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    Culture, Music and Movies

    Interviewing director Richard Billingham for Geeky Brummie

    geekybrummieI don’t think I mentioned that I’ve joined the rag-tag group of Geeky Brummie, have I? I’ve been on a few shows now, and a few weeks ago they gave me the opportunity to do a phone interview with BAFTA-nominated director Richard Billingham.

    Ray & Liz is a cine-memoir and debut film which retells parts of Billingham’s life growing up in Cradley Heath, Black Country.  Named after his parents, the film is split into three stories, which show the problematic relationship between the titular couple and their relationship with their sons.  The film was nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer in 2019.

    I saw Ray & Liz at the mac, which included a Q&A after the film with the director – and inputs from his brother Jason, who was also in the audience.  The next day I did a phone interview with Richard Billingham, which you can hear on Issue 153 of Geeky Brummie, below.

    Birmingham, Culture

    Love is in the air (Stirchley’s Valentine Tree)

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    What possesses someone to get up before sunrise and decorate a tree with origami hearts? I’m still wondering that myself.

    But that’s precisely what I did this Valentine’s Day.  I spent the weekend before sitting in a local arts space, drinking tea and folding around 60 origami hearts, with a break to teach a small girl how to make her own. The night before I turned them into hanging decorations, and then got up at 6am to walk to my local high street to decorate a tree on the high street before too many of the residents started their day.

    No one has really asked me why I decided to do this and I’m not really sure I have a good answer.  There are several small answers; I wanted to make the people who live in Stirchley smile, to challenge the Valentine’s Day sceptics that it’s only overly-commercial if you make it, and I thought it would be fun. But in all honesty, the real answer is that last year was pretty hard for me for all sorts of reasons, but one of the things that continued to bring me joy was the sense of community in my area – the enthusiasm and bread from Loaf; the wonderfully eccentric conversation and tea from Artefact; and the warmth and beautiful houseplants from Isherwood & Co.  I wanted to do something for all of them to say thank you for helping keep me afloat last year, when treading water felt the hardest.

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    The folding was pretty simple, because 2D hearts are not a complicated fold in the way many origami projects can be.  To start, I followed an online tutorial (is there anything YouTube can’t teach you), but after the first few I’d learnt the moves and muscle memory took over. Which meant I could sit in Artefact and start my own one-person production line.

    Cost wise, I made a few hearts from some paper I already had but most of them came from a £1.50 book of patterned paper from The Works, and the cotton and needle I dug out of my emergency sewing kit.  It probably took the best part of a day, all in all, but once I memorised the folding pattern, it was quite simple.

    And now…

    As the skies greyed and rain threatened, I took the hearts down. There were 45 left of around 60, so 15 or so have gone beyond that little tree in Stirchley. I suggested people take them, if they wanted them, and so I know a few have gone to good homes because they told me.  Ones have gone to people’s offices, to their homes, hearts were chosen by children and hopefully gone to be enjoyed beyond the few days they were up.

    stirchley heartsFor those who prefer statistics, Twitter tells me the initial tweet had 5036 impressions, 487 engagements, 74 likes and 13 retweets.  The tweet telling people they’d be up for a while and to help themselves to a heart had a further 3658 impressions and 62 likes, plus a further 1870 on a tweet when I couldn’t bear to take them down after just one day and various people put it on Instagram too (102 of my Facebook friends reacted positively to the photo too).  Which means the Valentines Tree, as Fran (tweet above) called it, went beyond just the people who walked down the high street, especially as someone had added it to Reddit too.  My favourite response was from someone who said they made a point of driving down the hight street to see them again.

    Those 45 hearts are in a bag and ready to go to a new home, for other people to enjoy.  I’d already found a home for the ones that stayed up the longest, and that’s the thing about doing something a random act of kindness – it usually goes beyond just the place you intended.

    Culture, Theatre

    Avenue Q at Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

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    Wildly and inappropriately funny yet heartfelt, Avenue Q is a must see musical that will have you laughing and singing unsuitable songs well after you’ve left the theatre.

    The musical charts the stories of the inhabitants of Avenue Q, just as newly graduated Princeton moves in.  Quite rightly wondering “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” (I’m still trying to work that one out), Princeton is bright-eyed but a little lost, as he meets his neighbours; closet gay Republican Rod and his slacker roommate Nicky; porn enthusiast Trekkie Monster; therapist Christmas Eve and her fiancé Brian; singleton teaching assistant Kate Monster; and Gary Coleman…yes, that Gary Coleman.

    Sounds like a pretty run-of-the-mill play until you realise some of the neighbours are human, some puppets and some, well, monsters.  Oh and of course there’s frequent visits from the bad decision bears, a duo who encourage some rather dubious actions.  Think a parody of Sesame Street, which goes rogue than last year’s disastrous movie flop The Happytime Murders (which was clearly going for an Avenue Q style, but fell far from the mark and felt more like a knock off from the market than anything else). 

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    The puppeteers who play Princeton, Kate, Nicky, Trekkie, Rod and the Bad Idea Bears are visible right along side their puppet counterparts; rather than ruin the magic, being able to see the actor’s facial expressions just adds to the emotional weight of the story, particularly Cecily Redman’s Kate Monster and Tom Steedon’s Nicky.  It’s certainly worth watching the performances from the actor-puppeteers as much as it is the characters they’re performing with.

    Sixteen years on from its first performance, the themes of Avenue Q feels just as fresh and relevant today as then – or at least since the first time I saw it a few years back.  Whilst satire might be the life blood of Avenue Q, but the show has a lot of heart.  The musical tackles emotional subjects like racism, homosexuality and feeling a bit lost in the world with sincerity, whilst simultaneously making you laugh so much the muscles in your face hurt.

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    The songs range from the hilarious through to the heartbreakingly emotional; “The More You Ruv Someone” is endearing and Saori Oda delivers a powerful performance, as does Cecily Redman’s Kate Monster in “There’s A Fine, Fine Line”.  There are also plenty of hilarious songs, including the earworm-friendly (and guaranteed to be stuck in your mind for days) “The Internet Is For Porn” and “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)”, the latter of which includes an x-rated puppet scene – child friendly, this show is not. But by god it’s a lot of fun.

    Avenue Q is at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from Tuesday 12 to Saturday 16 February 2019.  If you fancy an extra special Valentine’s Day, they’re doing an offer of two tickets for £40, plus a glass of Prosecco each (Bands A & B, 14 Feb only, must be booked in pairs), using the code: LOVEQ.  To book, visit the website https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/avenue-q/alexandra-theatre-birmingham/

    I was invited as part of a press event Photos belong to Matt Martin.

    Birmingham, Culture, Music and Movies

    Movies I watched in the cinema in 2018

    watching 100+ films in 2018 (1)

    After realising in June I would easily do 50 films at the cinema in 2018, I doubled it to 100.  And by the end of the year I’d seen 105 showings.

    There were some duplicates: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Avengers Infinity War (once in IMAX, once is 2D), and Crazy Rich Asians I saw twice each.  Three Billboards surprised me because I thought it was going to be one of those dreadfully worthy Oscar films, so I saw it early and thought it was great, so when a friend who couldn’t get to the cinema much wanted to see it again, I agreed.  Avengers Infinity War I could’ve left at one viewing but a friend wanted to see it in IMAX and it was certainly worth it for some of those epic views of Wakanda, but not a film that needs a second viewing.  And Crazy Rich Asians I had the chance to see on preview, and then with some friends who have Chinese heritage and I really wanted to hear what they felt about it – and I love a good romantic comedy, and Hollywood doesn’t seem to churn them out like they used to.

    And I didn’t just limit it to current Hollywood blockbusters, I also saw a rerelease of Heathers to mark its 30th anniversary, a showing of 2012’s Sightseers and a Q&A with actress Alice Lowe, and two black and white Christmas movies, The Shop Around the Corner and It’s A Wonderful Life.  Blue Brothers I saw as a surprise birthday celebration for Simon AKA Mr Brum Breakfast Club, and I finally saw the original The Italian Job, only it was accompanied by a live orchestra.

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    I saw a few documentaries too: The Prince of Nothingwood; Can You Dig This and Syria’s Disappeared, both as part of Kopfkino held in Stirchley, which aims to show films to get you thinking; Invisible Women as part of SHOUT Festival; and the problematic Three Identical Strangers.

    There were a few non-English movies too, including Timecrimes aka Los Cronocrímenes, Indian comedy-drama Padman (which I adored), Love Sonia and Cycle as part of Birmingham Indian Film Festival (BIFF), A Prayer Before Dawn and Under the Tree as part of Shock & Gore festival, and the Japanese movie Shoplifters.

    I tried to make sure I put my money where my mouth is and see more films made by women, including In the Fade, Pin Cushion, Lady Bird, A Wrinkle in Time, Leave No Trace, The Butterfly Tree, The Spy Who Dumped Me and The Rider.

    I also spent a lot of time listening to podcasts, my favourite of which still remains Eavesdropping at the Movies. It’s locally recorded which means if I wasn’t already planning to see it, I can usually catch it on someone nearby.  Hosts Jose and Mike are clearly knowledgable about film, and they discuss the movie in depth without namedropping obscure films for the sake of it, and it feels like listening to two smart friends discussing the film on the way home. Because that’s pretty much what it is.

    Here is the whole list of all 105 films.

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    What did I learn?

    Basically, I spent a lot of the time at the cinema, and a lot of time researching what was on.  I quickly came to realise that my Cineworld Unlimited card was excellent value for seeing all the big Hollywood blockbusters and very occasionally less well-known gem.  I wish they’d do more of that, both from a cost perspective for me, but also because it often feels like we don’t have a lot of places doing the less well known stuff.

    Thankfully we have the mac arts centre in Cannon Hill Park and the Electric Cinema, which meant that I got to see a lot of the films I’d heard about but weren’t exactly going to knock the latest superhero movie off from its multiple screening perch.  Thankfully finances allowed me to spend a lot more time at both of these, partly due to taking up offers like the concession costs at The Electric with my Independent Birmingham card, and the Screensaver deal at mac, which meant I bought a chunk of tickets in advance and had something to look forward to.  Because multiple trips to the cinema are expensive.

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    What’s 2019’s movie challenge?

    Repeating the challenge feels a bit pointless, and upping the number feels a bit extreme.  Whilst I’m well on my way to watching a good amount of movies this year already, I spent a lot of time at the cinema last year at the expense of other things.  Having the challenge in 2018 made me spend a lot more time looking at what was on and I certainly want to keep doing that, because I saw some things I never would if I wasn’t actively looking.

    I want to continue exploring cinema beyond just the big blockbuster Hollywood films.  One thing I miss about the demise of video rental stores is seeing more foreign films, so I’m going to try and challenge myself to do that more (and regain the ability to watch a movie at home without getting distracted).

    I also want to try and hunt out more people doing interesting things in Birmingham.  I’m off to the first Stirchley Open Cinema screening of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (despite having seen it twice) to support them, and I’m going to try and make it along to more community film screenings like Journey Film Club and Birmingham Arthouse Cinema.

    I’m really exited about the CineQ Queer Film Festival coming up in March, and I’m still torn between getting a weekend pass or booking for individual screenings (mainly because I like to know I’ve got a seat before I show up).  And then of course there’s Flatpack Film Festival from 30th April – 5th May in my diary, and Cine-Excess and SHOUT Festival worth keeping an eye on too.

    I will be continuing to get good value from my Cineworld Unlimited card, and I intend to try and spend as many of my spare pounds at the mac and Electric as time / money will allow.

    Music and Movies

    Eavesdropping on a podcast

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    Having rediscovered podcasting a few months ago, there’s been one that I listen to fairly religiously.  Eavesdropping at the Movies does exactly as you’d expect, it’s like listening to two people who know movies, discuss what they’ve just seen with a

    I was delighted to be asked to join them to watch the fabulous Mildred Pierce movie, a 1940’s noir crime-drama starring Joan Crawford, which tells the story of the titular character who leaves her husband and raises their two daughters whilst trying to forge a path for herself.  Afterwards we recorded the podcast and you can listen to it on the Eavesdropping at the Movies website, or below via soundcloud.

    Birmingham, Culture

    Helga Henry in conversation with… Sindy Campbell

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    Whilst Ready Player One might not have been everyone’s hit film of the summer, there is no denying that the enthusiasm for seeing Birmingham on the big screen was one of the big draws for a lot of residents.  Brummies have Sindy Campbell from Film Birmingham to thank for that, and bringing a lot more productions to a city which doesn’t always have the best reputation nationally.  But with the success of Peaky Blinders, and the talk around its creator Steven Knight building a studio in the city, are things looking up for film in Birmingham?

    Continuing a run of successful salon events, based on the seventeenth century tradition of gathering under one room to increase the knowledge of those in attendance through conversation, freelance facilitator and host Helga Henry is back with her third ‘Helga Henry in Conversation With’ event this year.  Previous guests includes property developer Anthony McCourt and TEDxBrum founder Anneka Deva.  Tonight, in the function room of 1000 Trades in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, Helga welcomed Sindy Campbell of Film Birmingham to talk about the work she does bringing film to Birmingham.

    Sindy spoke about a lot of misconceptions that people might have about Film Birmingham, namely that they’re not responsible for funding films, but rather supporting filming in Birmingham and making sure shoots run smoothly.  She talked about how the initial disappointment and frustration of Channel Four choosing Leeds over Birmingham, but the silver lining being that some of the money allocated for that will stay in the region and might make its way back to local filmmakers.  Others expressed a disappointment in the hopes that a Channel Four HQ in Birmingham might’ve brought with it more development opportunities for professionals working within the film industry in the city, which had largely disappeared with the closure of organisations like Advantage West Midlands.


    Clearly the biggest thing for the city in terms of filming recently was this summer’s Ready Player One, where several scenes were filmed around Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter.  Sindy talked about the huge buzz it generated in the city, how people swarmed the sets and the pride people felt seeing their city on screen (even if we were the location of a dystopia).  Reconnaissance work was done months before Steven Spielberg arrived in the city, with his team flying in from LA to scope out locations.

    But it’s not just Ready Player One that’s put Birmingham on screen.  Films like The Girl with All the Gifts, the last three seasons of BBC drama Hustle and the first season of the superb Line of Duty were all filmed here too.  But perhaps Birmingham’s biggest success is one that has never actually filmed here: Peaky Blinders.  The impact of Peaky Blinders has been huge, with people all over the world watching the show thanks to Netflix and BBC Worldwide; Peaky Blinder tours, themed pub nights and stag do fancy dress have all appeared.  Sindy said she would love to have the series film in Birmingham, which was proposed at one point, but the main location requested, the Grand Ballroom, was undergoing refurbishment and wasn’t ready and to make it cost effective a second location would be required.

    Which of course, this brought us onto the news that Steven Knight, Writer and Creator of Peaky Blinders announced plans to open a six-stage TV and film studio, called Mercian Studios.  Helga mentioned that a previous In Conversation With speaker, Anthony McCourt had talked about how quickly big spaces are being snapped up, as Birmingham seems to have no end of appetite for one / two bed apartments in the city.  But the news that a large studio would be coming to the area has been well received, particularly as Sindy spoke about the massive shortage of studio space and build space in the country, but particularly around Birmingham.

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    She also talked about the huge economic impact having a hit series in the area could have to the city, not just for the tourism industry, but also for the hospitality industry and catering who support a large-scale production, and are often sourced locally.  Sindy talked about the impact Game of Thrones had on Belfast, almost growing a film production industry overnight; the hope would be that something similar could happen to Birmingham.  And that the large number of industry professionals who live in Birmingham may no longer have to travel the length and breadth of the country for work, as there would be more closer to home.

    As the event started to wrap up, the conversation turned to looking at what can be done to support Sindy and Film Birmingham, which is really punching above its weight in terms of what it delivers.  Inevitably the question about what the city council’s responsibility is, compared to other cities where arts and culture are given more focus and councils are more willing to take a risk, but it was rightly it was pointed out that they have a lot going on at the moment but both Helga and Sindy pointed out that it is easy to blame others, but instead of us thinking what’s the answer, should we just get on and do something.  Helga suggested that people are already producing things without the big names like Channel Four, mentioning local YouTubers with large follower numbers and the rise of the popularity of podcasts.

    There was also a look at how the city might use what it already has to improve, with Julia from Rebel Uncut talking about the need to have super connectors in Birmingham linking up organisations and people which could have a mutual benefit, like writers and producers.  This isn’t rocket science, and is often mentioned, but is a perennial problem Birmingham faces: a lack of communication.  However, there was a sense that for the filmmakers that do make it to Birmingham, people love it when they get here.  The challenge is just to get here.

    The next ‘Helga Henry in Conversation with…’ is scheduled for 23 January.  The speakers hasn’t yet been announced, but if it’s as insightful and eye-opening as the session with Sindy Campbell from Film Birmingham, it’ll be well worth attending.  To find out more, keep an eye on Helga’s website https://helgahenry.com/

    Culture, Theatre

    Fame The Musical at the Alexandra Theatre

    Proving that it does indeed live forever, Fame The Musical is back for a 30th anniversary tour.

    Based on the 1980’s phenomena, the story follows of a group of students at New York’s High School For The Performing Arts, Fame deals with a lot of contemporary issues including identity, pride, literacy, sexuality and substance abuse, which are just as relevant as they were back when the film first debuted. Opening in Manchester back in summer, the 30th Anniversary Tour of Fame The Musical proves to be just as popular now as it was then.

    Fame the Musical follows the stories of ten students who successfully audition and are accepted into New York’s High School For The Performing Arts, along with their dedicated teachers, Miss Bell, Mr Myers, Mr Sheinkopf and Miss Sherman, the latter played by soul singer Mica Paris.  Rather than a typical story following main characters, most of the ten students the film focuses on smaller storylines surrounding each of these.  Given the original story was a film, it’s sometimes difficult to translate the nuances from film to stage, but the play does an admirable job keeping the audience up with the emotional rollercoaster of these high school students determined to make it.

    Fame The Musical-Tour

    Iris Kelly, a talent ballet dancer who is confused for being wealthy and snobbish, until the truth is revealed.  Played by Jorgie Porter, best known for her work on Channel Four’s Hollyoaks, she’s able to put the skills learnt on Dancing with the Stars to good use as a ballet dancer, and the grace with which she and partner Tyrone (played by Jamal Kane Crawford) move together feels entirely believable.  That said, at some points early into the play there were a few off notes from some of the dancers during the ensemble pieces, possibly done to show the evolution of the performers as the move through the school years.

    Like all good shows, the warm up whilst not always an enjoyable as the performance is important, and the first act feels a little like this.  It’s where a lot of the set up of the storylines happens; the introduction of the characters, the hopes and dreams of the students are discovered and the reality of how hard they’ll have to work to achieve it is also make clear to them. At times the first act feels a little mechanical, despite the wonderful choreography, in terms of trying to set up the plot points of the characters and it’s not always easy to see the emotional growth of the characters. But fitting this much storytelling into one musical is tricky, and whilst the first act contains the set up, it means the stage is set for act two and the powerhouse of action.

    A scene from Fame The Musical TourThe second act feels far stronger than the first, packing in the emotional punches that have been set up by the first half of the show.  The resolution to the stories are revealed, some good and some sad, a few which will see a few audience members shed a few tears.  It’s also where the biggest applause of the evening so far is seen, during Miss Sherman’s solo, These Are My Children.  It’s here where Mica Paris’ voice is given a real chance to shine, the soul and emotion and big notes are heartfelt.  Compared to the earlier Teacher’s Argument, sung as a duet with Miss Bell (played by Katie Warsop), These Are My Children completely blew it out of the water.

    The set and lighting design work particularly well, especially around the transitions between scenes, where the use of lighting casting silhouettes or shadowing the stage enhances the atmosphere.  The wall of photographs, presenting the yearbook adds a nice backdrop, a reminder of the setting, both the era in which the story is set and the majority of the location in and around the high school.

    There are some elements which felt like they could’ve aged a little better – the confusion over the sexuality of Nick Piazza feels clunky, saved only by the sincerity and sensitivity with which Keith Jack plays the character.  The thin actress playing the overweight Mabel Washington who favours the ‘see food’ diet feels a bit over an oversight too.  That said, a lot of the stories from thirty years ago resonate just as strongly then as they do now – the drive to succeed, the issues around drug addiction, ‘insta-fame’ and living up to familial expectations.

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    By the end of the show, everyone in the audience is up on their feet as the final song of the evening is, as you’d expect, the Oscar-winning titular song Fame, sung powerfully by Stephanie Rojas (who plays Carmen) and Mica Paris.  Despite a slow start, Fame delivers an energetic show and from the audience reaction, and sorry for the cliche, but it’s easy to see why it is set to live forever.

    Fame the Musical is at the Alexandra Theatre from 19 – 24 November 2018, with matinee showings on both Wednesday and Saturday. To book tickets, head to the Fame UK Tour website.

    This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Tristram Kenton.