Best of 2015: Movies

And documentaries.  A vintage year with a bunch of greatness.  Here’s my top 10 in order.  The winner was a documentary about the South Ameriacn photographer Sebastio Salgado

1.  The Salt of the Earth (Docu)

2. Whiplash

3.  Carol

4.  Interstellar

5. The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (Docu)

6.  Mad Max:  Fury Road

7.  It follows

8.  Birdman

9. A girl Walks Home Alone at night

10. Steve Jobs

11. Ex Machina

12. Far From the Madding Crowd.

13.  Wild Tales

14. Hector

15. Sunset Song

16. The Lobster

17.  Boyhood

18.  Dark Horse (Docu)

19. The Martian

20. Jurrassic World

Best of 2015: Gigs

I wasn’t at too many gigs this year but what I saw were mostly very good.  I’d pick out the Sufjan Stevens gig at The Playhouse as the best indeed possibly the best of my life never mind this year as it was so brilliantly lit and sound engineered and focussed on my album of the Year Carrie and Lowell.

Special thanks must go to the Edinburgh Fesival for welcoming contemporary music into its bosom

So these were all great…

Sufjan Stevens

The Seaford Mods


King Creosote (doing from Scotland with Love)

Hamish Hawk

Gus Harrower

The Son(s)

The Stranglers (supported by The Rezillos)

I also saw a great jazz band at Bar 38 on Christopher St in NYC.


Best of 2015: Theatre

My oh my what a vintage year for theatre.  My beloved FCT put on two great shows in Barnum and Thoroughly Modern Millie, Lyceum Youth Theatre did a really clever site specific work called Hidden and MGA did a superb end of season Spring Awakenings at The Kings Theatre.

However, this review will focus on professional theatre.  All of the following were extremely good but the pick of the bunch has to be Gipsy featuring the remarkable Imelda Staunton, Caucasian Chalk Circle at The Lyceum, Every Brilliant Thing by Paines Plough and our Ladies of Perpetual Succour at The Traverse (which I also saw at The Brunton – it’s coming back on tour next year.  Do not miss it.)

Gipsy At The Savoy

Featured a remarkable performance by Imelda Staunton that will surely pick up multiple awards.

Caucasian Chalk Circle at The Lyceum

Simply breathtaking musical adaptation of the Brecht Classic with a stand our performance by Sarah Swire.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour at The Traverse

Hilarious romp with a stunning all female ensemble cast and band featuring the music of ELO like never before.  Filthy, furious and funny as fuck..

Waiting For Godot at The Lyceum

Becket’s classic was utterly hilarious in this take by Bill Patterson and

The Venetian Twins at the Lyceum

Goldoni’s classic was laugh out loud from start to finish thanks to the blinding performance by Grant O’Rourke.

Hedda Gabler at The Lyceum

Yet another classic beautifully styled and carried by the brilliant Nicala Daley in the eponymous role.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime  at The Barrymore, Broadway

Not as good as I’d hoped but a brilliant technical achievement.

Botanic Lights at The Botanics

Not theatre as such but an outstanding performance melding of music and light.

Fiction at The Pleasance Dome

A weird performance of, essentially, a radio play in utter darkness.  Not even emergency lights.  Unnerving.

887 by Robert Lepage at The EICC

Incredible story of Lepage’s life using a tiny house with operating models that was a unique theatrical experience.  Much more intimate than his usual larger than life offerings.

Every Brilliant Thing by Paines Plough at Summerhall

The stand out play of the Fringe about a man suffering from depression and making long, long lists of things that make him happy to self medicate his illness.  Truly brilliant.

Hamlet at The National

The Maxine Peake performance was broadcast to cinemas.  She was electrifying.


Best of 2015: Books

The books I most enjoyed in 2015 in no particular order were as below.  If I had to choose a favourite I’d probably go for the Mitchell book.

The Children Act, Ian McEwan.

A stunning exploration of religion, values and morality as a young Jehovas Witness man turns to a middle aged female judge as her marriage falls apart.

The Narrow Road to the deep North , Richard Flanagan

A brutal exposition of the human suffering that went into the building of the Death Railway during WWII in Burma under the Japanese and Koreans.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, Joel  Dicker

A brilliant twist on the usual crime thriller in which instead of the detective work being carried out by the police it’s done by a writer writing about his hero, the accused.

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

His most ambitious and complex novel yet.  It transcends genres and even makes ‘fantasy;” readable (for this reader anyway).

Do No Harm, Henry Marsh

An exploration of neurological ailments by a leading neurosurgeon.  Breathtaking stuff in places.

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald

A hugely moving memoir that deals with the author’s death of her father and her unusual escape from grief at the claws of a Raptor called mabel.

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

An unlikely coming together of a young French Girl and an equally fresh-faced German Radio Operator in occupied France during WWII..  A highly original love story.

Carol. A movie by Todd Haynes.


This is a quite magnificent exploration of sexual awakening unlike anything I’ve ever seen and directed with such a firmness of hand as to be an immediate contender for Best Director at this year’s Oscars.  Fans of MTV series Mildred Pierce will see some similarities, but this is period moviemaking on a peerless scale.

Every second of screen time has a period detail that takes your breath away, so assume an Oscar will also be heading the way of Judy Becker (Design) and Jesse Rosenthal (Art Direction) as well as Sandy Powell’s costumes.  Honestly, it makes Mad Men look heavy handed.  That may in part be down to the gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman (Virgin Suicides).  The music by Carter Burwell will also be in the mix come judgement day.  So that’s six Oscars before we even get to the main talking point.

So; Rooney Mara or Cate Blanchett?

This movie is like watching the equivalent of the Rumble in the Jungle –  the two greatest boxers of their generation, one on the ascent, the other at the peak of their powers – so too here. Marra the lady in waiting, Blanchett at a dizzying career high after last year’s electrifying Blue Jasmine performance.

As the title character you would expect her to dominate the proceedings but that wholly underestimates the abilities of Rooney Mara who often, and tantalisingly, is a doppelgänger for Audrey Hepburn.  Consequently  Haynes and Lachman are compelled to hold the camera, long and sure on her utterly beguiling features. Blanchett, by contrast, can only be described as both handsome and regal.

So, the story unfolds as an elder socialite, Carol, totally disgusted with her affluent but corporate married life, and a dark past as a – whisper it because the word could not be uttered in McCarthy’s 1950’s USA – lesbian, sets eye on the virginal Mara in a pre-Christmas department store.  The impact on both is immediate.  The sexual tension starts from that very first moment and builds and builds until finally consummated in a Motel room in the midst of a Thelma and Louise-esque road trip (albeit one that’s driven at a much slower pace).

This ‘forbidden’ love comes with significant baggage; Blanchett’s estranged husband spots it soon enough and uses their 4 year old daughter as a ransom for her to return to the familial home.  This destroys Blanchett and makes the illicit relationship impossible to maintain.

It’s a beautiful celebration of love; what little sex the film contains – with an OTT BBFC statement that it contains infrequent strong sex – is both tasteful and genuinely loving.

Really it’s hard to unpick the complex and symbiotic relationship that these two women have forged on screen.  One performance could not exist without the other and it is to Haynes’ extreme credit that he keeps a hold on it all and guides it effortlessly into the land of classic cinema.

Go see it before it’s too late.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


Last year’s Booker Prize winning novel is the second book I have read by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan.  It compares favourably with the first – Gould’s Book of Fish – and both deal with internment.  This is based on true stories of Australian soldiers captured by the Japanese in WWII in Burma who were made to work, essentially to their death, on what became known as the Burma Death Railway.

The story centres on an army Doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who rises to prominence both in the camp, where he becomes the commanding officer, and after the war in celebratory medical circles as his story becomes known.

It begins before the war when Evans falls deeply in love with the wife of his uncle, takes us through his horrendous experiences in Burma and, after that, his loveless marriage and constant philandering.

Flanagan introduces us to a motley crew of army characters, not all of whom are sympathetic and to the Japanese commanding officer, Nakamura, who strikes up a respectful relationship with Evans despite his daily torturing and starving of Dorrigo’s men.

The main focus of the novel is on the war years which are truly breathtakingly cruel at times and the mental scars it creates on Evans, and Nakamura who becomes a sought after war criminal and battles with his sense of duty to the Emperor (he was only carrying out instructions) and his moral compass that challenges this.

Evans’ post war life, although celebrated, is a mess emotionally and his loss of Amy, who he assumes dead following news of an explosion in her husbands pub, is never really overcome.

Flanagan is a wonderful writer and when on form drives you along at top speed; the scene in a bush fire in Tasmania is spectacular, as is the whole jungle section, but at times the pace drops and his love of dust motes (that appear several times to create atmosphere) can drag a little.

I preferred Gould’s Book of Fish but this is a fine novel and comes recommended, although not unreservedly.


The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson by Julian Temple


Julien Temple has a reputation for musical oddities – he rose to fame with the Sex Pistols’ Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and his Dr Feelgood documentary, Oil City Confidential, was highly regarded – it was presumably during the making of the latter that he developed his relationship with their legendary axe wielder that led to his following Wilko’s pancreatic cancer story that is the basis of ‘The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson’.

The format is possibly unique in that the documentary only really features one individual, the eponymous character, with a few fleeting contributions from The Who’s Roger Daltrey.  But don’t assume for one second that this means the 92 minutes lacks colour.  For a start, Wilko Johnson, who appears on stage to be a bit of a clown and who talks with a wide boy London estuary accent, is actually incredibly well read and educated.  At one point in his unlikely career he was a school teacher (English I assume).  It’s this aspect of his personality that fires Temple’s imagination because, throughout, Temple riffs off Johnson’s fevered imagination and regular quotations from Shakespeare, Milton etc and sets these against outtakes from the likes of Tarkovsky movies.  A central motif is taken from the Seventh Seal where Johnson plays Chess with the Grim Reaper played by…Johnson.

The premise is this.  Temple was recruited to film the last eight months of Johnson’s life after he was diagnosed with terminal Pancreatic Cancer.  Only, he doesn’t die – the documentary begins in early 2013 and Johnson is alive to this day.

But, in the belief that these are his last days on earth Johnson stalks the world in a sort of purgatory as he says his farewell to adoring fans, records a valedictory album with Roger Daltrey and philosophises on the meaning of death, completely free of self pity.

It’s a miraculous achievement and feels incredibly intimate as you are drawn into Johnson’s nadir.  What makes it spectacular is Temple’s clever editing and the recurring death motifs (a shadowy behooded figure stalks the background constantly – perhaps the companion of the Bergmanesque Reaper).

What also makes the film remarkable is his solitude.  Other than the brief Daltrey moments we see no reference to his family other than the revelation that his wife, and childhood sweetheart, passed away a decade ago.  It makes him seem all the more vulnerable.

I strongly recommend that you see this fascinating insight into how a unique man prepares for death.  Enlightening.



The seven day music challenge.

My pal, Peter Flockhart, challenged me to find seven songs that would sum up my musical taste, but I got a little carried away.  Thought you might like to see them all in the one place as we reach day 30.  They are in no particular order and, surprisingly, only one artist appears twice.  Tom Waits.

Day 30

Day 29

Day 28

Day 27

Day 26

Day 25

Day 24

Day 23

Day 22

Day 21

Day 20

Day 19

Day 18

Day 17

Day 16

Day 15

Day 14

Day 13


Day 11

Day 10

Day 9

Day 8

Day 7

Day 6

Day 5

Day 4

Day 3

Day 2

Day 1

Sunset Song : film review.


Sunset Song is a classic Scottish novel, part of a trilogy by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and much loved by many, many people (including my wife).

I confess to having not read it, so had no particular expectations when approaching this movie which happens to have been made possible by two of my friends, Bob Last and Ginnie Atkinson.

It will divide audiences because the pace is slow.


But I loved it.

Much media attention has focussed on the casting of supermodel come actor Agyness Deyn (completely contrived name) as a Mancunian playing a seminal Scottish role but I have to say I liked her performance, and her accent.  The scene in which she learns of her husband’s war news is particularly well acted.

Of course this movie is about Terence Davies.  He makes very few but when he does they tend to be statements about British life and, for me, this is another great entry in his canon of work.

Davies could have made a feminist statement through Deyn’s character, had she been more assertive, but he resists the temptation and instead  reflects the male dominance of relationships in the early 20th century (leading up to and including the first world war).

Two and a bit hours, with zero action, and not much dialogue can’t be most people’s cup of tea (much has been made of the regular return to a certain corn field but, you know what, I didn’t care).

It is a languid and lovely observation of a lifestyle that is long past and male dominated.

Special mentions for the ever brilliant Peter Mullan (a beastly father) and a great performance by Kevin Guthrie as the husband of the central character.



The very, very best of Jools Holland

Having just watched Sigur Ros perform Hippipola on Jools I have to share with you my all time favourite Jools performances.

They are inseparable in quality but entirely different songs.

First up, Mary J Blige. and No More Drama.

She builds and builds this song until you are simply blown away.

The intro by Trevor Nelson nearly makes you cry.

This is the other (from 1995 can you believe) simply stunning and highly creepy performance of Down by the Water by P J Harvey.


An open letter to David Cameron as he finalises his plans to create his footnote in history…

Dear Mr Cameron

As you finalise your speech to the British House of Commons today I wonder if you would spare a second to reflect on the almost simultaneous considerations of one of the world’s most influential business leaders.

After all, what you are about to say in your speech is about cementing your global influence.  It’s about demonstrating that you are a man of substance and it’s about setting out the future of the planet for future generations.

Here’s what your contemporary, Mark Zuckerberg, said in an open letter to his and his wife’s daughter as he gifted 99% of his fortune to good causes.

“Your mother and I don’t yet have the words to describe the hope you give us for the future. Your new life is full of promise, and we hope you will be happy and healthy so you can explore it fully. You’ve already given us a reason to reflect on the world we hope you live in.

Like all parents, we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today

We will do our part to make this happen, not only because we love you, but also because we have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.

Today, most people die from five things – heart disease, cancer, stroke, neurodegenerative and infectious diseases…”

In Syria, David, you can add indiscriminate bombing to that list.

So, go on David.  Make history as only politicians can by acting out their warped ideologies, their personal chase for fame and glory, their boyhood dreams as they lie tucked up in bed reading Victor or Eagle or Commando..

Or pause for a second.  Take a moment.  Rewrite your script.

Try this.

“Right honourable ladies and gentlemen.  You might be expecting me to be about to implore that you stand shoulder to shoulder with me, with France, with Russia and with the USA in smashing the Islamic State Militants under cover in Syria by the use of macho and indiscriminate means.

But, look, I’ve slept on this, I’ve thought long and hard about it and I’ve changed my mind.  

Yes, I know, it might make me look indecisive, but I want to have a place in history that shows real wisdom and wealth in human terms. We can’t overcome the threat of Daesh by taking pot shots from planes.  We should take a stance and lead a united NATO, non NATO states, including, I might add, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and the whole of the Middle East that are all involved in this sorry affair one way or another, to reach a considered strategic  and, most importantly, unified stance against the threat of Daesh.

I can see that bombs are not working; I’m not stupid after all.  They are merely a western imperialist statement.  An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and, what’s more, most often, the wrong eyes, innocent teeth.

Ladies and Gentlemen of this much respected house I say to you;  let’s draw breath; let’s invest our energies in finding a united strategic solution.  

Ladies and gentlemen of the RAF.  Stand at ease.

Mr Speaker, sir.”