Tag Archives: Oh What a Lovely War

Something to do together on Thursdays

A 19th century Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropmorphized frogs parading with banner and band

19th century Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing some anthropomorphised frogs celebrating

With one of the Christmas cards I received from the US this year was one of those A4 printed “update” sheets on “what we did this year”.

I seldom care.

But I thought I would share this brief extract as a useful tip for what to do on Thursdays:


Every Thursday, we rise early in the morning, check the newspaper for estate sales and head out.

In the middle of the day, we get home and congratulate ourselves for buying nothing.

We have checked out every room of a stranger’s house, as well as a lifetime of their quirky collections.


With equal irrelevance, here is a 92-second song from Oh What a Lovely War! – arguably a simile for life in general.

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Why interviewing people interests me

… Because I liked doing jigsaws as a kid…

… Because I am interested in how people’s minds work and how life’s ups and downs affect how they think and what they do… Yes, Nature v Nurture.

…. And – naff but true – because interviews record memories and, when the people with those memories die, all those moments could otherwise be lost in time, like tears in rain.

I think very often, when someone writes an interview piece, the intention is only partly to communicate what the interviewee said. The same often seems to happen (particularly in American magazines) when you read a feature piece on a subject. The intention is only partly to explain or illuminate the subject. Very often there is a parallel intention: to show-off the writing skills of the interviewer or feature writer who would really rather be a novelist. So you get long, irrelevant descriptions like:

“When I met Jeremy Bloggs, it was a scorchingly hot summer’s day in Mayfair and his blond hair fell like a desperate waterfall onto his craggy forehead, his chiselled wrinkles no doubt deepened by his recent tragedy.”

What a load of old bollocks.

When I chat with people I try, as much as possible, to write the piece in their own words.

If I add in extraneous facts, it is usually to create an overall unity – to cover over any jumps in the flow of the piece – not to make it look like I have an admirable literary style. If you are aware of the style and not what is being said, it is probably a shit piece of writing.

pen nib I hope I have no one sty;e

As in clothes, so in writing… There is no John Fleming style

I once had a chat with an editor at Random House publishers and he said something to the effect of: “I have read quite a lot of stuff you have written, John, but I haven’t been able to pin down your style, your own particular ‘voice’…”

What I did NOT reply to him was: “I should bloody hope not. I bloody try to write in whatever bloody style suits the bloody subject of the bloody piece!”

In my teenage years, I wanted to be able to communicate well by writing, not to have people say: “Oh, what a great literary stylist.”

I admired George Orwell who, I would argue, was a shit novelist (the love story in Nineteen Eighty-Four is badly drawn) but a great communicator of ideas (Nineteen Eighty-Four is an extraordinarily good book).

When I wrote trailers for various ITV companies’ evening schedules, I had to sell each show AND sell the overall evening ‘menu’ as if it had some sort of unity. I remember one evening I had to write a script which smoothly and enticingly listed a World in Action current affairs report on some worthy subject followed by (I think it was) The Benny Hill Show followed by a one-hour documentary on the Auschwitz concentration camp. I am here to tell you that it ain’t easy to link from Benny Hill to Auschwitz in a smooth, tasteful and enticing way.

It is just as well that I am interested in methods of communication.

There are several Benny Hill Show excerpts on YouTube.

When I was at college, I remember one early exercise was to go into a room and record a chat with someone about anything… then to transcribe from the tape not what you had heard said but what was actually said.

That was when I first fully realised no-one speaks coherently. What we hear is what the person intended to say, not what they actually said.

So someone may intend to say:

“A funny thing happened to me on the way here tonight: a man dressed as a fish was juggling oranges outside this local pub, The Queen’s Head…”

That is what you hear when you listen to them. But very likely what he or she actually said was:

“I was… A funny thing… err… A funny thing happened to me when I… when I… A funny thing happened to me on the way here. I was on the way here to… tonight. And a man dressed as a… a fish – he was dressed as a fish and he was juggling ora.. oranges… juggling oranges outside this local pub, The… The Queen’s… The Queen’s Head.”

When you interview someone and transcribe what was actually said, you almost always have to clean-up what was said. There is always that sort of editing involved. The trick is to edit the words without in any way editing what the person was trying to say. The trick to me is to create an illusion of real speech from the anarchic mess of words and flitting-back-and-forth ideas that actually is real speech.

Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine

Andy Warhol’s seminal Interview magazine

I was influenced in my erstwhile youth by regularly reading Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in which the interviews were usually completely unedited (except, presumably, for cleaning-up the umms and errs). Because almost no-one speaks coherently.

But, if you edit well, people’s thoughts can be fascinatingly coherent. The trick – if it is a trick – is to get them to talk without thinking. If they think too much about the fact they will be quoted, they may try to speak in well-formed sentences. That ends in a terrible disaster of awkward phrasing and unrevealing formality.

When I was at college, one of our regular guest lecturers was maverick BBC Radio producer Charles Parker.

He had, for my taste, a rather overly Socialist view of ‘ordinary working class people’ and the inherent poetry of their speech as opposed to the Guardian-or-Daily-Mail-reading middle classes. In fact, I think, if you let anyone talk for long enough and edit them carefully, with sympathy and attention to detail, then almost everyone can be fascinating. The exception tends to be star actors and actresses or anyone who has done too many interviews – they easily slip into auto-pilot quote mode.

Charles Parker had made his reputation by producing a series of what he called ‘radio ballads‘ between 1958 and 1963. They were a combination of folk songs and interviews with ordinary people.

Singing The Fishing, for example, intermingled folk songs and interviews with men and women involved in the herring fishing industry of East Anglia and North East Scotland. It was and is fascinating. It was later used as the basis for a documentary film The Shoals of Herring.

(As a mostly irrelevant aside, my father used to service the marine radar on herring boats in North East Scotland, which may be why I am so interested.)

As Wikipedia currently rather awkwardly says (you can never be certain if Wikipedia will continue to say anything) Charles Parker’s radio ballads were “seen as a landmark of study in oral history”.

Another lecturer we had at college was Charles Chilton who, in effect, created Oh, What a Lovely War!

I say “in effect” because it started in 1962 as a BBC Home Service factual radio production called The Long Winding Trail about the First World War. That intermingled the reminiscences of real people with period songs, facts, figures and statistics.

This then became a 1963 stage show Oh, What a Lovely War! by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London. It then transferred to London’s West End and Broadway in New York. And then, in 1969, it became the Richard Attenborough-directed movie Oh, What a Lovely War! minus the interviews.

Although it has nothing to do with interviews or, really, with this blog, here is a link to a YouTube clip – the almost wordless last seven minutes of the film Oh, What a Lovely War! – a sequence I can never watch without crying.

As I understand it, the final shot is real – there are no visual effects involved. I guess some of the holes are still there in the South Downs outside Brighton.

Perhaps this sequence from Oh, What a Lovely War! shows the other side of the coin: that sometimes you need no words at all to communicate ideas or to show humanity.

I keep telling people that, even when this blog is apparently about ideas and events, it is really about people who interest me.

Charles Parker (1919-1980)

Charles Chilton (1917-2013)

Joan Littlewood (1914-2002)

Richard Attenborough (1923-2014)

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

So it goes.

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Rutger Hauer says more about life in “Blade Runner” than the Bible, the Koran and Douglas Adams

Last night, I watched Brian De Palma’s movie The Untouchables on TV. The music is by Ennio Morricone.

“That music is very sad,” I said to the friend who was watching it with me. “An old man’s music. He composed the music for Once Upon a Time in the West too. That’s melancholic.”

I think you have to be over a certain age to fully appreciate Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s not about death, it’s about dying and it’s very long.

On YouTube recently, I stumbled on the closing sequence of Richard Attenborough’s movie Oh! What a Lovely War.

I cried.

I watched it five times over the next week. I cried each time I saw the final shot. I bought the DVD from Amazon and watched it with a (slightly younger) friend. I cried at the closing sequence, watching the final shot. One single shot, held for over two minutes. She didn’t understand why.

Clearly the cancer and cancer scares swirling amid my friends must be having their toll.

Someone has put online all issues of the British hippie/alternative culture newspaper International Times (aka “it”).

I was the Film Section editor for one of its incarnations in 1974.

Tempus fugit or would that be better as the Nicer sentence Ars Longa Vita Brevis?

There comes a point where I guess everyone gets slightly pretentious and feels like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner.

Especially when you look round comedy clubs and you’re by far the oldest person in the room and you don’t laugh as much because you’ve heard what must be literally thousands of jokes told live on stage over decades.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

With me, it’s flashes of memories from the 1960s.

I remember working at the long-forgotten Free Bookshop in Earls Court. It was really just a garage in a mews and people donated second hand books to it but – hey! man! – wouldn’t it be great if everything was free? I remember going downstairs in the Arts Lab in Drury Lane to see experimental films; I think I saw the long-forgotten Herostratus movie there. I remember walking among people holding daffodils in the darkened streets around the Royal Albert Hall when we all came out of a Donovan concert. Or was it an Incredible String Band gig? I remember the two amazingly talented members of the Incredible String Band sitting in a pile of mostly eccentric musical instruments on stage at the Royal Albert Hall; they played them all at one point or another.

No, I was right originally. It was a Donovan concert in January 1967. It’s in Wikipedia, so it must be true. On stage at Donovan’s gig, a ballerina danced during a 12-minute performance of Golden Apples.

I remember it.

Moments in time.

Like tears in rain.

It’s not true when they say that if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t there.

I remember being in the Queen Elizabeth Hall (or was it the Purcell Room?) on the South Bank of the River Thames in London, seeing the two-man hippie group Tyrannosaurus Rex perform before Marc Bolan dumped Steve Peregrine Took and formed what Tyrannosaurus Rex fans like me mostly felt was the far-inferior T Rex. And the Tyrannosaurus Rex support act that night on the South Bank was a mime artist who did not impress me called David Jones who later re-invented himself as David Bowie. I still didn’t rate him much as David Bowie: he was just a jumped-up mime artist who sang.

No, it wasn’t in the Queen Elizabeth Hall or the Purcell Room. It didn’t happen there. It was in the Royal Festival Hall on Whit Monday, 3rd June 1968. There’s an ad for it on the back cover of International Times issue 31.

The gig was organised by Blackhill Enterprises, who were part-owned by Pink Floyd.

The ad says DJ John Peel was providing “vibrations” and the wonderful Roy Harper was supporting.

I remember that now.

But the ad says “David Bowie” was supporting.

I’m sure he was introduced on stage as “David Jones”.

I think.

I used to go to the early free rock concerts which Blackhill Enterprises organised in a small-ish natural grass amphitheatre called ‘the cockpit’ in Hyde Park. Not many people went. Just enough to sit on the grass and listen comfortably. I think I may have been in the audience by the stage on the cover of the second issue of the new Time Out listings magazine.

I realised Pink Floyd – whom I hadn’t much rated before – were better heard at a distance when their sounds were drifting over water – like bagpipes – so I meandered over and listened to them from the other side of the Serpentine.

I remember a few months or a few weeks later turning up ten minutes before the Rolling Stones were due to start their free Hyde Park gig and found thousands of people had turned up and the gig had been moved to a flatter area. I think maybe I had not realised the Stones would draw a crowd. I gave up and went home. The Hyde Park gigs never recovered. Too many people from then on.

I remember going to The Great South Coast Bank Holiday Pop Festivity on the Isle of Wight in 1968. I went to see seeing Jefferson Airplane, Tyrannosaurus Rex, The Pretty Things, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Fairport Convention. I didn’t go back the next year to the re-named Isle of Wight Festival because top-of-the-bill was the horribly pretentious and whiney non-singer Bob Dylan. What have people ever seen in him?

Moments in time.

Like tears in rain.

Ars longa,
vita brevis,
occasio praeceps,
experimentum periculosum,
iudicium difficile.

You can look it up on Wikipedia.

Though equally good, I reckon is the ancient saying:

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

OK, maybe I spent too much time in the 1960s…

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