb. ‘A sophisticated and gracious oasis of style.’
Eager for more, I gobble gigabytes of online Mauritian travel porn. Prose poems display astonishing lyricism. Photographs depict deserted beaches canopied with picture-book skies and framed by film-set palm fronds. My own imagination kicks in, providing a frangipani-scented breeze and the chatter of tropical birds.
Picking up my credit card, my trance is unbroken by a short mention of the rainy season. ‘The showers tend to be rather brief,’ says the Saint Geran site without mentioning the word ‘cyclone’. Not that I notice this minor omission. There’s no cyclone in the photographs.

THE REALITY

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No mere nineteen-hour journey could dull the senses to a first encounter with the Saint Geran. The lobby, open to the air at each end and giving onto water-filled gardens at the sides, is lofty, cool and elegant. Huge vases of improbably gorgeous flowers are everywhere and a happy bustle of activity permeates the place.
Check-in is conducted in our suite, where we are also introduced to our personal butler – where ‘personal’ in fact means ‘shared with an indeterminate number of other rooms’. But Binda is a charmer. Nothing is too much trouble for him, though we refuse his offer to unpack for us. It seems too personal a task to delegate.
Our terrace overlooks the lagoon. A handsome Hindu temple shimmers across the water to the West but directly opposite us is a scrubby-looking shore, scarred by dead trees and piles of black volcanic rock. Not exactly a brochure shot. Nonetheless, we prefer this side of the peninsula on which the Saint Geran is built: it’s more private than the rooms overlooking the main beach.

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Facilities are good (free broadband access, a choice of pillows and a shower cubicle the size of a starter home) but the room is a little ‘chain’ for our tastes. This may not be the only One&Only but at this price it should feel as if it were. And the ‘multimedia entertainment system’ is a disappointment too: in order to get my iPod up and running I have to perform contortions around the back of the TV, an old-fashioned jobbie with a screen as bow fronted as a Dickensian shop window.
Time for a swim in that dreamy looking lagoon. Except, what’s this? The immaculate pinky-white sand transforms itself into muddy ooze under cover of the water. This may be an offshoot of the ocean but it feels distinctly lake-like between the toes.

Food & Drink
We lunch at the lagoon-side Paul & Virginie, one of three restaurants on offer. My fish curry, served with sixteen chutneys and condiments, is good though at £29 each for one course and a couple of local beers it feels like hostage pricing.

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Our doubts grow during dinner that evening. No quantity of white-hatted chefs can disguise the fact that La Terrasse (the half-board restaurant) is essentially an all-you-can-eat buffet writ large. But the range of choice is excellent and the food mostly good – though we could do without the flies around the serving counters.
An acceptable bottle of South African sauvignon blanc costs £20 though many of the other wines are pricey. Service is charming if a little over-enthusiastic, with frequent attempts to snatch our loaded plates from us at the buffet by waiters keen to carry them to our table.
The other guests are an interesting mix, with a few minor celebs on show: a French footballer, an English rugby player and the odd captain of industry. But in general there is an unexpectedly packagiste whiff to the whole thing, to which my travelling companion and I no doubt contribute significantly.

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It is at the pool-side bar that this package spirit is most evident. A cover band churns out Lionel Richie and to our horror, guests’ children are invited to take the microphone. We escape to the bar at Paul & Virginie. Now this is a real island getaway hangout, far quieter and more grown-up.

Beach and Bathing
Paeans have been written to the beach here but in reality there are some niggles. The sun beds are too closely spaced, for example, and by eight o’clock each morning the prime sites have been reserved by guests marking out their territory with sarongs. But the sand is clean, the water warm and the service excellent.
It’s a pity then that by day three the balance of sunshine to cloud-and-showers is shifting as a tropical storm brews. Nothing too serious, but there’s no sun forecast so we decide to abandon the beach for what we fondly imagine will be a day or two in order to try some of the other facilities.

Sports and Spa
The Givenchy Spa boasts a beautiful pool as well as gym, saunas and every imaginable type of beauty treatment. Prices feel reasonable too, with a superb massage costing just under £60 for an hour. But where’s the hot tub?

Elsewhere, the list of (mostly free) activities includes a 9-hole golf course, tennis courts, volleyball, Hobie Cats, water-skiing, glass-bottomed boats and kayaks. Bicycles are available too, so we pedal off to nearby Belle Mare to stock up on cola and tonic at local rather than mini-bar prices.

Stormy Weather

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The skies remain grey and day five sees a sudden rush to cut down coconuts and lash down trees. No one’s saying why, but there’s clearly trouble ahead.
During the night, winds build and rain gushes and daylight reveals a most un-brochure-like scene: the covered walkway that joins our room to the main body of the hotel is punctuated with yellow plastic ‘caution’ signs, for the good reason that it is lethally slippery when wet. We pick our way to the main lobby, where a crowd is gathered round a notice board showing the status of a new, improved low pressure system. The storm from two days ago has drifted away and in its place spins Cyclone Diwa, Category 2 but with ambitions. And she’s coming our way.
Another notice requests that guests avoid the beach and gardens (in other words, stay inside) and a third helpfully lists the major cyclones of recent years including one rather terrifying brute with winds over 175 mph. Later and perhaps wisely, this particular page is discreetly removed.

We do what any rational folk would under the circumstances: we get squiffy on the all-you-can-drink sparkling wine at the breakfast buffet. And very nice it is too. Very calming.

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The rest of the day is spent snoozing until, late in the afternoon, I decide to shake off my cabin fever by getting some exercise. Both pools are closed however, and rather bizarrely the one in the spa is filled with outdoor furniture. Apparently it’s the best way to stop things being hurled around by the wind…
By the next morning the weather is even more ferocious and we discover that a form of bunker has been opened: a previously hidden, deeply internal room where guests who cannot stand another day confined to quarters can sit and watch wide-screen sport. We opt for another sparkling wine breakfast and more sleep until lunch, which is ‘compliments of the house’ today. There’s something of a Dunkirk spirit to La Terrasse as everyone tucks in.

By evening it is clear that Cyclone Diwa has reconsidered her options and decided to holiday in nearby Reunion instead. To celebrate, we treat ourselves to dinner at the swankiest restaurant on site, the Spoon des Iles, which proves to be a marginal triumph of hype over culinary achievement though at £75 per person excluding wine it is very reasonably priced. If you ask nicely, they’ll show you backstage and I have to say that I have never seen a cleaner kitchen in my life. I really would eat my dinner off the floor.

Which means that we can probably pin my companion’s subsequent stomach upset on our earlier complimentary meal at La Terrasse. There is, as I remind the invalid, no such thing as a free lunch though the hotel nurse does hand out free rehydration salts and Imodium. A discreet silence is kept on the subject of whether any of the other guests have been affected though for reasons too delicate to mention, we have our suspicions.
Not that the patient misses much by spending the final day in bed. Cyclone Diwa’s rear end is wet and windy and it is with a heavy heart that I admit the inevitable: I have spent an entire week in the tropics without attaining a tan. The shame.

A Telling Moment
Our departure is very early the next morning and in my bleary-eyed state I manage to leave my credit card at reception. Not to worry. The hotel contacts our driver on his mobile and tells him that the card will be delivered to the airport before I leave. And it is, with a smile and no extra charge.
The Saint Geran may not be exactly what it’s often portrayed as: a traditional hotel in the grand style. And with a hundred and seventy five rooms it is simply too big to feel intimate. In fact it’s not really a hotel at all: it’s a resort. There’s a difference. But what it does offer is the most wonderfully friendly service. And it is that, rather than the ‘brief tropical showers’, that make it memorable

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Welcome to ‘A Review of Everything I Do’

•October 30, 2006 • Leave a Comment

From now on, I will be posting regular reviews of holiday destinations, hotels, restaurants, books, movies and consumer equipment (cameras, TV/Video Hi-Fi, computers etc).

As a writer and photographer (novelist and photojournalist) I get to travel to and take photographs of a number of interesting places. But I also read a fair amount and watch a lot of movies. Sharing knowledge and opinions is not only useful to me, in terms of helping me formulate and refine opinions, but it might also be useful to you

Please feel free to contact me to share your reactions or your own opinions and experiences.

 
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