On 5 March 1914, The London Group held its inaugural exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, 5 Regent Street, London. You probably haven’t heard of the Goupil, which shifted between several central London locations before it was flattened by a German bomb in 1941. Despite a nomadic existence, The London Group has proved much more durable: it survived the Second World War, decades of changing tastes in the art world and a verbal carpet bombing by bilious art critic Brian Sewell. Dr Richard Cork, Sewell’s predecessor at the London Evening Standard, was much more complimentary when he spoke at a reception at Tate Britain on the 100th anniversary of that first exhibition.
An invitation to an after-hours event at a major London gallery is always exciting. With fewer people around it’s easier to absorb the impact of Caruso St John’s high-profile £45 million makeover of Tate Britain. Entering through the reopened “front door” on the Millbank side, I descended via the stunning new spiral staircase beneath the rotunda, to the pristine white surroundings of the cavern-like Djanogly café, where the reception was held.
Current members, their partners and invited guests heard Richard Cork reflect on The London Group’s early years. It was an era in which the art world was dominated by “isms” (Fauvism, Cubism, Vorticism), and the challenge of conveying wholesale slaughter on the battlefields was taken up by many painters and sculptors. They included David Bomberg, who was part of the Group’s first exhibition and whose painting, In The Hold, was a key work in last year’s A Crisis of Brilliance exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
As Cork touched on some of the controversies and described the brutal evolution of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill sculpture, I thought about a more recent attempt at emasculation. Brian Sewell’s withering assessment of the exhibition, Uproar! The First 50 Years of The London Group 1913-1963, included the assertion that the Group has been in “irreversible decline” since the end of the Second World War and “ought long ago to have been put down”. Strong stuff. I might be reading too much into the rantings of a grumpy old man, but it sounded as though Brian thought The London Group should have perished in a Luftwaffe bombing raid.
I’m not a professional artist or art critic; I was flattered to be invited to the Tate reception as a result of a blog I wrote last year. Brian Sewell is much better qualified than I am to compare the merit and the impact of The London Group’s second half century with its early years at the cutting edge of the art scene. The first London Group show featured more than 100 works by artists including Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and CRW Nevinson. It’s probably too early to say whether any of the current members will be as influential – though Dame Paula Rego’s international reputation precedes her.
But Sewell’s comment that The London Group in its later years “has meant very little to working artists and nothing at all to the wider public” is breathtakingly arrogant and ill-informed. Did he bother to interview any current members before reaching this conclusion? Speaking to them last night and at previous exhibitions, I know that what Sewell dismisses as a “pathetic” Collective is an integral part of their professional lives.
Fortunately, Brenda Emmanus took a more measured approach in this week’s BBC London piece about the The London Group On London exhibition, which continues at the Cello Factory until 12 March. Among the interviewees was 91-year-old Albert Irvin RA, a member since 1965, whose paintings and prints are most often characterised as “exuberant”. (That’s not a description that could ever be applied to Brian Sewell.)
Longevity is not always a reliable guide to the value of work, organisations or individuals. (A certain veteran art critic should have been put out to pasture some years ago.) But enduring links to a pivotal era in 20th-century British art are worth celebrating. Tate Britain holds a fascinating collection of London Group documents, catalogues and photos within its huge (entirely dust-free!) archives.
In the words of its current President, Susan Haire, “The London Group is thriving and we expect to be around for the next 100 years.”
Last night’s Culture Show on BBC2, Lego – The Building Block of Architecture, turned out to be the televisual equivalent of Doctor Who’s Tardis. From the outside (my onscreen programme guide), this promised to be a nostalgic half hour in the company of twinkly Tom Dyckhoff, exploring the enduring appeal of one of the world’s most popular toys. To my surprise, this programme stretched the boundaries of its all-too-brief running time with a magical mystery tour through post-modernism, Meccano and even Minecraft!
The story began in Denmark, a country usually viewed by envious foreigners as a Northern European utopia – though not if you happen to be a cute giraffe named Marius. In the 1930s, an enterprising carpenter from Billund called Ole Kirk Kristiansen decided to switch from building barns to making toys.
It was the era of the Great Depression, and the recently widowed Ole needed to keep his young family afloat. In 1934 his company was named Lego, which is a contraction of the Danish Leg Godt (play well). Things really took off in the 40s, when the firm started experimenting with a plastic injection-moulding machine, and the studded Lego binding brick was born.
Now Lego and its sub-brands – Lego Star Wars, Lego Ninjago, Lego Chima – are so ubiquitous that there are 86 pieces of Lego for every person on the planet. But the essence of Lego is that it’s supposed to be fun and an outlet for creativity, rather than just the three-dimensional equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle. As one of the contributors here said, it’s all about diving into a “big bucket of mess” and seeing what you can create from the myriad of red, yellow, blue, black and white bricks.
Lego had a major rival in Meccano, which originated in Britain in the 1890s. The nuts and bolts Meccano aesthetic gave rise to hi-tech architecture like the Lloyd’s building in London. The “simpler, safer” Lego is said to have inspired post-modernists to get creative with colourful combinations of “circles, cylinders, squares and triangles”, as in James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry. Now Lego fan and star architect Bjarke Ingels is building the company’s new HQ in Billund, in the playful and unmistakable style of its own product.
I’m not sure whether the look of any of these buildings will stand the test of time, but they are a welcome departure from modernism’s obsession with glass curtain walls and dispiriting slabs of grey concrete. These days, budding architects have moved from experimenting with little plastic bricks to the digital playground and unlimited possibilities of Minecraft.
“There are no limits to what you can do,” explained one of Minecraft’s young proselytes, who is just one of 42 million users worldwide. It’s even more collaborative than Lego, because your fellow enthusiasts don’t have to be in the same country, let alone the same room.
Tom (a Minecraft virgin) explained that it’s not just a tool for creating fantasy worlds; architects, town planners and citizens can interact and experiment with ways to improve our built environment. The UN has harnessed the crowdsourcing potential of Minecraft to work with young people in Kenya on urban regeneration projects.
Watching Tom plant some flaming torches under a dark bridge in a simulated version of his East London neighbourhood, I was reminded that the virtual world isn’t immune from fire hazards. Last summer my six-year nephew was reduced to tears after his Minecraft hotel with wooden fittings burned to the ground. Unfortunately he had built it in the path of an active volcano.
Who needs frankincense and myrhh round the manger, when you can drop in on the life and death struggles in New Mexico’s cleanest meth lab?
In December I got a Netflix account and decided to have a (Walter) White Christmas by watching all five seasons of Breaking Bad. In case you hadn’t heard, Breaking Bad is regarded as The Greatest TV Show Ever Made by people who divide their time between watching a lot of TV and taking potshots at people who have the temerity to disagree with them.
It is still OK to admire The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, or any of those other dramas previously encumbered with the GOAT (Greatest of all Time) label. But failure to worship at the altar of Breaking Bad means you’re seriously uncool, yo!
The hero (well anti-hero really) of Breaking Bad, is 50-year-old Albuquerque chemistry teacher Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston). Walt, as he’s known to his family, has advanced lung cancer and can’t afford to pay for his treatment. His totally off-the-wall solution is to take up cooking methamphetamine (crystal meth), in partnership with his meth-head former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who is a Grade A f***-up.
Over the course of five seasons, Walter (aka Heisenberg) and Jesse establish themselves as the equivalent of three-star Michelin chefs when it comes to cooking up their distinctive blue product. But you can’t sell meth without getting into bed (figuratively speaking) with some very bad people. Despite his superior intelligence, Walt becomes so addicted to the pursuit of money, power and revenge that he puts his family in the firing line.
After 62 episodes and around 50 hours of viewing, I concluded that Breaking Bad is the perfect antidote to Christmas TV schedules crammed with saccharine seasonal fare, dim-witted reality shows, and repeats of repeats of repeats. Who needs frankincense and myrhh round the manger, when you can drop in on the life and death struggles in New Mexico’s cleanest meth lab?
In a TV landscape cluttered with shows about lawyers, cops and doctors, Breaking Bad is, in many ways, a breath of fresh air. Instead of endless shots of the New York/LA skyline, we have those barren desert landscapes illuminated by a pitiless sun, where Walter and Jesse begin their meth odyssey, cooking in their RV-cum-mobile meth lab.
This show, created by Vince Gilligan (The X-Files) is intricately plotted and brilliantly acted, especially by the central trio of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn, as Walter’s wife and partner in money-laundering, Skyler. As thoroughly amoral lawyer, Saul Goodman, Bob Odenkirk gets some of the best lines to go with his hideous shirt/tie combinations. His wardrobe alone deserves a Golden Globe nomination.
A man with as many secrets as Walter White needs a worthy adversary. In Breaking Bad the forces of law and order are represented by the portly figure of DEA agent Hank Schrader, who just happens to be Walt’s brother-in-law. Jovial Hank is played by the magnificent Dean Norris, and I’m afraid my interest in Breaking Bad took a nosedive when poor old Hank bit the dust (quite literally) towards the end of Season Five.
Of course major characters get bumped off all the time in TV Land. My issue with Breaking Bad is that way before the final episodes I’d decided I didn’t care whether Walter White succumbed to The Big C, got buried alive in the desert, or just fell into a really big vat of Methylamine.
That’s not a reflection on Bryan Cranston’s acting, but on the extent to which his character dominated the show at the expense of developing other figures. I’d have liked a lot more of Hank and the fastidious fast-food proprietor/drugs impresario Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). The lugubrious Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) was the one character who saw through Walter’s intellect and sensed the growing threat he posed. His contribution to Season Five turned out to be far more significant than Laura Fraser’s immaculately groomed Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. Was I the only one who wondered why Walt’s teenage son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) was marooned at the breakfast table, destined never to get any storylines of his own?
Within the narrow scope of its drugs-related plot Breaking Bad often delivered thrills, surprises and very dark humour. But it rarely moved me, even as the death toll mounted and kids were poisoned and murdered. It didn’t have that quality that should have left me feeling bereft as the final episodes ticked away and my time with these characters came to an end.
So despite the awards, the hysteria and the breathless fan-boy bloggers, Breaking Bad was not for me the Greatest Story Ever Told. When the dust settles and all is said and done, it was just another TV show. You may disagree.
HE’S BACK!!! Dominic Sandbrook presents the BBC2 series Strange Days: Cold War Britain, part of a season of programmes examining what the Beeb calls the “superpower stand-off” that began after World War II. “Red Dawn”, the first instalment in this three-part series, was packed with more incident, big personalities and creeping paranoia than your average 13-part blockbuster drama. There was no way this story could be anything less than enthralling. So why then did I find myself fixating on the shortcomings of the production and its presenter?
I had watched Dominic’s earlier series The 70s, so it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that he’s still busy overemphasising for Britain. His hammy delivery is the TV equivalent of peppering your sentences with italics and capitals and then ending them with a screamer (that’s an exclamation mark!). After a sobering reminder that Britain has been at war for “five of the last eight decades”, Dominic announced “It was a war that FRAMED all our lives!”. Just in case you didn’t get the point, there was the accompanying frame-shaped hand gesture to ram home his point.
You should also know that Dominic’s documentaries are best watched with a mobile device close by, so that you can Shazam the multitude of musical selections and add them to your playlist. Beginning with the silky smooth tones of Julie London singing “Our Day Will Come”, Strange Days kept throwing new tunes into the mix at the rate of about one every two minutes. Presumably, the programme-makers think that viewers have such a short attention span these days that all factual TV must be edited in the style of a YouTube greatest hits packages. That is sad.
From Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri about the growing threat of the Iron Curtain (“Don’t Fence Me In”), to the Soviet invasion of Hungary a decade later, Strange Days wove together a multitude of storylines. Dowdy postwar Britain was both in thrall to the “special relationship” with glamorous America and living in fear of what Churchill dubbed “the poison peril from the East”.
Not so much Very Reverend as incredibly deluded, Hewlett Johnson “fell in love with Communism in action” in the 1930s.
Then, as now, the British press were quick to turn on foreign visitors who abused the hospitality of our great nation. In November 1945, a tour by the all-conquering Moscow Dynamo football club began with cheers, flowers and record crowds turning up to watch the nimble Russian visitors play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. But before long the newspapers rounded on these “secretive, surly and suspicious” Soviets, whose rough-house antics on the field were as troubling as their connections to the secret police. The visitors responded by accusing the home teams of being “stuck in the past” tactically. Well some things never change.
While the names of Cambridge spies like Burgess and Maclean are written in infamy, I must admit that I wasn’t familiar with another of the Soviet Union’s biggest fans, Hewlett Johnson. Nicknamed the Red Dean of Canterbury, the white-haired Johnson looked like one of those dotty vicar characters you see in Ealing comedies. Not so much Very Reverend as incredibly deluded, Johnson “fell in love with Communism in action” in the 1930s. He was convinced that the tyrannical Stalin was a benign figure, whose policies promised both economic and spiritual salvation. Johnson’s unwavering support was rewarded with the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1951 and perhaps a one-way ticket to Purgatory.
As a red-nosed Dominic Sandbrook stomps across a snowy Red Square, contemplating the unholy alliance between Johnson and Stalin, “Mad about the Boy” plays on the soundtrack. But to borrow a phrase from another Noel Coward song, I think “Mad dogs and Englishmen” would be a better description of this “strange romance between the Soviet tyrant and the Anglican priest”.
London has many museums, but until last week I didn’t realise there was one slap-bang in the middle of Hyde Park Corner. The elegant classical proportions of the Wellington Arch belie the Tardis-like properties of this overlooked landmark. Inside you’ll find the Quadriga Gallery, which is currently hosting English Heritage’s “Brutal & Beautiful” exhibition.
If you’ve seen the BBC4 series, Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past, you’ll already know that this year is the centenary of the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act – the point at which compulsory preservation orders and the “scheduling” of important national monuments came into effect. But you won’t find anything “ancient” in this exhibition, which covers a more recent period in the nation’s ongoing struggle to decide which parts of our rich and varied architectural heritage are worth preserving.
I expected a review of listed buildings since the Second World War to spend a lot of time focusing on concrete. Like many people I have a love/hate relationship with this most unloved of building materials. When I think of 1960s architecture in Britain I find it hard to get past images of ugly shopping centres and Owen Luder’s Gateshead car park (now demolished), which achieved cinematic immortality in the film Get Carter. But I have grown to love London’s Barbican Centre and housing complex – a concrete jungle alleviated by gardens, balconies and my favourite waterside terrace in the City.
“Brutal & Beautiful” does include a striking photo of the Barbican’s Cromwell Tower – flaunting its distinctive “upswept balconies” as it soars into a clear (and perhaps digitally enhanced) blue sky. But there are other late 20th-century buildings here that don’t smack you round the head with their “brutalist” credentials. There’s Sir Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians, which is described on the RCP’s own website as a “modernist masterpiece”. I’ve never been there, but with its Marble Hall and oak panelling (transferred from an earlier RCP building), it looks like the perfect marriage of light and dark, classical and modern.
I haven’t visited Coventry either, but if anything was going to lure me to that corner of the West Midlands it would be Sir Basil Spence’s Cathedral, which features stained glass windows by John Piper and tapestry by Graham Sutherland. Can anything modern possibly rival the magnificence of those Gothic cathedrals that were lucky enough to avoid a direct hit from the Luftwaffe? Well the new Coventry Cathedral is Grade I listed, so its position as an icon of 20th-century ecclesiastical architecture is secure.
On a smaller scale, “Brutal & Beautiful” highlights some lovely examples of domestic architecture that will excite fans of mid-century modernism and cool Scandinavian interiors. I particularly liked the look of Peter Womersley’s Farnley Hey, in West Yorkshire. I’ve just found this listing, which values this four-bedroom “American contemporary style” house, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, at just £575,000.
If I could, I’d buy Farnley Hey and have its York stone flags and camphorwood interiors transported to the overpriced corner of west London where I currently reside. Unfortunately it wasn’t built to be moved – unlike the revolutionary pre-fab homes featured elsewhere in this exhibition.
Even better are the cluster of three houses at Turn End in Buckinghamshire, which feature in one of the exhibition’s three short films. Architect Peter Aldington created this mini-development in the 60s, with his wife Margaret and they still live in The Turn, where garden and living space seem to blend seamlessly into one. It looks magical – a reminder that great modern buildings have character, soul and are fit for purpose.
“Brutal & Beautiful: Saving the Twentieth Century” continues at the Quadriga Gallery, Wellington Arch until 24 November.
After last week I wasn’t sure whether to continue with my blog about C4′s Masters of Sex. There are too many TV recappers out there already, each with their devoted following of snarky commenters. It’s always more fun to just watch and not take notes – a lesson Dr Masters would do well to learn judging by last week’s episode.
So I’d decided to leave the subtext and the sniping to others, but then I saw the opening credits for episode two, “Race to Space”, and changed my mind. I don’t know who was responsible for this jaw-dropping sequence, but it’s the kind of thing those clever people at Digital Kitchen (Dexter, True Blood) might have cooked up. Among other things, it cheekily references one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films of the 1950s.
Movie fans will recall that Hitchcock raised a few eyebrows with the closing moments of his classic “wrong man” thriller, North by Northwest. As the newly wed Mr and Mrs Thornhill (Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint) get down to business on the upper berth of their cosy sleeper cabin, the speeding train is seen disappearing into a tunnel. It’s a suitably climactic sequence, though not exactly subtle. (Compare it with the formal elegance of the Saul Bass-conceived grid that displays the movie’s opening credits.)
No doubt the Master of Suspense would have appreciated the similarly suggestive locomotive shot that forms part of the title sequence of Masters of Sex. But you really have to watch several times (in slow motion) to appreciate the full range of phallic, tumescent, orgasmic and downright in-your-face sexual imagery on display here. You’d have to be as sexually unenlightened as Michael Sheen’s Dr Masters not to get the point of all those exploding champagne corks, rockets, fireworks and rapidly rising baked goods. The cute, copulating, wind-up bunny rabbits (more Durex than Duracell) also set the scene rather nicely.
Talking of Michael Sheen, does anyone else feel there is superficial resemblance between the chameleonic Welsh actor and that ruminating beaver that pops up next to his name?
There’s definitely a keen sense of the humour behind the production of Masters of Sex. That’s just as well, because in “Race to Space” things went from bad to worse for Masters and Johnson, both professionally and personally. The doctor was forced to relocate his sex study from the august surroundings of Washington University (in St. Louis) to a “cathouse on 3rd & Sutter” after someone blew the whistle on his extra-curricular activities. Hooker-with-a-heart Betty (the fabulous Annaleigh Ashford) strong-armed him into giving her a job as a hospital receptionist in return for her co-operation.
Dr (not-so) Masterful’s low moments also included getting arrested and being forced to watch his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) try to inject a little “va va voom” into the marital bedroom. She was also pretty miffed because the dumb-but-handsome Dr Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) had been unceremoniously relieved of his duties as her gynaecologist. “Is this about your sperm count?” asked Haas, as these two alpha males squared up in the elevator and attempted to get territorial over Mrs Masters’s unmentionables.
It wasn’t all hearts and flowers for Virginia (Lizzy Caplan), who was still mulling over Dr Masters’s “unconventional arrangement”/indecent proposal from last week. He fired her in the mistaken belief that she’d betrayed him by blabbing about the study. Meanwhile, slap-happy Dr Haas offered her floral tributes and lame apologies to make up for last week’s brickbat, and there was further criticism of her parenting skills.
This week geeky Henry Johnson (Cole Sand) had his nose in a comic-book Race to Space. His mom really needs to take inspiration from one of her more enlightened (female) colleagues Jane Martin (Heléne Yorke), who was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in the canteen. “We’ll always have Paris.”
In my quest to recapture that elusive Mad Men vibe, I watched the pilot episode of Masters of Sex on Channel 4. This 12-part US drama from Showtime is about the pioneering research on sexuality conducted from 1956 onwards by stuffed-shirt scientist William Masters (played by Michael Sheen) and his trusty (or should that be lusty?) associate Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan).
Judging from the first episode, Masters and Johnson appear to be an awkward fit as colleagues in their clandestine sex lab – let alone potential partners in anything of a more carnal nature. She’s a twice-married mother of two with a refreshingly earthy attitude towards relations with the opposite sex. He’s a respected fertility expert and Nobel Prize aspirant, whose frequent “Nobody understands sex!” outbursts don’t preclude him being blind to the misery of his neglected wife Libby (played by Caitlin FitzGerald). It’s a textbook case of physician heal thyself.
By contrast, Showtime and those masters of smut at C4 are a match made in TV heaven. Like those other titans of quality US drama at HBO, Showtime is a cable network that revels in its depictions of sex, nudity, violence, profanity and other behaviour that would have Mary Whitehouse spinning in her grave. Previous Showtime productions have included The Tudors (sex ‘n’ codpieces), Dexter (sex ‘n’ serial killing) and the recently returned Homeland (sex ‘n’ the crazy CIA lady). Channel 4, of course, is the natural home of any show that contains the word sex anywhere in the title – Sex and the City, The Joy of Teen Sex and Sex in a Box.
It’s always hard to judge a series on just one episode, but Masters of Sex does have a few other things going for it. There’s Michael Sheen, the Welsh actor with a penchant for playing larger-than-life figures like Tony Blair, Brian Clough, David Frost and even Jesus Christ (in the 2011 Passion Play). But it was Sheen’s uncannily accurate portrayal of the famously repressed Carry-On star Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa! that sprang to mind as Dr Masters peered through a spyhole at a couple “in the act”. Later, as Masters tried to impress boss Barton Scully (the droll Beau Bridges) with the impressive attributes of his glass dildo (a supersized light saber), I waited for a Williams double entendre to break the tension.
There’s nothing wrong with Sheen’s performance here, but there’s also nothing yet to suggest that his repressed master of medicine Dr Masters will resonate with viewers in the way that Tony Soprano, Walter White or Don Draper have done. In the pilot episode it was Caplan’s resourceful, engaging and (yes) sexually liberated Virginia Johnson who cast a spell over viewers and the dim but handsome Dr Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto). She looked absolutely fabulous in her off-the-shoulder black party dress, until the jilted Dr Haas (“At the end of the day, all you really are is a whore!”) sucker-punched her in the face.
As someone who watched the first series of Mad Men and cringed at the sexist atmosphere in the offices of Sterling Cooper (as it then was), I was pleased to see the mid-50s era women of Masters of Sex standing up for themselves. (Yes, Virginia does smack Dr Haas-been, though he really deserved a swift kick in the gonads.) Dr Masters’s matronly secretary is played by the formidable Margo Martindale (The Americans, Justified) whose body language suggests that her boast – “I grew up on a farm. I’ve beheaded chickens!” – is not an idle one.
The first episode of Masters of Sex contained a fair helping of earnest speechifying about the importance of Dr Masters’s proposed sex research. Some viewers may have felt that this got in the way of the sex scenes and the unresolved sexual tension between Masters and Johnson. Still, there was plenty of humour to lighten the mood, as when a nervous participant in the research is advised, “He’s not watching you, he’s watching science”.
Michael Sheen may not equal Jon Hamm in the pulchritude stakes, but he does have some lovely Sanderson Dandelion Clocks curtains in his handsomely appointed mid-century office. I don’t know whether Masters of Sex will develop into a great drama, but I’m always happy to watch average TV that’s accompanied by classic, mid-century upholstery and a well-shaken martini.
(Masters of Sex continues on Channel 4 on Tuesdays at 9pm.)
The third weekend of September is always the best time of year to be in London. On 21 and 22 September, the annual Open House London event will see the city throw open its doors to anyone with an interest in architecture. For the price of an Oyster card and a few fortifying cups of coffee you can enjoy this celebration of London’s buildings in all their diversity.
Despite what you may have read in the “posh” papers, Open House London isn’t just for architecture snobs or fans of TV property porn (“Double your home and piss off the neighbours”). Veteran broadcaster Joan Bakewell writes of her enthusiasm for this event, which has been running since 1992, but then ruins it all with the fateful words “It attracts the kind of people who watch Channel 4’s Grand Designs”. God, I hope that’s not true.
I loathe C4′s Grand Designs and its smarmy presenter, Kevin McCloud. No doubt some of these home-owners do have unimpeachable taste, vision and a genuine desire to enrich their neighbourhood with great architecture. But against that you have to weigh the weekly parade of rampant egomania, selfishness and lack of fiscal responsibility that characterises many of these schemes. You wouldn’t want to live next door to any of these people, would you?
While high-profile developments like the Shard and Battersea Power always grab the headlines and draw the crowds, they’re not what makes Open House special for me. I’ve been going since 2007 and, as Joan Bakewell also points out, much of the fun lies in discovering what is just around the corner from you.
So while the Grand Designs groupies are queuing to see the next wave of penthouses for philistine Russian oligarchs, I’ll probably be closer to home checking out an architectural curio like Greenside Primary School in W12. It was designed by Erno Goldfinger (he of Trellick Tower fame), and features a colourful mural by Gordon Cullen. More important, my good friend Jo spent her formative years at this school.
Sadly Greenside was the only building I saw last year, in a weekend that started brightly and turned (literally) into a washout. But if you’re well organised and not deterred by bad weather or unreliable public transport, it’s amazing what you can see in London in just a few hours – without getting sucked into expensive tourist traps.
Two years ago I wrote about my visit to Kensington’s Commonwealth Institute, which was about to begin its transformation from a dilapidated 1960s icon to the shiny new home for the Design Museum. On the same day, I also enjoyed the panoramic views and quasi-Mediterranean atmosphere of the Roof Gardens above Kensington High Street.
Then it was on to the Leighton House Museum, the home and studio of Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. Here, as the website enthusiastically proclaims, “East meets West” in the form of the extravagantly designed Arab Hall with its massive chandelier, mosaics, rugs and indoor fountain.
From Victorian eclecticism at its finest, we moved on to the Peter Jones store at Sloane Square, which is better known in my family as the place where Charlie (aged six) buys his LEGO. This branch of John Lewis is used to coping with enthusiastic crowds of Prada-toting bargain hunters elbowing their way through the Kitchen department. On this occasion, though, we’d all come to admire the glass curtain wall of this William Crabtree-designed 1930s building.
This year I’ll be volunteering at the William Morris Society in Hammersmith on Saturday, before heading south of river on Sunday. The Glasshouse, a Terry Farrell-designed residence in Petersham, was on my list last year, but now I’m leaning towards something a bit older, though equally eye-catching in its own way.
I visited Horace Walpole’s newly renovated gothic castle Strawberry Hill House on my birthday a couple of years ago. Though the gardens were still a work in progress and it was a dull November day, the house was magical. So even if it’s not sunny on Sunday, I think a return trip to Strawberry Hill will make Open House London 2013 a vintage year.
Ardent admirers of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy whipped themselves into a frenzy last week over the casting of British actor Charlie Hunnam as Christian Grey* in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s forthcoming movie. They vented their displeasure by starting an online petition that garnered more than 17,000 signatures in the first 24 hours. One FSoG fanatic commented that Hunnam “looks dirty and very unappealing”.
But aficionados of the badass biker saga Sons of Anarchy will probably wonder what they’re complaining about. As SAMCRO President Jax Teller, Hunnam looks as though he styles his hair with axle-grease, when he’s not busy mopping body fluids off his leather “cut”. In the no-holds-barred world of Kurt Sutter’s drama, Jax and his fellow Club members don’t settle their scores through online petitions or trolling on Twitter. Their turf wars with rival gangs are played out in a seemingly endless cycle of bloody violence, interspersed with bouts of unrestrained hugging. I love it.
Charlie Hunnam may not be sufficiently polished or tabloid friendly for FSoG die-hards, but Sons of Anarchy fans will be excited when the show begins its sixth season in the US on 10 September. It will be a while before the new SoA reaches TV screens in the UK, so here are a few reminders of why it should be worth the wait. Warning: there are spoilers ahead.
Abel is the name Jax has tattooed over his left nipple — a handy reminder of his elder son. Presumably he’s got “John Thomas” (his late father) inked somewhere on his nether regions.
Belfast was the location for the climax of season three’s abduction plotline. The death toll was astronomical, the weather was gloomy and Titus Welliver’s accent should have come with a government health warning.
Curtis Stigers & the Forest Rangers perform “This Life”, the Emmy-nominated theme for Sons of Anarchy.
Death in Charming is rarely from natural causes. Poor old Piney got it with both barrels in season four, after falling foul of Clay (the brilliant Ron Perlman). In season five brutality and ingenuity went hand in hand, as a snow globe, a piece of lead piping and a crucifix were all employed to lethal effect.
Erotic entertainment in Charming took a nosedive when the Cara Cara porn studio was torched in season two.
FX is the cable network that broadcasts Sons of Anarchy in the US.
Gun sales provided the Club’s main source of income until they got involved with the Galindo cartel’s cocaine operation in season four. Blinded by a fog of white powder and dollar bills, Clay failed to spot that his new “partners” Romeo Parada (Danny Trejo) and Luis Torres (Benito Martinez) were also in bed with the CIA.
“Happy” (David LaBrava) is the Club’s ironically named go-to guy for what Tony Soprano would have called “wet work” — terminating people with extreme prejudice. In real life, the multi-talented LaBrava is a Hells Angel, tattoo artist and co-writer of the season four episode, “Hands”.
Incest probably wasn’t what Jax had in mind, when he tried to get intimate with his half-sister Trinity Ashby (played by Downton Abbey’s Zoe Boyle) in season three.
“Junkie whore” is the affectionate epithet used by Gemma (Katey Sagal) to describe her ex-daughter-in-law Wendy (played by The Sopranos star Drea de Matteo).
Kozik’s last words were “You’ve gotta be shittin’ me”, as he was blown up by a landmine in “Call of Duty”. Actor Kenny Johnson previously starred as Lem in The Shield, where he was blown up by a hand grenade.
Lyla (Winter Ave Zoli) was the second wife of Opie (Ryan Hurst), though her career as a porn star was a constant source of marital disharmony.
Montages are the lifeblood of SoA, as in the “John the Revelator” epic that accompanied Donna’s funeral in the season one finale.
Nero Padilla (played by Jimmy Smits) is the brothel owner who has supplanted Clay in Gemma’s affections.
Otto Delaney (Kurt Sutter) is a jailed member of SAMCRO, with an eye patch, a high pain threshold and penchant for auto-mutilation. Don’t Google “Otto Delaney tongue” unless you have a strong stomach.
Patching over is the process by which one gang is taken over by another.
Q’orianka Kilcher plays Kerrianne, daughter of Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) and Fiona and step-daughter of the evil Jimmy O’Phelan.
Reaper logo – worn with pride.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is referenced in the titles for the final two episodes of season four: “To Be, Act 1″ and “To Be, Act 2″. Elements of the show’s plot – including Gemma’s complicity with Clay in the murder of her first husband John Teller – have often drawn comparisons with the Bard’s most celebrated work.
Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff) is Jax’s long-suffering spouse and the mother of his second son, Thomas. If Dr Knowles had stuck to paediatrics rather than prison visits and Club politics, she wouldn’t be languishing in jail for her part in Otto’s brutal slaying of Nurse Toric.
Unser (played by Dayton Callie), was once Police Chief of Charming, but now spends his days in a caravan pining for Gemma.
“Vengeance is mine” would make an appropriate SAMCRO motto – if it wasn’t a quote from the Bible.
Warning: “This programme contains strong language, strong violence, drugs and nudity from the outset.”
eXpurgated – despite the show’s reputation for wall-to-wall profanity, the F-word is never used.
“You’re gonna die at the gavel!”. Opie failed to make good on his promise, as Clay survived the Clubhouse shooting at the climax of season four.
Zobel (Adam Arkin) was the cigar-shop proprietor, white supremacist and mastermind behind the campaign to run SAMCRO out of Charming in season two. He turned out to be an FBI informant.
* On 12 October it was announced that Charlie Hunnam had dropped out of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Kerry Packer is an unstoppable force of nature, who spews out expletives and dispenses wads of cash at an equally alarming rate.
BBC presenter John Inverdale continues to attract almost as many column inches as our new Wimbledon Champion, Andy Murray. The Guardian alone could probably fill a 24-page supplement with scathing condemnations of the man who obviously felt Marion Bartoli wasn’t slim, glamorous or sufficiently Eastern European to grace Centre Court last Saturday. To borrow a withering put-down from Judi Dench’s “M”, Inverdale is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”. But those who think it should be “all ova” for him at the Beeb are going to be disappointed. He’ll be flaunting his reptilian charm, “helmet” hair and dubious taste in shirts on the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon 2014.
Inverdale would probably have fitted in well at Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine, back in the even more sexist, misogynist and prehistoric 1970s. As the Great British Summer of Sport rolled into the Ashes series, Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, smashed its way onto BBC4, a channel usually associated with high-minded documentaries and subtitled movies.
This two-part Australian miniseries covers a turbulent period in the history of cricket, when overbearing, foul-mouthed media tycoon Kerry Packer (played by Lachy Hulme) went to war over TV rights with the stuffed-shirt administrators running the game. He procured the services of top players like Ian and Greg Chappell, Rodney Marsh and England captain Tony Grieg, with promises of big financial rewards. In doing so, he created the short-lived World Series Cricket – a brash, lucrative and star-studded rival to the existing international cricket competitions.
You don’t have to know much about cricket – let alone Australian cricket – to appreciate this show as low-budget sporting melodrama of the highest order. Lachy Hulme summons the spirit of the late Larry Hagman in the role of the TV mogul everyone loved to hate. Backed into a corner by a cadre of national cricket boards and the ICC, Packer is an unstoppable force of nature, who spews out expletives and dispenses wads of cash at an equally alarming rate. Sir Alex Ferguson’s “hairdryer” treatment would look like a mild dressing down compared with watching Packer go ballistic at his business partners John Cornell (Abe Forsythe) and Austin Robertson (Nicholas Coghlan). I’ve never seen a salad tossed (or hurled) with quite so much venom either.
Talking of dressing, lovers of 70s fashion will revel in the parade of big collars and even bigger moustaches on display in almost every scene. Packer was clean-shaven, but just about every major Aussie cricketer of that era had an impressive thatch sprouting above his upper lip, through which he sucked prodigious quantities of beer. The problem is that the ‘taches and the dodgy wigs become indistinguishable after a while. Apart from Brendan Cowell (The Slap), who plays wicket keeper Rod Marsh, none of the actors Howzat! in were familiar to me. Thank goodness Tony Grieg had a South African accent (ironically he’s played by an actor called Alexander England), otherwise I might have been even more confused.
Kerry Packer may have been generous with his cash, but it looks as though the producers of Howzat! were on a much more restricted budget. Though the drama hops between Sydney, Melbourne and London, even the most inattentive viewer will be laughing at the clumsy transitions into archive footage, to give the impression that real locations have been used. I particularly enjoyed a sequence at “Lord’s”, where we cut between close-ups of Packer and his cronies to long-shot footage of some other blokes having a chat in the middle of the hallowed turf. Numerous shots of London buses are supposed to add to the authenticity, but look as unconvincing as the (new) £10 note that Grieg hands to an irate taxi driver.
As with the British media’s coverage of Wimbledon 2013, Howzat! is resolutely male chauvinist in its outlook. Women are there solely to look decorative, answer phones and fetch snacks. When, like Packer’s long-suffering secretary, they only achieve a Marion Bartoli level of attractiveness, the boss is not impressed.
Kerry Packer may have started a revolution in the cricketing world, but I’m not so sure attitudes towards women have moved on much since the mustachioed mid-70s.