A New Old Play: Qiu Jiongjiong’s creative saga commands more eyes on it
(5 / 5)
Now here is a complete delight. Something out of the blue and now a shining testament to international, indie cinema. Qiu Jiongjiong has created this three hour epic, a feat that is highly impressive. I was both moved and amused in equal measure.
Yi Sicheng is Qiu Fu, a renowned Szechuan opera singer, who is being sent to the other world, after a life filled with joy, pain, love and creation. Sicheng is very matter of fact in the role, his clown like features include a red nose and his little dock man’s cap. This remains a highly impressive performance, the length of the film adding to the vast amount of time he’s on screen. It’s very subtlety done from him and it’s hard not to be taken with him.
This is a film which spans most of China’s turbulent 20th century. I was deeply impressed by the director’s efforts to have a lot of the practical side of things built with love. The models, walls and others set pieces are clearly handmade and adds an extra charm to the film. There are touches of Samuel Beckett, Buddhism, surrealism and German Expressionism abound. It’s a mighty feat, as many characters and historical moments glide along in this not always demanding film, its the length which may deter most for unjust reasons.
The love of theatre seeps through as well, the stage like production has many fascinating features. There is a cheeky humour to the whole film as well, even with the misery of the Japanese invasion, Mao, The Great Leap Forward, the famine and other depressing moments. Qiu Fu finds a way to get through it all, his craft being loved and loathed in certain moments of history. Things reached the saddest plateau when a baby is left at his doorstep during the horrendous famine, the mother later coming back and thanking them for looking after her child and expecting them to continue the support.
In many respects, little happens in the film, a Zen like presence seems to wash over the lead character as these pivotal events happen around him. Lovers of Chinese opera may find solace here, with many auditions, rehearsals and performances are seen throughout. There’s much humour in the afterlife scenes which even they feature red tape and insufferable waiting times.
As a whole the experience was splendid. It needs many more people to engage with it…the film remains in an early, humble starting ground and we hope more festivals, cinemas and reviewing platforms truly engage with it. It is worthy.
Dir: Qiu Jiongjiong (18, 179 mins)
A New Old Play is now playing at select cinemas and festivals.
In this latest in the series of Playwright interviews Peter Cox gives an overview of his career to date, his time working for National Institutions, access to the arts for all and his hopes for the future. Interview by Director of Get the Chance, Guy O’Donnell.
Hi Peter great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?
I began my writing career at the Royal Court Theatre in London where I won the George Devine Award for most promising new playwright in 1983. My stage plays have since been commissioned and performed by companies throughout Britain – including 7:84 Theatre Company, the Royal National Theatre, Belfast Opera House, the Wales Millennium Centre and National Theatre Wales.
I’ve written and developed film and television drama for the BBC and various independent companies. My radio drama has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 & 4 but I’m maybe best known as the writer of 227 episodes of the acclaimed Channel 4 drama serial, Brookside, between 1986 and 2003. During this time, I was a lead member of the writing team that created multiple-strand stories for more than 2,400 episodes.
Throughout my career writing drama for theatre and television I’ve been privileged to work alongside, and with, masters of these forms including Samuel Beckett, Edward Bond, Billie Whitelaw, Michael Bogdanov, Danny Boyle, and Sir Phil Redmond CBE. The experience of learning alongside people who are working at the top of their profession is unbeatable and led me, in turn, to a commitment to mentoring theatre makers and writers.
Alongside my writing work I’ve been very active in the Creative Industries sector in Wales including creative leadership and advocacy in community arts, cultural policy making, economic and cultural regeneration, broadcast radio and television drama production, professional theatre, youth theatre, live music promotion, carnival, and cultural tourism.
I’m a founder trustee and ex-Chair of CARAD(Community Arts Rhayader and District), a Registered Charity that has developed a regionally significant Rural Community Arts and Heritage resource that’s brought more than £5 million of inward investment into Mid-Wales. During my leadership term CARAD facilitated the active engagement of more than 118,000 members of the community and helped to inspire and deliver over 650,000 hours of community participation and engagement in arts, heritage, and media projects.
In the 2010 New Year’s Honours list I was awarded an MBE for services to community arts – in essence, an acknowledgement of the amazing vision and hard work of many local people. In 2018, along with an ex-Brookside writer colleague, Judith Clucas, I co-founded a new media production company, Portsea Media Ltd.
So, what got you interested in the arts?
My earliest theatre-going experiences fuelled my desire to pursue a career in the performing arts. My first, on a teenage school-trip, was watching Peter Brook’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, with its rock-circus staging and Bottom being given a clown nose rather than an ass’s head. A few years later, as a drama student, I was awestruck watching the fabulous giant puppetry of Swiss theatre troupe Mummenschanz. Soon after I was deeply moved and inspired by Lindsay’s Kemp’s extraordinary, ‘Butoh’ influenced, movement-theatre production of ‘Flowers’ at Sadler’s Wells. There are visual stage images from all three productions seared into my memory to this day.
In each of these shows, the non-traditional theatre techniques and visual language used were incredibly powerful and profoundly enhanced the storytelling. Primarily though, I was conscious of the way my emotions, imagination and creativity were provoked by these vividly effective, stylised, and subversive theatrical approaches. I was hooked.
Why do you write?
I write to try and harness the vast numbers of ideas that just keep bursting out of my sub-conscious mind. I write to try to capture and express moments of extreme crisis, of powerful emotions, from rage and hate to love and grief. I write to make an actor’s blood run faster and to make audiences laugh and cry.
As both a playwright and screenwriter, I’ve researched in, and written about, many socially and politically challenging environments, including: the Bogside in Derry in 1982/3 just after the Hunger Strikes, across British coalfields during the 1984/5 Miners Strike, in Southern Sudan – a war and famine zone, during the Troubles in the Falls Road Belfast 1988/89, and so on. At the heart of all this work there are real people facing very real, and serious, crisis points in their personal and community lives.
Those are stories that need to be told.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Where do your ideas come from?
I watch the world – politics, journalism, human behaviour and frailty, social trends etc… and generate ideas on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I never block any of my own ideas – I note them down, then they either get used or not. Sometimes they might resurface years later in an entirely new context.
I use a diverse range of process techniques, like T Cards and colour coding for structure, but my approach to storytelling is always the same, whatever the form… find a compelling character, or group of characters, and put them into a story that pushes them up against and beyond their own boundaries. The challenges they face, both mirror and echo the challenges that audiences face every day.
Can you describe your writing day? Do you have a process or a minimum word count?
Getting into my ‘writing zone’ is crucial. Blanking out all the extraneous noise from life and the world around me. Once there I honestly can’t say how the magic happens – when the words flow it’s an alchemical process. Researching and note-gathering are replaced by something akin to ‘channelling’ as characters, action, dialogue and images form in a kaleidoscopic visualisation.
I never judge or edit as I go – that comes later. I’m completely committed to revising and re-writing and I’m not afraid to write twenty or thirty drafts or more. I’m a strong advocate of the strength and power in a good relationship between writers, directors, and dramaturgs. I work on the understanding that writing is a form of improvisation on the page. I never ask, ‘Do you like what I’ve written?’ Always just, ‘How can it be better?’
Do you have a specific place that you work from?
When I worked as Writer in Residence with No Fit State Circus – on three site specific shows -my ‘standing-desk’ was a wheelie bin, out in the open air, with my writing files and laptop perched on top of it. I wouldn’t swap that experience for the world, but when it comes to writing every day, often for very long hours, I prefer my desk in my office space at home.
You began your writing career at the Royal Court Theatre and won the George Devine Award for most promising new playwright. We recently interviewed playwright Diana Nneka Atuona about her play Trouble in Butetown. Her script was recipient of the 2019 George Devine Award for her play then titled, ‘The Boy from Tiger Bay’. What role do awards and prizes play in a writer’s career and what difference, if any did it make to yours?
Huge congratulations to Diana. Winning the George Devine Award opened many professional doors for me, and I still place it high on my CV. Just as important though – was that it gave me a huge confidence boost and a validation of my writer’s voice.
I think it’s important that all ‘competitions’ should take the process very seriously. They need to be run with integrity and with good, sensitive communications. Giving thoughtful, considered, and professional feedback should be at the heart of the process – that way, everyone who enters is a winner.
I was fascinated with some Tweets you shared recently on a commission from The Royal National Theatre touring Welsh Miner’s Welfare Halls, where you also worked with 7:84 Theatre Company. How do you come to be involved in this project?
Just after winning the George Devine Award, I was commissioned by Peter Gill, Associate Director at the Royal National Theatre, to go into the Kent Coalfield to live with a militant striking miner – and then to create a verbatim play taken from interviews with miners for the duration of the strike. I travelled to every coalfield across the rest of the country, interviewing and researching on picket lines, mass demos, in soup kitchens etc.
After the first version of the play was done at the National, (The Garden of England, directed by Peter Gill), I was asked to write a touring show with songs – inspired by that verbatim research – for 7:84 Theatre Company (England). We played some amazing huge venues to thousands of striking miners and their families – with the buses that brought the audiences being sponsored by other trade unions and using volunteer drivers. (Opening night in front of 2,500 in Sheffield City Hall, second night another massive audience in Newcastle City Hall, then Manchester Town Hall.) Our Wales venue was the Parc and Dare and it was an extraordinary night, as was the rest of the tour!
Then, in a strange turn of events, once the strike was over, Peter Gill commissioned me to go back to Kent to conduct another whole sequence of interviews in the defeated mining community. Once again I created a powerful piece of verbatim theatre, but one which was very different in tone to the first two. The two verbatim pieces played in the Cottesloe Theatre at the National Theatre.
My connection with 7:84 was a big influence on me. I was very lucky to get picked up as a young playwright by such a theatre visionary as the late John McGrath who founded the company. John was extremely encouraging to me and gave me various opportunities. He enabled me to go on the road with the company in both England and Scotland, as a form of apprenticeship. He commissioned me and I wrote several plays for 7:84. He put me on the 7:84 management committee. I owe him a lot. He had a fierce intellect and was extremely shrewd and analytical – always pushing societal boundaries and hierarchical cultural constructs. Working so closely with him inspired me to do the same – something I try to do with every new project I undertake.
What role do you think National Theatres and Playwrights have in telling the narratives of the citizens of their respective nations?
To be a good playwright you must care in equal measure about your characters’ and your audience’s lives. You need to be adaptable and flexible to create a wide range of characters and stories. You need serious commitment, stamina and staying power. You need to be ready to shed tears as you dig into the depths of your own life experience to bring those emotions to life in your characters. You need to love drama, and the power it has, to affect people’s lives. All these things apply to being a good National Theatre as well.
A large part of your career was spent writing episodes of the Channel 4 drama serial, Brookside, between 1986 and 2003. During that time, you were a member of the writers’ team that created multiple-strand stories for more than 2,400 episodes. You have said about your work on Brookside that “As you might guess I love story and the power of story metaphor in people’s lives.” We often see the term, “Writing Team” on long running serial dramas, can you share how this process works for the writers involved?
A Writers Room, or being on a Writing Team, is most commonly associated with American TV Drama Series & Serials. Breaking Bad for example, has a formidable reputation for the strength of its Writers Room – one of the reasons it has been so globally successful. Brookside story-lined with the Writers Room model – right from the day it started in 1982.
During my time on Brookside there would be twelve to fourteen writers on the team at any one time. We’d meet with the producers every six months to determine long-term story potential for all core characters. Then we’d meet for two days every month, in storyline sessions led by the Producer and / or the Exec Producer, where we’d intensively thrash out a block of twelve episode outlines at a time. We’d then go on to be commissioned individually to write single episode scripts – or possibly two or three for more experienced writers. While in the Writers Room we’d fight for stories, find twists and turns, generate the drama, seek out the humour and push the political and social boundaries as far as we could. We’d argue fiercely about politics, sex, religion etc… to the extent that, on one occasion, Security was called to attend as someone had reported a fight was taking place!
Writers Rooms don’t suit all writers, and they can be quite attritional places. Often there’s a high fall-out rate, and on shows like Friends they’ve been identified as being brutal and unforgiving. All of that said, when they work well, and when they suit you, it can be a fantastic system to work within. I had the great fortune to write for Brookside for eighteen years and my time in the Writer’s Room was like a monthly injection of the best drug going – intensely focused and collaborative creativity. I developed huge respect for my colleagues and for their commitment to driving our series to be the best that it could be. The fact that people still stop me, and talk about stories from over twenty years ago, is a great tribute to the effort we made at the time to tell the best stories we could that viewers would identify with.
In news just announced this week I’m very pleased to see that all episodes of Brookside have been digitally remastered and are due to be shown on STV – a free to air streaming service. I’ve no doubt that many of the stories that we told across the 80s and 90s will still resonate in the viewer’s lives.
Are there any particular storylines that you are most proud of during your time on Brookside?
Tough question. I was part of the Writers Room Team that generated storylines that ran through more than 2,400 episodes. I wrote 227 episodes which is a huge amount of broadcast television drama. To give you some idea of scale… just writing my episodes alone would be around three million words. By the time the team has story-lined and scripted over 2,400 episodes you are well into the tens of millions of words!
Brookside was conceived to bring real issues and real lives to the British television screen, through an ongoing drama serial. It was brave and ground-breaking. We prided ourselves on being ahead of social, political and legal issues and trends. Our audience looked to us to be challenging the boundaries of British politics through the eyes of ordinary people. We gave a voice to the genuine concerns, fears, and aspirations of our viewers – people with little or no power over their lives and their futures. Brookside was recognised from its first episode as ‘gritty social realism’, but we weren’t afraid to make people laugh along the way.
It was very important to us that we moved with the times. In the 1980s there had been a major national focus on Trade Union politics, and this was reflected in the programme. As we moved into the 1990s other social issues began to dominate, including LGBT+ issues, drug misuse, rise of feminist politics etc. Brookside further explored all these issues and many more.
So, having created hundreds of Brookside stories, it’s very hard to pick out a favourite – although the three-year-long ‘Body Under the Patio / Jordache’ story of domestic violence and child abuse is high on my list.
Maybe an easier way to frame it is to recognise that I have four favourite Brookside characters who were iconic soap characters played by outstanding actors who were great to write for: Sheila Grant, Jimmy Corkhill, Sinbad the Window Cleaner, and Mick Johnson. (Sue Johnstone, Dean Sullivan, Michael Starke, and Louis Emerick).
Each of them was a working-class character who grew in strength and influence over many years from essentially the same starting point – as one of life’s underdogs – people with no power or agency in wider society. Each of them showed great resilience, courage, and human spirit to overcome all the adversities they faced, and a political system heavily weighted against them.
Throughout your career you have often worked with the general public and young people in particular devising work together, how does this process differ from being commissioned to write a script by yourself? Can you make any suggestions for good practice in terms of this method of creativity and writing?
I’ve had extensive experience creating drama with communities including large-scale community plays in Wales and London, youth theatre in Belfast, youth and community film for the Rural Media Company and the BBC Wales Millennium Film, ‘A Light on The Hill’, commissioned and directed by Michael Bogdanov.
In all instances I aim to balance the process and the product equally. I always set the bar as high as possible, and ensure the whole project is delivered to the highest professional standards. This has an immense impact on the participant’s self-esteem and sense of achievement and can have a profound effect on people’s lives, including those in the audience. Best practice includes providing good access that removes barriers of all kinds, good listening and learning skills, honesty, respect, and integrity. With those basic principles in place everything else is about creating supportive systems and logistics that give people the best chance to grow in confidence and deliver at a level that they never thought they would be able to achieve.
There are a range of organisations supporting Wales based writers. I wonder if you feel the current support network and career opportunities feel ‘healthy’ to you? Is it possible to sustain a career as a writer in Wales and if not, what would help?
It’s difficult to envisage a time when it will be genuinely ‘healthy’ as demand far outstrips supply. For example, the National Theatre Wales Community has four hundred and eighty-two members in its Writers Group. Let’s say half of them are active and wanting to write plays and get them performed. That’s over two hundred writers, while the number of commissions via companies like Theatr Clwyd, NTW, Sherman etc, will come nowhere near that in any one year.
This makes sustaining a career through theatre writing extremely difficult, except perhaps for a handful of playwrights. I’ve always thought of myself as a dramatist, not just a theatre playwright. This means in practice that I’ve gone out of my way across my career to find opportunities to deploy my core skills in a wide range of performance settings – radio, TV, film, circus etc. I would estimate that probably over 90% of my career earnings have come from working outside Wales.
If you were able to fund an area of the arts what would this be and why?
My ‘wish list’ would include: a Rural Region of Culture, youth theatre, touring theatre, new writing by writers of all ages, opportunities for women playwrights, mentoring… it could go on to be a very long list!
What currently inspires you about the arts in the Wales?
I’m hugely inspired by the number of young people coming through high-quality training and their determination to find all kinds of opportunities to tell diverse stories through drama. Their belief in what they do, and their love of it clearly transcends all else. But it’s very clear that, although financial remuneration doesn’t drive theatre makers on – poor financial rewards work against theatre makers from poorer backgrounds, so we risk those voices not being heard.
What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?
Just before COVID, I worked with Sue Parrish, Artistic Director of Sphinx Theatre Company, a long-standing collaborator. The project we created was Words as Weapons – in partnership with Tom Kuhn of the Writing Brecht Project at Oxford University, Rowan Padmore from Arts at the Old Fire Station with CRISIS, the homeless charity, in Oxford and a group of participants with lived, often current, experience of homelessness.
As part of my preparation to run a sequence of writing workshops I read nearly one thousand Brecht poems, newly translated into English by David Constantine and Professor Tom Kuhn. It was a great privilege to be given access to this work, pre-publication, and what a journey of discovery it proved to be – page after page of surprising subjects and diverse styles. I’ve always believed Brecht had a voice that speaks to our lives today, but the more poems I read the stronger this conviction became.
Our writing group would meet every Monday afternoon and I’d use some of these Brecht poems as triggers for creating new work – in whatever form each group-member wished to try; poem, lyric / song, monologue, scene etc. When we read the Brecht poems aloud and discussed them, we found that their contemporary resonance and relevance was often quite extraordinary. He wrote some of these poems one hundred years ago, but he could easily have been writing directly about today.
Brecht’s words, his weapons, proved to be a fantastic catalyst for generating some exceptional new writing. Our workshop approach encouraged and nurtured each writer’s own voice. As each member of the group grew in confidence, they found themselves liberated and they pursued their own new writing with real energy and purpose. Each of their voices became clearer and stronger. I’ve no doubt Brecht would have genuinely celebrated this spate of creativity and commentary. As they created each new piece their hunger to express themselves matured, their words demanded to be shared and their voices demanded to be heard.
When we all stepped out onstage, in our live Words as Weapons performances, the packed houses listened intently and were moved and entertained as well as intellectually stimulated and politically provoked. But at the same time, these audiences were struggling to get their bearings.
This was two worlds colliding: 1920s Berlin v Oxford 2018.
They understood that they were listening to new writing – but they also knew we were sharing some Brecht poems – and at times they found it impossible to work out who had written what and when! That was a great project on so many levels.
It could be that Dal y Mellt is S4C’s most ambitious drama to date. Episode one certainly promised much from a series that looks set to deliver. Adapted from the hit novel by Iwan ‘Iwcs’ Roberts, the narrative weaves mystery, comedy and crime seamlessly to create a world that is universally recognisable whilst being inherently Welsh.
The first thing to note is its scope. Dal y Mellt spreads across the country, taking in the busy streets of Cardiff and the beautiful vistas of Gwynedd in between visits to London Euston and Chester. Connections to Ireland via the Holyhead-Dublin ferry will come into play as the series progresses, making this a drama of ambitious scale. We are no longer confined to a narrative centred on small town Wales or even a singular region. Instead, Dal y Mellt combines the best of previous Welsh dramas to extend its reach to the whole of Wales and beyond. It does so not as a gimmick but in keeping with a kind of unspoken contemporary tradition of intimate character portrayals (Keeping Faith; Enid a Lucy), expansive landscape shots (Hinterland; Hidden), and a complex narrative web (Yr Amgueddfa; 35 Diwrnod). The cinematography, with its stylistic shots and trained lighting, ensures that it works by adding a touch of quality that underlines its movielike proportions.
Dubbed “a hoot of a heist”, there are already some familiar tropes that appear in episode one, including plans sprawled out on a table, secret meetings in an art gallery, and a car chase involving the police. What feels so fresh about this context however is that they’re given a Welsh spin. Gronw (Dyfan Roberts) holds down his drawings of a ship’s decks with a cup of tea and other items from his traditional farmhouse kitchen. The National Museum of Wales provides the backdrop to a conversation between wayward lad Carbo (Gwïon Morris Jones) and garage-owning gangster Mici Ffin (Mark Lewis Jones). Carbo drives through country lanes and takes a detour through some very muddy fields to get away from the cops. Each incident is tinged with humour which lightens the mood. The result is a series that is not gothic a la Peaky Blinders or violent like The Sopranos but nevertheless takes some of their ingredients and mixes it with a distinctly Welsh flavour. It means that the characters are all believable, reflective of their particular locations; and the story remains grounded even as the plot becomes more elaborate and outlandish.
The characters of Mici Ffin and Les are worth particular mention from this first episode, Mark Lewis Jones and Graham Land making for an instantly likeable double act whose straight faces only add to their comedic value. The fluffy seats and dice dangling from the rear-view mirror of their Capri conjure up a Del Boy and Rodney type partnership which also expresses a lovable incompetence reminiscent of Horace and Jasper. Their dealings with happy-go-lucky protagonist Carbo are a delight to witness, the cheekiness of his responses toward them making him an affable rogue. Morris Jones brings a dexterity of emotion to the role to create a character of both confidence and vulnerability. It is a combination that wins admiration from the viewing public, no more so than in the final scenes, as we witness his fear and ingenuity play out whilst dangling from a forklift tractor. It indicates to Mici the importance of this lad in the events to come, events which remain very much a mystery at the episode’s end.
The eclectic soundtrack, with its reggae-inspired beats and operatic moments, reflects an expansive taste across genre, location and emotion. It is a drama of dark and light; witty and gritty; familiar yet full of mystery. Dal y Mellt is not easy to categorise, combining as it does various elements, but it definitely looks set to entertain audiences with a narrative full of adventure and intrigue. If Y Golausaw it go off the boil, this looks to be a series that brings S4C’s dramatic output back to something that represents their best.
The first episode will be broadcast on Sunday 2nd October 2022 on S4C at 9pm. You can then watch the full series on BBC iPlayer or S4C Clic.
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It’s been ten years since artists Rebecca Sloan and Joseph Pelling perplexed YouTube with their first offering of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. Through a huge cult following, they have finally broken through the interwebs and made it onto Channel 4. Though there is a varying success rate from this, DHMIS can proudly hold it’s place next to Bo Burnham and Smiling Friends, runaway hits with roots from the worlds biggest video site.
At first, I did wonder if it could reach the heights of its original form, with a delay of nearly two weeks just to be streamed on All 4. Things quickly got as twisted and disturbing as the episodes went on. Uncanny doll twins, creepy worm advocates and crusty old train men all feature to teach life lessons or just antagonise the three blissfully ignorant, lead puppets: Yellow Guy, Red Guy and of course…Duck.
I’m so proud of all involved in this. The funky songs almost reach the heights of the online counterpart, though the visuals are perhaps even more disgusting and disturbing. Much creativity is within these puppets, funny lines and the Theatre of Cruelty also fly by. Debates over the three characters and where they exactly reside still cause friction, is it a simulation or a nightmare? The show may try attempts to find answers, though never goes overboard with all its cards on the table. There are some genuine messages about friendship, death, grief, jobs, families and advice. Never pandering, only ever holding up a mirror to our own states of discord.
The show remains also very English. I think I detected a brief Welsh accent in the first episode, though this came and went. It is nice to hear some regional accents pop in and out. I think a few more voice actors could had added a bit more spirit to the array of dark and biting characters that feature. Baker Terry seems to set his net wide, filling in for a lot of the effort, as well as the creators. We can only assume the budget made things difficult. We’ve still yet to see the pilot which was presented at Sundance, something fans old and new alike would love to see.
To say too much would simply spoil the allure of the series. So drink in the rich flavours of Twin Peaks, Kafka, Wonder Showzen and Rainbow. Go forth and find the mysteries within…
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is streaming now on All 4 for free.
Contrary to so many horror films that over the years have depicted nature as the enemy and their female protagonists as victims, Charlotte Colbert’s She Will is a tale of personal and collective trauma and empowerment found in a deep connection with the land.
The film opens with the ageing film-star Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) in a luxurious art deco train compartment taking Traumadol to relieve the pain from a recent double mastectomy. She is travelling with her young nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt) to a retreat in the Scottish Highlands. At their arrival, they are met with exaggerated characters headed by Tirador, played by Rupert Everett in a little too caricatural Oscar Wilde pose.
All around is a wild and bleak forest that was once the theatre of the execution of women accused of witchcraft. The ground has absorbed the women’s power, be that of witches or of victims of a misogynistic crime, and it now insinuates itself in Veronica’s life bringing healing as well as power.
Director Charlotte Colbert excels at weaving together the physical elements of the forest with the symbolism of trauma and healing. The ground penetrates into Veronica’s cabin as a black sludge and into her dreams as nightmares. It liberates her from the shame she feels of her scarred body, deprived of breasts, symbol of femininity. It also brings redemption from the childhood trauma of being sexually exploited by the director of the film that launched her career, played by Malcolm McDowell. As Veronica embraces the power in the mud, her spirit haunts the film director who commits suicide.
Alice Krige dominates the film with intensity, subtlety, and charm. Krige’s Veronica is captivating in her transformation from a former film-star clinging to beauty by masking her body to an empowered woman with no fear. It is ironic that she played the evil witch in the faux feminist Gretel and Hansel that was so rife with misogynistic themes (see review).
The film is at its weakest when it leaves behind symbolism and tries to portray real characters and situations. Veronica’s relationship with her nurse Desi has little life in it notwithstanding solid performances. The attempted rape of Desi by a local young man is contrived, only serving the purpose of presenting an example of misogynistic violence which is punished by the revengeful forest. Other characters are a little too incidental adding little and at times disrupting the cohesiveness of the film.
Aside Krige, it is the physical and mental landscape that carries the film conveyed by the striking photography of Jamie Ramsay who fuses together the haunting images of Veronica’s nightmares and fantasies and the dark and sinister landscape all around her.
The choice of Scotland as a setting resonates historically. Between 1563 and 1736, an estimated 3837 people in Scotland were accused of witchcraft, a much higher proportion than in other European countries. 84% of them were women. It is estimated that over 60% of the accused were executed. This historical injustice has been addressed by the Witches of Scotland campaign, which has led to an official apology by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and has inspired movements in other countries.
Anyone who knows me will declare my love of American film director David Lynch. The dark, eyebrow raising, nightmare vision that is his canon leaves most perplexed and others reeling. I’m usually in the later category.
For one reason or another his late 90’s classic Lost Highway has alluded me for years. The Watershed in Bristol had the great fortune of getting the 4K remastering of the film, a UK premiere. I’ll confess the film looked blazing on the screen. The exquisite close ups of mouths, eyes along with some truly vivid sexual scenes. Now known as the first flutter in Lynch’s L. A. Trilogy, the superior (in my opinion) Mulholland Drive followed by the even denser Inland Empire.
A post-mortem on the film requires time and patience. The first third of the runtime, is the definition of total paranoia, the use of VHS is of it’s era and a clever component of the horror aspect the film swerves in and out of. Bill Pullman plays Fred Madison, a free-form jazz saxophonist who suffers with headaches and an intense anxiety seen little of in cinema. His wife, Renne played by a stoic Patricia Arquette add a deeper mood to the film, seen later as the sensual Alice Wakefield in one of the films most head scratching phases. In a strange transformation scene, Fred whilst in prison for the murder of his wife, appears to morph into Pete Dayton, played by a chipper, subtle Balthazar Getty.
It is the performances of Pullman, Arquette and Getty which command the film, most of the intrigue coming from what on earth happens to these characters. One wonders if doppelgängers and tulpas might be involved, a theme in Lynch’s work for decades. You can easily see the influence of Greek myth, Buddhism and American folk heroes smeared all over the film and it works to the best it’s ability. Co-written with Barry Gifford, Lynch’s usual tricks are never far away, the smoke, fire, booze and rock music, the trappings of this movie master forever enthral. What exactly occurs in the film is up for debate, though appears to have clearer abstraction then later work.
As always with Lynch the humour is flies through and this Bristol audience got some good laughs throughout this absurd, beautiful film. Some idol police detectives inject some well needed laugh earlier on, as the realisation of a home invasion is established. Some more surreal supporting cast choices include Richard Pryor, Mink Stole, Gary Busey and Henry Rollins. Also of note is Jack Nance as Phil, in his last feature role, a Lynch veteran who wowed and delighted audiences for years, only to die in a bizarre attack in a donut shop.
Robert Loggia intimidates as both Mr Eddy and Dick Laurent, with neither character you’d want to cross, as proven by the hilarious car chase scene where he pistol whips a driver who cuts him off, whilst lecturing him about the highway code. Nothing remains more spooky in the film as The Mystery Man played by the pure terror of Robert Blake. I found I had chills in his scene with Pullman, the now famous “At your house” line is later heard in Twin Peaks: The Return, in keeping with the cyclic condition of Lynch.
Some of the musical choices may date the film slightly, though most are inspired: the likes of David Bowie with Brian Eno, Rammstein, the now cancelled Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails are highlights. Angelo Badalamenti’s score is evocative as ever, the perfect companion to most of Lynch’s warped presentations. Not his most brilliant music, but some nice moments by any standard.
Lost Highway remains troubling, funny, transient and thought provoking.
For such a highly-anticipated Welsh drama, Y Golau seemed to run the well-worn tracks of what has become the genre’s favoured train: the psychological thriller. Given its all-star Welsh cast, I expected something much more original and distinctly different from previous Welsh noirs like Hidden and The Pact. As a result, I felt underwhelmed by its decision to present yet another murder mystery, complete with the same familiar tropes as its predecessors. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with the production. It just simply didn’t thrill and engross in quite the way that it might have done had it not been in the guise of similar series that had gone before.
The typically rural setting and small-town cast of characters is one thing; but the desolate landscape, solemn music, and gloomy figures present yet another side to Wales that panders to the bleak and pedantic detail of the crime subgenre. Iwan Rheon plays the haunted convict who is released from prison having served a sentence for the murder of the daughter of Joanna Scanlan’s haunted mother. He returns to the town that is still haunted by the events of 18 years previously, his presence disturbing an uneasy peace which is exacerbated further by the re-appearance of Alexandra Roach’s journalist, who is looking for a story. The three of them give ample performances for what are very rare appearances in a Welsh-language outfit. Yet none command the kind of screen presence that has come to be expected of them. In particular, the animated spark that enlivens Scanlan and Roach’s appearance’ in No Offence is largely absent here. Instead, vacant stares obtrude their presentations such that it becomes difficult to make a significant emotional connection to their characters.
It is Ifan Huw Dafydd that gives the best performance here. He strikes a menacing veneer over his character Huw that is justifiably unsettling. It is no surprise that his growing presence onscreen and involvement in the central narrative coincides with the more compelling and intriguing parts of the drama. If anything, the return of his estranged daughter Shelley (played by Rhian Blythe) is the catalyst for the twists and turns that follow in the final two parts of the series. This is where Y Golau becomes gripping in a way that its shortcomings, up until this point, can be forgiven. It enters a similar phase to that of Yr Amgueddfa, whereby its web of disparate characters start to become interconnected, drawing the various strands of the narrative together to create a big grand finale. But whereas Fflur Dafydd manages to maintain interest in the opening episodes in spite of the expositional setting up of the story, Regina Moriarty’s script doesn’t possess the same hooks with which to retain the audience’s attention. The result is a requirement to persevere in order to be rewarded rather than being kept sufficiently entertained throughout.
In the end, Y Golau aims a bit too high. Issues of abuse and power are dealt with admirably. The final episode ensures the series ends strongly. But I expected more from this drama, not least because of the roster of Welsh stars that appear in its cast. Scanlan, Roach, Rheon, Hannah Daniel, Aneirin Hughes and Sian Reese-Williams, all lend it an air of quality that meant expectations were high. To then find a characteristic S4C offering in the mould of an Ed Talfan production that didn’t quite utilise the talent involved left me slightly dissatisfied. As a result, Y Golau lit up the screen but wasn’t a roaring success.
Newport Riverfront Theatre & Arts Centre is the only venue in Wales to host the Windrush Caribbean Film Festival 2022 the turnout was poor considering the amount of effort that it must have taken to put this event together, however, my experience was not disappointing in any way – I had a fantastic evening.
I had the pleasure and excitement of being catapulted back to my rebellious, wild, outrageous youth by watching Don Lett’s film ‘Rebel Dread’.
‘Rebel Dread’ tells the story of Don Letts, born in Brixton to parents who had come over from Jamaica in the mid-50s to work on the buses and the garment trade. Letts is a first-generation Black British-born filmmaker, DJ, cultural commentator, author, and musician, who grew up with the ever-present threat of racism, police harassment, and violence in London during the 60s and 70s—framed by Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 and the 2018 ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy.
It was fascinating to learn Letts had the second largest collection of Beatles memorabilia in the UK (which he swapped for a big American car) and as a youth, his first gig was going to see The Who, which changed his perspective on life, brought out the ‘rocker’ in him and led to him setting fire to his desk in the classroom at his school. Desmond Coy, his older brother, recalled a David Bowie phase too, when Letts wore earrings and sported eyeshadow.
Don Letts has led a dynamic life, he became friends with Malcolm Maclaren and Vivienne Westwood and found himself at the epi-center of the emerging punk movement, he came to notoriety in the late 70s as the DJ that single-handedly turned a generation of punks onto reggae, which also coincided with his initial thrust into film-making, following the gift of a Super-8 camera from Carolyn Baker.
Letts was a DJ at the first punk club ‘The Roxy’ in 1977 and it was here that he made his first film ‘The Punk Rock Movie’ featuring the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and many others. This led to him directing hundreds of videos for a diverse and impressive mix of artists, ranging from Bob Marley, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Musical Youth and many, many more.
Letts was a very cool, stylish man, his image was original and at that time he was unlike his fellow Rasta brethren which led to him ‘standing out’ and being something of a ladies’ man, he had a very complicated personal life.
During the 80s along with Mick Jones, he formed Big Audio Dynamite, making music that incorporated film samples, rock n roll, dance, reggae, and rap.
Since 2009 he has presented ‘Culture Clash Radio’ a weekly show on BBC6 Music. His autobiography ‘There and Black Again’ was listed in the Rough Trade top 10 books of 2020. Don is currently working on his first solo record with Cooking Vinyl, due for release in Spring 2023.
After the film Letts appeared for an interview with Aleighcia Scott (Cardiff-born Welsh-Jamaican reggae artist) and a Q&A session, which saw him merging with and interacting with the audience, enjoying the random questions and relaying his eclectic life and exciting times.
He is a very personable man, he was funny, interesting, intelligent, and energetic, he has time for people, he understands the value of socialising, and absorbs the world around him.
Don Letts is a fearless, courageous, influencer and purveyor of change, a merger of cultures, and a blender of people.
Five out of five very bright shining stars, shining almost as bright as the man himself! The film Rebel Dread tells the story of a video producer, DJ, broadcaster, filmmaker, songwriter, musician, author and as the title suggests…Rebel. All of this can only point to one man, the super-talented and incredibly likable Mr Don Letts.
Rebel Dread documents Letts’ life growing up in 1960s/70s London where it all began and beyond, from his schooldays where he was subjected to racial abuse, which was all too commonplace at the time, to his first rock concert and his first act of rebellion. It talks about his teenage years and the point when his life direction would change forever, right up to the present day. It looks at how music, fashion, cultural difference, police harassment and unrest had a massive impact on his life and how he embraced what was happening and how he ‘turned problems into assets’.
Letts posed a striking figure, he had the good looks, the charisma, the attitude and the balls to go out and get what he wanted. He trod his own path, a path that would lead him right to the epicentre of a newly emerging and exciting London scene that he would so quickly become a major part of. Rubbing shoulders with up and coming entrepreneurs Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren and meeting and eventually working with some of the biggest names of the punk rock scene at the time including The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Slits, which he would manage, to name just a few. Oh yes, he also met and became friends with Bob Marley!
At the time it was initially seen as strange for a dread to be mixing in the punk scene,a scene that was predominantly white and Bob Marley told Letts this when he turned up wearing bondage trousers. But Letts viewed the punks as being very much like some of the black community, disenchanted with the politics of the time, oppressed & harassed, a minority looked down upon by others, a minority that weren’t afraid to speak out and to rebel against the system. Letts embraced the Punk scene and through his love of reggae music enticed the punks into his world with the throbbing baselines of heavy dub. Letts was like some kind of social honey bee, mixing with different cultures, pollinating and fertilizing to create the perfect hybrid.
Being a child of the 1960s myself and a punk and reggae lover of the 1970s and beyond I found it very easy to relate to Letts’ story even though our lives were poles apart and I hadn’t even heard of him at the time. It doesn’t matter as our love for the fashion and the music was the same, our burning desire for change was the same and our willingness to rebel was the same. What I didn’t realise at the time was the influence Letts was having on me without me even knowing it!
Letts has led an exciting and varied life, he’s had his share of woes and personal problems, highs and lows, he has traveled and worked with some of the biggest names in music and at 66 years of age it doesn’t look like he has any intentions of stopping just yet.
After the screening we were invited to stay on for a Q&A with the man himself and what a lovely, sociable, grounded man he is. Letts answered the questions put to him by the interviewer, local reggae artist Aleighcia Scott and also found time to answer questions from the audience. After the Q&A Letts stood around chatting and posed for numerous photographs.
If you want to hear the rest, and there is a lot more to hear! Watch the film Rebel Dread and read the book There And Black Again.
I remember when this podcast went live, boosted somewhere into my online feed because I had been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, even as I felt it slipping from my grasp of enjoyment (it’s back now).
“Conversations With People Who Hate Me” is a podcast initially beginning with Dylan Marron, the creator, reaching out to people who have left him mean comments on his online work. They discuss the comment, among other things, and while not strictly having to come to some ample, satisfactory conclusion, usually both parties leave the table feeling different to how they sat down at it. It would later evolve into Dylan moderating a conversation between two people – one whose work or art piece or the like received a mean comment, and the person who left it.
I thought this was an interesting idea when it first came out back in 2017, mostly because I’d seen nothing like it outside of thinking back to when you’d get taught as a kid to “be nice”, or “not get angry” that kind of thing, that parents kind of do: “Remember to share!” when they’re, I don’t know, in the kitchen, and not watching you not share. “Just talk!” felt like impractical advice, I wasn’t sure how it would help, if it even could. But I remember listening to a few episodes before I fell off of podcasts entirely, (not for any particular reason, I think it would mostly down to this itch in my brain that told me if I’m listening to people speak then I have to listen and I found myself unable to do anything else if I had a podcast on, and I must not have been getting enough A-Level revision done as a result) listening to the back and fore of a conversation that would definitely frustrate me, but I found Dylan was navigating well. It wasn’t something I could have done. I’m not certain it is now, five years on.
The book was quite a lot about how the podcast came to be, and what was learned during its creation process. Which is fine, truthfully, I wasn’t sure it would be about anything else since the book and the podcast shared the same name. There is a tale woven within it about what the internet is and what it could be – how it effects us and the kinds of things, good and bad, it can lead us to doing or feeling. I enjoyed seeing the depth of something I had liked and then lost hold of years ago, re-entering my vision in a way that contextualised and solved what probably caused me to drop it in the first place. I don’t think I was ready to have the kinds of conversations Dylan was having then, and while I’m not convinced I am now, either, one thing I found dazzlingly soothing was the understanding of the “Everything Storm”. The “Everything Storm” is kind of how it sounds: everything is happening all the time, all at once, and if you can’t keep up, someone on the internet definitely thinks you suck. I never realised this was what was causing my own version of an internet fatigue, but on reading Dylan’s detailing of his own (even as it was attributed to discussions he was having and manifesting as different emotions and actions for him), I was like, oh man, this is it. This is what pushed me to the private twitter with all of my ten highly vetted followers, what made me rest my phone face down. It was nice to put a name to that weird feeling of guilt when something happens and all I can think when I look at it was, “Oh no. Not now. Please.”
This was definitely a feature of the book I really enjoyed, the detailing of the arcs of a conversation, serving you pieces you can recognise and take away with you, the smallest of navigation tips to assure your nerves if you ever take on the kind of conversations Dylan does.
The book is delightfully written, reading like a winding story while instilling a genuine lesson. I don’t often read non-fiction, but when I do I find I prefer it to feel almost personal. I enjoyed this deep dive into the very back of Dylan Marron’s mind: what lead to the podcast and the further book, and all the nuances of creation that came both before, and during, this chapter of his life. I can see why it would have been difficult to write, after learning it was supposed to release in mid 2020, not the first half of 2022. The deliberation of what may come of these “pieces” – the consequences to all of Dylan’s actions, in a way -was purposeful and honest. Which is refreshing to see in world tearing itself apart wondering who the main character of the day is, and how exactly then can get got.
I think Dylan Marron is the kind of person you either quietly follow through the years, even if you’re not aware that you are (which is the category I fall into: I heard of him through his work on Welcome to Night Vale, and found myself coming back to his page every so often to see what, if anything, had changed), or, one day, you happen upon him by accident entirely. For a long time he was just “that voice on that show I used to listen to”, but I realise now Dylan is much more and has been doing much, much more than that. I get the feeling that this is something of a memoir rather than a self-help-essay-type of book like Good Vibes Good Life by Vex King, which I really, really like. It feels real and honest; genuine and undoubtfully true. It has a similar kind of vibe to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic – a snippet of a wide, three-dimensional life, and how it made an unfathomably large ripple across the rest of that person’s days.
It was a fantastic read. I don’t know that I would recommend it to everyone, but I think it’s one of those books where if you look into it yourself and think yeah, I can get behind this, then do.
Creating opportunities for a diverse range of people to experience and respond to sport, arts, culture and live events. / Lleisiau amrywiol o Gymru yn ymateb i'r celfyddydau a digwyddiadau byw