Thursday, 28 October 2010

Time to get the old band back together again?

One of the many things that I love about Bath is that it really is a city that respects and reveres music. Whether your tastes are for the Mozart Festival or for Moles, there is something in this city for everyone. It truly is a community paved with melodies.
But it is not just the opportunity to get out and hear lots of different styles of music that makes Bath come alive – for this is a city that positively encourages people to make music all of their own. So, if you are in any length of queue with locals in Bath, the chances are at least one of them is in a choir, gospel group, rock band, jazz outfit et al.
Yes, this is a city of music.
It is for that reason that I am particularly thrilled this week to launch our Song for Bath competition to try to encourage people to write a tune that will encapsulate the city as it is now.
Inspired by the very enthusiastic brains behind the project, Paddy Doyle, it didn’t take long for us to see this as a wonderful opportunity to turn the creativity that is so evident in the Bath musical community into a fun competition. So, whether your tastes are for light orchestra or, err, the Electric Light Orchestra, we hope you’ll think about creating a tune which could lead to some great prizes as well as the chance to perform in a grand final.
It seemed apt to me that we should be running this competition right now because I am personally thinking about doing that classical middle- aged thing – yes, I’m thinking of “getting the old band together” again.
As I grew up in the punk era where the ethos was “don’t go and watch bands, form them and do it yourself”, nearly all my friends and I found ourselves starting bands – and having a fantastic time doing so.
Some of those bands didn’t last very long – I once fronted a group called the Vatican City Dance Band which went no further than coming up with a spectacularly good name – but my longest-serving band was called The Classified Ads (somewhat apt considering I’m now in newspapers!) who were together for the best part of my secondary days.
It was a thrilling time – we only played to youth clubs and relatively small venues in our home town area but, if I say so myself, I think we penned one or two pretty good tunes along the way. Now, some 25 years since we split (millions of teenage girls were NOT heartbroken) there seems to be a yearning among us to do something again.
Inevitably, the five of us have gone down very different paths but we’ve sort of discovered each other again and now have set ourselves the goal of doing a one-off something in the year 2011.
Of course, there are many reasons why this could be an utter disaster – but whatever those fears, even the thought of getting back together again and seeing four of the most important people in my life is enough to get us somewhere.
So, if a jaded old punky “singer” from the ’80s is thinking about bashing out a tune again, there is no excuse for all of you out there not to enter our Bath song competition.And, to make it easy, I promise The Classified Ads won’t enter.
Or The Vatican City Dance Band.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Cinema + Sofa = a great place for a Facebook movie

Last Sunday night I did what I’m sure many of you were doing at the time – I sat on my sofa and got lost in the online world of Facebook.

But no, I wasn’t sitting at home. I was actually in one of my very favourite places in Bath – the Little Theatre – watching a film about how Facebook slowly devoured the world around us. In a cinema.

On a settee.

For the Little Theatre has introduced a new balcony which allows you to sit and watch a film on a lovely two seater sofa complete with beautifully plumped-up cushions. It feels like home from home – although my own sofa is not nearly as nice as theirs – and I’m sure will be lovely if you were part of a canoodling couple. (Unlike me as I was with my 17-year-old-son who’s never a great one for canoodling, to be honest).

I have to say that opinions between us on the ‘sofa in the cinema’ experience were polar opposites. I thought it was a wonderful luxury because, as I put it, “it’s like watching the film at home”. But that was exactly the problem for him. Even at the tender age of 17 he’s a cinema traditionalist and he said he goes out to the cinema precisely because he doesn’t want to watch a film at home. I’m sure he would feel different if he was in a canoodling mood though ...

As for the film itself, The Social Network, I simply cannot recommend it enough. It is the remarkable, true (?) story of a nerdy young man who had fallen out with his girlfriend and wanted a way of telling the world about it who stumbled on the idea of Facebook. It now has 500 million users and has made our ‘hero’ the youngest billionaire on the planet.

The story charts the rise and rise of the site and the rise and fall of his friends who helped him to set it up and is told in shifting time between court cases and the university days where it all started. It is a great film – beautifully acted and stylishly written by Aaron Sorkin, the genius behind the brilliant West Wing. He is a man that dares to treat audiences as if they’ve got intelligence but want to be entertained as well.

As someone who contributed to a BBC radio debate this week about the rise of the internet and how people shouldn’t be frightened of it, I am fascinated by the whole Facebook story because so many people are obsessed with it, and yet I’m sure we’ve all got items of clothing that are older than this now seemingly universal site.

To actually see how it came together almost by accident proves the point that some of the best ideas come from the most unlikely people and the most unlikely sources. Intriguingly, the man behind it barely saw any financial benefits and, as becomes very clear in the movie, he was never motivated by money and apparently isn’t so today.

That’s why much as I love the current series of The Apprentice, if you’re looking for the future brains in our country, I think you’d be better looking at the unlikeliest kid in the classroom rather than the sharp-suited people trying to impress Lord SirAllunSugar.

So, if you get the chance, pop along and see The Social Network and if you want to enjoy it in unique circumstances then why not curl up on the sofa at the Little Theatre?

The only problem is you may drift off to sleep in that settee. But don’t worry – I can reveal that the man from Facebook did well.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

My (truly) magical mystery tour

Roll up, roll up!!!

What is it that makes Britain great?

Our history, our people, our influence on the rest of the world and, of course, our culture all score highly when you ask foreigners what they like about these islands.
Perhaps the best thing of all about that cultural offering is that it covers a huge, diverse, range of talent – from Shakespeare to JK Rowling. Plus, of course, we can also claim to be the rightful heirs to the throne of pop music. And it is one band above all that gave us that (now prized) cultural crown.
Yes, The Beatles. Go anywhere on this planet and people immediately know who you’re referring to when you say ‘John, Paul, George and Ringo’. Start whistling the tune of A Hard Day’s Night and you could find yourself in a duet in the most unlikely of countries because The Beatles are that rare artistic phenomenon – they are bigger than the genre they represent.

As a serious and very enthusiastic music lover, I always wanted to know more about the ‘four boys that shook the world’ and so it is with a little bit of shame that I have to admit that it was only a few weeks ago that I finally became a day tripper and went on a magical mystery tour to the city of Liverpool to have my Beatles day.
And it truly was a day I shall cherish.

Yes, I had to drive my car four hours each way on something of a long and winding road but it was still a day in the life of this music fan that will never be forgotten.

Not only had I never really ‘done’ The Beatles before (see shame above), but this was also my first real encounter with Liverpool. I had been to Aintree to see the Grand National but that didn’t really count. Indeed it gave me a slightly jaundiced view of the city in that every woman I encountered up there seemed to be, err, well, orange.

Liverpool as a city, however, isn’t orange – but it isn’t black and white either. Parts of it does look deprived and lacking in community ‘TLC’ but other areas are genuinely surprising, unusual and intriguing. It’s probably like every other major city in Britain – you shouldn’t take it at face value and it is worth learning more.
And that is why I will certainly be back to do so because I came away fascinated by what I’d seen.

But this wasn’t really a trip to discover Liverpool – this was a trip to ‘do The Beatles in a day’ and to see if I could cover all the best bits in a few hours. Well, I think I did and I would happily urge anybody who wants to follow the greatest story in rock and roll history to follow my lead.
Essentially I concentrated on the two major Beatles-orientated attractions for visitors – The Beatles Story museum and the Magical Mystery Tour bus ride.

The museum is situated in the spectacular Albert Dock area which is full of museums, exhibitions, shops and places to eat and drink. I will definitely visit it again because I’m hugely impressed with what the team have done to the docks to make it a brilliant day trip destination in itself.
As for The Beatles Story it is clearly an integral part of the dock complex and is a truly inspiring place to visit.
Let’s be honest, because this band is so loved by people all around the world, you could open any kind of museum in Liverpool, slap The Beatles’ name on it and it would be a success.
You almost don’t have to try.
For that reason, the fact that the museum not only tries but excels and constantly delights is to the credit of everyone involved.
Millions of pounds have been spent to get this just right and the attention to detail and the general feel and look of the museum is first class.

The idea is that you walk through the band’s history listening to an audio guide narrated by John Lennon’s sister Julia which includes other contributions from the band members themselves.

You see never-before-published photos, original memorabilia and lots of other fascinating displays about people the band knew and places they visited. It really fleshes out what life must have been like as four young working class boys suddenly became the most famous people on the planet.
I particularly liked their recreation of the original Cavern and also a thoughtful area dedicated to each of the four members of the band and their own particular interests but I suspect every single part of the museum will have its own fans. Even children have their own sections and special facilities – including a skilful and playful recreation of the inside of a yellow submarine.
The general impression is that the museum believes – as millions of other people do – that this is the best band in pop history and hence they deserve the best possible tribute. And I think they have achieved that goal.
Two or three hours in the museum and we were then ready for the second major part of the day – the Magical Mystery Tour bus ride. This is on an old, well lived-in coach which would probably have fitted very nicely into the sixties movie it’s named after and it takes you to all the key points and places in the band’s history.
The global nature of the Fab Four’s appeal was perfectly illustrated when our charming host asked people to identify where they came from. There were people from just about every pocket of the world and we soon realised we were sitting by people from Iowa to one side and even more remarkably in my opinion, to a family from Siberia on the other. I’d never met anybody from Siberia before but to hear a man talking about our Beatle songs as if they were his own showed just what an impact this band made. For yes, their tunes even permeated through the Iron Curtain and were deemed so dangerous by the authorities they tried to block them. Unsuccessfully.

The tour took us to the childhood homes of all the band members and there was time to pop off and be photographed at iconic places – in front of Paul McCartney’s old home for example, next to Penny Lane and at Strawberry Fields – and it was a truly fascinating journey which brought the museum story we’d seen a couple of hours earlier even more to life.
The bus ride ends in the place which every Beatles fan wants to visit – Mathew Street, the home of The Cavern. Although it was re-developed some time ago, The Cavern itself is still an amazing place to visit and to walk down into the bowels of the building to discover it and think of the history that was created there is an absolute joy.
So, there you have it. With a little help from my friends in the Liverpool tourist industry I was able to enjoy my ticket to ride on a truly inspiring journey into the city where the Beatles are here, there and everywhere.
It is a long journey but this was one long day trip I didn’t mind because there’s a place which every Beatles fan should visit at least once in their life – and that is this remarkable city which really honours and respects the band that helps keep it on the world map.

All you need is love. And a tankful of petrol.

Seeing Bath through the eyes of artists

When you live or work in an area you sometimes become a bit blase about its attractions.

If you walk past the same buildings – however beautiful – day in day out it is easy just to take it all in your stride and not fully appreciate it. It sometimes takes an outsider to remind you of the beauty in front of your eyes.

That was certainly the case for me last week when I had the pleasure, for the second year running, to be one of the judges for The Bath Prize, an art competition designed to get people to capture in art form the spirit of the city as they see it.

Although only in its second year, the competition has already established itself as a major artistic event and more than 400 entries were submitted for this year’s prizes. As judges, we got to see the shortlisted top 200 or so and I was genuinely taken aback at the quality of the works we had to view. It was of a very high standard indeed.

What the selection also showed me is the way people – the vast majority of whom come from outside our area – view Bath and its many attractions. As such we saw plenty of excellent works featuring the weir, Pulteney Bridge, Bath Abbey, The Circus and of course the Royal Crescent which produced the runner-up picture. Beyond that, however, artists found beauty in all manner of other areas of Bath life.

I was particularly impressed that in a rugby-dominated city one of the very best pictures features Bath City Football Club and I also admired the bravery of the artist who, with all Bath’s obvious attractions, chose to paint the gasworks towers at Windsor Bridge. In addition, it was also fascinating to see how many people had been impressed enough by the Bath Lions to make them the centrepiece of their work. Proof, if ever it was needed, of what a successful and admired project this has been.

So, once again I left The Bath Prize judging very impressed with what I’d seen – and, crucially I started to look around me again with renewed appreciation of this city’s beauty.