Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Low Point

The other night in a break between the end of a rehearsal and the start of a lighting session of Turandot at the Coliseum I wandered across Covent Garden to a pub which is not normally full of young people enjoying themselves and which normally has football on telly. I bought a pint and sat down to watch Chelsea against some Cypriot (I think) no hopers in the Champions League. After a few minutes a memory of some events that occurred 40 years ago started to replay in my head, why a single pint of bitter, a bag of peanuts and an early Chelsea goal should have triggered this memory I have no idea. I have never forgotten these events but on the other hand I have not given them a moment’s thought for years, they have remained sandwiched somewhere between childhood holidays and first marriage on the shelves in the stockroom of my consciousness.

So this is a piece about depression and before you click the exit box I should reassure you that it has a happy ending, of sorts, and there are a couple of jokes on the way. If you have never suffered from depression you are lucky, a high percentage of the population will suffer from it at some point in their lives, if you have suffered from depression and come out the other side I salute you and if you are depressed now I don’t suppose that reading this will make the slightest difference and I am sorry for that.

I started to be depressed during my last year at school and continued to be affected with varying degrees of intensity for about two years. I have no idea what caused it, no that’s not quite true, but adolescent depression is common enough, hormonal imbalance may have been the cause and I will leave it at that for now. It is not just feeling gloomy, it is not just feeling ‘a bit blue’; at its worst depression is an almost physical anguish that can leave you literally doubled up on the floor. It can also be a secretive illness that will allow you to function normally, to be a jolly bloke in a pub, to go to lectures and tutorials and no one can tell, no one will notice and you won’t tell them partly because you don’t know what to tell them and partly because you are ashamed. Coupled with depression comes suicide and self harming, though forty years ago ‘self harming’ hadn’t been invented. I think that every would-be suicide has a favoured method of ending it all, my own was wrist slashing with a cut-throat razor, I never thought of suicide by any other means. The idea of waiting in the undergrowth on a railway embankment and stepping out in front of a train, as people do on a regular basis between Wimbledon and Waterloo, was unthinkable. The humiliation of a failed overdose with stomach pumps and so on would be unbearable and jumping off something high never appealed as I have no head for heights.

My lowest point came in my second term at university, in a decisively deranged moment I decided to run away from it all and head off to Istanbul then the first step on the way to the East, Katmandu and all that mystic hippy stuff, which I heartily despised, but I had enjoyed Turkey in my gap year (also not invented then, we just had a year in which to mess about). I cleared my bank account, packed virtually nothing apart from my trusty cut-throat razor and caught the train south to London and from Victoria I took the boat-train to Dover and Ostend. It was February, a stormy night and the night ferry then was even less appealing than it is now. I don’t remember much about the four hour crossing other than that it was very rough and that a lot of people were seasick. I have a hazy memory of something happening in the bar as we neared Ostend, that tipped me off my own personal cliff of despair and I went to the toilets, which were swimming in vomit, and locked myself in a cubicle. My obsession with wrist slashing had led me to some basic research and I knew that to succeed one needed to lie in a warm bath otherwise the blood clots and you don’t die but a medical student had told me that rather than go for the superficial veins the thing to do was to go for the artery below the tendons which operate one’s thumb and forefinger. Cut that artery and bingo! oblivion is almost guaranteed. So I set to work with my cut throat razor but while I quickly made a deep wound between the tendons which started to bleed profusely, I discovered that arteries are both slippery and tough customers and that the only way to get at this particular one would be by sawing my way through the obstructing tendons first, something that wasn’t in my plan. You may well say ‘Oh come on, what’s a tendon or two in the broad scheme of things when death is one’s destination’ but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Luckily I was saved from any further agonising by an announcement on the public address system telling all foot passengers to go to C deck for disembarkation. I hastily bound up the wound in my left wrist with a handkerchief, not easy to do with one hand and one’s teeth, and found my way to the queue for the gangway to the dockside. Luckily I was at the back of the queue, otherwise anyone behind me would have noticed that I was leaving a significant trail of blood. The customs man made his chalk mark on my bag but as I left the customs shed he noticed the blood dripping from my hand and shouted, not aggressively but in concern ‘Monsieur! Monsieur!’. I ran out through the dock gates and into the streets of Ostend. I wandered about for a while not sure whether to go back to the dock and the railway station but was worried that the customs man might have told the police to watch out for me. I had to do something, I was wearing only a jacket and shirt and it was a bitter night, at 4.00am the streets were deserted and everything was shut, I was in danger of freezing to death. I walked along the front, where there is a row of rather elegant Edwardian hotels, all were closed up and dark except one where the lights in the foyer were on. I walked in to utter silence but after a moment a door under the stairs opened and a tiny man and a Jack Russell terrier emerged. The man was no more than 4’ 6” tall and wore a livery of some sort and I assumed he was the night porter. I couldn’t think of anything more intelligent to say than ‘Petit dejeuner?’. I must have looked a sight, long haired, wild eyed, blood stained, but after a pause he pushed open a door, turned on some lights and ushered me into a vast dining room illuminated by three large crystal chandeliers. There were dozens of tables, all set for breakfast with battalions of immaculately folded napkins. He pulled out a chair at the table nearest to the door and indicated that I should sit, he vanished but the Jack Russell sat on the floor next to me, presumably ensuring that I didn’t steal the silver. The little man returned with a pot of coffee, fresh bread and croissants that had perhaps only just been delivered from a local bakery, he brought cheese, sausage, butter and jam. It’s hard to describe just how delicious that breakfast was but you must remember that forty years ago French bread and croissants had not made the trip across the Channel, Hovis was about as good as it got in England. He left me alone to eat, but all the while the dog sat at my feet so close that I could feel his warmth through my trouser leg. When I had finished I got up to pay but the little man briskly waved away my money and gently shooed me out of the front door. It would be nice to say that this act of kindness turned my life around but of course it didn’t, but it did enable me to pull myself together and get back on a ferry to England and from that moment my life has only got better. It took many months for me to sort myself out and find a life that I was prepared to live but that night was both the low point and the turning point in my life. As souvenirs of that February night I have a ragged scar on my left wrist and a tendency to approach most things in life with almost insane optimism.

Finally I will share with you a great line from the Psychiatrist’s Manual. At some point someone noticed that all was not well with me and I was packed off to the Tavistock Clinic, a fashionable outfit specialising in the treatment of disturbed adolescents. At the first three sessions I said nothing, literally nothing, I sat hunched in an armchair resentful, paranoid and traumatised. My psychiatrist probably looked forward to my weekly visit as an opportunity to catch up with some paperwork but on my fourth visit I started to talk and talk at some length. When I finished he came out with a line that, in retrospect, I know was probably one that he used on a regular basis and perhaps psychiatrists are taught this line in psychiatrist school, but he said “Bloody Hell! I’m not surprised that you’re depressed”. Thank you Dr Miller wherever you are, and 40 years on you are probably in that great Consulting-Room-in-the-Sky, it was one of the nicest things that anyone has ever said to me.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A Mouse or a Moth

A golem is a monstrous creature of Jewish legend created out of clay and animated by the use of magic. The best known story involves the Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel who is reputed to have created a golem around 1580 in order to protect the Prague ghetto from an anti-semitic pogrom. This and other stories are the basis of three famous silent movies made between 1914 and 1920 by actor/director Paul Wegener, classics of German Expressionist cinema, which were to have an enormous influence on Hollywood horror films of the future. Of the three movies only the last The Golem – How He Came into the World exists in complete form, the second The Golem and the Dancing Girl has vanished entirely and there are only fragments of the first, which is simply entitled The Golem. Why am I telling you all this? I am sure that few of my readers have any particular interest in German silent movies. The reason is that these movies are at the core of the story that I am about to tell, but it is not my story it is the story of Mike Danfers.

I met Mike during my first, and as it happens my only year at university. He was in his second year and had the rooms across the landing from mine. I can’t remember what he was reading but he was a much more serious minded individual than I and we had little in common apart from an obsession with cinema. This he approached with great intellectual rigour writing impenetrable essays on obscure Balkan art movies for academic film magazines, attending seminars on ‘Symbolism in Early Argentine Gaucho Films’ and suchlike while I queued in the rain for late night ‘splatter’ movies. He had a pretty girlfriend called Liz, who was up at Newnham, and would gamely clamber over the walls of our college late at night in order to share his bed, but when she had an essay to write and stayed away Mike would pop across the landing to share a bedtime joint with me. We lost touch for a few years after my departure from the university but when I finally stumbled into a theatrical career we started to come across each other in the West End where he spent a lot of time in research at the British Film Institute which in those days was based in Soho. We would meet for coffee or an early evening beer, sometimes if I wasn’t busy he would invite me to join him in one of the BFI’s tiny preview theatres to watch whatever neglected classic it was that he was researching that week.

Some years ago, long enough ago that Old Compton Street was the street of a hundred porn shops rather than a hundred gay coffee shops, I had a call from him inviting me for a lunchtime drink. He sounded excited which was unusual as Mike normally kept his enthusiasms on a tight leash. He was already in our customary corner of the Coach & Horses when I arrived and I had barely taken a sip of my pint before he broke his big news.
“I think I might have a lead on a complete print of The Golem! You know! The first of the three”.
I did know and was delighted for Mike. This discovery could be a significant feather in his cap. Mike had received a call from Kaspar, an old friend at the Czech National Film School in Prague, saying that a basement full of film stock had been discovered in an obscure government building. What you may ask does a room full of film cans in Prague have to do with a German movie made hundreds of miles away in Berlin while Prague was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Apparently at some point in late 1941 when the RAF began bombing Berlin on a nightly basis Goebbels decided to move the German National Film Archive, mostly held at the UFA studios, out of harms way to Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) which was out range of Bomber Command. The archive consisted largely of sound films made after the Nazis came to power but there was a significant amount of earlier silent material. Initially the Nazis had set out to destroy any film with a Jewish connection but they quickly realised that if they did this they would have virtually no pre 1930 film archive at all, so they picked out a few of the most obviously ‘Jewish’ titles for public burning but left the rest to moulder in their cans. The archive was loaded onto a train which duly set out for Breslau but were caught up in the preparations for the German assault on Russia and were diverted via Prague. At this point the train was commandeered by the Wehrmacht and the archive was dumped in warehouses near the main railway station. Eventually it was reloaded and continued on its way to Breslau apart from a couple of wagon loads which never made it. How do we know this? We know this because Germans are sticklers for paperwork and in the 1960s keen students of German cinema followed the paper trail and it appears that these 2 wagons never left Prague and have never been traced. Furthermore it appeared from a sketchy inventory that a substantial part of early German movie history might be in the missing consignment quite possibly including the The Golem. With some financial and administrative help from the BFI Mike was able to leave almost immediately for Prague and in fact was going the very next morning. I was both happy for him, who I always thought led an unnecessarily dull life, and a little envious. Czechoslovakia at that time had only just ceased to be a Soviet satellite and Prague was not the coach party and stag night venue that it is today, there was still a whiff of Cold War sulphur in the air of Wenceslas Square. I wished him well and we parted early as he had packing to do and a visa to collect.

Neither Mike nor I were of an age when letter writing was a normal thing to do so I was surprised a few days later to receive an airmail letter postmarked Prague. In his first sentence Mike anticipated my surprise.

Dear Ted,
A letter from me eh! Who’d have thought it, but there is no one here at the Pension Brezina who I can talk to as I don’t know a word of Czech (other than pivo which means beer) and my German is not good enough to hold a decent conversation with the couple from Munich that I meet in the breakfast room. As you can probably tell I am just a bit excited but I had better start at the beginning. The flight, the taxi, the blah blah were all OK. This Pension is run by a Mrs Folgar who is rather fat, wears incredibly frilly pink things and always wants to talk which can be tiresome but she gives me a glass of schnapps when I come in at night which makes up for a lot. It’s all a bit “Mr Norris Changes Trains” if you know what I mean. Anyway my flight landed mid-afternoon and I came straight here, dumped my kit and got a cab to the address of the storehouse, archive or whatever it is, that Kaspar gave me. I couldn’t resist I couldn’t wait. It was a ten minute ride to a very dull looking 1930s office block. I presented myself to a shabby commissionaire who said nothing but picked up the phone and spoke for a few moments looking at me suspiciously as he did so. After a couple of minutes a tall stern looking woman appeared and said simply ‘Passport’. I handed it over, she studied it for a while and then beckoned me to follow her down some stairs into the basement. We passed through a long room shelved out floor to ceiling, every shelf groaning with buff folders and, every 10 rows of shelves there was a man sitting at a desk doing nothing, and I mean nothing, not a crossword in sight. In the furthest corner of the room was a steel door which the stern lady opened with a key from a bunch that she wore on her belt. She pulled the door open reached inside for a light switch and then ushered me in. I found myself at the top of a short iron staircase looking down into a large room piled high with boxes, crates and above all thousands of cans of film. I don’t know if you ever saw that 70s movie’ Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ but at that moment I felt like a kid on the banks of the Chocolate River. I looked back at Miss Stern for confirmation that it was OK to go down and she shrugged and gestured with both hands indicating that it was all mine as far as she was concerned but then she raised a warning finger and by a rather elaborate mime made it clear that the office closed at 5.00. This was only half an hour away but enough time for an initial survey of my kingdom. Narrow aisles had been left between the stacks of crates and cans and I threaded my way around the room. At first glance there was no obvious system to the way that things were laid out but that was not surprising if you consider that the whole lot had been loaded and unloaded several times by people who didn’t give a damn. Some were identified with swastika headed labels, the type written script faded to a pale violet, some carried rather neat art-deco style UFA labels, some had labels from lesser German studios and many had labels that were either illegible or non-existent. I opened an unmarked can at random and held the first few feet up to yellowish light above my head. I couldn’t make out the credit titles but the celluloid seemed to be in perfect condition which was encouraging. I made a mental note to ask Miss Stern if I could have some replacement light bulbs and to buy myself a good torch. The only downside was the smell, there was a distinct tang of drains in the air but I guessed that after a few minutes I would stop noticing it. Miss Stern opened the door the door at the top of the steps and I took my cue to leave thanking her profusely as I went.

That was yesterday. This morning I was up early to buy the torch, plenty of spare batteries, a cheap desk lamp, sticky labels, an extension lead, cleaning materials, a lunch box and thermos which I filled with the help of Mrs Folgar. I put all of this with the flight case that contained my mobile preview kit into a taxi and set off for the archive, though to be honest it doesn’t deserve such a grand title. On the doorstep when I got there was Kaspar and Miss Stern who he quickly introduced as Mrs Nemcova (but I like to think of her as Miss Stern). We did a bit of Eastern European hugging (Kaspar & I, not Miss Stern who just looked stern) which I found difficult, but when in Rome….Then Kaspar explained that the ministry had asked him to come round and make sure that I understood what the terms of my visit here were. The doors opened at 9.00am and closed at 5.00pm, I had to be out by 5.00 not five-past. I was expressly forbidden from removing anything whatsoever from the archive, I was to leave a copy of any notes or inventories that I might make with the ministry. Smoking was absolutely forbidden. Beyond that the people of Czechoslovakia welcomed me to Prague. Then Kaspar announced that he had to go to Bratislava for a fortnight to organise a Slovak Film School, we did a bit more hugging then he left.
Miss Stern smiled at me thinly and then to my utter amazement handed me a key to the basement.

So here I am, all set up. The money from the BFI will cover me for a month and I guess I can fund myself for a couple of weeks after that. I pulled together some crates which I dusted down to give myself a work surface close to the only electric socket that I could see. I set up the BFI’s mobile viewer (it’s like the things you see in edit suites) and made a start. My Holy Grail is of course The Golem but I have a duty to dig up as much as possible in the time available so my plan is to ignore anything clearly labelled with a swastika and concentrate on cans that are from commercial studios or are unlabelled.
I picked a corner of the room and made a start. Irritatingly a lot of the unlabelled cans seem to be uncut documentary Nazi footage of good looking blonde young Germans building autobahns, bridges, factories or harvesting in glorious summer sunshine. There were three cans full of footage of rural blacksmiths at work. I have come across a few thrillers and romances. These I label carefully with cast and production credits and stack in date order. So far very little silent footage and that not of any great interest, the biggest drawback is the drain smell which doesn’t get any better though every time I open a film can I get a waft of a rather pleasant chemical smell which obliterates the drains for a moment. I ate my packed lunch in the park across the road and had a quick beer from a kiosk there. At five-to-five Miss Stern put her head round the door and I switched off and packed up. She was waiting for me as I came up out of the basement, she smiled broadly at me, said nothing but took a mirror from her handbag which she held up to me and laughed. I looked like a chimney sweep.
I went back to the pension, cleaned up, had supper with Mrs Folgar, collated my notes and now I have written you this letter. Not a bad first day eh!
Mike D
PS I can’t seem to get World Service on my tranny here. How did Everton get on at the weekend?

I was staggered to get a letter this long from Mike and his excitement was infectious. I called Liz, who I had kept in touch with even though she and Mike had broken up a couple of years earlier, to read her extracts. She had received an equally buoyant postcard from Prague. A week later I received another letter.

Dear Ted
End of Week 1
Firstly no sign of The Golem, but apart from that a really amazing week. Alright two thirds of what I have been viewing has been Nazi kitsch with occasional anti-semitic propaganda thrown in, but the other third! I think I have found at least half a dozen silents previously believed to be lost and several very early talkies that I have no record of and may be discoveries. The basement is a bit like a time machine, every morning I step on board and plunge straight into the 1920s and 30s, this really is an extraordinary experience.
On my second day Miss Stern greeted me at the front desk and presented me with a pair of green overalls which certainly make life easier. She sometimes pops her head round the door presumably to check if I am still alive but she never comes in. One day I was running one of my favourite finds, a series of silent clips of Berlin cabaret stars. I was watching a pair of excellent knockabout clowns called Klik and Klak when she opened the door, I waved for her to come down and take a look but she wrinkled her nose and retreated. On that same cabaret reel was some footage of a ventriloquist at work which must some of the worst use of silent film ever!
Some of the Nazi stuff is absolutely disgusting and after a while it gets to you and I don’t sleep too well. I have dreams where I am in a cornfield or a village street standing behind a pretty young girl with long blonde pigtails, I tap her on the shoulder and when she turns to look at me she has the face of a haggard old woman. The shock wakes me every time and I find I am drenched in sweat. I have another dream which is always identical, I see a Nazi official in uniform, wearing a cap the same shape as the one General de Gaulle used to wear but with a swastika on the front, he is standing on a street corner outside a butcher’s shop. He is fat and rather jolly but he seems to be inspecting the passers-by closely. Every so often a small boy runs up to him and points someone out in the crowd. He thanks the boy and pats him on the head. I have had this dream several times and while there is nothing particularly shocking in it I find it unsettling and the image of this man returns to me during the day. I think my problem may be the smell in the basement which is perhaps affecting me at night. It seems to be getting stronger. One morning I bought a bunch of flowers on my way in (I walk in every morning now, Prague is a splendid city awash with beautiful women) and I’m afraid that Miss Stern may have thought they were for her, she looked a bit miffed when I vanished into the basement with them. I put the flowers next to me on my workbench but after less than an hour their smell was overwhelmed by the drain smell. In fact the smell has changed a bit and is more like the smell of dossers sleeping rough. Do you remember the old bloke that used to sleep in that alley next to the Eagle? Remember the stench in that alley? It’s a bit like that but stronger. It got so bad that I tried moving my workbench to the other side of the room but that made no difference
Tomorrow is Sunday, my first day off. I will do touristy things, drink beer and leer at blondes.

Mike D

Another great letter and I was particularly cheered that he might be leering at blondes. The break up with Liz had been at her instigation, while they got on perfectly well, she felt that they weren’t going anywhere and that Mike’s lack of commitment was infuriating. Mike for his part was broken hearted but to be fair to Liz he was entirely bound up in his research and hadn’t been paying attention. Anyway Golem or not it looked as if the Prague trip might give his career a welcome leg up and if he got laid into the bargain all the better.

Or so I thought until 3 days later when I was having a quiet morning in my office with some budgets when Mike burst in. Our PA Agnes stood behind him waving her hands despairingly.
“Sorry Ted! He just ran in”
“No problem. Come in Mike. Make yourself at home” I said but then saw the look of panic on his face. “What is it?”
Mike grabbed my arm “Tell me I’m not mad. I think I’m going insane”.
“Calm down man. What’s happened?”
He was almost gibbering. I steered him to a chair.
“Sit down. Deep breaths and tell me what’s happened. I had a letter from you a couple of days ago”. I made a quick mental calculation, that letter would have been written a week ago. ”Everything was great then. What happened?”
Eventually he did sit down and started to talk more or less coherently. In the interests of clarity I have edited what he said.
“Everything was OK except for the smell. I became a bit obsessed about it, I became convinced that there was someone else in the room hence the dosser smell. I searched the room several times, I crawled around with my torch searching for the source of the smell and in the end I found that it was strongest where I was working. I moved my workbench a couple of times but the smell just followed me and seemed to get stronger. I tried to ignore it and I managed to plough on through mile after mile of Nazi Ministry of Works or whoever’s image of the new Germany, interspersed with the occasional romantic comedy or thriller. I did get better at spotting and avoiding the dull stuff which was good but I was barely making any inroads on the room as a whole and worst of all I was finding very little silent footage. Then two days ago I was spooling my way through a 20s costume drama and the smell was as bad as it ever had been….no hang on smell is the wrong word, stench is better, the stench was as bad as it had been, when I saw something move between the film cans on my workbench, a tiny movement, just out of the corner of my eye. I am methodical, you know me. Every morning I would stack what I was going to view at the left hand end of the bench and as I viewed, logged and sorted them I moved them across and they ended up at the right hand end of the desk so for most of the day I was faced by a wall of film cans and it was in a gap between two stacks that I glimpsed something pale move. A mouse or a moth? I hadn’t seen a trace of any living thing in the basement, no droppings, no cobwebs. I wasn’t sure what I had seen. I stood up and looked over and behind the cans. Nothing. It was the moment in a horror movie when one character says to another ‘Did you see that?’ and the other says ‘Oh it was nothing. A trick of the light.’ But I was alone so I said it to myself and carried on working. I still felt uneasy and for the first time I knocked off early and spent the evening wandering round Prague trying out different bars, chatting to anyone who could understand me, desperate to flush out what seemed to be a mental as well as a physical stink. That night my dreams were as vivid as ever, but in the one with the Nazi outside the butcher’s shop I had a different viewpoint. I was looking from behind him, over his shoulder, and I could see the passing crowds moving relentlessly down a long hill. At the bottom was a large building of some sort, a railway station or a factory.
The next morning I went back in and I felt OK. I worked well into the afternoon but then the same thing happened, the merest flicker of movement in the furthest periphery of my vision and the stench became overpowering. I got up and went to the top of the little iron staircase and gazed out across the basement. Nothing moved, there was not a sound, there was a smell, the stench, and nothing more, but I was frightened. I wanted to run out of the room and not come back. I sat down on the top step and did what I’m doing now, I tried to be rational. To be honest if it hadn’t been for my natural stubbornness and the thought that The Golem might be in that room I think I would have left there and then. Now I wish I had. Oh I really wish I had left right then.”
At this point Mike stopped and looked warily round the room checking for what I wasn’t sure. Then he went on.
“I mentally rolled up my sleeves, I went back and sat down at my bench and it was then that I saw what I had been sharing the basement with for the past fortnight. About two feet away from me, standing on the worktop was a tiny man, the size of my thumb, perhaps a little bigger, 4 inches tall, no more. He was completely naked, a fat man with a sagging belly, thinning black hair but above all he was filthy, he seemed to have soiled himself and he stank. I sat frozen, my mouth probably open, but I could make no sound. He smiled gently at me but I knew that he was evil, nothing but evil. There was a ruler on the bench and for a moment I thought I might grab it and chop him down, then I had the absurd thought that I could grab him, imprison him in my briefcase and exhibit him forever after in a freak show. I did neither because I knew that he was much more powerful than I was. He knew me, he understood me. His eyes said ‘I know all about you. I know what you really want.’“
Mike paused and asked if I had some water. He stood and looked out of the window while I went next door to fetch some. When I came back I was about to say something as he turned back from the window but I saw that he was crying.
“Ted it was pure evil and I was held by it. I couldn’t move. ” I gave him the water and sat him down again.
“Look” I said “ we both know that 4 inch high humans don’t exist. We both know…”
“Wait I haven’t finished.” he cut in “In the end I shouted at him, I don’t know what I shouted, but in fury or fear I shouted at him and then I ran up the staircase and out of the building into the fresh air. I was never going back into that basement again. I said to myself what you were about to say to me; that 4 inch high men don’t exist and therefore this must have been a hallucination but you and I had our fair share of hallucinations in our hippy days and this was nothing like those. He was as real as you are now and his smell was real too. I got on the first tram that passed and went back to the Pension Brezina where I called the airport and changed my flight for the first one this morning. I told Mrs Folgar that I had family problems back home and she could see that I was distressed and so made no difficulties about my leaving a month earlier than expected. She booked me a cab for this morning and promised to wash my overalls and return them to Miss Stern. In fact she rather took me in hand last night and put me in an armchair in her parlour, found some football on TV and brought me supper on a tray. We drank schnapps and more schnapps and I crawled up to my room to pack and hide from whoever or whatever the tiny man was. It was OK and I felt safe and eventually, helped by the schnapps, I went to sleep. Later something woke me, I turned on the bedside light and sat up, there was the sound of Mrs Folgar’s central heating and perhaps distant traffic but nothing else. Nothing in the room had changed but I was suddenly wide awake. Then it hit me the smell, the stench, was in the room. I was out of bed and dressed in seconds, I didn’t wait to see if I had a tiny visitor, I grabbed my bag, ran downstairs and out into the street. I walked until I found a taxi and went straight to the airport. I sat in biggest, most open space that I could find until the check-in desks opened and when I got through to the Departure Lounge I went straight to the bar and ordered a large Scotch and a salami roll. I sat on a stool….Jesus! Ted this was only four hours ago….and I buried my nose in the glass of scotch. I’m not a big Scotch drinker but what a great smell! I thought I was safe but next to me was a tray of condiments, vinegar, dressing and so on and I reached for the mustard and there was the tiny man, filthy, naked and leering at me. I jumped back and shouted at the girl behind the bar ‘Can you see him? Look he’s there!’ I looked again and he was gone. I fled before she could call security and went to wait at the departure gate. I came here straight from the airport. I didn’t want to be alone. I had to talk to someone”
“Ok. Let’s get you sorted.” I said, not feeling as calm as I sounded. “You have obviously been inhaling some sort of toxin in that basement and the first thing we need to do is get to the bottom of that. Who’s your GP?”
In his frantic state it took Mike a few moments to remember who his doctor was but when he did I made the call and Dr Bowmaker agreed to see him as soon as I could get him there. I got Agnes to cancel the rest of my day and Mike and I set off in a cab for West Hampstead where Mike still lived in the tiny flat that he and Liz had once shared. The doctor’s practice was a couple of streets away and I sat in the waiting room thumbing through six month old Hello Magazines and Gardener’s World while Mike went into the consulting room. After about twenty minutes Dr Bowmaker came out and beckoned me over to a quiet corner and asked me a few basic questions, essentially checking Mike’s story. When I had confirmed everything that Mike had presumably told him he said “I’m pretty sure that you got it about right when you said to Mike that he had been poisoned in that basement. There are a range of fairly obscure chemicals that can cause the delusionary effects that he seems to have been experiencing. To be on the safe side I’ve got him a bed tonight in a psychiatric unit, St Ursula’s, it’s just off the Finchley Rd. Do you know it?” I shook my head. He gave me directions.
“These toxins normally get flushed out of the system pretty quickly and leave no lasting effects. I would think that Mike will be right as rain in 48 hours. But what a chump to keep on going down there! Anyway I have given him a couple of hefty tranquillisers to keep him on an even keel until you get him to St Ursula’s. I hope that’s OK with you.”
I followed him back to the consulting room where Mike looked much better already.
“I am actually mad then it seems” he said cheerfully
“Yep. Stark raving bonkers. Come on St Ursula’s here we come” I replied.

St Ursula’s was exactly what an NHS hospital should be and not what the Daily Mail would have you believe they are. Modern, quietly efficient and above all reassuring, Mike was admitted with a minimum of fuss. He kept what he needed overnight and I took the remainder of his stuff to his flat. I called Liz who said she would look in on him the next morning. When I left him he looked, if not cheerful, at least relieved that matters had been taken out of his hands. In fact he spent two nights in St Ursula’s but was absolutely back to normal when, on the following Saturday, I went up to his place armed with a six pack to watch football on telly. We didn’t talk much about events in Prague and he seemed a little shamefaced to have caused such a fuss and so I glossed over it and we had a jolly evening.
A couple of days later I travelled to Edinburgh on business and I got a message to call Liz when I checked in to my hotel. She was in tears when she answered. Mike had hung himself the previous night. His body had been discovered by Mrs Jackson, his Jamaican cleaning lady who came in twice a week to tidy up and lecture him on his lack of a wife. Apparently he had hung himself off a hot water pipe in his tiny kitchen, in his death throes he had kicked a packet of cereal off the worktop and the floor was covered in corn flakes. He had left a note which said simply ‘Sorry. I can’t stand the smell’.

There was an inquest. Mrs Jackson and I gave evidence and a finding of suicide while the balance of the mind was disturbed was inevitable. The coroner muttered something about possible chemical imbalance but none of the tests carried out at St Ursula’s nor the post mortem showed any sign of toxins in Mike’s system. His mother Edie had travelled up from Paignton and Liz and I did our best to comfort her. We had both met her when Mike had been up at the university and she was devastated. She was long widowed and Mike was her only child, she kept scrapbooks containing all his articles, his few appearances on late night TV arts programmes were the stuff of legend in the crescent where she lived. The funeral, at Kensal Rise Crematorium was a sparsely attended and grim affair. There were a handful of relatives, some of Mike’s fellow denizens of the BFI library and a couple of old college mates. We had a drink in the pub across the road and no one found much to say. Before she left to catch her train back to Devon, Edie came to Liz and I and asked if we would mind organising the clearance of Mike’s flat. She had removed any personal items or mementoes and she said we should dispose of the rest as we saw fit. Of course we agreed and Liz and I decided to meet at the flat the next day to start sorting things out.

Liz was waiting for me on the doorstep of Mike’s block the following morning. I said “Are you OK for this? I can do it if you can’t.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s the least we can do for Edie”. She tried to look plucky but I could see that she clutched a tissue in one hand. We went up to the second floor and I opened Mike’s front door.
“Pooh” said Liz “something’s gone off in here”. She tossed her handbag onto the sofa and stomped off in the direction of the kitchen. The smell was overwhelming but not of rotting food. Surely it was the ‘stench’ as described by Mike. I felt terror, sheer terror, I looked around the room, I scanned the shelves of books, the piles of CDs, and finally the mantelpiece. Did something move? Something pale? What was Mike’s phrase? Was it a mouse or a moth?
“Liz!” I shouted “We’ve got to go! Now! Right now!.” I snatched up her bag and it was probably the fact that I was clutching her handbag rather than my expression that convinced her that, for whatever reason, we had to go. I seized her arm and dragged her away down the stairs and into the street. I made her run until we reached the corner. Over coffee in the kebab house next to the tube station I told Liz exactly what Mike had told me that day in my office, she had only heard the coroner’s version which vaguely mentioned delusions. We came to a guilty decision. I borrowed a copy of the Yellow Pages from behind the counter and arranged with a local company who advertised under the banner ‘House Clearances Undertaken’ for them to empty the flat and then we walked away.


Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Room 613

I loathe Las Vegas. I don’t fear it, I loathe it. Everything that is crapulent about the human condition is glorified, sanctified and beatified there. So, on the odd occasions when I have to go there on business, and I tell friends or colleagues where I am off to, they say things like “Oh you lucky dog” or “Nice work if you can get it” and I snarl politely. For me it is a long flight ending in a series of jet lagged meetings, punctuated by sleepless Nevada nights sitting up in bed watching reruns of Friends. The casinos are obscene, row after row of black-jack and crap tables, armies of robotic croupiers and acre upon acre of slots. The shows are bland beyond belief, even the Cirque du Soleil shows while being incredibly inventive and visually dazzling have all the emotional heart of a parking meter. The answer to survival in Vegas is to bring a lot of good books and a complete set of Mozart Piano Concertos on CD and lock yourself in your hotel room and pretend that you are in Berlin, though I have found that ordering room service in German doesn’t work. None of the above however has anything to do with the story that I am about to tell.

Some years ago a Las Vegas production of a musical that I was involved with was mooted. It was a heavy mechanical show and the Vegas version would require substantial building works and hydraulic plant installation. I was sent out by the London producers to referee a series of meetings between our creative team, the casino owners, who were promoting the show, and the local building contractors. My flight, in business, was pleasant enough, and. I was booked into the hotel attached to the casino, which for legal reasons I shall refer to as the ‘Miracle’. The hotel was one of the oldest in Vegas dating as far back as the 1970s but regular refurbishment had kept it near the top of the pile and the foyer was a triumph of excess over taste. I checked into room 614 and was escorted there by a smart young bell-hop who I duly over-tipped after he had shown me how to open the minibar and how to operate the TV. Unlike New York where hotel rooms come in two sizes, matchbox and shoe box, Vegas rooms tend to be more expansive and this one was no exception, with room to swing several cats. There was a vast double bed, a black marbled bathroom, a walk in wardrobe and the whole was furnished in surprisingly good taste. Next to the wardrobe was a door that was locked which presumably led to the adjoining room and could be unlocked in order to create a suite. The early morning sun streamed through the window and if I craned my neck I could just glimpse ‘The Strip’ though the gap between the Miracle and the Bellagio.

In the interests of ‘hitting the tarmac running’ I had taken a flight that got me into Vegas early in the morning and I had just enough time for a bath and breakfast before heading out to my first meeting. All present lived up to their stereotypes, the casino management looked like hit-men for the mob, the local contractors were all called Chuck and were enormously overweight and the UK creative team were all as camp as camp can be. Musical affairs occupied me all day and in the evening I had dinner with the Miracle’s General Manager, Mike Fiorelli. Mike was a relative newcomer to Vegas having moved there only five years before but had developed an almost obsessive interest in the history of the city. Somewhat tentatively, bearing in mind his surname, I asked him about the relationship between the Mafia and Vegas in general and The Miracle in particular. He chuckled. “Ted, that’s all in the past. These days Vegas is cleaner than Disneyland, everything’s corporate now, Warner, Time Life, Sony, and to keep us all on the straight and narrow the FBI and IRS have dozens if not hundreds of undercover agents in all the casinos. Frankly Ted we can’t blow our noses here without someone in Washington knowing.” Then he gave a wry smile “But it wasn’t always like this” and he told me a little about the origins of the Miracle. The original owner was a local man, Mortimer Woodford, whose family had been in the area long before Vegas as a gambling haven was even a twinkle in a mobster’s eye. They had made a lot of money selling plots of land to the casino developers and during the explosive expansion of the city during the 1970s Woodford decided that rather than selling land to others he would build his own casino, the Miracle. He was determined to outspend the competition and flew in architects and designers from Europe, Dior designed the staff liveries, the theatre was to be the largest in town but as construction started Woodford’s arrogance fuelled resentments from the other casinos, nearly all of whom were controlled by East Coast Mafia families. He began to be beset by difficulties, niggling at first, construction problems, union disputes and vandalism but as he soldiered on planning and licensing issues reared their head and he became bogged down in a string of long drawn out and expensive legal disputes.
‘Eventually’ said Mike ‘he ran out of time and money. Despite a lot of public statements that he was going to complete the Miracle ‘Come Hell or high water’ he had to sell out to Danny de Santos, a big player among the East coast families.” Apparently there was a meeting on site, Woodford had only built up to the sixth of thirty floors by that point, where de Santos forced him to sign over all rights to the Miracle. A bitter Woodford left Vegas never to be seen again. At that point Mike said we both had an early start and he went home and I headed back to my room.

I must have made the mistake of sitting down on the bed for a moment, because I woke fully dressed with cramp in my left leg and a mouth like sandpaper. I looked at the clock, it was a little after midnight which meant that I had only slept for about an hour. I felt exhausted but my body clock was nagging me to wake up and I went to a run a bath. As I came out of the bathroom I noticed that the room, without daylight, seemed much smaller than it had in the morning. I went to the window and tried to look down at the Strip, always a good view at night, but try as I might I couldn’t lean far enough to see past the adjoining building, which was strange because I had been able to in the morning. I gave up and turned on the TV, and there was the Friends episode about Phoebe’s aunt’s funeral so I took a drink from the mini-bar and settled down for a long night. After a while I became aware of thuds and bangs from the room next door, it sounded as though whoever was in there was moving furniture about. Occasionally I heard voices raised in argument, two men, maybe three perhaps. Out of pure nosiness I went to the communicating door and listened but the voices were too muffled for me to make anything out. If I had thought that I was going to get any sleep I might have rung down to Reception to complain but as it was I turned up the volume on the TV and eventually did doze off.

As I left my room to go down to breakfast in the morning the door of 612 (there was no 613) opened and a short blonde woman emerged, she wore a badge that said ‘ Realtors of the USA (South-West) – Tammy Verbanek’. She was wearing a pink tracksuit made from a material that might well have been a spin off from the Space Programme.
“You were busy last night” I said cheerfully, “were you changing the whole room round?”
Her eyes narrowed.
“I was busy trying to get some sleep while you and your drunken buddies were throwing stuff about!”
“I was in bed. Watching Friends.”
“Who was making all that ruckus then?”
I don’t know. It must have been from above or below I guess.” She eyed me suspiciously. “Going to breakfast?” I continued breezily.
“Sure” she said and as we walked along to the elevators she told me that she was from Tucson, Arizona, and that she was her company’s top earning realtor (which means estate agent for those of us brought up in the home counties) and that that had won her the right to attend this annual wing-ding in Vegas.
The restaurant, themed in Hollywood classical Greek style, was nearly deserted and Tammy, obviously a gregarious type, suggested that we sit down together. Over breakfast she told me about her life in Tucson, about her husband Duane, who had just been laid off from the tyre company where he had been a supervisor for twenty years, about her two kids, one at college and the other in the 6th grade and about her church, Americans have the ability to talk about their religion in a way that would make a C of E vicar cringe. I rather took to Tammy, like most Americans she remained cheerfully positive whatever the problems were that confronted her. Towards the end of our breakfast together she lowered her voice and asked “Did you hear screaming last night? I’m sure I heard screaming and it was a man screaming not a woman”.
“No” I replied “but I fell asleep at some point. Are sure it wasn’t on TV?”
“It didn’t sound like it. It came from your room. It didn’t sound as if someone was acting. You can tell you know”.
I assured Tammy that I hadn’t been torturing anyone in the night and we went our separate ways, she to her gung-ho realtors convention and I to a series of visits to contractors’ workshops. I finished off the day having a delicious Mexican dinner with the owner of a local prop shop and he joined me for a couple of nightcaps in the hotel bar. So it was very late when I got out of the elevator on the 6th floor and started the long trek along the deserted corridor towards my room. At the far end a door, on the same side of the corridor as my room, opened and for a moment the wall opposite was lit by brilliant light coming from the room, a man emerged and closed the door behind him. He turned and headed towards me, he was tall, dark and more formally dressed than is the norm in Vegas these days in a dark suit with a rather dated hat, the sort of hat that Spencer Tracy wore in Bad Day at Black Rock. He strode determinedly on, looking straight ahead. Had the corridors at the Miracle not possessed generous Vegas proportions he would have walked right over me, as it was I was able to move out of his way. He looked neither right nor left and appeared not to notice me as he pressed on towards the elevators. The door at the end of the corridor opened again and again there was a blast of light as a man very similar to the one that had just passed me came out and shut the door behind him. He had the same determined stride as his predecessor, in fact as the distance between us closed it became clear to me that he was absolutely identical to the first man. At this point I must confess to the reader that on the night in question I was decidedly drunk. We had been drinking Margeritas all evening and it doesn’t take many of them to addle my brains so I assumed in a good naturedly drunk way that I had just seen a pair of identical twins leaving a room near mine and at that moment that didn’t seem surprising, this was Las Vegas after all. There was something unnerving however about the way that that neither of them had acknowledged my presence with so much as the flicker of an eye.
By this time I was near the end of the corridor and I glanced up at the door numbers to see how near. I was at 612, which was Tammy’s room, and my room 614 would be next and at that moment the door to 614 was flung open and for an instant I was caught in the blast of light that I had seen before and a man brushed past me closing the door. He set off down the corridor and I could see that he was dressed in exactly the same way as the other two and walked in the same distinctive way. I was about to shout after him “Hey that’s my room, what were you doing in there” when I was distracted by what I had just glimpsed through the open door. Firstly there had been the light, incredibly bright, not artificial, not theatrical but exterior noonday desert sun. secondly I had seen a man in shirt sleeves sitting on a straight backed wooden chair, there was a bucket and a hammer on the floor next to him. I had seen him only fleetingly and only in silhouette but I was sure that he was terrified. I stood undecided, stunned actually, something extraordinary was going on in my room, but then the number on the door caught my eye. It was 613 not 614, the man in the chair was next door and not in my room. After a couple of abortive attempts I managed to get my keycard into the lock of 614 and fell through the door and onto my bed. I lay there for a few seconds but then realised that if I didn’t get up immediately I would pass out so I managed to get undressed and went and sat under the shower. I turned the water to cold and stayed there until I could bear it no longer, I turned the water off and as I did so I could clearly hear screaming. As Tammy had said it was a man screaming and it was coming from next door. I pulled on the hotel issue bathrobe and went out into the corridor, the screams sounded even louder there. I scuttled past 613 and knocked on 614.
“Tammy! Are you OK ?”
The door opened instantly and she dragged me inside.
“Now you can hear it huh!” she said.
“Yes let’s call the front desk or security or something”.
She went to the phone.
“Hello we have a problem up here. Something terrible is happening in 613. We can hear screaming”
I hit the speakerphone button and added “someone is being killed next door. We need the police or security now!”
“OK. Is this Mrs Verbanek that I’m talking to? I can see that you are calling from 612 and you say the problem is in 613?” The man on the switchboard sounded reassuringly calm.
“Yes “I said “and I’m Mr Irwin from 614. The screams are definitely coming from 613, the room between us”
“OK folks security are on their way and will be there momentarily but I have a problem here in that there is no room 613, there are no ‘13s’ on any of the floors of this hotel or any other in Vegas. Gamblers are superstitious.”
“Go check again” whispered Tammy to me. I felt a rush of cowardice but could think of no plausible excuse for not going, so while Tammy held the door open, I quickly popped out into the corridor, dreading meeting another fedora hatted man, but no one emerged and I was able to confirm that the number on the door was indeed 613. As I turned back into Tammy’s room I saw two heavily built men hurrying along the corridor, the first to arrive introduced himself as Bill Stover, Deputy Head of Security at the Miracle. They joined us in 614 and we explained what we had heard and when.
“And the noises definitely came from 614 through there?” asked Bill gesturing at the inter-connecting door.
“No!” said Tammy “from 613 next door, Mr Irwin is in 614!”
“Pardon me Ma’am but there is no 613”
“Go check it out” said Tammy
We all trooped out into the corridor and Bill gazed at the number plate next door which clearly read 613. He started to talk into his radio “Hi I’m outside 613 ………….Yeah Yeah. I know but I’m standing outside 613. It’s kinda weird somebody must’ve been monkeying with the number plates.” He went on to explain what was going on and that he was going to enter 613. He asked us to withdraw up the corridor then standing slightly to the side of the door he knocked firmly. His sidekick, who I had noticed from his badge was named Isidore, stood on the other side with his hand on his gun. There was no reply to Steve’s first knock and he tried again saying loudly as his did “Hello this is hotel security please open the door”. He took out what I assumed was a master key card from his pocket and was then confounded to find that there was no key lock on the door nor indeed any sort of lock, just a door handle. He tried the handle, it didn’t budge, he gestured to Isidore, a fat free 18 stone, to kick the door in. Tammy and I stood 20 yards up the corridor and at that point I noticed that she was wearing a truly remarkable mauve quilted dressing gown and she noticed that I was drunk. “Are you drunk?” she asked.
“Yes. Does it show?”
“It certainly does” she replied with a frown of disapproval.
“Sorry” I said
“It’s OK” and she edged closer to me as Isidore launched himself at the door. He bounced back and fell to the floor, rubbing his ankle and gasping with pain. The door had not even vibrated under the impact of 18 stone Isidore.
“I’m calling a Code 3” said Steve into his radio.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Oh just that we get a duty manager and maintenance up here and we stand-by local law enforcement” He shushed Isidore who was using language that was making Tammy flinch. We all went back into her room and were joined a few minutes later by Mike Fiorelli and two men in orange overalls called Estevan and Julio who carried hefty tool boxes.
Mike nodded to me and then turned to Steve.
“What’s going on?”
“We have a 613 where we shouldn’t have a 613” said Steve and led Mike out into the corridor. I followed a few moments later and took Mike to one side and explained what I had seen.
“Are you drunk?” he asked when I had finished.
“Yes. Does it show?”
“Yes, but never mind. This is really weird.” He asked me to describe in detail the man or men that I had seen in the corridor and the man in the chair.
We went back into 612 and Mike pointed to the door that in theory connected with my room but must now connect with 613, “Do we have a key for this?” he asked Steve who examined the traditional keyhole and then shook his head. The men in orange went to work and in a few moments they had prised the door open. They revealed another door which they also forced revealing my room, embarrassingly strewn with dirty clothing, but there was no sign of 613, just an 18” concrete filled gap between the two rooms. The men in orange were then sent out into the corridor to force the door labelled 613 but came straight back looking confused.
“There’s no 613 sir” Estevan said. “Next door is 614.” Mike shook his head impatiently and shoved them out of his way as he went to look for himself. We all followed. Estevan was right, there was no 613. Mike looked at me. I said “You saw it didn’t you?”
He nodded, I looked at Steve and Isidore and they nodded. There was silence, there was no explanation that we could share. An elevator ‘dinged’ in the distance and a group of late night gamblers appeared at the end of the corridor. Mike shooed us all back into Tammy’s room. Was it my imagination but did her room seem bigger than it had a few moments before, I pulled back the curtain to see The Strip and beyond that the sun rising over the desert.
“Steve call down and let’s get these folks relocated to a couple of suites on the top floor.” Steve started to talk into his radio. Mike turned to Tammy and I. “Look I’m truly sorry that all this has happened though I’m not sure what exactly has happened here. I’ll get some people to help you move your stuff” Tammy had moved into the opening between the two rooms while he said this.
“Why is the gap between the rooms so big” she asked.
Good point, I thought, hotel walls can normally be measured in microns rather than inches.
“Are there services, air con or something running up there” I suggested.
“No” said Mike “all the services run up a central core”.
“What’s this? Come here Ted” Tammy was peering at the knobbly surface of the concrete that filled the gap between the two rooms
I moved next to her and looked where she was pointing.
“These are fingers aren’t they?”
There were four lumps that seemed to be finger shaped or at least the top joints of four fingers but I was about to dismiss them as lumps created in the rough concrete by chance when I noticed the unmistakeable shapes of fingernails. I reached forward and picked at one of them and a concrete encrusted nail broke away and fell to the floor revealing a yellowish larva of some sort in a dark brown cavity. Tammy shrieked and recoiled in disgust as the maggot wriggled its way free and dropped onto her slipper. A trickle of foul smelling black liquid followed and then I could see the top of a finger bone, a distal phalange to be exact, though I didn’t know that at the time, I just wanted to be sick. Suddenly we were surrounded by concerned hotel staff who more or less carried us bodily away from the horror in the concrete and whisked us upstairs to separate suites of absurd luxury. Mike arrived about twenty minutes later with a couple of Xeroxed photos in his hand.
“Is this the guy in 613, the guy in the chair?” he asked showing me a picture of a well built white haired man of about 60.
“I don’t know” I said “Could be but I only saw him in silhouette. Who is he?”
“Mortimer Woodford. Is this the guy in the corridor?” he said handing me the other picture.
“Yes! Absolutely! Unmistakable. That’s him. Who’s he?”
“Danny de Santos” replied Mike who was looking very tired.
“Shit! He was here tonight”.
“I don’t think so. Danny de Santos was shot dead in a bar in Hoboken New Jersey in 1984”.
We sat for a while not saying anything.
“Look Ted I don’t know what you think about all this…”
“I think Danny de Santos tortured Mortimer Woodford until he signed over the Miracle to him and then incorporated him in the building and somehow tonight we’ve or rather I’ve been shown that.”
“Yeah well whatever”. Mike looked uncomfortable “This doesn’t look great for the Casino Ted and I would be grateful if what happened tonight went no further”.
I considered for a moment. With a show about to open in the Miracle’s theatre it wasn’t in my interests to rock the boat and whatever I said or did wouldn’t help poor Mortimer Woodford entombed between rooms 612 and 614.
“OK Mike. No problem.” He looked immensely relieved as he left me to enjoy the remains of my stay in the Sammy Davis Suite.
On my return to the UK I kept an occasional watch on Las Vegas local news websites but nothing about Woodford or De Santos ever came up but I was surprised and delighted the following Christmas, and every Christmas since, to receive a vast Fortnum & Mason’s hamper with a card from ‘the Management & Staff of the Miracle Casino – Las Vegas’.
What of Tammy? I never saw her again after that moment when the maggot landed on her slipper but I did manage to trace her to her office in Tucson and I called her. She was polite but didn’t seem very pleased to hear from me and I think she didn’t care to be reminded of the events in Room 613, however she did hint in a roundabout way that the Casino had eased her financial worries both long and short term. So as the song goes “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”.

Those of you who know anything about ghost stories will have realised by now that the above is a retelling of M R James classic story ‘Number 13’ set in a rural Danish inn and originally published in 1904. James’s ghost stories are absolutely the best and published in a collection called ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ which is still in print.

Friday, 28 August 2009

How to Put on a Musical – Part 15 – Sound, Lights and Video Tape

In an ideal world a musical creative team would have met on a regular basis from ‘Day 1’, they would have bonded and in a very 21st century caring sharing way collaborated together under the chairmanship of a director, who, while having a clear vision of the general conception of the production, is grateful for the input of his colleagues and endeavours to ensure that each discipline gets a fair slice of the cake. The world we live in however is not ideal and what really happens is that the director and set designer work up a concept over a period of months and then invite the techno teams in and are horrified to find that their pristine vision will have to be cluttered with unsightly speakers and lamps. Even worse they find themselves involved in conversations about ‘projector throw’, ‘surround sound’, ‘LED resolution’ and suchlike.

We production managers find ourselves in the middle of what often turns into open warfare. The set designer will storm up saying “Tell him he can’t hang those lamps there! Go on tell him!” or “Fucking hell those speakers are the size of a garage! They can’t go there!” but sadly yes they can and they usually do. We do our best to limit the damage, on Porgy & Bess we draped the speakers in tasteful khaki gauze, on We Will Rock You at the Dominion the PA is painted to match the proscenium wall which in turn is painted to look as though there has been a major plumbing disaster upstairs. I often think how nice it must have been to be the production manager on the original West Side Story. Hang a few painted cloths, bring in some wooden scenery so light that a hamster with a slipped disc could carry it, change the colours in the lighting battens, and the sound, what about the sound? It was simple, the cast on stage sang, the orchestra in the pit played and everyone enjoyed it. Not a microphone, amplifier or speaker in sight. A golden age I say.

Project Model – Maintenance!

Lighting designer Geoff Osram is sitting in a deck chair in his Wandsworth back garden, around him his family are enjoying the summer. Geoff is enjoying himself too, he is reading the latest catalogue from the Ghibbichung Lighting Corporation of Sacramento, California. Geoff loves catalogues and there is something positively erotic about the Ghibbichung Corporation’s latest glossy offering, in particular their new range of Vimto Stratoscan moving lights takes Geoff’s fancy. These beauties are undoubtedly the future of moving lights, they can point in every conceivable direction, carry an infinite number of computer generated gobos and carry a colour range that would make a Pantone book blush. These instruments (never called lights or lanterns these days, possibly because they cost about the same as a Stradivarius) have appealing little extras, they have an LCD screen on the back which shows the lighting plan and that particular instrument’s position on it, the screen can also tell you which city you are in (useful for disorientated touring electricians) and give simple directions to the nearest Starbucks. In short they are the lighting designer’s ultimate weapon, ’infinite possibility’ is the copywriter’s strap line, indeed they are so flexible that a salesman at Plasa tells Osram “Geoff these are so flexible they can do a fucking endoscopy for you”. Despite this unappealing image Osram realises that if he moves fast he could get the Vimtos into the rig of Maintenance! and be the first lighting designer in Europe to use them.

Coincidentally, at the same time as Geoff dreams in his deck chair, sound designer Ian Geek is being lunched by Simon Hurstmonceaux of Blue Sky Audio Environments. This Orkney based company makes bespoke sound systems and Hurstmonceaux, an enormously tall ex-public school boy, is trying to sell his latest creation, the Ziggy Soundscape System. “…..and I can assure you Ian that we only use Zambian copper in these speakers, none of that Bolivian shit and the cabinets! Well you can forget plywood, these are made entirely from Jacaranda wood so you can say goodbye to that brittle mustardy sound that we have all been going on about since the Ark”. Ian Geek salivates and not because of the dish in front of him, which consists of a large plain white plate carrying 2 cubic inches of meat crowned with a pyramid of tiny and unfamiliar tropical fruits, surrounded by a perfect circle of bright red sauce, but because he can hear in his head and heart the opening chords of Maintenance! exploding out of the Ziggy system.

By an almost dizzying coincidence at the same time as Osram and Geek are experiencing their epiphanies video designer Harry Redeye is in a southeast London pub drinking with Steve Twaddle of Used Video Systems (2004) Ltd.
“You could do me a big favour Harry.” says Twaddle “I’ve got 200 LED screen panels coming off the ‘Sputum Test’ tour. I don’t want them lying around in the warehouse not earning”.
“What are they”
“Vegemite 2000s, they’re 2 years old and they’ve seen the world in that time but in the West End no one is going to know any better”.
Harry Redeye considers for a moment, he owes Twaddle far too many favours to lightly dismiss the proposal and after all why shouldn’t Maintenance! have a video wall, albeit a rather travel stained one.
“I’ll do what I can” he eventually replies.

In due course production manager Stewart Cowless receives the bid lists from the three designers and is appalled to find that two of them have specified the most expensive kit available and the third has specified a 12m by 6m video wall weighing nearly 4 tons. He gets on the phone to each in turn and tells them not to be so silly. They promptly ring director Kevin McHarrowing who rings producer Alvin Toxteth to complain about his insensitive and cavalier treatment. Toxteth calls Cowless.
“Stewie we need to get on board with these guys. Geoff tells me that the Vimtos give out a unique quality of light and that they are so user friendly that we will effectively be saving on two crew and Ian is right we need to get into this sort of technology. I really hate that brittle mustardy sound that we get all the time, don’t you? We should be moving on. And Harry, well he’s a bit of an old hack but he tells me he can get a really good deal on this video wall which will make a great backing for the pet shop scene. I know it’s heavy but can’t you just put some steelwork up in the grid? That’s what you normally do isn’t it?”. He hangs up and Cowless punts the three kit lists out to London’s rental suppliers and vents his frustrations on them when they ring back with their quotes by shouting “Just do it for fucking less can’t you!” at them down the phone. He also calls the Armageddon Rigging Company to get the “the putting some steelwork up in the grid” thing under way.

Monday, 13 July 2009

How to Put on a Musical –Part 14 – The Set

A good set will not save a bad musical and a bad set can sink a good musical, though irritatingly there are several instances in the West End at the moment of a bad musical on a bad set making a fortune for its producers. In general what is particularly scary for musical producers is that the set concept has, by the very nature of production schedules, to be in place before casting is done, before rehearsals begin. The decision that may condemn the entire project to failure will have been made long before a single tap shoe hits the rehearsal room floor.

Project Model – Maintenance!

Ulla Hoos, the set designer of Maintenance!, was born in 1969 in Riga at a time when Latvia was part of the Soviet Empire. In her teens she joined the Young Socialist Drama League and spent her summer holidays hiking from village to village putting on shows like The Tractor Driver’s Lament in which the hero Ivan bewails the facts that both his wife Sonya is unfaithful to him and that the collective farm where he works fails to make its beet quotas.
In 1988 she went to East Berlin to study stage design at the celebrated Bumpundgrind Kunstschule. It was there that she became assistant to Karl Bleistiftspitzer and collaborated with him on the notorious all-woman S&M version of Ivor Novello’s Lilac Time which provoked a riot at its premiere as much due to its ghastly music as to its scenes of unbridled lesbian passion.
After German reunification she was invited to London by English National Opera to design The Marriage of Figaro, a production (set in a Belfast bookie’s shop at the height of the troubles) which put her in the forefront of a school of operatic design which habitually has the chorus tramping across dizzyingly raked stages while wearing shabby raincoats and carrying battered suitcases.
After her success with this Figaro ( at least with the critics, the production was much loathed by the public), she made London her base and set up a studio in Hackney.

In the fifteen years that Ulla has been in the UK she has worked on a wide range of projects, opera, dance, plays, performance art but sadly not musicals. Ulla has never ‘got’ musicals. Their colour, jollity, and their happy endings are entirely alien to her, as they are to Maintenance! director Kevin McHarrowing. They first met at the bar of an Edinburgh Fringe show, where they were the only people who appeared to be enjoying a gruelling Marxist re-interpretation of a Chilean folk tale. They were kindred spirits, soul mates and while their respective sexual proclivities prevented them forming a deeper relationship they became professional collaborators.

The industrial possibilities of Maintenance! and the intriguing fact that the show is set in Kettering led McHarrowing not only to invite Ulla to design but led to their first ‘joke’. “Do you like Kettering?” he asked her one day. “Oh I don’t know, I don’t think I have ever kettered” she replied sweetly (This joke brought to you courtesy of the Prestatyn Museum of Old Jokes).

The producers initial response to Ulla’s first sketch model is one of ill concealed horror and bewilderment. All the components are there. The futuristic ‘Front Room’ for the Prologue, the awesome Skoda production line opening scene, the Kettering street scene, the Pet Shop, the Garage, the Canal, the Skoda Fandango Finale, all are there but rendered in Ulla’s customary palette of black and grey and the overall surround looks like the underside of Spaghetti Junction. Both she and McHarrowing have been here before, most of their model presentations degenerate into artistic trench warfare and this one has all the makings of a Passchendaele. On the one hand he launches an intellectually watertight defence of their concept, she, on the other, promises to brighten things up, though privately she knows that this will only involve the addition of a little khaki or drab ochre. Eventually the producers convince themselves that they have wrung vital concessions from their dour creative team and turn to Stewart Cowless for the production manager’s take on the model. He patiently and good naturedly points out that the set as designed is unlikely to fit any West End theatre that the production might go into (at this point the deal with the Piccadilly is far in the future) and that at first sight it also looks to be unaffordable. Everyone in the room nods sagely at these uncomfortable truths but Alvin Toxteth hastily forestalls any further debate with a breezy “OK Stewart we hear what you say but let’s get some costings before we go any further”.

Cowless and Ulla start to tout the model around some of London’s scenery shops. They begin with Harry Rabone, the doyen of set builders, who like many of the old school started out on the bench at Ted Babbage’s. Harry is old fashioned in more ways than one and his attitude to women is that of a working class south London male and while his years in the business have taught him to try not to appear patronising to the feisty lady designers who come his way, he doesn’t always get it right. On this occasion he is on his best behaviour and doesn’t call Ulla ‘dear’ or ‘my love’ but Cowless does notice a steely gleam in her eye when she spots the calendar on the wall behind Harry’s desk. Miss September wearing nothing more than a baseball cap inscribed with the word ‘Gas’ can be seen doing something interesting with a petrol pump nozzle. They work their way through one grey set after another and after a while Harry asks “This is a musical isn’t it?”
“Yes of course” says Ulla “now what about these cobbles?”
“No problem darling” says Harry “we can get them on 8’ x 4 ‘ sheets these days in a range of sizes. These look like the Accrington or Clovelly range to me.”
“ No! No! Can’t you see? Every cobble is individual. The texture and profile vary across the stage. We need a sculptor to work with me on this.”
Cowless intervenes. “Ulla the difference in cost…..”
“No Stewart I can’t compromise on this. Cut what you like but the cobbles are a deal breaker for me”.
“Do they have cobbles in Kettering?” mutters Harry as they leave.

Their next stop is Accademia Scenery in Battersea, a relative newcomer on the London theatrical scene, Accademia is run by partners Giles Tennon and Alastair Mortis who both got into theatre at university, messing about backstage with the Dramatic Society. In fact both of them missed vital exams during their finals desperately trying to complete a set for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern thus precluding them from getting a degree and thus condemning them to a lifetime building scenery. (Oh woe! Mrs Worthington make sure your children pass their exams and get a proper job.)
After some preliminaries discussing the current Glyndebourne season Giles and Alastair get to grips with Ulla’s Maintenance! model. “Oh these subtle grey tones and the concrete finish are just fantastic!” and “This is so much more interesting than the normal run of the mill musicals that we get to cost” they enthuse. Finally the cobbles. “….and the cobbles! Let’s get Ivan in here. They are right up his alley.” Ivan, Accademia’s sculptor/propmaker, is summoned from the far corner of the workshop, he runs his fingers delicately over Ulla’s model and pronounces “Yes these are good! We can do these. My team can handcraft every cobble individually and then finish each with a series of washes and glazes that will give every stone a history”. Ulla purrs, Alastair & Giles beam, Stewart Cowless sighs.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

The Black BMW

The journey from central London to Peckham is tedious and holds no scenic splendours other than the rather bizarre sculpture outside Tesco on the Old Kent Road. On the day that Trudy Mason died I had taken the tube to the Elephant and Castle and then a bus towards Peckham. The meeting I was going to was at the studio of a young opera designer somewhere off Trafalgar Rd. I got off the bus three streets away and as I zigzagged my way past tower blocks and derelict playgrounds my thoughts turned to dinner. We had friends coming and I was cooking. If I did a risotto starter did we have any Arborio rice? Was asparagus good at moment? Did I have time to go to Borough market to pick up some decent cheese? Distracted by culinary fantasy I stepped off the kerb to cross a quiet residential street, as I did so a car came round the corner at high speed, it clipped my right leg and sent me spinning onto the pavement. I was not badly hurt, very shocked certainly and my leg was completely numb but I was much luckier than Trudy who had been crossing the road from her Mum’s house to her Nan’s on the other side a few doors down. The car caught her full on and threw her into the air. She landed head first on the curb, I saw her skull shatter and I knew immediately that she would not even be ‘dead on arrival’ but ‘dead at the scene’. A woman passing started screaming, I must have passed out because the next thing I remember I was lying in an ambulance with an oxygen mask over my mouth, my leg was no longer numb but hurt like hell, the woman was still screaming.

In A&E I slowly came out of shock and reran in my mind what had happened. A nurse seeing me sitting up came over.
“The little girl died” I said. It was a statement and not a question. After a moment’s pause she nodded.
“How do you feel?” she asked
“OK I guess. Is my leg going to be alright?”
“Just badly bruised. No breaks. There is a policeman who wants to talk to you. Are you up to it?”
“Yes why not?”
A young constable came over.
“Thank you Mr Irwin for talking to us so soon after the accident”
“What about the driver?” I asked “He didn’t stop did he?”
“No he didn’t. Can you tell me anything about the car?”
I told him three things that I knew about the car. It was a black BMW, all the windows were blacked out and that it had the letters ‘EMD’ in its number plate.

A couple of weeks later my statement was read out at the inquest. I wasn’t asked to attend, I’m not sure why, but I went anyway. From a conversation with a local journalist on the steps of the Coroner’s court I learned that Trudy’s Mum was a single parent, that Trudy, who had been eight years and fifty three days old on the day she died, was the youngest of three, that she had a twelve year old brother Kelvin and a fifteen year old sister Sophie who played the clarinet.

Two weeks after that an arrest was made. I knew this because my ‘Witness Liaison Officer’ Penny rang me to tell me. I went out and bought a copy of the Peckham Advertiser and read that Alvarez Camargo had been charged with causing death by dangerous driving and remanded in custody. His application for bail had been refused. The story hinted that Camargo had drug dealing connections and was probably not a nice person. There was a murky photograph of an overweight black man with a moustache. Penny told me that the case would come up in a couple of month’s time and that until then I shouldn’t discuss the case with anyone. Needless to say I spent the next couple of months discussing the case with everyone and when I wasn’t doing that I mentally rehearsed my evidence (described as crucial by Penny) and pictured the defence’s cross examining barrister, who in my mind’s eye ranged from Charles Dance to Rumpole. At one point in my conversations with Penny I brought up the question of witness intimidation.
“Oh Mr Irwin you’ve been watching too much television. I don’t think you need worry about that” she said cheerfully.

Eventually she rang to say that the court date was finally set and I received notification from Southwark Crown Court to attend in a fortnight’s time. One evening about a week before the appointed date I was walking home along one of the quiet streets that lead from the Old Vic to the Borough when a car pulled up along side me, two men in balaclavas jumped out and threw me onto the floor in the back. My head was forced down until my nose was jammed into the laces of a shiny black shoe, I could smell the leather. I had no doubt what was happening, as Penny had rightly suggested, I had seen this sort of thing on television. After only two or three minutes the car pulled up and I was rolled out into an alleyway between two shops. The two men started to kick me, I squirmed about trying to protect myself. At first they said nothing but then they started to shout “Do you know why we are here? Do you? Do you?” After only the third kick I came to a very rational but highly immoral decision. I wasn’t going to give evidence against Alvarez Camargo. I would have told my attackers this had I not been so severely winded that I couldn’t speak. As they continued their work in a very professional way (they avoided kicking my head), they started to recite the name of my son’s school, the address of the office where my wife worked and the name of the ward of the care-home where my mother lived. At last I managed to gasp out “I won’t give evidence, I promise, I promise” I begged for mercy and they stopped. One of them bent down and whispered in my ear “If we have to come again we will cut out your tongue”. They walked back to their car.
“Wait! Wait!” I said. They both turned to hear what the man grovelling on the tarmac had to say. “I have a message for him. Get him to call me. They have phone cards and so on in remand centres don’t they? I’ll give you my mobile number”
“We know your mobile number” one of them said and they got back into the car and drove away.

I recovered enough to call my wife who drove the few hundred yards to pick me up. She tried to take me to hospital but I refused, at home she had to help me up the stairs to our second floor flat. She, like me, understood exactly what had just happened. As she helped me take off my ruined clothes she said nothing until the full extent of the bruising was revealed then simply “Oh Jesus”.
We sat on the bed together.
“I can’t give evidence against him” I said
“No you can’t” she agreed.

This was easier said than done. The police and Penny in particular were unlikely to let me off the hook. They had my original statement and I could probably be forced to appear whether I liked it or not and I could easily face a charge of perjury. I hadn’t come up with the answer to this problem when, two days before the trial, I received a call on my mobile from a number that I didn’t recognise.
A deep voice said “You have a message for me”
I hadn’t really expected this call but nevertheless I had thought about what I would say if it did come.
“Oh. It’s you. Er I just wanted to say that…I just wanted to say…” I petered out unnerved by the total silence from the other end. “Listen I know that you are a bad man, probably a very bad man, but I don’t believe that you meant to kill Trudy Mason that day. I also know that there is nothing you or I can do to bring her back but you must promise me to do something for her mother and family. I don’t mean money, this is nothing to do with money, this is not Africa where you run over a child and give the parents the price of a goat or a cow. At some point in the future her mother needs to believe that good things can still happen. Do you understand? I er …I want your word of honour on this”. Asking a man like Camargo for his word of honour was patently ludicrous and the silence continued, I thought for a moment that he had rung off but then he said “OK.” Then he broke the connection.

I felt I had no option but to appear at the trial but I had planned carefully what I would do. I was the worst witness for the prosecution ever. Camargo’s barrister couldn’t believe his luck. In minutes he had convinced the jury that I had a poor memory, poor eyesight, that I wasn’t wearing my glasses at the time of the accident, that I couldn’t tell the difference between a BMW and a Fiat Panda, that I was in shock when I gave my original statement to the police, that the letters ‘EMD’ were the first letters that came into my head and finally that I had rabid racist tendencies. Camargo, who had watched me stonily throughout, walked free, Trudy’s Nan spat at me as I left court.

Two years later I received a press cutting through the post. It was a small item from the Peckham Advertiser. Under the headline ‘Scholarship for local girl’ it said that talented local clarinettist Sophie Mason had been awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. For a moment I thought of the visit that must have been made by two men in balaclavas to a tweed jacketed examining professor of music and I smiled.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

How to Put on a Musical –Part 13 - Production Meetings

The late eighties and early nineties were the Golden Age of the one-off kamikaze musical. A steady stream of would be producers arrived at Heathrow, each with a suitcase full of money and each announced to the world at large and Theatreland in particular “I have a great idea for a musical”. Many of these poor deluded souls found their way to our offices in Bedford St. Among many others we churned out Carrie, Metropolis, Sherlock Holmes – The Musical, Which Witch, Children of Eden, Winnie, and these are the shows are that actually made it onto the stage, many mercifully did not. In every case there was a preliminary production meeting where the man with the suitcase full of money set out his stall, where possibilities were assessed and flights of fancy shot down. The worst moment at these early encounters was when the budding Ziegfield would pull a cassette from his pocket and play us some of the music. Normally the experience that followed ranged from embarrassing to excruciating but worst of all was the time that we were summoned to a very camp Chelsea apartment to discuss ‘Always’ , the Edward & Wallis-Simpson musical. The producer, who I think was also the author, seated us in comfy armchairs and then proceeded, with the aid of a cassette player and a few deftly arranged props, to perform the entire musical for us at point blank range. Another example of man’s inhumanity to man. Unsurprisingly, since our efforts not to giggle failed, we didn’t get that job.

The next phase in production meetings is much more businesslike, schedules, budgets, staffing etc are discussed but still in a relatively small forum. At this point realistic production and running budgets are set up, which in theory bear some relation to the show’s earning capacity and should predict a recoupment of the courageous investors’ money at some point in the next hundred years. As the production progresses layer upon layer of detail is added and the numbers of attendees at the meetings increase as the number of days before Previews dwindles. By the time rehearsals start the turn out at a production meeting will easily outnumber a matinee house in Scarborough. They come armed with fresh notepads and sharp pencils ready to fight for a few square feet of wing space or a couple of hours of stage time, they come to have the importance of their role in the Grand Plan recognised. Fat chance.

Project Model – Maintenance!
Production Manager Stewart Cowless’s first introduction to Maintenance! comes about as a result of a call from producer Alvin Toxteth. “Stewart I have a project I’d like you to look at. I think you’ll agree that it’s quite remarkable. Can you come and see us?” After checking Toxteth’s provisional production schedule against his commitments Cowless finds that he is only booked on two other shows at the time in question and cheerfully agrees to a meet. As he walks into the offices of Jolly Good Musicals Ltd he is greeted by Kevin Whimper, the General Manager. “Stewie I hope you’ve got your prescription pad with you. They’re all in need of medication in there” he says, gesturing at Toxteth’s inner sanctum.
With a wry smile Cowless goes into Toxteth’s office where he is introduced to an enormous pony-tailed man wearing black jeans and a black leather waistcoat over a white shirt, there is a fair amount of metalwork hanging round his neck. This is composer Gunther Eisenkopf who greets him with a bone crushing handshake before waving over the book and lyric writer Dermot O’Dainty. O’Dainty looks tiny beside Eisenkopf, he is a dapper charming figure familiar from TV panel games and pet food commercials.
“Ah, so you are the man who is going to make it all work” says O’Dainty
“Something like that”
Alvin Toxteth ushers them into chairs around his desk and starts to describe the project .to Cowless, who has had some warning from Kevin Whimper about the wackier aspects of the production and is ready to play a straight bat to whatever may come at him. However the limits of his self control are tested when Eisenkopf hits the button on a CD player and plays some of the songs, explaining as he does the effect that his East German upbringing and the neglect of his Stasi officer father has had on him. At one point he appears to wipe away a tear and Cowless, who judges the music to be dreadful, the up-tempo numbers a cross between Status Quo and the Ramones but less interesting, the ballads sounding like the dirges that Portugal enters for the Eurovision Song Contest, realises that an anodyne “Oh that’s fantastic! I particularly like the one with the tuba intro”. Isn’t going to cut it, but he is an old campaigner and knows how to handle this sort of stuff. He looks Eisenkopf dead in the eye and says earnestly, “It’s like an orange isn’t it. You know what I mean when I say it’s like an orange? I mean that your music has an outer skin that initially is hard to peel and gets under your fingernails but when you have peeled it you have the exhilaration of the juice”. Eisenkopf’s English is not quite good enough to take in what Cowless has said but he senses a compliment and beams happily. O’Dainty nods his head slowly and Alvin Toxteth eyes his production manager suspiciously. The meeting moves on to more practical matters and an hour and a half later Cowless is back on the street convinced that this particular project will die the death sooner rather than later.

Much to his surprise Maintenance! does continue to flourish, a creative team is put in place, budgets finalised, staff employed and Cowless himself signs a contract to steer the show into the Piccadilly Theatre.

During the first week of rehearsals the first full on production meeting is called with all the newly appointed HODs, stage management, and creative team invited. Cowless, who normally chairs these events, is a believer in the theory that you should never call a meeting unless you can be sure of its outcome. During the days preceding the meeting he methodically works his way round the various departments and creatives making sure that there will be no ambushes and that everything should go smoothly. The meeting convenes after rehearsals in the Parish Hall of the Church of Our Lady of Cheerful Countenance, the stage management arrange chairs in a large circle, the attendance will be good, even the marketing team are coming.

Eventually everyone takes a seat, opens their notebooks, and Cowless starts the production meeting.
“Thanks for coming everybody. This shouldn’t take too long if we all crack through it, as some of you will know I am Chairman of the Society for the Prevention of Long Meetings “ There are a couple of polite chuckles at this feeble attempt at humour.
“OK so I suggest that we take a quick look at the schedule then go round the room to pick up on any individual concerns or niggles.”
“Well if it’s the schedule that we are talking about I’m going to jump in first” says director Kevin McHarrowing. “This schedule is totally unworkable. I thought I made it clear at the outset that this is not a crappy formulaic juke box musical that you can just throw on the stage. These rehearsals need to have an emotional core, the cast will need to find their moral space on the stage. These are artists not squaddies who need to be drilled into submission”
Cowless, who has always thought of musical ensembles in exactly the latter terms, is about to reply when choreographer Bobby Brasso breaks in.
“Listen guys I’m the last person to deny anyone their moral space but I need placing time and I just don’t see it in this schedule.”
The floodgates open.
“Stewie dear we can’t do a costume parade in two hours. And we need to do it under the proper lights” chips in Buzz Phelps.
“No chance! We will barely have the rig in the air by the time that’s scheduled. When am I supposed to focus? In the middle of the bloody night I suppose! I need a decent blackout and no chippies banging about.”
As soon as Geoff Osram has finished sound designer Ian Geek plunges in.
“Stewart I don’t know what’s going on here but I can’t EQ the system, set the defaults on the digbys and defib the AJBs in two sessions and I certainly can’t do it until all the masking is in place and we certainly need to have the company in wigs from the Day 1 of the Tech”.
Wig mistress Natalie Tongs is aghast “Sorry but we weren’t expecting to have wigs until the second week of the tech at the earliest”.
Harry Redeye the video designer: “Look old chap we need line-up time and obviously we can’t do it while Geoff’s focussing but I’m sure you can find us a slot.”
Stage Manager Rowena Pettifer diffidently puts her toe into the increasingly stormy waters, “Look I don’t want to be difficult or anything but I don’t think we can start the tech on the Tuesday there will be too many Health & Safety issues to resolve before we can have the company on stage.”
“Bugger Health & Safety” says Alvin Toxteth succinctly. There is a short pause while everyone considers his point, a point that all can agree with.
“Er the photocall doesn’t seem to have made it onto the schedule. We need all the principals for 4 hours on the morning before the first Dress Rehearsal and when are we doing the EPK?” This identifies the smart young man that no one has recognised as one of the PR team.
Set designer Ulla Hoos, “Vhere is the paint call? Zhere is no paint call! The cobble stones vill certainly need touching up.” Her Latvian accent comes across more strongly as she becomes more stressed.
“Cobble stones! What fucking cobble stones?” Bobby Brasso’s camp nasal Bronx cuts across the room like a buzz saw. “How many times do I have to say this people? We can’t fucking dance on cobble stones.”
McHarrowing explodes “Listen they have cobble stones in Bohemia and they never stop fucking dancing! Bohemians are famous for their fucking dancing!”
“OK! OK! Perhaps the cobbles should be the subject of a separate meeting”. Cowless manages to get a word in, then Toxteth stands up, looks around the room before stating firmly “It’s obvious that the schedule needs to be finessed but no one in this room should be in any doubt that we will do our first Preview on the 27th come hell or high water. I hope that’s clear.”
Stewart Cowless sighs and thinks firstly that it is going to be a long evening and secondly that a career as a beachcomber somewhere warm with a relaxed attitude to drugs and prostitution is looking increasingly attractive.

Friday, 8 May 2009

On a late August day in 2004 I checked into the Radisson Hotel in Moscow. The receptionist chirpily said “Ah Mr Irwin you are staying with us for 49 nights”. My heart sank, from previous recce visits I knew that this was not a good idea. What follows are the despatches that I sent home as we progressed. Some of my readers will have read them before but there is a whole new generation of We Will Rock You crew who might enjoy them so I make no apologies.

Moscow Diary 1

Well here we are on the 7th day of the load –in and we progress slowly but steadily. We have some lighting hung, we have 80% of the showdeck down, we have ripped out the substage ready for lift installation. Sadly the sound rig has not yet arrived but is promised for today. So our Production Sound Engineer, Chris Vass, and Autograph’s representative, PJ, have had plenty of time to be tourists, unfortunately for them they were both laid low by food poisoning on the second night, proof positive that there is a God.
We are still trying to sort out the generator problem and we are not nailed down on a video playback system. A laser contractor was here today and seemed to know what he was talking about.

The relationship with the theatre is very tiresome. Simple tasks like getting doors unlocked require a great deal of negotiation. Putting the dimmer racks on the fly floor created a fair old rumpus locals being convinced that the fly floor would collapse. No one seemed reassured when I pointed out that we had removed 2 tons of counterweights from the fly floor before we put the racks up there. Almost everything we do is greeted with howls of outrage and much shaking of heads by leathery old gentlemen who probably remember the good old days when Stalin sat in the stalls and a good time was had by all. Security is provided by unsmiling young men in dark suits who prowl the corridors and foyers. We had one particularly joyous moment when one of these thugs refused to let Ian Moulds, our production electrician, open one of his flight cases unless he had written authority from Sergei Baranov.

Sergei also prowls the building dispensing humour and charm in equal measure!

The Radisson Hotel is about 20 mins from the theatre depending on the traffic and is a typical international hotel, biggish rooms, proper bath, excellent breakfast and some of the best looking prostitutes I have seen for a long time hanging round the bar.

Travelling by car in Moscow can be exhilarating, one should recall the old Russian proverb “ In the land of the Russian driver the panel beater is king.” The Metro is highly recommended (Chechen suicide bombers permitting!) each station superbly and individually decorated. I’ve never had to wait more than 30 sec for a train.

Food comes in different shapes and sizes. There are the restaurants in the hotel mall which have menus quaintly priced in ‘conventional units’, a coy way of describing dollars at a ruinous exchange rate. Then there are top of the range Moscow restaurants like the one with a ‘Ukrainian’ village in the middle of it complete with live goats, hens and pretty peasant girls. At the rear of the theatre is Buffet No7 which serves decent Russian food and to the right of FOH is a cafĂ© which is not only OK but cheap as chips. There is also a small canteen in the basement of the theatre where you could probably live for a hundred years and not spend a week’s per diems.

To sum up we are undoubtedly behind schedule and it’s bloody hard work! Lost in translation! Phooee! We don’t just lose things in translation here, we kidnap them, torture them to death, boil them in oil, chop them up and serve them on toast!

Moscow Diary 2

We have completed the second week of the load-in. The sound rig turned up 8 days late (a little local difficulty in Lithuania) but our sound and light teams have made good progress. They plough on dragging their local crews kicking and screaming along with them. They show great forbearance and tempers have not been lost. Sadly I don’t do quite so well in this respect. I tend to be irritable by 10.00am, angry by midday, homicidal by 5.00pm and completely out of control and in need of restraint by 8.00pm.

The Estrada itself is a major source of frustration, it is locked in a bizarre Stalinist time-warp. The whole building is severely overmanned with elderly people who do nothing. As you enter the stage door there is normally a cheery lady to greet you though sometimes it is a malevolent looking chap who looks disconcertingly like the vampire in Nosferatu. Sat a few feet from the stage door person is another man whose sole responsibility seems to be to sign out dressing room keys. Sat next to him is another man who idly watches a CCTV view of the stage door. Once you have run this gauntlet you may encounter on stage a man wearing a red arm band. I assumed that perhaps he was taking part in Communist Pride Week but no, apparently this armband denotes that he is in overall charge of the stage. A surprise to me as I have never seen him do or say anything.

Unlocking doors! Aargh! Every morning requires a struggle to unlock the doors to the foyers, where we store our equipment, and to the circle where the control room is. I now know how the Russians won the battle of Stalingrad. They simply withdrew very slowly locking all the doors behind them as they went until the Germans went insane.

The hole in the forestage, the muddy hole in the forestage (which is surprising considering the stage is on the 3rd floor) where our lift will go remains the centre of much speculation. Every day a new team of men arrive to stand in the hole for a few minutes, shake their heads then depart. We are promised that the lift will be installed on the 18th!

The scenery is notable for it’s absence. But we do now have a band platform which has been well made and major developments are imminent.

The now notorious 7.00pm meetings have taken on the quality of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. We have them at a long table in a basement room in the theatre. I fully expect people to cry ‘No room! No room!’ as I approach the table. Sergei (known affectionately as Caligula by his staff) takes the chair and explains how the meeting will be run. He will ask all the questions (and he asks me specifically never to interrupt him) and then at the end we can remind him of any questions that he might have forgotten to ask. He then proceeds to browbeat his staff and scenery contractors into making promises that they cannot possibly keep. The other night at the end of the meeting he turned to me and said ‘Everything is OK, all the scenery will be delivered on the 18th’.
I glanced across the table at Oleg, the main scenery contractor, who was sitting with his head in his hands, and I thought ‘I have just been told the biggest lie since Hitler said he had no more territorial demands in Europe’.
All I can say is that my staff (who shamefully tend to giggle at these meetings) and I await the 18th with bated breath.

Away from the theatre news from the costume dept is reassuring and I have seen some good wigs. I haven’t seen any rehearsals, which are taking place on the other side of Moscow.

We have been talking to staff and Sergei has taken on 2 showcallers neither of whom have any experience. At our meeting I explained the task ahead of them, the lovely Julia gazed at me uncomprehending but beautiful while Ashod furiously wrote down every single word that I said. An analogy leaps to mind, picture a packed 747 (crippled child, singing nun etc), the pilot and co-pilot collapse after eating the prawn cocktail, these 2 kids have to land the 747! Tracey we need you!

At present there is no stage manager worthy of the name.

Our best signing is probably Seva, video operator, who came for an interview, watched the Perth video, turned his nose up at the video scheme proposed by a local contractor, went away and designed a system himself which he then sourced and demonstrated in the theatre 2 days later (on our cheap and cheerful Russian screens). He managed to demonstrate every effect required in the show within 15 minutes with the exception of time code synchronisation. He may look as if he’s only twelve years old but the boy’s a genius. Willie Williams and Smasher are providing a non-synch version of Radio Ga Ga and One Vision.

Possibly the biggest triumph of the week is the completion of the re-translation of the script from Russian back into English so that we have a script that lines up word for word, so that we Brits can work out where the hell we are in the Cyrillic script during the Tech. This task was accomplished by Tania, our excellent and vivacious translator, and I. Interesting to note that in Russia Gazza Fizza becomes Goolya Figga and Meat and Britney become Phil & Alla, the Russian Pearl Carr and Teddie Johnson of their generation (younger readers may need to refer to the Encyclopaedia Britannica at this point).

Time for tourism has been limited but I have made it to the Bolshoi twice to see Mussorgski’s mighty operas Khovanschina and Boris Godunov. The glorious 7 tiered auditorium and 160 odd Russian chorus belting out my favourite operas makes the whole trip worthwhile. It may be heretical to say this but who needs Rock & Roll.

Moscow Diary 3

Exactly 3 weeks in and progress is slow and steady. Sadly all the scenery was not delivered on the day directed by our esteemed producer but it has been coming in fits and starts. Some of it is excellent, some of it is OK and some of it is gobsmackinzitpickingfuckinshite. Best is the Heartbreak/Wasteland Truck which, after 2 days attention from some decent painters looks the business. The Wasteland side has looks nothing like the Australian version but has an energy all of it’s own. The Bar and the Ga Ga Statues are also excellent. The booby prizes go to the small van, which looks as though my 5 year old daughter and her class mates have pooled their stocks of Play-Doh and sculpted a psychedelic dodgem car, and the Wasteland Hanging which could be a Forest Glade in Les Sylphides. Both are for the tip!

But does the lift work? Do the Ga Ga Treads and the Killer Queen Throne slip gracefully up and down stage? In your dreams!

Sound and Video are in reasonable shape. Lighting would also be in good shape were it not for the Generator. Don’t mention the war! Don’t mention the generator! This was the instruction given to Ian, our Production Electrician, by Mr Baranov in a rare moment of exasperation. However the generator crisis dribbles on from day to day. We have known for 6 months that we need a generator and here we are days behind schedule and still we can’t turn the rig on. Eventually a generator has been found in Moscow, but not the cable to connect it to the theatre. When the cable did turn up there was a problem with the connection which resulted in a bizarre moment at last night’s 7 o clock meeting when Rubin, the local chief electrician, asked Ian if he had lots of black PVC tape with him. Ian asked why. Rubin said that they were going to make a temporary connection in the Mains room which they were proposing to insulate with PVC tape. A 300 amp connection! Bloody Norah!

There are many mysteries here at the Estrada which remain to be unravelled.
Who cleans the stage is one of them. The crew don’t do it, but there is a lady in a green pinny who pops on stage now and then, surveys the carnage for a few moments, nervously sweeps a few square feet in the US corner and then scuttles away. We have christened this lady Beryl. But even the Beryls of this world have their day in the sun. A few days ago Mr Baranov arrived at the theatre and decreed that, in honour of Jim, Brian and Roger’s visit, we should all stop what we were doing and clear the stage completely so that Beryl could vacuum & mop. There was more than an air of triumphalism in the swing of Beryl’s mop.

Another mystery is the identity and role of three men who arrive fairly early (by Russian standards), build themselves a little lean-to shelter out of old scraps of ply in the scene dock, and then play backgammon until 3.00pm when they leave. None of our contractors or the theatre lay claim to them.

The problem of who our stage manager is to be was confirmed in a curious way the other day. Mr Baranov has nominated a chap called Sergei who has 25 years experience in the theatre. What he spent these 25 years doing remains unclear. I have expressed my doubts about this appointment. I personally wouldn’t book this guy to manage a troupe of performing goldfish. Anyway I was in the SL scene dock discussing the responsibilities of a stage manager with this Sergei via our talented and charming interpreter Tania, (keeping our voices down so as not to disturb the backgammon players) when we were approached by the eldest member of the theatre staff, the one with the red arm band who does bugger all. He told us a curious tale from long ago of a local stage manager of Mongolian descent named Kur-Li, who, on his deathbed, decreed that his clipboard should be concealed within the very fabric of the building until someone sufficiently worthy to carry it should come along. At that very moment I felt the floor beneath my feet begin to vibrate, the fluorescent tubes overhead began to flicker, cracks appeared in the wall in front of us, chunks of masonry fell away to bounce unconvincingly on the floor. And there within the wall, bathed in a golden light was a clipboard, the clipboard of Kur-Li. Sergei stepped forward unhesitatingly and took it in both hands.He is the ‘Chosen One’.He turned to me, his eyes glowing with an inner fire, he looked down at the clipboard and said “What is it? What do I do with it?” I sighed and went back onstage to watch paint dry.

Our tiny theatrical expat community has doubled in size with the arrival of Bruce Ramus, Richard Sharratt, Ben Milton & Smasher. We are all looking forward to the tech rehearsal period with some anticipation. Rarely in the history of musical theatre have so many factors been stacked on the side of chaos and mayhem. We have our stage manager, ‘The Chosen One’, we have our 2 show callers (2??) Ashod, the speed writer, and Julia, beautiful but uncomprehending. We have an entirely green crew, who I gather will not be consistent, anyone may turn up. We will be working with 3 translators, one on the stage ring, one on the lighting ring and one with sound. We have a Russian director and choreographer, neither of whom have done a musical before. And possibly best of all we have a producer who may jump on stage at any moment and organise the scene changes personally. So the stage is set for a humdinger.

The schedule is shot to pieces but no one seems very interested in previews so I guess they get the push.

Traffic habits in Moscow continue to fascinate and terrify. Interestingly there are absolutely no cyclists. We assume that they have all been killed. Moscow is running it’s own experiment in Natural Selection. They are breeding a race of aggressive pot bellied men with big cars and small dicks (sorry, a bit of big car envy crept in there). All the eco friendly caring sharing cycling Nigel Planer look-a-likes have been brutally expunged from the gene pool.

Russian history hangs like grey pall over everything here. The complex of up-market flats of which the Estrada theatre is a part was built in the early 30’s to house high-up Communist party apparatchiks. Locals tell us that not one of the apartments here missed having its inhabitants butchered or exiled at some point in the Terror of the 1930’s and 40’s. Presumably those who survived retired to bungalows on the Black Sea coast with names like ‘Dunmassmurderin’ and ‘Dungulagin’. Mind you after working here for 3 weeks mass murder comes top of my list for things to do on a rainy afternoon.

Moscow Diary 4

We have been here exactly a month and Russia is as exasperating now as the day we got off the plane. We all feel that our responses to normal life have been coarsened by our experiences. This is in part due to the everyday rudeness of your average Russian, they insult each other with regularity and gusto. Waitresses and shop assistants are treated with finger snapping contempt which they are quite capable of returning with interest. Even the most uncontroversial discussions on stage can turn into a shouting match. The worst insult you can hurl is apparently ‘pederast!’ which Mr Baranov frequently uses in his discussions with Yuri Antizersky (Clement Freud look-a-like) on the subject of the late arrival of the scenery. Even Tracey Ransom, who has only been here 3 days coaching our show caller Julia, has started swearing like a trooper.

“……and on the seventh day Sergei Baranov said let there be light!” And on the twelfth day there was light. Gordon Bennett! What a performance getting the generator running. Cables not long enough, wrong size, planning permits etc etc. We’ve known about this for 6 months. The abject failure of Russian technology and planning so far on this project has led us to speculate on how these people managed to put a man in space. We pass a splendid statue of Yuri Gagarin on our way to the theatre and have come to the conclusion that he must either have had a profound death wish or been forced into the space capsule at gunpoint.

But with power to the lighting rig and a couple of days rough programming from Bruce we decided to go straight into a tech with the actors. Finding a crew hasn’t been straightforward. Our stage manager, Sergei, the ‘Chosen One’ was de-selected by Mr Baranov almost immediately and replaced, to our dismay, at one of our knock-about 7.00pm meetings, by Vladimir who is the technical manager for the building. This arrangement lasted for several minutes until after the meeting when Vladimir came to me and said ‘I’ve not agreed this with Baranov. I won’t do it!.’ So we remain consistent, at no point on this production have we had so much as the toenail clippings of a stage management team. What we need is a team of nice, middle class, work ethic driven folks ready to die for the sake of fly Q 22. Sadly we have no one, we have no paperwork from rehearsal, no moves written down, no script revisions, no idea at any given moment who should be playing whom from the innumerable permutations of cast. The crewing has also been a bit bumpy. Four follow spot operators duly presented themselves for a day’s training, three of them took one look at their truss positions and promptly left. They were replaced the next day by more cannon fodder who were bullied into position. The stage crew, who are in part made up of the backgammon players, have also been very flexible in their approach to the job. One of my biggest problems with the running crew has been to convince any of them that being in the building is a necessary part of the rehearsal process. They drift off at any time without so much as a by your leave. Seva, our Golden Boy video operator, has been the worst offender in this respect. Local crew morale has picked up with the arrival of the cast in the theatre, specifically the lady members of the company. The expat WWRY crew here are definitely of the opinion that, from a heterosexual male point of view, this is undoubtedly the best looking Rock You company world-wide. But perhaps we have all been away from her indoorski for too long. As a sage old Master Carpenter once said to me, ‘Ted, once you’ve done a couple of all-nighters they all look like Marilyn Monroe’.

The show is entirely in Russian apart from the last three numbers and it’s fair to say differs in emphasis markedly from the UK version. Sexual politics are somewhere in the Stone Age here so Scaramouche doesn’t get all the good lines and in one of the van scenes sobs uncontrollably and is comforted in manly fashion by Galileo (our no1 Galileo is blessed with what are apparently Georgian good looks, black hair, hook nose and eyebrows that need strimming). All the dialogue scenes seem much longer than normal and are played to the hilt, no gentle ironies or self mockery here, dramatic points are hammered down with all the subtlety of Canadian seal hunters armed with baseball bats. The Van Scene! Our director Dimitri Astrakhan, has boldly taken on the ‘Curse of the Van’ (general readers may want to skip this bit). All of us who have been associated with the production for a while know that the two Van scenes in Act 2 present a scenic challenge in that getting the damn thing on and off stage can be a problem. This difficulty has been solved in Australia & Vegas by having the Van come up on a lift. This was our plan here, but a combination of architectural problems and the bloody minded intransigence of the Estrada management has forced the lift right to the front edge of the stage. Dimitri declared that the scene was unplayable in this position and so we are pushing our Play-Doh dodgem on from DSR. He also worried about the lack of scenic background in Van II and when I said that it was a short scene covering the transition into the Killer Queen Boudoir he replied “No! No! It’s a very complex dramatic scene”. A few minutes later he was at the back of the stalls quoting Brecht at me in broken English, at which point I felt it was probably time for a lie-down.

But for all the problems at last we are under way with a cast on stage, a music dept that is currently missing 50% of it’s cues, the lovely Julia is calling the show in harness with Miss Ransom who doubles as Musical Supervisor on occasion and above all we have a lot of shouting. Russians love to shout and it’s bloody exhausting listening to them all day.

As we progress through the grinding hell of the Tech time for excursions has been limited but a chance conversation with a business Brit in the hotel bar tempted me out after rehearsal one day. He said that he travelled regularly from Kursk Station and that the area around there was distinctly dodgy. Well the opportunity to combine a bit of train spotting with some low life research was catnip to me, so off I went. Sadly the low life bit was about as racy as Dorking though the area is significantly poorer than the affluent area of Moscow where we spend most of our time. There are far fewer vagrants visible here than in London and very little litter and no graffiti. The trains are good though. Russian sleeping cars have a smartly dressed lady attendant standing in every door ready to greet the passengers and there is a smell of coal fires from the stove in each carriage on which a samovar is kept going all day.

Moscow Fashion Note: For those of you planning to make the trip for the Press Night and who want to cut a dash in Moscow Society you should be aware that Mr Baranov is not the only one who wears silly pointy shoes. They all do. One is in serious danger of multiple ankle high stab wounds at any moment this city.

Apart from there being no cyclists here, there are also no sandwiches and no whistling. The notion of beetroot and potato on rye has not caught on, not one of the local kiosks or our beloved local supermarket (apparently the most expensive in Moscow) carry a sandwich of any kind. Whistling is traditionally banned in theatres worldwide, but Smasher was sternly told by a policeman to stop whistling while walking across a bridge near our hotel. Overt displays of happiness are frowned on as being improbable.

And finally I must relate a sorry tale which encapsulates all that has made this project the trial it has been. A few nights ago I spotted Mr Baranov and Yuri Antizersky talking at the back of the stalls. They were arguing over a sheet of paper and as I approached they looked more shifty than usual. I could see that they were holding a Russian copy of the prop list. I asked if there was a problem and they said “No! no!” and wandered off. Later I interrogated Yuri and, yes folks, you guessed it, a sizeable chunk of the prop list (including the Yuppie Canes) had just been ordered, 3 days into the tech.

I get a day off from all this jollity when I fly to Munich in a couple of days to check out the Cologne set which is being built there. Onlookers at Munich airport may be surprised to see an Englishman on his hands and knees kissing the tarmac.

Moscow Diary 5

Phew! Made it!

Yes on the 17th Oct 2004 Lazarus walked, water turned to wine and we had a premier that wasn’t half bad. The final preview was described by Bruce Ramus as the “worst Rock You ever”, so the transformation was miraculous. Everything worked, even the Killer Queen Throne lift and rotate which was still being teched an hour before the show. The company gave their all which is a lot and sometimes you may not want it all but you get it anyway. The Russian version is longer and wordier than the UK model but the audience seem to be engaged by the dialogue scenes. Now and then a ripple of applause runs round the house as if to say ‘Good point, well made!’. The opening captions don’t get a laugh even though I am reliably informed by our lovely and talented translator, Tania, that 2045 reads “Ben Elton burnt at stake by religious zealots in Turkmenistan”.

The previews, indeed all the rehearsals, were a shambles with endless permutations of band and cast driving the sound boys demented. And the shouting! Endless, endless shouting.

What does the future hold? Well with no technical or stage management it’s hard to believe that all will go smoothly. Yuri Antizerski explained the Russian approach, which goes along the lines of letting things get into such an appalling state that you have to do something and in the end you just get through. That’s certainly the case with this production.

The Party was held in a huge low ceiling ballroom within the precincts of the Kremlin. It had less atmosphere than the baggage-claim area at Dusseldorf airport (where I am a regular visitor) but there was plenty to drink and eat, and of course Brian, Roger and the company rocking on stage. Excellent.

And the next day we made our escape back to the free world. Never is a rash word to use but until they sell Cornettos in Hell I will steer well clear of Moscow. On the plus side are the Metro, the Bolshoi and hordes of beautiful women in pointy shoes. On the minus side just about everything else.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map