Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Being UK-ish

For all its wonder, the English language has a notable limitation, and one felt very close to home — there is no adjective to describe our statehood. You can be English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish but not, it seems, UK-ish. The preferred term, British, is inaccurate as it excludes Northern Ireland. I fear the union will forever induce confusion until someone invents a suitable word.

I resisted blogging about the Scottish Independence referendum as the arguments were done to death and, frankly, who gives a monkeys what I think. But I will note this, for all of my life I have been acutely aware of the awkwardness that comes with the words "England" and "English". To me, even today, they sit uneasily on my tongue. Maybe it's a generational baby-boomer thing. Maybe it's my background (grew up in Portsmouth, the very British home of the Royal Navy; went to university in Wales; later lived in the US) but, to me, saying "English" when you meant "British" was the height of bad manners and a display of ignorance/arrogance towards one's Celtic neighbours, as well as being plain wrong.

For three centuries the English have suppressed their national identity, unable even to claim a national day, the reason, I suppose, why people get so worked up about the England football team for its indulgence of a flag-waving pageant by proxy. Scottish nationalism, Welsh nationalism — misplaced or not, there's a notion of romanticism at the heart. English nationalism, English Parliament, English devolution, however... To me they still sound sinister terms. I believe I will have to get used to them.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Robin and Dickie

I seem only to blog these days in memoriam. Belatedly, allow me to bid a fond adieu to Robin Williams and Richard Attenborough.

Funnily enough, I had been thinking about Williams just before the news broke about his death. I had been equating my own obsession with exercise to a sketch from one of his stand-up shows in which he likens it to drug addiction (with a street-corner hustler going, “Hey man, wanna buy some Nikes?”)

No question that, for all his brilliance, Williams was something of a tortured soul. I remember the first time I encountered him, at the Loews Hotel, Santa Monica, 1995. I had overheard him in the corridor protesting to his huge, bear-like manager/minder, effing and blinding that he didn’t want to do any press, and then, at the flip of a switch, entering the room in full-on performance overdrive. A bit like Jim Carrey in a way, rather down and maudlin but compelled to perform for an audience. Interviews with Williams were generally useless, your tape recorder just filled with stream-of-conscious babble and speaking in tongues, although, somewhere, I do have him doing and impression of myself.

Around then, he’d lost his way a little bit. A sort of post-Mrs. Doubtfire lull. He’d just made Jumanji (a film I love), but was then onto sub-standard fluff Jack and Patch Adams. The real turnaround came, of course, with Good Will Hunting. Though with films like The World According To Garp there’d never been any doubt about his strengths as a straight actor. 

Perversely, it seems accolades only ever flow for a comic when he proves himself in something “serious”. Anyone in the business will tell you they’ve got it the wrong way round. To quote Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed: “Dying’s easy. It’s comedy that’s hard.”

Edmund Gwenn's role as Kris Kringle in Miracle On 34th Street was reprised by Richard Attenborough in a rather so-so '90s version. That was just after Jurassic Park when Dickie the director had stepped back into acting as a loveable grandfather figure, thesping being his first love.

What can you possibly add about Attenborough? Just about the nicest man in motion pictures. Spitting Image thought they were sending him up with a lachrymose puppet whose every other word was “darling”, but it wasn’t a million miles from the truth. 

I met him on the set of Shadowlands in Oxford, 1992. Couldn’t have been more welcoming. I also remember him at a screening in London, in the foyer afterwards, just standing there, talking about this and that and people gathering round to listen. A magnetic charm. He suffered some cruel tragedy in later life. I’d like to think of him now as that young airman in (my all-time favourite film) A Matter of Life and Death, arriving at the top of the celestial elevator: “Its’ heaven, isn’t it?”