Professor Stephen Hawking is almost certainly the world’s most widely known and celebrated scientist since Einstein. His fame arises of course not only from his startling research into the nature of black holes and the origins of the universe and his success in popularising his insights through a string of bestselling books but from the massively debilitating medical condition of motor neurone disease which has left him barely able to move, let alone speak or write. As a resident of Cambridge I’ve come across Hawking a few times, firstly as a Maths undergraduate twenty-five years ago when the lectures he gave to publicise the launch of A Brief History Of Time appeared on my timetable, and latterly I’ve spotted him just going about his business in the town centre: buying fruit at the market or bombing down King’s Parade at high speed in his wheelchair or watching a film at the Arts Cinema (predecessor to the current Picturehouse). He’s even come into the bookshop I work at a couple of times, once, brilliantly, approaching the counter at the same time as another customer whose enquiry of “Do you have any books by Stephen H…” trailed off into slack-jawed disbelief as he realised who he was standing next to.
There have been plenty of documentaries and dramatisations of the life of the man already but Stephen Finnigan’s new film Hawking may turn out to be the most definitive of all of them, given that the subject himself co-wrote it and even provides narration in that strange computerised voice that somehow now feels as familar and comforting as David Attenborough’s. Finnigan has been given access to scores of old photographs and home movie footage from the years before Hawking achieved celebrity and has also got interviews from many of the most important witnesses to his life, including crucially his first wife Jane who provides a lucid and moving description of the challenges of maintaining a normal family life in such unusual circumstances. We also get to hear from Hawking’s sister, a whole faculty’s worth of notable theoretical physicists including Sir Roger Penrose, and rather unexpectedly Jim Carrey, who once wrote the great man into a comedy skit. In between the talking heads there are tastefully blurry reconstructions of the young Stephen whooping it up at Oxford and feverishly scrawling equations on blackboards, and lots of nice footage of Cambridge streets, colleges and bikes which has been convincingly Instagrammed up to give it that grainy seventies feel. Then there are the bits involving actual mathematics, which is always a thorny one for film-makers to get across – Finnigan sensibly doesn’t go too far into the nuts and bolts of the equations but settles for pithy summaries of the behaviour of black holes and so on set against whizzy firework-like computer generated graphics. I’ve been a bit flippant but this is a really involving film, with most of the potential sentimentality neutralised by Hawking’s cutting, tell-it-like-it-is, wit. He’s someone who was given two years to live over fifty years ago and the impression you get of the man inside the physically helpless body is of a bitingly keen, rigorous and restless mind that can’t wait to test a new frontier.
It’s fitting that Hawking was chosen as the opening film for this year’s Cambridge Film Festival given the man’s association with the city, and the organisers must be congratulated for the quality and quantity of speakers they managed to assemble for the Q & A session after the showing. Khrishnan Guru-Murthy conducted short interviews with film-makers Finnigan and Ben Bowie, Walter Woltosz (the man who developed the indispensable speech software), Hawking’s sister Mary, his former student and helper Kip Thorne and finally, amazingly, Hawking himself. This last interview obviously couldn’t be conducted off the cuff and the pauses while Hawking painstakingly triggered his prepared answers from his computer were undoubtedly long enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable but it also provided a demonstration of how difficult and time-consuming the process of just communicating is for him. His tenacity and lust for life was underlined by his willingness to appear and he shows so sign of wanting to retire just yet: Richard Branson appeared on screen at one point to re-affirm an offer to give Hawking a free ticket on the first Virgin flights into space when they become available, an offer that Hawking is very keen to accept. An amazing life.
John Peel’s Shed is an hour long presentation currently being toured by writer and broadcaster John Osborne, whose all-absorbing passion for radio paid off in 2002 when he won a box of records in a competition to devise a slogan for Peel’s Radio 1 show. The simplicity of his winning entry – “Records you want to hear, played by a man who wants you to hear them” – demonstrates how in tune Osborne was with Peel’s ethos of paying as little attention as possible to fashion-driven trends, hype and commercial pressures in favour of devoting his energies to unearthing truly original sounds and artists, and Osborne’s sweet and engaging talk is a fitting tribute to the spirit of the great man.
Now, John Peel is pretty close to being my all-time favourite human being, friends and family excepted, and while it was certainly tremendously touching to be part of the great outpouring of affection that was unleashed in the wake of his death it was also mildly irritating to witness his career and accomplishments being regularly boiled down to T Rex/Teenage Kicks/The Fall/Home Truths. Peel’s tastes were genuinely eclectic and unpredictable, and while it would be churlish to criticise the goodwill and effort that was expended to curate the various programmes and schedules that were broadcast in his honour I felt at the time that many of the musical choices were a tad safe and acceptably mainstream – wouldn’t it have been more fitting to play a few long and unlistenable hardcore techno tracks, interspersed with some terrifying Scandinavian death metal and some joyous, if not necessarily comprehensible, African gospel? Thankfully Osborne avoids this establishment reduction of what made Peel such a one-off: firstly, the records that he draws from his prize box to play between sections of his talk are pleasingly obscure and appropriately non-commercial (Atom and His Package, anyone? What about Oizone? As in Boyzone songs played by an Oi band) and secondly, he doesn’t feel the need to dwell on Peel at all when recounting his formative musical memories – his working assumption is that his audience doesn’t need any further summaries of the man, leaving him free to talk more about radio in general, and his relationship with it.
Osborne loves radio and has a rare curiosity about it, to the extent that he’s prepared to spend months making sure he’s managed to spend a full day listening to every single station available to him. His accounts of the esoteric delights put out by small community stations are hilarious, but somehow life-affirming (I particularly liked the idea of the programme consisting of nothing but the sounds picked up by a microphone left on a living room floor for half an hour) and his gradual coming to terms with the blandness of modern day Radio 1 when forced to listen to it all day during a spell working in a warehouse casts light on the resilience of the human spirit. He’s an open, almost naively positive, presenter with a generous and winning manner – I think Peel would have approved. Podcasts featuring some of the records in the box are available from www.johnpeelsshed.com.
Posted in Live, Music, Radio, Review
Tagged Atom and his Package, Cambridge, John Osborne, John Peel, John Peel's Shed, Oizone, review, The Junction
Richard Herring doesn’t exactly go out of his way to avoid controversy with his choice of titles for his stand-up shows – last year’s excellent Hitler Moustache, which used the Führer’s notorious facial hair as the focus for an exploration of the stupidity of racism, is now succeeded by Christ On A Bike: The Second Coming, a resurrection of his first solo show from 2001. The declared theme of this one is to separate Jesus the man, who was probably a nice enough bloke, from the dogmatic and in some cases decidedly un-Christian attitudes of his more fanatical followers, but it’s really more of a jumping-off point for a host of very funny observations, investigations and flights of fancy on the broad theme of Christianity.
Herring, despite being a declared atheist now, was raised in a Christian household and clearly knows his stuff. This is a tight, well-drilled show, which balances discussion of some of the finer points of inconsistency within the Bible with earthy, irreverent and sometimes wilfully blasphemous comedy. There’s always room in a Herring routine for riffs on deviant sexual practices, for example, but he’s a talented enough writer and performer to allow them to arise neatly from the subject matter and never feel gratuitously shocking. The most impressive sections are when he takes the scripture to task head-on: criticising God’s inelegant sentence construction in the Ten Commandments, and reciting from memory Joseph’s knotty genealogy from the first page of Matthew’s gospel before picking holes in it. The biggest laughs come when he dissects the emails he’s received from Christians concerned that he’s on a fast track to hell because of his mocking of the Lord – he manages to mine a good fifteen minutes of material from one complainant’s bizarre list of people on whom God has taken vengeance for their (laughably minor) sacrilege.
This was a very funny, not to mention impressively researched, show, with a brave choice of subject matter. You just wonder what sacred cows Herring’s going to take on next.
Syd Barrett: Art and Letters is a new exhibition running at the Idea Generation Gallery in Shoreditch until April 10th 2011. Barrett died in 2006, 38 years after dropping out of Pink Floyd, a group he founded and was the main songwriter for, and 32 years after giving up on music altogether after two patchy but fascinating solo albums and a handful of half-hearted career relaunches. He spent the second half of his life living reclusively in Cambridge, devoting himself to drawing and painting, disciplines he’d had formal training in before taking up music. An intensely private man, Barrett painted more for the pleasure and insight he derived from the act of creation than for the aim of producing something for posterity, and would indeed often destroy his artworks shortly after completion (although he was in the habit of taking photographs of them as a record). He would surely never have countenanced the possibility of exhibiting his work.
This exhibition offers a rare chance to see Barrett’s art from both his formative pre-Pink Floyd years and his later, post-fame, period. Also on display are many previously unseen photographs of Barrett and Pink Floyd from the late 60s and early 70s, and a collection of the young Barrett’s letters to his friends and girlfriends. The exhibition has been sensitively curated with the aid of Barrett’s family and friends, and you get the sense that it represents a reclaiming of this famously troubled man as a real human being as opposed to a cautionary tale about the potentially devastating effects of sudden fame. Barrett’s early artwork is often quite charming, if sometimes surprisingly conventional, and his imaginative doodling on the early letters betrays an active and inquiring mind, informed by a particularly English strain of whimsy. The letters themselves are touching, funny and honest, and it’s not surprising that both of his steady girlfriends from this time have retained their affection and respect for him (both were present at the private view I attended). The later work is much more experimental and expressive, with bold layers of paint often thickly applied to achieve abstract and impenetrable results, alongside a few simply rendered landscapes. There’s an undeniable frisson from seeing work that was never meant to be exhibited, or even preserved, but it doesn’t feel voyeuristic – the sense you get from reading the various testimonials in the gallery is that once a work was completed Barrett simply stopped being interested in it, in the same way that he was never remotely interested in talking about Pink Floyd once he had left the band.
This exhibition has been put together in support of a new book Barrett: The Definitive Visual Companion edited by Russell Beecher and Will Shutes, which rounds up all of Barrett’s still existing artwork. If you’re interested in Barrett and can’t make the exhibition the book is well worth seeking out.
Posted in Art, Music, Review
Tagged Barrett The Definitive Visual Companion, Cambridge, Pink Floyd, Russell Beecher, Syd Barrett, Terrapin, Tortoise, Turtle, Will Shutes
How about this for an exercise in compare-and-contrast: last week I went to two stand-up comedy gigs at The Junction 2 in Cambridge, featuring two marginally-celebrated left-wing London performers of similar age, appearance, accent and name. I even sat in the same seat for both shows. I therefore felt thoroughly equipped to hold forth on the huge similarities and minute differences between their acts that I fully expected to observe. However…
…the two shows were of course completely different. Mark Thomas (who I saw on the Tuesday) was there to give an account on his latest stunt: an attempt to walk the length of the huge security wall that the Israeli government has recently erected within the West Bank in order to eliminate the risk of Palestinian terrorism (or so they say). Thomas is a confident and very funny raconteur, and his story was full of colourful characters and hair-raising anecdotes, often involving misunderstandings and breaches of protocol with the Israeli army. He’s an old hand at playing the cheeky English chappie abroad in order to extricate himself from trouble, but he does relate a couple of episodes where it seems he, his cameraman and his guides were in serious danger of going to jail. Along the way he met many native Palestinians and Jewish settlers and he got a view of both sides of this very divided society, and observed firsthand how the route of the wall has been engineered so that Israeli settlements have been unofficially claimed back into the Jewish state. A large map showing the route of the walk and the boundary of the West Bank was helpfully displayed at the back of the stage, and I came away thinking that I had actually learned something. Thomas has a book coming out soon, and while one suspects that the content of this show was largely lifted word-for-word from it, this was a much more engaging evening than your standard book reading.
In contrast, Mark Steel (who I saw on the Friday) presented a much more interactive and congenial figure. As he tours the country he’s been collecting odd facts and opinions about the towns he’s visiting via Twitter, and a surprisingly large proportion of his show was dedicated to material pertaining to Cambridge. He relished some of the quotes he’d been sent (“I’ve just had a spectacular brunch”) and seemed surprised by the audience’s hostility to punt touts. The show frequently became somewhat free-form as audience members started to realise that Steel positively enjoys riffing on their contributions, and the evening ended up overrunning by about half an hour (I didn’t care). The rest of Steel’s routine consisted of some slightly predictable, but brilliantly delivered, material about the annoyances of modern life (call centres, remote controls, Subway sandwich bars, the Coalition) and some very funny observations of the many places in the United Kingdom he’s taken his act to. He has an amazing facility with accents, and a highly pleasurable way of spinning out absurd metaphors to ridiculous lengths. I laughed long and hard, and have been unexpectedly recalling funny bits for a couple of days now.
So this was always going to be a specious comparison. Both these men are highly talented, concerned and very funny and either would make a fine guest at your next BBQ, but their current shows are really nothing like each other.