Welcome to Pogue's Pages!

I'm POGUE...known by many as Chuck Pogue, a few as Charles Pogue, and billed professionally as Charles Edward Pogue...just because it really looks BIG splashed across a theatre programme or a movie screen. From that last remark and the profile on the left, you can see I'm a theatre man...And the term "theatre" encompasses stage, film, TV. I've been shooting my mouth off on other people's blogs and message boards for forever. So having finally gotten the hang of it, I've decided to build my own soapbox from which I can pontificate, blather, and muse...mostly on theatre, film, writing, music, books...but ultimately anything that interests me, irritates me, or just catches my fancy. I invite you to join me. I'll try to be faithful and update regularly, so that when you visit there will always be something fresh percolating and maybe even provocative that we can discuss, dissect, or debate.

Charles Edward Pogue

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Literary Influences (Or what do Dr. Seuss and David Cronenberg have in common?)

Invariably whenever I teach or guest-lecture at some college, high school, or seminar, I'm always asked what's the best advice I can give to an aspiring writer. It is always one word: "Read." Read anything and everything. Novels, plays, history, newspapers, comic books, instruction manuals, the backs of cereal boxes. Writers are readers.

Reading not only helps expand your knowledge and love of language, it's also where you learn to develop a style, a voice, and hopefully a sense of simple grammatical mechanics that one should have grasped in grade school and high school. Now I don't profess to be the greatest grammarian myself and sometimes my spelling is atrocious, but I'm a fairly diligent proof-reader and able to catch the majority of my mistakes (particularly when I'm turning in professional work), and I had a rather exceptional educational grounding in English. Any failure not to absorb the basic tenets of our Mother Tongue was my own inadequacy, certainly not the fault of my many dedicated teachers and professors.

But those things I might have missed or forgotten are constantly reinforced through my reading. I may no longer remember how to diagram a sentence nor can I recite every grammatical rule, but most of it I just do instinctively because I've picked it up by reading writers who are better than I am. So if I dangle a participle, it's probably intentional...because I read that sentence over and over again and tinkered with it until it made sense to my ear.

The gist of all this is: You can't construct a screenplay until you first learn to construct a sentence. I've read scripts utterly devoid of punctuation and capitalization, mangled by incorrectly spelt words and tortured grammar. I've even gotten scripts unemblazoned with a title or author. It amazes me how many people think they can become film-makers without establishing any rudimentary communication skills. You can't learn to write a screenplay by WATCHING movies...at least not that alone. You have to read. You have to understand the literary craft. Screenplays are drama. Drama is literature.

Once when teaching an eight-week course at the LA Film School, I had a rather arrogant young man who thought he was the next Bily Wilder or Philip Dunne...Well, he probably didn't know who those guys were...let's just say he thought he was the next Shane Black. After reading a script of his that he boasted had been written in a drunk-fuelled all-nighter, I didn't have to de-bunk the myth that works of genius are created in a haze of booze or drugs. His illogical plot predicated on a chain of improbable, if not impossible, coincidences and unmotivated characters debunked that all by itself (Writers also have to be in control; indulgences and excesses have proved the breaking of far more artists than the making.).

But there was something else in his script which couldn't be blamed on his binge. I asked him in class when he was sober to spell the preposition, "through". He spelled it: "threw"; the same way he'd consistently spelled it in his script. It proved to me that he was not only not a proofreader, but he was not much of a reader at all. I suspect I can pick up any book in my library, open it anywhere, and probably encounter the word, "through" within five or six pages or less. It may not be "a", "and", or "the"; but I figure it will appear with some frequency in most texts. (I just went back and checked my own blog. "Through" appears in the third paragraph.) You cannot be a reader and not encounter this word all the time. Its spelling should be ingrained in a reader. A reader should have been picked it up by osmosis, after the third or fourth grade, surely. Writers are readers.

But what kind of a reader does a writer have to be? Ah! That brings up another question I'm often asked: "What were my literary influences?" A much more interesting question that produces a much more complex answer; because while I consider myself a pretty well-read fellow, I've hardly spent my life reading Hemingway, Faulkner, and Proust.

While I've read my share of what could be considered high-tone literature, much of it required when in school and probably most of it exploring theatrical classics, I have much more often gamboled in the fields of popular literature, much of which would even be considered pulp fiction...for which, I make no apologies. Of the thousands of books in this house (5 thou? 6 thou? I don't bother to count 'em), the heart of the collection is fiction...late 19th century to mid-20th century adventure, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction. A goodly part is theatre/film including a wealth of plays. Then there's history/mythology/and general reference.

(The library from different angles)

All of it undoubtedly shaped me as a writer. But what would I consider my seminal influences? Below is the list...that shaped me probably not only as a writer, but as a person too.


CARL BARKS...Barks, for years, was the artist and storyteller behind Walt Disney's Comics, who created the elaborate yarns of Scrooge McDuck and his nephews, Donald, Louie, Dewey, and Huey. Gladstone Gander. The Beagle Boys. Ole Scrooge, diving into his money vault like it was a swimming pool. Great fantasy excursions of wonderful wit and adventure.

COMIC BOOKS...in general...a part of my childhood...Archie, Tarzan, Superheroes, Westerns, Mad magazine. In my teens it was the more supernatural black & whites: Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, with great illustrators and brilliant Frank Frazetta covers. I still have several thousand Silver Age comics that I collected in college -- Conan, The Shadow, Doc Strange, Swamp Thing, Howard the Duck (comic was great; the movie crap).

ENCYCLOPEDIAS...When I and my siblings were very young, my parents made a major investment in our education by laying out for a set of Grolier Encyclopedias, as well as a series of books called Land & Peoples, and a Random House series of All About Books...I've been a reference book guy ever since.

The Grolier's got replaced years later with The Encyclopedia Britannica. Years later, with my first film money earned from writing, I bought my own set of Britannica. I also inherited my grandfather's set of the famous 11th edition Britannica. I have other reference sets: Man, Myth, and Magic; The Encyclopedia of the Animal World; Empires: Their Rise and Fall; Annals of America; the Enchanted World. I have dictionaries of all sorts: Rhyming, Underworld Slang, British-American, Quotations. I can go searching for something specific in some reference volume and find that I've suddenly killed two or three hours, cross-referencing, leaping from one topic to another. These reference books have helped me figure out scenes and plots and character motivation. When I'm doling out that advice to young writers, I always tell them any good writer has three books always close at hand: A comprehensive dictionary; a thesaurus; and Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

DR. SEUSS...I was famous in 2nd and 3rd grade for doing lavish, profusely illustrated book reports on the good Doctor's imaginatively surreal books.

EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS...where I became a read-a-holic. Flashlight under the covers. Reading till one in the morning. About the time I acquired glasses. Wonder if my reading habits had anything to do with it? Tarzan was mythic. John Carter made S-F palatable...because it wasn't hardware and spaceships, but really just interplanetary swashbuckling (years later, I wrote the very first Princess of Mars script for Disney of that oft-started, oft-stalled project. Many other scripts have been written after my adaptation, but mine has ascended to something of cult status in the Burroughs circles as the most "Burroughsian" script ever and even in some film circles). Burroughs was not a great prose stylist, but had boundless imagination...he also is directly responsible for both my literary/film ambitions. The books let me to the Tarzan movies and both Tarzan books and movies opened up my world to better writers and better movies.

SAX ROHMER...I learned the art of atmosphere and crackerjack pace. Swirling fog, mysterious figures in the dark. Also the art of anticipation...Fu Manchu was felt long before he ever made an appearance. Talk about building up a "star" entrance. Rohmer doesn't always hold up as well as he used to, his delivery often not as good as his promise, but he can still carry you on pure energy.

H. RIDER HAGGARD...SHE is my favourite novel of all time. And he wrote a ton of other good ones. For all practical purposes, inventor of THE LOST RACE novel. He hits me on a very visceral, primal level. He stirs deep waters. And I find he haunts me long after I've read him and I realize that pleasant little tale I read suddenly has a richer resonance. At times, his work has the pull of the Greeks and the Jacobeans in terms of its sense of somber power often veering into the tragic. GREAT STUFF!


RAFAEL SABATINI...a meticulous writer. I appreciate him more today than when I first read him. His Edwardian or even Victorian floridness can be a bit daunting when you're twelve. It goes down a lot better when you're older. His sense of period and history is quite nice, even if his plots and heroes are sometimes a bit genteel and quaint.

CONAN DOYLE...Sherlock Holmes. Need more be said? Yes, actually. A droll sense of humour and some of his other work is excellent, particularly Brigadier Gerard (see the origins of Flashman here) and the Challenger stuff. Some nice horror too.

ROBERT E. HOWARD...Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane. A visceral, muscular, moody poetic style. Much better writer than most realize.

(Howard's Conan; art by Ken Kelly)

P.C. WREN...wrote BEAU GESTE, among many others. Master of the convuluted plot and a dry sense of British understated humour.

BULLFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY...myths and legends every writer should know.

RAYMOND CHANDLER...taking the detective novel to literature.

DASHIELL HAMMETT...taking the detective novel to literature. On the surface, less poetic than Chandler, but actually very poetic in his own lean, terse way.

S.S. VAN DINE...the locked room puzzles of amateur sleuth Philo Vance. Very good early ones. The last half dozen fall off somewhat. I'm reminded of the Ogden Nash rhyme about Vance's often pompous superiority: "Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance."

THE PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE TALKIES...by Daniel Blum. I discovered this book around 10 or 11 and was fascinated by the stills of all these movies in it. Movies I wanted to see and set out to see.


MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS...Errol Flynn's autobiography, told with lots of panache and truth-stretching embroidery.

GOODNIGHT, SWEET PRINCE...Gene Fowler's great intimate, affectionate biography of his friend, John Barrymore. (at right.)

CHARLES DICKENS...GREAT EXPECTATIONS was one of the best, most fun assignments in High School I ever had. Believe it or not, one of the first pieces of drama I wrote was a musical of this novel.

WILLIAM GOLDMAN...my senior English teacher at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Norman Yonce, gave me the best bit of advice anyone ever gave me when he told me, "In the next four years your life is going to change so dramatically, all this sturm and drang of high school will become such small potatoes." He also gave me TEMPLE OF GOLD to read by William Goldman, closely followed by YOUR TURN TO CURTSY, MY TURN TO BOW...I have been a fan of him ever since.

THE PRINCESS BRIDE initially escaped my radar until Bob Denver (yes, Gilligan! At left) gave me a paperback copy of it when we were working in a dinner theatre in Odessa, Texas. Nothing ever spoke to me like this book. I used to hoard used paperback copies of it to pass out to friends, saying,"Here, want to know who I am, what's going on inside of me...here, this book is me." Imagine my joy when in Book City in Burbank, I came across a pristine near-mint copy of this in hardback in dj for three bucks.

ROD MCKUEN...okay, okay, let it all out. Snicker, if you will. But in the late sixties, McKuen was something of a phenomenon...a poet who actually made money...making a big hit not only with his books, but with recorded albums of poetry. Norm Yonce, who introduced me to Goldman, introduced his creative writing class to McKuen with a series of spoken word albums called The Earth, The Sea, The Sky. McKuen poetry backed by music from the Anita Kerr Singers. He also did less embellished poetry albums that were actually better. I remember IN SEARCH OF EROS fondly. In those long-haired hippie days of peace, free love, and indulgent, navel-gazing sensitivity, they were the kind of albums you listened to in the dark, drinking cheap, screw-top wine (often fruit-flavoured) and wallowing in the angst of tortured love...or used as ambience while you tried to get laid.

THE HIGHWAYMAN...by Alfred Noyes. "The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees/The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas/The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor/And the Highwayman came riding-/Riding-Riding-/The Highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door." Unabashed romanticism!

BIG BAND MUSIC...When I was twelve or so, like every kid in America, I thought I could convert my parents to popular music, so I played for my dad a top forty hit by Brook Benton called SHADRACH. My dad listened, smiled and said, "That's not bad. But let me play something for you." He pulled out a 78rpm of Larry Clinton and his Orchestra playing SHADRACH...infintiely cooler than Brook's version (and I still love Brook and his version).

I've been hooked ever since. I raided that 78 record cabinet. From these records, I also discovered Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the wry lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, show tunes, movie tunes, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Skinnay Ennis, Ray Eberle, etc. And I wore the grooves off his Louis Jordan album.

A RADIO SHOW...out of Cincinnati, that every night played a Broadway show album. Here I heard for the first time MAN OF LA MANCHA, ALL AMERICAN (book by Mel Brooks), HAZEL FLAGG, BAKER STREET, and tons of other now-obscure musicals most of you probably never heard of.

MOON RIVER...This was a radio show that played from eleven o'clock to midnight on WLW in Cincy every night, where poetry was read to organ music. It always started out the same way..."Moon River/A lazy stream of dreams/Where vain desires forget themselves/In the loveliness of sleep/Moon River/Enchanted white ribbon/Twined in the hair of night/Where nothing is but sleep/Dream on...Sleep on.../Care will not seek for thee/Float on...Drift on.../Moon River to the sea. Many's the night I fell asleep listening to this show on my little transitor radio with its ear-plug stuck in my ear.

SHAKESPEARE...Encountered him in high school. Really discovered the joy of him onstage, performing him.

JOHN WEBSTER...The Jacobeans' sense of tragedy and Grand Guignol appealled to my darker sensibilities. Film Noir owes a lot to John Webster and his pals. WHITE DEVIL & DUCHESS OF MALFI both great, the latter I was in (at left)...and it has one of my favourite lines of all times..."We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and banded which way please them." I was delighted when I discovered that Stephen Fry has a book entitled THE STARS' TENNIS BALLS.

THE GREEKS...simple, direct, but poetic with inexorable, inevitable climaxes.

CYRANO DE BERGERAC...this play is almost indestructible. Regardless of whether I'm reading it or watching any production of it, I am left in puddles at the end.

A. MERRITT...a strange, lush poetic prose grafted to a rich imagination. Another of those authors who stays with me. It's almost like he writes in some sort of fevre dream.

RICHARD III...a biography by Paul Murray Kendall. History came alive!

PETER SHAFFER...everything he writes. ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN, AMADEUS, EQUUS. THE GIFT OF THE GORGON, may be the best play I've read in the last twenty years.

TOM STOPPARD...Have loved him since ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. Again, everything he writes.

LETTERS FROM AN ACTOR...William Redfield's letters to a friend while he was rehearsing and performing in the famous Burton/Gielgud HAMLET of the sixties. Great theatre stories!

1776...the musical. Back in college on a rainy afternoon, I remember sitting with Julieanne and Edd Little (now Edmund August) in Clay Nixon's apartment as he played us the original cast album. It was a glorious revelation. Years later, when I was on the Writers Guild Board, during a meeting with the Screen Actors Guild Board, I got to go up to William Daniels, then SAG president and who had played John Adams in that production of 1776, and tell him about that afternoon and how much it meant to me. As I've gotten older, I try to take advantage of such opportunities much more than I used to. I think people appreciate knowing that they have affected your life positively. And so many performers or writers never know how many lives they touch.

And, of course, my influences continue. Some late in life influences -- my pal HARLAN ELLISON, who I first discovered as an essayist and just plain raconteur before I encountered his brilliant fiction. TERRY PRATCHETT's wacky, wonderful, exquisite-fall-out-of-bed-laughing-out-loud Discworld novels. FREDRIC BROWN...terrific short story writer and novelist, who can lead you right down to the end of the story and surprise you with something you never saw coming but is always so perfectly logical, if not inevitable. HENRY TREECE...his historical novels about Greece and Celtic Britain are bleakly powerful dying falls. Even his children's novels are unrelenting, uncompromising, and mature. Wonderful poetic writer...

I'm sure there are others who I have overlooked...


So what writers or books changed your life, altered your perception of the world or yourself, inspired your creative muse? Tell us all about it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

An Age of Kings (or I'm a Happy Man!)

When I moved back to Kentucky, after nearly thirty years in LA, there were naturally unvoidable adjustments to be made -- some minor, some traumatic. I certainly did not miss the stress, the expense, the traffic (I can get to Cincinnati in an hour...the time it took me to get to Santa Monica from Hollywood...except that Cincy is sixty miles away; Santa Monica was ten). I didn't even miss the perennial lovely weather

(The view from my old backyard)

Mostly what I missed, aside from a cultural perspective shared by those living in a world center such as LA, were friends. It wasn't things...Okay, well, a few things...great used bookshops, several restaurants, theatres, actually having a neighbourhood mechanic that worked out of the gas station where I got my gas less than a mile from my house,...and Amoeba.

Amoeba was a gargantuan new-used CD/DVD/LP airplane hanger of a store with two floors on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. If they didn't have a CD or a DVD, it probably couldn't be had. For a guy like me, whose taste in both music and film is eclectic, ancient, and obscure, this was Mecca. Here was where I went to unearth Broadway rarities like KEAN or Ben Bagley's Painted Smiles label, singers like Buddy Clark, Glenn Yarbrough, or Gene McDaniels singing A HUNDRED POUNDS OF CLAY and his other half-dozen hits before he faded from the scene of early sixties rock. Here I could find those off-beat films like LORD LOVE A DUCK, A KID FOR TWO FARTHINGS, or the British Restoration comedy series, HAGGARD. Stuff you can't find at your local Blockbuster or Best Buy. Mostly though I bought theatre DVDs at Amoeba. Theatre productions that had been filmed for television. I picked up the old American Film Theatre Series (filmed plays originally shown in theatres for two days and which they claimed at the time would never be shown on TV -- yeah, until someone figured out there was a profit in it); countless plays that appeared on PBS, several Shakespeares.

Moving to Kentucky made me finally have to break down and resort to Amazon.com, which I had resisted for so long because of my aversion to internet shopping. But, hey, that's where the world is going and once I succumbed, what vistas opened! Just go online, fill my electronic shopping cart, and several days later...treasures arrive on my doorstep!. Yesterday, it was the musical version of GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS starring Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark and a book from the National Theatre.

But what it has really been great for is expanding my video theatre collection which must now be nearing two hundred plays.

Amazon helpfully...or not so helpfully, depending on your point-of-view, also makes frequent recommendations...based on what you buy, own, or put on your wish list. This can be a bit overwhelming at times and so I have to go in and winnow away the source material on which they base these selections, as sometimes the connections can be quite tenuous. I mean I'm not really sure why they would recommend a Paul Newman western, THE OUTRAGE because I bought GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS or how they make the jump in thinking that I'd be interested in ELVIS: THE '68 COMEBACK SPECIAL because I bought a bio of Richard Burton (actually the '68 Comeback Special is pretty darn thrilling...I saw it on TV...in 1968! In the Kirwan Towers Dorm at UK. And I have it on video around here somewhere...).

Anyway, the other day they actually gave me a recommendation that made my little heart go pitty-pat. The BBC is finally releasing AN AGE OF KINGS! This was a fifteen-part TV series from 1960 that filmed, in historical chronological order, Shakespeare's plays of Richard II, the 2 parts of Henry IV, Henry V, the 3 parts of Henry VI, and Richard III. Some notable names in the series are Judi Dench, Robert Hardy, Eileen Atkins, and Sean Connery as Hotspur. (Richard III is played by Paul Daneman. I remember a brilliant radio rendition of of Richard III done by Daneman that played on the University of Kentucky radio station when I was in college. Clay Nixon, a friend who worked at the station, gave me a cassette of the production which I periodically played until it disintegrated over the years.).
(Clay Nixon & Me in Ceremony of Innocence at UK)

I have been aware of this awesome televised spectacle ever since the early 70's when I picked up a paperback edition of the series. I remember catching an enticing glimpse of it on BRAVO a few years back, before that network abandoned its Arts programming for the anti-intellectual dross it now vomits out of our TVs, and thinking, "I must video tape this." But I never got my act and its schedule together to do so. I've even emailed the BBC to release it...though I suspect my entreaties had nothing to do with their decision. Still I'm just glad they decided.
It's on pre-order and I await its arrival at the end of the month. The BBC has already done immeasurable service to theatre junkies like me with their boxed sets of SHAW, IBSEN, CHEKOV, COWARD, & WILDE, with productions of plays both well-known and obscure from these playwrights. And their boxed sets of actors like Olivier, Dench, and Mirren allow us to see rarities like ABSOLUTE HELL, THE CHANGELING (the one by Middleton & Rowley; not Eastwood), THE COLLECTION, HINDLE WAKES, THE COUNTRY WIFE. When you think how many other great and classic plays the BBC has televised over the years, one can only hope for more forthcoming treasures. I keep hoping for a boxed set of the late Simon Gray and Harold Pinter, both of whom have had many of their works dramatized for British television. And I've already pre-ordered my DVD of the 1970 production of EDWARD II, starring Ian McKellen.

Interesting article in THE WEEK (the best news weekly around, for my money) about how the 35-54 age bracket is the fastest-growing group on FACEBOOK, up 276 % in the last half of 2008. There are those who feel Facebook might actually better serve this age bracket than teens. Peggy Orenstein of the New York Times suggests it one thing networking and re-connecting with old friends when you're middle-aged, another when you've been on social networking sites half your life. College is a place for reinvention and Orenstein questions how youngsters can achieve that "with your 450 closest friends watching?" The article goes on: "Growth depends on introspection, which depends on loneliness. Transformation depends on experimentation, which depends on space." Interesting notion which make you wonder how much privacy we surrender to the internet and if it inhibits personal evolution and broader perspectives.



"Writing is like pulling teeth...through your penis." -- J.G. Ballard


I'm delighted to hear that The Unbelieveable Truth returns to BBC Radio4 tonight. It's one of their highly amusing comedy/quizzes hosted by the witty David Mitchell of the comedy team of Mitchell and Webb.

So for what do you yearn to see on DVD?
(GoJoe solved the one movie mystery quote, "I want to enter my house justified." See the comments section of the previous blog for the answer. But no one has gotten the "Love has to stop somewhere short of suicide" quote yet. It's from a 1936 film based on a classic American novel. Feel free to keep guessing or to comment on any of the other blogs. Sometimes folks are reluctant to comment on an old blog, if a new one's been posted, but as long as the topic interests you feel free to respond to any of them, even if four or five newer blogs are up...I'll keep checking 'em.).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Here's Looking At You, Kid!" (Or what are your favourite movie lines?)

They say that every good writer has directed his script by the time he's written it. And the tough part is we have to do it without junking the script up with technical jargon and camera angles that deflate and disrupt the narrative flow.

My style might be called florid by some, but I think scripts are as much literature as any other kind of creative writing. I don't even refer to myself as a screenwriter, but rather a dramatist. I also believe in the the old adage of: "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage."

To get it to the next step of becoming a movie, you've got to sweep your reader up in your script, just like a novelist does. You've got to make them see the movie you're seeing and to do that you have to paint pictures with words. It can't just be stage directions. It has to create mood, atmosphere, a sense of time and place, evoke emotions and emotional investment in your characters. Simply: You're telling a story. Tell it so they stay interested.

I've been gratified that the comments I mostly hear about my scripts are that they are "good reads" or "page-turners". And over the years, I developed what I consider a pretty good prose style. Perhaps, the greatest compliment I ever got was when one executive said she was "waiting for my novel." (That came with the novelization of DRAGONHEART...which wasn't one of those 150-page, double-spaced, "we-put-the-screenplay-in-past-tense jobs. It was a real novel...that got to luxuriate in the language, explore scenes and emotions in greater depth, and crawl into different characters' heads as scenes or chapters unfolded from their point-of-view as opposed to a screenplay's omniscient point-of-view. It was my favourite writing experience of all time.).

I also have a pretty good reputation as a constructionist...as many of Arthur Rouse's film students can tell you when I come for my week of guest-teaching at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and dissect...some might say decimate... their pitches and scripts and rail about logic and motivation. Hopefully, on the constructive side, I also often help them find solutions to the many holes I poke in their stories and characters.

But the thing I am most obsessive about...and try to be most protective of... in a screenplay is my dialogue. I expect there are many screenwriters who feel the same way for one simple reason -- it is the only writing of ours the audience ever notices. Few, if any, except those involved with a script's production, ever really get a chance to savour a screenwriter's descriptive prose. And once a script is filmed, if it's working, the audience shouldn't be suspending their willing suspension of disbelief to stop and critically marvel at the nuances of the plotting, they should just be carried away by it. But everybody hears the dialogue.

So I spend hours sometimes crafting the mot juste. Every word of dialogue gets acted out...Does it roll across the tongue and out of the mouth fluidly and fluently? Does it sound right for the character? Are the rhythms there? The proper pace? One misplaced word or wrong word or too many words or not enough words and a joke doesn't land or a line doesn't hit with the proper power or a scene loses its button.

Sometimes the writer can get it exactly right and it can still go wrong. The actor changes a word or two, or paraphrases, or just flat out delivers it wrong. And sometimes the director has a hand in it...decides that three lines are not needed in the scene and it throws the rhythm of the dialogue off or leaves out subtle but crucial information. He misdirects the actor or the stages the scene in such a way the words lose impact. There are tons of ways to screw it up.

Now I'm not a tyrant about it. All lines are not writ in stone and a slight variation is not always going to do any damage. But I have done considerably thinking about the line, so one appreciates those actors and directors who try to be as meticulous as I've been about it. And every so often, an actor or director can improve a line. I'm cool with that; I'm going to get credit for it. I'd just like to be consulted about it...The last time, of course, that happened was on my first films, SIGN OF FOUR & HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, where terrific British actors like Ian Richardson, Denholm Elliott, or Brian Blessed would ask me if they could change a line. ASK! I've never had that kind of respect or power since in the film business. It could be why it remains my favourite experience.

I suppose part of my obsession with dialogue also comes from being an actor. I've never understood actors who desire less dialogue. Give me speeches, droll bon mots, juicy invectives, words to wallow in! I'm one of those strange creatures who has never understood this lament about "talky" films. Some of the greatest films I've ever seen are full of talk! As long as the talk is good; who cares? Study THE MALTESE FALCON sometime. There's almost no action in it. It's mostly Bogie walking into rooms and having interesting conversations with people...scenes where director/screenwriter John Huston kept Dashiell Hammett's "cherce" dialogue intact: "People lose teeth talking like that." "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter." Or when Sam Spade takes Wilmer's guns from him and presents them to Gutman: "Here, a crippled newsie took 'em off 'im, but I made him give 'em back." I could go on; it drives The Lovely Wife crazy that I can quote all the dialogue of this movie along with the actors.

I can quote a lot of dialogue from a lot of movies. It's always dialogue I remember. It's never sets or costumes or lighting or the great stunt or the cool shot. It's probably my literary sensibility; but also because I grew up with movies when movies were also literary. When I see some of these big action extravaganzas with all their Boom and Bang and minimal talk, I sometimes wonder if we've not reverted to silent movies with noise.

Also my formative movie education was before video and DVD, seeing classic 30's and 40's films mostly on a black and white TV, cut up by commercials, with ghosts and shadows on the screen, and sometimes so much static, it was like watching them through a blizzard. So I was held in their thrall by the story...

...and the words:

Flynn and Rathbone sneering over crossed blades: "You've come to Nottingham once too often, my friend." "When this is through, I won't have to come again." Quasimodo on the ramparts of Notre Dame raising Esmeralda above his head, shouting, "Sanctuary! Santuary!" A drunken, nervous bride-to-be Hepburn romancing interloping reporter Stewart: "Put me in your pocket, Mike." The Evil Wazir Jaffar, dismissing the emotions of the Caliph and his Princess: "Do you call the lisping of two children in the Garden love? Love she has yet to learn...and I have yet to teach her." Gunslinger Yul Brynner tersely telling bandito Eli Wallach to "Ride on."

So many others..."Top of the world, ma!" "I'd like to run barefoot through your hair." "Have a spill...No, thanks, just had one." "I know, you know I know. We know Henry knows and Henry knows we know it." "Here's looking at you, kid." And back to THE MALTESE FALCON: "I'm sending you over, sweetheart. You're taking the fall."

Perhaps my two favourite lines of all time come from the pen of Billy Wilder and his writing partner at the time, Charles Brackett. The first from a delightful comedy called MIDNIGHT and spoken by actor, Rex O'Malley, "I used to swallow things as a child. My mother never left me alone in the room with an armchair." I fell on the floor in hysterics the first time I heard this. The other comes from THE MAJOR & THE MINOR where Ginger Rogers, posing as twelve year old at a military academy (Trust me, it works!) becomes the belle of the cadets' ball when she attends their dance with a girls school. As she and one cadet observe the phalanx of young ladies and their teacher, all sporting Veronica Lake hairstyles, the pint-size soldier remarks disgustingly: "We use 'em for women."

I've even found certain memorable dialogue can become life mantras. These two stay with me: "I want to enter my house justified." and "Love has got to stop somewhere short of suicide." Anyone who can guess what movies they're from gets "A Laurel and Hardy handshake."...and that's from a movie too -- BLAZING SADDLES! (We trust you to be honourable and not resort to googling the answers...and The Lovely Wife can't play!)

So it's your turn. Tell me your favourite memorable movie lines.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Odds & Ends

Last night I got emailed a press release from my buddy, Harlan Ellison, writer extraordinaire and the most courageous one I know. During my time on the WGA board of directors, I was known as "the pit bull of writers' creative rights". But Harlan is the daddy pit bull of them all. Lock him in a room with a bunch of directors and producers, only one man is coming out standing...and it ain't gonna be any director or producer.

Harlan's press release announced that he is suing Paramount Pictures for his share of STAR TREK merchandising. As some of you Trekkies no doubt know, Harlan's Hugo Award andWGA Award-winning episode, CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER, is one of the most famous and beloved episodes ever, having reached iconic status. According to Harlan's suit, Paramount has been exploiting his script with an array of merchandising, from novels based on his teleplay to a talking Christmas ornament, and ain't paid him diddley, as required by the Guild's collective bargaining agreement.

Harlan is also reluctantly suing his own guild of which he has been a member for forty-five years for, as his suit claims, failure to act in his behalf in his claim against Paramount. But he's suing the WGA for only one dollar, court costs, and lawyer's fees.

Writers and Trekkies take note. The issue at the core of this is an important one. Corporate greed and the internet are making it harder every day for all creative artists to maintain control over their intellectual property, copyright, and the monies that rightfully accrue from them. Harlan has been in the vanguard of protecting his rights against internet exploitation, spending considerable time and money, to successfully sue several internet big guns in getting his work removed from sites that have posted them illegally and without permission. Needless to say, the WGA must always remain viligant in enforcing the contractual rights of its members gained through our collecting bargaining agreements with the producers.

In brighter news, I got an email from Deanna Dunagan, frequently invoked in my London Theatre Diary blogs below. She's returned from her triumphant run of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY at the National Theatre to her toddling town of Chicago only to score a CBS comedy pilot entitled "Big D", a nickname for both Dallas and her character, Donna Dupree. Oddly enough, her initials are also "DD" and she is a native Texan. The series will also feature Chris Parnell, an SNL alum. She shoots the pilot this April in Hollywood. May it go to series, Deanna!

Finally, comedian Steve Martin has agreed to pay for a production of his play PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE, which was banned by the Superindent of an Oregon High School when a parent protested and circulated a petition with 137 signatures on it. Martin believes the play is being unfairly characterize and misrepresented.

AN ADDENDUM EDIT: With regards to this AIG bonus thing, will someone please explain to me how one manages to receive a bonus for failure. I thought one received a bonus when one's performance helped the company to succeed. When the company goes into the dumper, seems to me no one should be getting bonuses...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pogue's London Theatre Diary -Part 3



Having been unsuccessful yesterday, Julieanne arose once again at the crack of dawn, after a sleepless night, to try and score a WAR HORSE ticket for today’s matinee. She succeeded this time, largely because she had made friends with the staff. Not making the cut after waiting several hours, she lingered mournfully in the book shop and lobby, when a box office pal took pity and discreetly signaled her over. He had just gotten a return.

With her afternoon planned, I toyed with the possibility of seeing a matinee of VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE starring Ken Stott and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio…or taking in THE WOMAN IN BLACK. But first I headed up north off Tottenham Court Road and Marylebone to Sam French on Fitzroy to pick up several more plays...most notably Stoppard’s version of IVANOV that Branagh just did; THE LAST CONFESSION by Roger Crane, and PAUL & NEVER SO GOOD, both by Howard Brenton.

I then toddled over to my Bloomsbury Bookshops by Russell Square. At Skoob, a delightfully cluttered, but well-arranged bookshop, with a great theatre section, I sought a specific translation of an obscure play I wanted. I came up empty on that one, but happily found another translation of the same play that I did not know existed. I also found another Pratchett hardback I need and a volume of John Osborne one-acts.

Heading home, I stopped by THE VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE box-office to see about matinee tickets…the good tickets available were “special” house seats in the circle or stalls that provided no preview discount and were outrageous. One of the “special” seats would have cost 66pds/40. An absurdly high price. I think all the West End musicals are driving the prices of straight plays up…although I had yet to encounter anything this high.

But the price made me re-think what my goal was here. Though I’ve never seen VIEW and like Stott, I debated whether I was just trying to fill some arbitrary quota of having seen a dozen plays this trip. I realized that I had seen or booked all the plays that had initially caught my fancy…and while I love to discover surprises once here, VIEW had always been something of a low-priority alternative. And while I have no prejudice about Brits playing very American pieces like this, I’d prefer to see “English” theatre when in England. So I took a pass and decided to stand pat at eleven plays unless WOMAN IN BLACK intrigued me.

After lunch, I strolled to the South Bank Book Market once again, but found nothing. I crossed the Waterloo Bridge and traipsed through Covent Garden, reading the reviews outside the Fortune Theatre where WOMAN IN BLACK was playing.

I have avoided this play for years because it has run forever and one fears “MOUSETRAP malaise” would have set in by now – reducing it to a clapped-out hoary old vehicle. But most major critics had revisited the play since 2000 and it had respectable reviews from respectable critics. My main purpose in seeing it would be as a possible play for AGL. But a four o’clock matinee was too late. I’ll keep it bookmarked for a Monday possibility. I did pick up a copy of the play to read.

ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE that night was a hop-skip into the next street, venerable Whitehall…which used to also be the name of the theatre. They’ve chopped in it into two separate spaces and re-dubbed it the Trafalgar Studios #1 and #2. The last thing I saw there under its old incarnation was an interesting John Whiting play, A PENNY FOR A SONG, which starred Julian Glover and Jeremy Clyde (who used to be part of the old sixties rock group, Chad and Jeremy). In its new guise, we saw Frank McGuinness’ GATES OF GOLD in Studio Two where the actors were all but sitting in our laps.

Tonight Studio Two was serving as the theatre bar for Studio One where SLOANE was playing, which was arrived at through a stygian labyrinth of corridors and doors. Anything I hazily remembered of the old theatre, I did not recognize. Both the audience seats and the stage had steep rakes, but the whole thing had a cozy, dare I say shabby, intimacy that was probably appropriate for the play. We had good seats, three rows back.

The play was delightful. I’d not seen it on stage (only the film by Douggie Hickox, who had directed my HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES). I am now a confirmed Orton fan and need to read WHAT THE BUTLER SAW when I get home. The cast were all fine, particularly so Simon Paisley Day, who played Ed, the brother, and Imelda Staunton as Kath. During her seduction of Mr. Sloane, Ms. Staunton gets her kit off and flounces on in the sheerest nightie, exposing all her charms and fluffy bits. Cheeky lass!

(Ian Richardson as Holmes in my
Hound of the Baskervilles - 1983)

And what a joy it was to be ensconced back in one’s flat ten minutes after the play was over, getting one’s own kit off. It’s what I love about residing in this part of London. Everything you need for gracious living is no more than a thirty minute walk from your door. Theatre, film, shops, markets, museums, restaurants, scenery, greenery…all there!

I read Brenton’s PAUL before I went to sleep…about Saul/Paul of Tarsus and “the extraordinary phenomenon of faith” as the book blurb proclaims. Man, I loved this play! I must research it; I suspect its premiere raised some hackles and some howls. Probably water off a duck’s back to Mr. Brenton; given his history with ROMANS IN BRITAIN.


Sunday and rain, which put the kibosh on any contemplated major expeditions. We’d considered re-visiting the Museum of London, a fav of ours. No matter. Julieanne is so sleep deprived… no wonder, restless nights and trudging down in the grey pre-dawn to queue at the National…she is finally sleeping in. Part of this trip was for her to laze and re-coup from having directed THE FANTASTICKS. I slipped around the corner to Villiers to get the Sunday papers.

(St. James at Dawn. I wasn't there.)

(All the London photos posted Julieanne took.)

(Pelican Island in St. James)

Once the sleeper awoke and the rain slackened, we ventured over to St. James…our favourite park…and fed the squirrels and fowl. We then crossed the Mall and made our way to the Dukes Hotel tucked down a quiet, dead-end mews off St. James’s St. for a couple of really expensive drinks.

This is a tradition. I spent my first month in London at The Dukes when I came over to shoot my Holmes’ films in ‘82. So we savour the serene environs of its elegant bar, sit by the window, have a couple of drinks, and put a pretty good dent in the bowl of mixed nuts. It’s a nice way to idle an afternoon, particularly a rainy one. The wait staff is charming and impeccable. The bar is known for its martinis, but we don’t drink martinis.

It was more crowded than usual and we amused ourselves eavesdropping on a business conversation between two Spanish gents (one looked like an aristocratic Anthony Quinn) and an American couple. What little we could make out seemed to involve internet porn.

We meandered home via Piccadilly, fixed some dinner (trying to eat up all the groceries we had stocked), read the papers, watched some telly, and had an early night.


No theatre booked for today. I had considered WOMAN IN BLACK; but since we’re going to the theatre tomorrow night with Deanna, I decided it best to use the evening for packing. Our timing, in order to see Deanna’s play, has coincided with a transition when several shows have just closed and others not quite opened. If we had stretched it a few days either way we might have caught a few more things…like GETHSEMANE by David Hare, not in the National rotation the last two weeks or my buddy Pete Postlethwaite’s LEAR opening at the YOUNG VIC the day after we leave. Despite the fact, it got critically crucified earlier, I’d have loved to have seen him in it. They apparently have re-tooled it. Anyway, it’s not been our best theatre trip, certainly by no means our worst and we still have PITMEN PAINTERS tomorrow. But if it not been for the National, it might have been a bit grim. Five of our eleven plays we saw there. The West End, over-run with its musicals, is looking pretty bleak these days.

The morning was sunny and Julieanne went to see her squirrels in St. James Park and visit Westminster Abbey…one of her traditions. I embarked on an aimless wander down Fleet Street, cut up into High Holborn, past the Smithfield Market (closed by that time of day), past what was once Newgate Prison, down Holborn into Bloomsbury, and back to Skoob.

I found another volume of Osborne plays, TIME PRESENT & THE HOTEL IN AMSTERDAM (The immensely talented and immensely self-destructive Mr. Osborne intrigues me after reading John Heilpern’s fascinating bio of him). Instead of choosing a hardback copy, I opted for a worn and somewhat water-stained paperback edition, because someone had diligently clipped, folded, and taped several original newspaper reviews of the plays on the endpapers, as well as an article on Jill Bennett, the star of TIME PRESENT, and Osborne’s wife at the time…his fourth, I think. They make fascinating reading and a nice historical tip-ins.

That night, we indulged in our usual last night ritual of strolling up the South Bank to Westminster Bridge, past Bodicea’s statue, up Whitehall, and into Trafalgar. We stopped in a few souvenir shops sizing up shot glasses for a neighbour who collects them and who watched over things at home. Back at the hotel, we hauled the luggage out of the storage room and did some preliminary packing as well as totting up our expenditures for customs. Nothing to declare; well under the limit. Mostly books, which don’t count.

(View from Waterloo Bridge)

(London Eye from the South Bank)


Tuesday was mostly packing. Since the hotel lobby computer has not been working the entire two weeks we’ve been here, Julieanne went out to an internet café in the afternoon and printed up our boarding passes. Oddly enough, neither of us has really missed the internet, email, or phone. But we are missing the critters and are ready to get home. We have been discussing that we should probably make theatre forays to places like Chicago; Stratford, Canada; the Shaw Festival. This would not necessarily preclude coming to London as well; which is still the greatest city in the world and has the greatest theatre.

I’m glad we were ending our sojourn tonight at the National. We met Deanna and a friend of hers who used to work at the Dallas Theater Center in the Lyttelton. Once again, Deanna had snared us excellent house seats.

THE PITMEN PAINTERS, based on a true story of coal miners learning to paint, was a moving play about art, artistic expression, and the elevating power of art. I wept. It may have been my favourite of all the things we’ve seen. We all seemed to enjoy it. Not surprisingly, this story of working class men transformed through the power of art was written by Lee Hall, who wrote BILLY ELLIOTT, both film and musical, which embraces the same themes.

One speech particularly resonated with me, spoken by the art teacher who taught the coal miners: “…there’s a chance we can actually do something, but only if the working classes get off their fat asses and their high horses and use their power, their intelligence, and their creativity…and reach for a better world. If they give up and accept the scraps thrown to them, then we’re all fucked. You can’t have a rich culture if three-quarters of the people are disenfranchised.”

We now live in world that embodies what I call the “Arrogance of Ignorance”. Too many people don’t know anything and they are proud that they don’t know anything. History, culture, world events are things they can’t be bothered to know. Our attention-deficient, instant gratification minds no longer seek knowledge but clutter themselves up with insignificant information instead. We fritter hours away twittering, texting, relaying the dreary details of our shallow mundane lives on our cell phones or facebook or myspace rather that filling our time with anything substantial or lasting. We magnify the trivial and diminish the important as being to complex to consider. Our entertainment, political discourse, news pander to the lowest common denominator rather than reaching for the highest common denominator or beyond.

We slash our Arts funding and, worse, our Arts Education funding…thereby disallowing our children any glimpse of greatness or hope of enriching their lives with the possibility of something more than just working eight hours and then passively slumping onto the couch at night and having the TV wash over them with bland, non-engaging, mind-deadening pap.

I do not believe the role of the artist is giving the public what it wants. His job (and his dilemma) is to make it want what he gives. If you programmed nothing but Shakespeare and the classics (Shaw, Ibsen, Chekov, the Greeks, etc.) on TV for a year, people would watch Shakespeare and the classics and they’d like them. But they can’t appreciate what they’ve never been exposed to or had nurtured in them.

My pal, Roger Lee Leasor, quotes an old Jewish saying: “If you have two pennies, spend one for bread and one for wine: bread so you can live, wine so you want to.” He goes on: “Arts are wine. We do the Arts not because it will make us live, but because it will make us want to live.”

Anyway, as seems obvious by the above rant, THE PITMEN PAINTERS hit home for me. Deanna was not feeling well, so we didn’t stay for drinks after the play, but just walked back to hotel. I know how this is: once you get through something as momentous as she has, your body just lets up and says, “Okay, I’ve stood by you through it all, now it’s time for me to break down a little.” They’ve even kept her on the go after the show closed. She had to give a talk at the Garrick Club last Friday. Of course, I envy her this. I’ve been trying to get inside this famous theatrical club for years…just for a look. I’ve always had to content myself with a glimpse through the door at the theatrical portraits that ascend the wall by the stairs to the second floor (or, what the Brits call the first floor; our “first” floor being their “ground” floor).

On the way back, we spoke of Larry Drake and Jim Daniels, but Deanna has mostly been disconnected from these theatrical comrades of our mutual past. But then we’ve all gone our own paths and, in truth, I’ve never known her all the well. During our summer Shakespeare and dinner theatre tours eons ago, we would all, as a cast, do a movie, dinner or poker night, but even then Deanna seemed a person who valued her privacy. It was great to see her again and enjoy her deserving triumph. Still the best actress I’ve ever worked with.

(Deanna & I in our salad days at The Globe of the Great Southwest)


Julieanne was up at four, unable to sleep. We got ready and checked out at ten. Good thing we had gotten an international cell phone. My one call from the hotel was the only extra on the bill -- eleven pounds. We arrived at the airport around eleven. The cab fare was 12pds less than it had been going into town. Julieanne said it had something to do with time of day. Beats me. Terminal Five is quite nice and easy to get around in. Lots of shops and amenities once past security.

Those who complain about air travel, I suspect just don’t do it right…mostly rushing in during the last hour or half-hour, trying to get through ticket lines and security, rushing down corridors to departure gates and just not allowing proper time. I always come early…way early…and also leave plenty of time for connecting flights in the event of delays. I bring a book with me. I’d rather be in the terminal, calmly reading than out on the road, stressing whether or not I’m going to make it. It saves a lot of panic.

The flight home was as uneventful. Premium Economy was only a third filled and First class seemed almost empty. I don’t know how an airline can operate like this…and I want to know how I can get bumped up to First. I watched APALOOSA on the way back. It was the only film I actually went to a theatre to see last year. I’m a sucker for westerns. I’ve often been tempted to get into collecting western fiction; but have always pulled myself back from the brink, not wishing to open that can of worms. I don’t have enough time to read the stuff I’ve got. The snack they served on the plane was possibly the worst sandwich I ever ate; some sort of suspect fish. I don’t eat good fish.

In Chicago, the computer had lost us on our connecting. Because we had the paperwork, our booking agent got us on it and a lucky thing too. Flights were being cancelled right and left…there had been a big ice storm a day or two earlier in our neck of the woods. Fortunately, the flight to Cincy went out as scheduled. We arrived about 12 that night to a sea of silvery white snow and ice covering everything. The shuttle took us to our car and we spent the next half hour, sliding snow off it and chipping ice away. The parking lot had a small bobcat bulldozer that cleared away the snow piled behind car.

(the frozen long-term parking lot at the Cincinnati airport)

The roads were relatively clear, but vehicles, including my own were dropping ice off their metal carcasses. The trees were bent with the weight of the ice. But they looked beautiful, save for those that had been shattered and cracked under the onslaught. We got in around two that night, left the suitcases by the door, and crashed.


The following day, we picked up the animals from the kennel and, two days later, after having thought we had dodged the ice bullet, the power in the house went out. Fortunately, for only fourteen hours. Some folks in the state endured no power for weeks.

A few days later, London had its first major snow storm in years, which paralyzed the city and even forced several show cancellations. So it seems our timing was pretty good. We were gratified to read that the critics mostly agreed with our opinions about the several previews we saw. I’ve been devouring the plays and books I bought and, as ready as I was to come home, I’m already dreaming of going back. Framed on the living-room wall behind the piano is a piece of sheet music we once found at the Portobello Road Market. It’s entitled LONDON, I CANNOT LEAVE YOU. Pretty much sums it up. It’s with us all the time.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pogue's London Theatre Diary - Part Two

Well, so far this blogging thing has been fairly painless (for me, at least...no telling it's effect on you). I noticed a few links went awry, which we'll hopefully get around to fixing, but all in all...not bad. Thanks all of you who've sent me nice emails. Now start putting those remarks in the comments space below. Don't make me keep this up all by myself.

Now back to the continuing saga of The Pogues’ foray in London, England, for a two-week glut of theatre. So far the Pogues have seen LOOT, EVERYGOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOUR, & TWELFTH NIGHT (see part one).


I awoke feeling terrible; the cold no longer merely mild. Though my head was strangely not congested; I still felt logy, drippy, and had a slight cough. I hate being one of those vilely infected playgoers who inflict themselves on the rest of the audience with their hacking, hawking, snuffling, and wheezing.

So I shot to Boots on the Strand to get some ever-trusty Lemsip, a hot elixir that works wonders on allaying cold symptoms, and to see if I could acquire some medicine that would halt this thing dead in its tracks. Chemists here have potions and pills that you can get right over the counter sans prescription that work wonders. I’ve no idea why such easily-obtainable miracle drugs are not similarly available in the States. Or, perhaps, I do…can we all say greed and obscene profit?

I purchased the recommended capsules, then strolled into the Aldwych to pick up our tickets at the Novello for tonight’s MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. My heart twinged as I passed the building where, until two years ago, stood the Theatre Museum… which, despite a vociferous effort by a dedicated group of theatre folk, could not be saved. Its treasured artifacts went back to the Vickie and Al from whence they came and promptly into storage, save for occasional displays in that venerable institution. Damned shame. This was one place I visited on each trip. Always wonderful displays and bits of history that I did not know…often showing archival footage of great plays and performances. The last time, they had a wonderful exhibit from the late fifties “angry young man period” of British Theatre and a terrific display of the Redgrave dynasty.

I passed the now-empty edifice enroute to Covent Garden, as it was Antique Day at the market…though nothing remotely interested me. I’m not one for silver, glassware, or jewelry. So I beat a path home, popped my pills, and slept most of the afternoon.

Despite our over-familiarity with MIDSUMMER, we had opted for this RSC production because of their usual high standards and some gorgeous photos of it on the internet. I’m glad we did. The production was beautiful and funny and not the usual tedium I find it. Stunning sets, costumes, and effects, and some clever actor-activated puppetry multiplied the host of faeries in this production. The lovers, usually the dreariest part of the play, were the best I’ve ever seen…lively and engaging.

Edward Bennett, who made a stir stepping into the role of HAMLET as David (Dr. Who) Tennant’s understudy when that actor was sidelined with back problems for most of the sold-out London run, was great as Demetrius and one sees why he won acclaim for his Hamlet. He seems a young actor with a bright future.

Joe Dixon (we’ve enjoyed him as Antonio in THE DUCHESS OF MALFI and in the title role of THE ROMAN ACTOR, when the RSC did their “Jacobeathan plays” a few years back) led a funny, bawdy troupe of “rude mechanicals” as Bottom. Their Pryamus & Thisbe was a raucous delight and when “the chink in the wall” was established as between the actor’s legs, it brought all the rude hilarity one would anticipate, regardless which way “Wall” turned.

The faeries were imaginatively delineated characters, as they playfully tormented lovers and clowns alike. I also enjoyed Riann Steele, as a haughty and recalcitrant Hippolyta, who seemed neither particularly pleased with the prospect of her impending nuptials nor her intended imposing “woman as chattel” decrees that thwarted young love.

The medicine kept my coughing and snuffling to a discreet minimum, but I was glad to finally get home for a pasta dinner, some more Dave TV, and bed.


The malady lingers on, but the Boots remedies keep the cold at bay and me functioning, if not exactly tap-dancing through the day. It helps that I slept well, not so Julieanne. So while she had a lie-in, I trundled over the bridge and down the South Bank to pick up our tickets for Friday at the Old Vic. There’s been rumbling in the papers the last few days about the play, COMPLICIT. Kevin Spacey has pushed back the official opening night and the rumour is that Richard Dreyfuss is having his as-yet-unlearned lines fed to him through an ear-piece he’s apparently sporting.

Since the opening has been pushed back, I’m now essentially paying full price for a preview. I don’t care. Spacey occasionally takes a lot of flak…much of it unfair… from the Brit papers, but I’ve enjoyed the shows I’ve seen there under his tenure (Jacobi in THE TEMPEST…not the best Tempest, but the best Prospero I ever saw; Spacey, Eve Best, and Colm Meaney in a fabulous MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN). I also admire Spacey for his dedication to theatre when he could be making a mint in movies and to this theatre, in particular. I think he’s been very invigorating for it. And he’s been a great champion of and spokesman for British theatre and theatre, in general.

On the way back, I stopped at the National bookshop and bought copies of the plays we’ll be seeing. The bookshop could make a fortune if they’d sell all-region DVDs. I also did a whirl-by of the South Bank Book Market Stalls as I headed home and then ran into Deanna heading for her matinee, so I walked her back. I had seen photos of her, so there was no surprise in seeing her after thirty-odd years. But even if I hadn’t seen her until that moment, I’d have recognized her instantly. She has not changed all that much.

(Larry Drake, Me, Deanna Dunaga, Don Wyse in THE RAINMAKER)

We made arrangements where to meet after the show. But today was a double-header for Deanna and her final show is tomorrow, so our time with her would be pretty much walking back to the hotel. She is also under the weather, as the entire cast has been at one time or another. At the stage door, she had a middle-aged male fan waiting for her with programme in hand for her to sign…apparently a common occurrence.

Julieanne was out by the time I returned with papers and my lunch from one of the plethora of sandwich shops on Villiers. The cold was taking its toll, so I took another dose of medicine and crashed, getting up later to watch Obama’s inaugural on the telly until time for the theatre.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY was in the Lyttelton…the National’s proscenium stage ...and was brilliant! Deanna definitely deserved the Tony, as well as all the other honours and awards she’s received. How great to see her onstage again…and in the role of a lifetime. The rest of the cast was uniformly excellent. Here’s a production on the English stage (after a Broadway run) that came out of the American regional theatre (Steppenwolf in Chicago) with a regional cast. It shows what American Theatre can do with enough support, resources, and when not pandering to lowest common denominator tourists tastes. There are echoes of O’Neill and other greats; but it’s uniquely its own creature and wildly funny as well as powerful and moving. American theatre at its best!

After the show, we met Deanna at the Long Bar in the foyer along with a couple of her other friends, one an old beau from Texas, now a world renowned photographer. She said Emma Thompson had been at the matinee…just one of many notables who’ve seen the show. But apparently they don’t come backstage after…not tradition with them.

Deanna looks forward to the show closing, with the usual mixed emotions one always has about a successful run. She’s already turned down an offer to return to the Broadway production (Estelle Parsons is currently doing her role) and also turned down a gig at the Goodman. She’s understandably worn out and looking for a good rest. At the door of our hotel, we said goodnight to Deanna’s other friends who were off to Chinatown for a meal and we three toddled off to our respective rooms for the night.


I awoke to the sun shining and an exquisitely beautiful day in which we would not be able to indulge. Today was a double-header: a matinee of WAR HORSE and an evening performance of MRS. AFFLECK, both at the National.

(The National at Night)

THE WAR HORSE is an amazing technical affair of dazzling theatrics…something only the National can do (or can afford to do) and probably only do in the OLIVIER – large cast, fantastic effects, glorious puppetry and stagecraft. How this thing will transfer to a West End stage, as it plans, I’ve no idea. Deanna got us excellent house seats.

This was a revival of the National’s popular family holiday show, which seems to be a tradition. It’s usually an adaptation of a children’s book. I remember a glorious production of WIND IN THE WILLOWS and the past two spectacles have been based on the HIS DARK MATERIALS series by Philip Pullman and THE CORAM BOY, based on a novel by Jamila Gavin. Both of these were terrific. As is THE WAR HORSE. It is based on Michael Murporgo’s novel, adapted by Nicholas Stafford, about a young farm boy who follows his beloved horse into WWI. Against the tale of the boy searching for his horse, the horrors of the war and how it affects both men and horses unfolds.

The life-size puppets of mountable horses (usually moved by three puppeteers) are amazing as are the tanks, birds, and other puppet pieces that come into play. The puppeteer/actors, clad in black, are all plainly visible in the piece (as were the puppeteer/actors who operated the daemons in his DARK MATERIALS), but so brilliantly mesh with the production, their presence becomes part of the theatrical landscape and never an isolating intrusion. You do not see three people operating a horse puppet. You see a horse that becomes a character that you care and feel for. It’s all very moving, sentimental, and touching. Julieanne started weeping before the play started, just reading the programme. She’s already talking about enduring the early morning box office line to score another ticket to the sold-out show to see it again.

Sadly, our evening was not as enriching as our afternoon. MRS. AFFLECK is an updated adaptation of Ibsen’s LITTLE EYOLF. The author, Samuel Adamson, has set it in post-war 50’s Britain. We were seeing a preview; but I don’t think that had anything to do with what I found to be a misconceived effort.

I am a big Ibsen fan. It seems to me that he was toiling away in the fresh, fertile fields of psychology as a writer the same way that Freud and Jung were as psychiatrists at roughly the same time. The psychology and behaviour of his characters just always seems right on the money. I am also a big fan of LITTLE EYOLF, owning a DVD of a television version with Anthony Hopkins, Diana Rigg, and Peggy Ashcroft.

I felt the re-imagining and setting neither elucidated Ibsen’s original nor brought anything new to it. Nor did it shed any particular illumination on 50’s Britain that had any resonance for the audience. If anything, I felt it obscured the original play.

And I thought it rather badly staged, which was surprising…given that the director was Marianne Elliott, who was co-director of the WAR HORSE and had directed a production of THERESE RAQUIN I quite liked. The Cottesloe Theatre, the National’s black box, was configured in a long rectangle. Not a problem on the face of it, except that much of the stage went unused in the first act and most of the action took place in a kitchen set at the far end. We, on our side of the dress circle, were forced to constantly crane our necks to the left and often peek either over or under the balcony rails or a door-frame that cut the set right in half. An entire section of the kitchen, given the rectangular nature of the seating, was cut off from our view. Don’t directors pop around the audience during rehearsal to check sight lines?

The programme stated there would be a fifteen minute intermission. Upon our arrival, signs in the lobby stated that the intermission would be twenty-five minutes. The reason for this was a lumbering set change between acts. I stayed in the theatre and watched it. It was more like a strike than a set change, during which the entire kitchen/house set had to be dismantled and the area changed to a pier café (which at last, at least, utilized the entire stage). I can’t believe that they will get the change down from twenty-five minutes (and it was more like thirty) to fifteen during the next few days before opening.

The second act, even though we could see better, was not much improvement on the first… though the actors, always good, tried valiantly. Even when I’ve not particularly liked a play at the National (and those occasions have been rare), I’ve always enjoyed the production, production values, and felt it worth the price of the ticket. This one comes closest to not even fulfilling those criteria.


My cold was much better and I immediately tempted the fates by plunging into the morning drizzle to pick up our tickets for today’s play at the Donmar Warehouse in Seven Dials. And, since headed in that direction, I proceeded into Bloomsbury and the bookshops around the British Museum and Russell Hotel. My plans were thwarted as the drizzle became more belligerent, but not before discovering that another of my bookstores, ULYSSES, had bit the dust (or moved somewhere I know not).

I headed home, not wishing to exacerbate any residue of my cold and because, for the second time on this trip, I had caught my new silk Christmas scarf in my jacket zipper. Once home, after a tremendous struggle which raised and popped a massive blister on my finger, I managed to untangle scarf from zipper – but not without producing a tear in the silk. Foolish me. I should have kept the scarf as a dress scarf to be used with buttoned trench-coats and overcoats, not zippered jackets.

After a let-up in the rain, I ventured out again…this time down Piccadilly to Waterstone’s and then Hatchard’s. I picked up a boxed, signed, limited edition of THE REAVERS, which the author, George MacDonald Fraser, had signed before he died last year.

Hatchard’s, a lovely elegant bookshop, still has a most impressive history section. There were many books on many topics that I coveted and, in more extravagant days, would have bought, but I sense something of my acquisitiveness has fled. Part of it is simply that I just don’t have the bloody room anymore. But it’s more than that; I find myself passing shops that before I would have scoured, looking for something to buy. Must be age; never thought I’d reach a point where I’d say: “I’ve got too much shit.” The rain once again sent me home, but…in truth…I was pretty much done for the day.

Julieanne and I felt pangs of nostalgia walking passed our old flat in Upper St. Martin’s and other haunts enroute to the theatre tonight. I like the intimacy of the Donmar; but for tonight’s preview of BE NEAR ME, I could not get seats together. So Julieanne sat in the front row on the stage far left side; I two rows behind her. Not the most ideal seats; but intimate nonetheless. Ian McDiarmid, the play’s star, also adapted the material from a novel. Having not read the novel, I cannot tell how well he succeeded.

Julieanne and I conferred at intermission on our impressions…which were identical. First, the play seemed to meander leisurely to its first act focus. Probably necessarily, but it took awhile to figure out “just what is this play about?”

Secondly, two actors, playing two teenage school kids, had the most impenetrable Scottish accents…and Scottish slang accents (The play is a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland)…that we were only able to understand about every third line. We weren’t the only ones. Even the English audience was having difficulty deciphering it at times.

We also noticed some of those thrust-staging bugaboos that have been re-impressed upon us in recent years, working at Actors Guild. Too often, the actors faced one another so close together that we poor suckers on the sides were stuck looking at the back of somebody’s head. Give some ground and stagger those stances, folks. Other times, the actors were too far downstage, playing to the front, and once again, losing the sides.

Despite all that, we were enjoying the play and McDiarmid’s genial performance. The second act came on strong and interesting; broadening in scope, not really going where I thought it was headed, which was a nice surprise. It became more about just a priest getting amorous with a schoolboy. It was essentially about a man, not particularly devoted to the church nor its obligations, using it as a safe haven and escape from life in general. There is some exposition given to an old lost lover who never appears and apparently impacted this man’s character and choices; but it is given such a nodding glance, it makes no real impression (perhaps more of it is made in the book) which seems a flaw of the play. Use it or lose it. Still we both ultimately liked the play.


Julieanne was off at an ungodly hour to queue at the National to try and get another ticket to WAR HORSE. I don’t quite fathom this. Though I’ve seen films over and over and on occasion re-visited the same production of a play, I can’t really see returning to see something I saw just days before. I don’t really think you can re-create an experience and I’d rather spend the money on something else. But she feels the play was so overwhelming that she couldn’t take it all in.

Feeling almost in the pink again, I took off for Gray’s Antique Market which houses a lovely book mall, Biblion, as well. Despite the fact, I re-checked my route on a map before I left, I once again…as I always seem to…got lost in a maze of streets between Regent Street and Hyde Park east and west and Oxford Street and Picadilly north and south. This, however, in no way bothered me, as I knew how to get unlost, loved the ramble, and the little discoveries made. I came across a house emblazoned with a blue historical medallion declaring it to be the residence of the last Victorian courtesan, one Catherine Walker. I wonder if there is a book one can buy detailing all these historically blue-medallioned designated landmarks around London? It would be rather interesting.

I finally found got my bearings and got to Gray’s. Lots of interesting tomes, but only one tempted me – a colonial edition of BEAU GESTE that I’d never seen. But as I already have close to twenty variant editions of the book, I really couldn’t justify spending 30pds for yet another copy.
Now that I had fixed Gray’s firmly in my mind (but I’ll probably forget the next time too), I returned via nearby Regent Street and stopped in at Hamley’s toy store. Always impressive. I spent some time perusing the hand-painted toy historical figures…knights, zulu warriors, roman legions, etc. I probably could have gleefully taken up this hobby at some point in my life. But I resisted even the urge to buy a couple of cheaper plastic Roman centurions to place on my bookshelves and, once more on the street, cut through Carnaby Street into Soho, making a stop at The Vintage Magazine and Poster Shop on Brewer Street. Once again, my acquisitive nature not what it once was, I went home empty-handed.

(the old library in Hollywood)

(a portion of the new library in Kentucky)

Despite my love for the Old Vic’s legacy, the house itself is one of those rectangular affairs and I’ve learned to purchase seats in the stalls rather than the dress circle which has sight line problems. However, for THE NORMAN CONQUESTS ,the house had been re-configured into a theatre-in-the-round, eliminating the usual distancing and sight line problems of the circle, so we were in our usual place, in the front of the circle.

I liked the arena configuration, but I wished I was seeing the recently-closed NORMAN CONQUESTS instead of COMPLICIT, about which the rumours still abound. I actually wished I was seeing The Bridge Project that Spacey is doing with Sam Mendes. A joint company of American and British actors (including Simon Russell Beale...one of the best actors working, for my money) doing in rep WINTER’S TALE & THE CHERRY ORCHARD (in a new Stoppard adaptation) but that will not be here till summer and, by then, the theatre will have returned to its normal proscenium.

Despite all the press, I was determined to give COMPLICIT the benefit of the doubt. I had enjoyed Spacey’s defenses of both the play and Dreyfuss in the press; and I like Dreyfuss and his two co-stars David Suchet and Elizabeth McGovern. I found the play to be solid. Dreyfuss, despite a visible ear-piece, gave a yeoman performance and got stronger as the night went on. If he was being fed lines still, his acting style covered it neatly.

McGovern was wasted in an underwritten and somewhat thankless role. She also looks too young to play Dreyfuss’s wife, who looks his sixty-odd years. Acting honours went to David Suchet, always wonderful every time we see him (AMADEUS; VIRGINIA WOOLF). I found Dreyfuss very moving in the climax of the play.

I enjoyed the play…perhaps more for its message than actual stagecraft. It’s very Greek in the way that much of the action and dramatic confrontation happens off-stage while we see only the preludes and aftermaths of those moments. But it indicts us with the question of what have we been doing the last eight years while Bush and his thugs trampled the constitution and winnowed away our civil rights. Where was our outrage? Why weren’t we storming the Palace Gates over such blatant injustice and tyranny? If we remain complacent, don’t we all become complicit? To quote Terry Pratchett's discworld novel THUD: “You can’t call yourselves the good guys when you do bad things.”

(So ends Part II. Final installment will appear shortly. Entertaining, Mr. Sloane and the Pitmen Painters still to come. We encounter fluffy bits, old reviews, and ICE! Stay tuned and drop us a comment or two.)