Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lamps out

Frank Lampard has always been one of football's renaissance men, thanks mostly to a grammar school education that furnished him with the ability to string a sentence together in public without the monosyllabism of most of his peers.

That, however, hasn't prevented him from trotting out some A-grade football spin about his two-year contract with Major League Soccer arrivistes, New York City FC: "Having seen the vision of this club, I have seen a real long-term plan and I want to be involved and I want to keep on challenging myself." Isn't that what they always say?

I sound sarky and I shouldn't be. Lamps gave Chelsea 13 good years, joining as part of the 2001 West Ham fire sale that also brought in Joe Cole and Glenn Johnson. And he has, to be fair, been a genuinely brilliant servant of the club, even if his first year included that 9/11 incident at a Heathrow hotel, something New York City fans have already noted less than warmly.

Holding Chelsea's goalscoring record of 211 goals from 649 appearances should say something about Lampard, and especially for a midfielder. It's the main reason I remain, to this day, baffled by the way England supporters treated him, goaded on by moronic West Ham fans and their tiresome "fat Frank" bating (thought: you don't score over 200 club goals from midfield if you're out of shape...something Lampard has never been guilty of in any case, having been rarely injured, and possessing one of the most applied work ethics I've ever come across in a professional footballer).

He certainly leaves Chelsea with the club's goodwill, even if they weren't prepared to extend his contract and his club career to Giggs-length proportions. According to José Mourinho, his New York adventure is not seen as long-term, anyway. “I have a message for Frank: good luck and see you back at Chelsea in a couple of years.”

The Portuguese is sure that Lampard will return to Chelsea in some capacity. "The way Mr Abramovich approached the Frank Lampard situation is amazing," revealed the Chelsea coach yesterday. "'You go if you want to go, you come back if you want to come back. And you come back the way you want – to be an assistant, to be an ambassador, to be a director to be a coach, to be an assistant coach'. That is fantastic." True, though Abramovich is clearly not entraining having Lampard back at the same salary...

So, what of the new challenge which, for Lampard, "ticks all the right boxes"? There's no denying that New York City is an ambitious new club - brand new, in fact, as they won't play their first MLS season until next year. Owned by Manchester City, the New York franchise has also signed David Villa from Atletico Madrid, and has former Sunderland and City player Claudio Reyna as its sporting director.

It's certainly a sensible career stop for Lampard. He's smart enough to recognise he wouldn't get the same level of club away from Chelsea in the Premier League, or La Liga, the BundesligaSerie A or even La Ligue, and certainly wouldn't want to drop down a division in England, not that anyone could afford him. And if he was brutally honest, last season wasn't his best. Sadly, age was starting to creep up on even this diligent toiler.

© Twitter/Christine Bleakley
New York City FC are clearly putting enough money on the table to make it worth his while commuting between The Big Apple and his daughters and TV presenter fiancée, Christine Bleakley, in London.

Plus, he'll also probably 'do a Beckham' and spend the MLS close season training with or even on loan at a Premier League club (Chelsea are strong candidates, but don't rule out "Uncle" Harry Redknapp's QPR).

All that said, the question remains as to whether the US is a good footballing move for the 36-year-old, as he has so far not followed Steven Gerrard into international retirement. With Roy Hodgson's justifiable focus on youth, playing in the MLS might just take Lampard off the England selection radar.

For Lampard, however, the MLS certainly want be the footballing backwater the US league once was. Football is no longer just a hobbyist's interest by comparison to the NFL, baseball, basketball, ice hockey and the other über-franchise sports.

This year's World Cup run will have also given football the sort of exposure it rarely had when the Los Angeles Aztecs and Tampa Bay Rowdies provided career end-stage landings for George Best and Rodney Marsh, and the New York Cosmos signed up Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, also in the twilight of their careers. The Team USA World Cup squad also included a very healthy representation from the MLS, such as Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo) and Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake).

The MLS has long been rumoured to be Lampard's next - and final? - port of call in his playing career, though getting repeatedly papped with his fiancée in Santa Monica every time they were on holiday there only fueled speculation that he'd be following David Beckham to LA Galaxy. 

But, as he asked rhetorically on Thursday, "Why not chose New York City?". On top of the slightly better commuting difference between London, New York - like indeed Miami (where Beckham is setting up an MLS franchise) and Los Angeles - has a high catchment for football, thanks to its concentration of Hispanic communities and people of European background, which should ensure a positive and passionate playing environment.

After years of quiet derision from Europe, Lampard's arrival in the MLS coincides with the game starting to punch above its weight in America. And in joining the current crop of imported experience - Kaka will play next season for Orlando, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill are already at the New York Red Bulls, Jermain Defoe's at Toronto FC, Nigel Reo-Coker is at Vancouver and Robbie Keane at Galaxy - this is as good a time as any for a professional like Lampard to join them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sloppy seconds. Again?

This time last year, when we were coming to terms with the prospect of José Mourinho managing Chelsea for a second spell, there were two schools of thought: 1) that Mourinho and Roman Abramovich were the Burton and Taylor of football - star-crossed lovers made for no one else but themselves; and 2) that Abramovich was failing to recognise, what anyone with bitter experience of a failed romance will tell you, that it's never the same twice.

Gareth from The Office had the right philosophy when he told colleague Rachel: "I don't usually do sloppy seconds." So, if Chelsea could do it once before with Mourinho, why not with Didier Drogba, who is strongly rumoured to be (i.e. he is) in negotiations to return for a one-year contract at the club.

Having just jettisoned Frank Lampard at the age of 36, bringing back Drogba at the same age seems somewhat contradictory. But he is Mourninho's totem: in eight years at Chelsea he scored 157 goals including that winning penalty in the Champions League Final - and I'm sure his hunger for goal is still way above that of Fernando Torres.

But with Chelsea still hanging on to youth and under-21 product like a cartoon villain holding a sack of squirming kittens over a raging river, you have to ask the question - when will this young talent that the club has invested in ever get its chance?

What was the point of fighting for Romelu Lukaku's signature at the age of 18, then sending him out on prolific goal-scoring loan spells at West Brom and Everton, if you're not prepared to develop him in the Chelsea shirt he was signed to wear? Granted, whenever I've seen him wear the shirt in early-season, pre-loan matches, he's failed to impress, but that's not the point. And if he's simply not what the club wants, why not cut the losses and just sell him?

Likewise Patrick Bamford, another forward and future England prospect. Since joining Chelsea from Nottingham Forrest in January 2012, the-now 19-year-old has been loaned out to MK Dons twice and Derby County for most of last season, racking up a decent goal tally in the process.

Understandably, Bamford is being eyed up by everyone's favourite footballing used car dealer, Harry Redknapp, for QPR, and Wolves are believed to have expressed an interest.

But what a waste if Bamford was to leave. If he's good enough to get first team action elsewhere, why is Chelsea - whose three recognised strikers scored just 18 goals between them last term - not making use of him? Especially when their squad is starting to get thin again under UEFA Fair Play compliance, and also when England needs to use the post-World Cup vacuum to sort out its longer-term pipeline.

The prospect of Drogba coming back to Chelsea is purely romantic, as much as it has practical value. We would love to seem him back at the club in some capacity, and even in coaching. But as a substitute for younger, fresher, even home-grown talent? It's time to let the youth do the talking. Chelsea needs them, England needs them.

Returning to the top of this post, the other point to make is - well, are sloppy seconds ever any good? Chelsea may have gained a good return from Graeme Le Saux coming back from Blackburn in 1997, and Nemanja Matic's return to the club last year is looking like he should never have been let go to begin with.

But a word of caution: bringing back one of your goal heroes isn't always a good idea: Peter Osgood - the King of Stamford Bridge - returned to Chelsea in 1978 for one final season at Chelsea. The club were relegated at the end of the season and Ossie - who bore an uncanny resemblance to Torres - retired from the game altogether.

Given Drogba's illustrious past, you'd hate him to have a less than polished return. At his best, he was invincible for Chelsea. There's no escaping the equestrian analogy here - he was a cross between a thoroughbred racehorse and Sir Galahad's steed bearing down on defenders. At his worst, though, he could be pathetic, negative, prone to diving and just as likely to feign injury to get taken off during an indifferent performance or frustrating game.

That's not the Drogba we'd want to see again at the Bridge, and bringing him back at the tail end of his playing career would inevitably heighten the risk of that being exactly what we'd get. I just hope both Drogba and Mourinho know what they're getting back into...

Monday, July 21, 2014

It's like 1989 all over again

When Sky TV launched in 1989, the Murdoch organisation I was then a part of went out of its way to ensure that the Sky News channel was the polished jewel in its otherwise ramshackle crown.

This was helped, in part, by its mass recruitment of producers, journalists and presenters from across the broadcasting spectrum, hiring in talents from the BBC, TV-am as well as various outposts of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

In 1989, Sky was then a wholly-owned venture of News Corporation, prior to its later merger with BSB, and as such endured plenty of media sniffiness from the non-Murdoch press. This was either on proprietorial grounds - the owners of the Express, Mirror and Mail simply didn't like their rival - or for ideological reasons - Murdoch supported Margaret Thatcher and, two years to the day before Sky launched, a strike at Wapping involving workers of Murdoch's News International newspapers had collapsed amid rioting and the sacking of 6,000 people.

Thus, media snobs revelled in branding Sky News as 'The Sun on TV', Britain's first foray into cheap tabloid television, a tough charge for a nation still wedded to the Reithian vision of public service broadcasting. To its credit, and even when broadcasting from a converted warehouse in a muddy site under the Heathrow flight path, Sky News held its own.

Even before it launched, while still conducting test transmissions, Sky News demonstrated the quality of its proposition by covering the Lockerbie bombing, with scenes eerily prescient of those we've seen in recent days from eastern Ukraine.

In its infancy, and with limited financial resources and the tiniest of audiences, Sky News managed to cover events of global gravity - Nelson Mandela's release from Robben Island, the first Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of Communism in Europe, and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which it covered with justifiable award-winning aplomb. Over time, Sky News even won over all but the most entrenched anti-Murdoch critics. It is done so by hard work and being hard nosed about it. Even for a community such as the cliquey British media (where everybody pretty much knows everyone at every other rival organisation), it won over respect.

That wasn't evident in the early days: in 1990 Channel 4 launched the brilliant Drop The Dead Donkey, a thinly-veiled parody of a brash, upstart news organisation with a pushy proprietor and the typical kind of cynical and, at times, juvenile black humour that is a part of any newsroom. There were very strong suspicions that GlobeLink News was really Sky News.

Those suspicions grew when those of us working for Sky at the time noticed the GlobeLink newsroom's deskphones and drinks dispenser were identical to those we had at Osterley. Even an episode when a drunken argument broke out between rival news teams at an awards dinner seemed spookily close to a similar episode that happened between a Sky table and a rival's at a ceremony at a Mayfair hotel.

Thankfully, though, Sky has never been encumbered by the lawsuit-waiting-to-happen that was GlobeLink's 'daring' field reporter, Damien Day. Day took editorial ethics to their extremes (such as retaking a South American military execution because the firing squad commander smiled at the camera during the first take, or lobbing a hand grenade over a wall to fake a scene of terror in an otherwise placid village during a third world civil war.

Fast-forward 24 years. Sky News reporter Colin Brazier is reporting live from the crash site of Flight MH17 in Donetsk region of Ukraine, where he is seen picking up a set of keys and a toothbrush from the opened suitcase of one of the Malaysian Airlines plane's victims. "We shouldn't really be doing this, I suppose." At least he was good enough to recognise that part.

Apart from tampering with evidence in what is an international crime scene, Brazier - in an act that beggars belief for an award-winning journalist - was also tampering with the privacy of all 298 who were blown out of the sky last Thursday.

Brazier and Sky have both since apologised profusely, though even Sky's apology smacked of spin, saying that Brazier "...reflected on the human tragedy of the event..." by showing the contents of one of the suitcases.

The statement also said that he "...immediately recognised that this was inappropriate and said so on air. Both Colin and Sky News apologise profusely for any offence caused."

Rather than earn the ridicule of the media community, this moment of madness - coming on top of the moment of madness that brought the airliner down to begin with - has attracted the horror and professional embarrassment from other journalists. Respected media professor Joe Watson even went so far as branding it a "horrible moment for journalism".

It was also totally unnecessary. Most people had already seen some of the ghoulish images of guidebooks and children's toys scattered about the field, not to mention blurred and pixelated images of the charred, shrapnel-lacerated bodies of some of the Boeing's passengers.

Everyone makes mistakes. You wouldn't be human if you didn't. But as any responsible journalist should tell you, the moment you pick up that pen, that laptop or that camera, your margin for error narrows. We certainly didn't need one rifling through the possessions of a dead airline passenger, adding to the ghoulish horror of pro-Russian separatists videoed searching bags and pockets for USB memory sticks and, worse, tales of locals looting cash and credit cards from the dead.

Is that how Sky wanted to associate itself when it dispatched Brazier to Ukraine to cover the story? Is that the standard of oversight it expected of its editors, producers and crew on the ground with him?

Frankly, it has set the reputation of Sky News back 25 years, to a time when it was known amongst  London media circles as "tits at teatime". Well, perhaps it still employs at least one.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The reason why I STILL love LA: James Garner, 1928-2014

I first went to California as a nine-year-old, and continued to go back there every Tuesday for the remainder of my childhood. Usually around 7.20pm, before being coaxed up to bed, 50 minutes later.

This weekly introduction to the land of permanent blue skies and seemingly cool cars, came courtesy of The Rockford Files, one of the many US TV imports that added a golden colour to otherwise drab, grey life in 1970s Britain.

There were plenty of detective shows around at the time, but this one owed singular appeal to its star, James Garner, who has died at the age of 86. Garner played Jim Rockford as a compassionate, principled private eye, one who frequently took on cases that put him in more danger than his standard "$200 a day plus expenses" fee would cover, and very often would end up out of pocket completely.

He kept his gun in a cookie jar, seemed to own only one checkered jacket, and lived and worked out of a trailer on a secluded beach  north of Malibu (actually, the very real Paradise Cove)  just off Pacific Coast Highway. Quite how he managed to do most of his work in Los Angeles is still a mystery to me, as it's at least an hour's drive in normal LA traffic from that beach to LAPD headquarters, where he would meet with sometime friend and detective Dennis Becker, or his dodgy former inmate 'Angel' Martin.

However, to the nine-year-old me, Rockford lived the dream. A home on the beach, few - if any - neighbours  and California all around him. No wonder, when I eventually put feet down, properly, on southern Californian soil 15 years later, it was all so familiar to me.

Garner was a much under-rated actor: part of Rockford's appeal was Garner's own laconic ease. Even when confronted by a gun-wieding thug (usually a character actor like Anthony Zerbe), it would be "Look, just put down the gun, will ya?" rather than any gung-ho grappling. Jack Bauer must look like an alien in comparison.

Rockford was, in fact, an intentionally updated version of Garner's first starring role on TV, Brett Maverick, in the late 1950s and early 60s. The light-hearted Western series provided Garner with the perfect platform for his classic Hollywood square-jawed, leading man good looks, which also led to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson basing the puppet of Troy Tempest, their lead character in the puppet sci-fi series Stingray, on him.

Born James Bumgarner on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma, Garner dropped out of his Midwestern high school to join the merchant navy, before moving to Los Angeles - where his errant father had gone - to complete his secondary education. Eventually returning to Oklahoma, where he joined the state's National Guard, he was eventually called up to serve in the Korean War, winning a Purple Heart in the process following a friendly fire incident. 

College, after his discharge, didn't work out either, which indirectly led to an old high school friend persuading Garner to work in the theatre. This in turn led to - and helped by his tall frame and charismatic charm - Hollywood calling. 

Settling back in Los Angeles in 1955, Garner, started picking up bit parts In TV shows like Cheyenne. This earned him a modest contract with Warner Brothers, and small parts in film and TV, including that of Marlon Brando's friend in Sayonara, and his first starring spot, in Darby's Rangers (replacing Charlton Heston who'd walked off the picture). It was also around this time that Garner met - at a political rally - and subsequently married Lois Clarke, to whom he remained married until his death, without doubt one of Hollywood's longest-running marriages.

In 1957 the ABC network created Maverick, a deliberate antidote to the traditional Western shows that featured rugged, embittered plains-hardened heroes. Garner played the character as a charmer who would talk his way out of trouble, rather than reaching for his gun. 

On leaving the show in 1960 Garner embarked upon a movie career, successfully exploiting the appeal of his lighter touch in the sort of romantic comedies that Hollywood was developing as star vehicles for their leading ladies and leading men alike. 

But it was in a war caper that Garner would see his movie career take off. In 1963 he took second billing behind Steve McQueen in the all-star ensemble of The Great Escape, the-now British bank holiday TV staple, playing the Canadian RAF officer Hendley - the escape committee's 'scrounger' (a part Garner based on his Korean experiences, he fulfilled much the same role as his unit's unofficial quartermaster). The Great Escape established Garner as a major box office draw, leading to being cast in the hit Doris Day romcoms, The Thrill of It All and Move Over Darling.

When TV producers Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell decided, in 1970, to recreate Maverick as a latter-day gumshoe, they approached the original show's star. Garner had once said of Brett Maverick: “I’m playing me,” explaining that the character was lazy and "...I like being lazy.” In the process, Jim Rockford's appeal was cast too.

It was this same appeal that would sustain his career, post-Rockford. Though he would never again have a role as iconic as the detective (various lawsuits with Universal in the 1980s may have hampered his lust for work, too), he landed gold in an ironic appearance as Mel Gibson's father in Richard Donner's film version of Maverick, Gibson playing Brett Maverick, of course. The appearance seemed to revive Garner's career, with TV roles - including a recurring part in Chicago Hope - following.

In 2000 Garner reunited with occasional [original] Maverick villain Clint Eastwood, along with Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland for the enjoyable veteran astronaut caper Space Cowboys. And then a guest spot on the sitcom 8 Simple Rules turned into a recurring role until the show's cancellation in 2005, while a year before Garner starring in Nick Cassavetes' film adaption of The Notebook playing the older version of Ryan Gosling's character. 

The performance earned Garner a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, and Garner actually won the SAG's lifetime achievement award.

For an actor television stardom can be a double-edged sword. As so many other iconic characters have done for the actors portraying them, Jim Rockford put James Garner into people's living rooms every week at the same time for six years. As a result Garner became Rockford, Rockford became Garner. 

Occasionally he would be reunited with the character on made-for-TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, the inevitable attempt to reboot Rockford for the big screen, starring Vince Vaughan, struggled to get off the ground. Garner was rumoured to have been given a role in it, but ongoing ill-health following heart surgery and a stroke a few years ago had allegedly led to Garner suffering from depression or at least a progressively decreasing lust for life.

For me, the endless Hollywood remakes of classic TV shows rarely - if ever - recapture what it was that made them classic to begin with. For The Rockford Files - and what made it "must-see TV" before the phrase ever came to be coined - it will always be about James Garner, that trailer on a Malibu beach with the gold Pontiac Firebird parked next to it. Please leave your message after the tone.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

End of the innocents


When terrorists blew up three Tube trains and a London bus on July 7, 2005, it wasn't long before Londoners started discovering the personal connections they had with the commuters who died that morning.

It was surprising how, in a metropolitan area of 13 million people, so many could have a link to the 52 dead and 700 who were injured. I alone had a school and Scouting connection with Robert Webb, brother of 29-year-old Laura Webb, one of the seven murdered when Mohammad Sidique Khan detonated his rucksack bomb on a Circle Line train near Edgware Road. And my brother used to be served by Ciaran Cassidy, 22, in the Chancery Lane stationery shop where he worked before Germaine Lindsay made him one of 26 victims on the Piccadilly Line train blown up between King's Cross and Russell Square.

The numbers of these atrocities become meaningless until you start attaching names, families, careers and lives to the victims: like Behnaz Mozakka, an Iranian-born biomedical officer at Great Ormond Street children's hospital; like 26-year-old New Zealand tour guide Shelley Mather; like Samantha Badham and her partner of 14 years, Lee Harris, who died alongside each other; like Ojara Ikeagwu, a social worker from Nigeria; James Adams, from Peterborough who worked in insurance; Rachelle Chung For Yuen, an accountant from Mauritius; amateur artist Elizabeth Daplin; former policeman Arthur Frederick, 60, who was also a singer from Montserrat; Helen Jones, an accountant from Lockerbie; Susan Levy, 53, a mother and legal secretary from Essex; Anna Brandt, 41, a cleaner from Poland; Gamze Gunoral, a Turkish student; Atique Sharifi, 24, who came from Afghanistan to work as a pizza delivery driver. The 7/7 list goes on.

And now we have 298 new names, lives, careers and families to consider: 192 Dutch nationals, 44 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, ten British, four Belgian, four German, three Philippino, one Canadian, one New Zealander, one American and two yet to be identified. 80 of them were children. 80 children.

Already the connections have begun. For a country of just 16 million, the odds are good that my many Dutch friends and former colleagues will have a link. And, sadly, I already know of some.

From the 11 nationalities represented by the MH17 flight manifest, tragic stories are already being told. Such as Kaylene Mann, from Queensland, Australia, who lost her brother and sister-in-law in March when MH17's sister plane, MH370 went down, she is now coming to terms with losing her stepdaughter and her husband in Thursday's attack. There is Cor Pan, the Dutchman who took a photograph of the doomed 777 as it was docked at Schiphol's Gate G3, and posted it on Facebook with the jokey caption "If my flight to Malaysia disappears, this is what it looks like". He died with his girlfriend, Neeljte Tol.

Another to think about - Indonesian pharmaceutical worker Yuli Hastini and her Dutch husband, John Paulisen and their two young children, were on their way to pay their respects to Yuli's mother's grave on Java. There are colleagues of Ninik Yuriani, a 56-year-old Indonesian working in an Eindhoven restaurant, now mourning her loss. She was heading home - with her extended family - to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Even politics didn't escape the slaughter: Dutch senator Willem Witteveen was flying on MH17 with his wife and daughter.

Like all true victims of terror, people just going about their business. Travelling for work, travelling for fun, travelling. A large body of the passengers were on their way to the 20th International Aids Society conference in Australia. Amongst them was Dutch HIV/AIDS expert, Joep Lange. "The movement has truly lost a giant", said the IAS, while others said that such a heavy loss to the HIV/AIDS scientific community could put research back years. Along with Lange was Glenn Thomas, a 49-year-old former BBC producer who was a senior press officer for the World Health Organisation, someone I never met, but with whom I share a professional kinship.

The numerical difference between the 7/7 bodycount and that in the skies above Donetsk on Thursday, or for that matter, the Madrid metro system or even the twin towers, is irrelevant. All were innocent victims of someone else's agenda. And, like 9/11, 7/7 and all the other infamous, abbreviated dates in history, the tail of destruction extends far beyond the scarred streets of Lower Manhattan, London's public transport network, or the sunflower fields of rural Ukraine.

© Simon Poulter 2014

At the World Trade Center Memorial in New York, in the footprint of the towers, there are now two 'eternal' pools of water. Around the rims of the pools are the names of those who died on 9/11. Office workers gathering around the water cooler on a Tuesday morning to discuss the Monday night game. People delivering sandwiches to Morgan Stanley bankers. Entire fire companies, police officers and medics who were first on the scene. All, one way or another, going about their daily lives, until someone decided that they were legitimate collateral in a wider conflagration.

So, as we examine the pictures of an airliner blown apart in mid-air and now strewn across the countryside, and we look at images of children's soft toys that made it to the ground in one piece, while their owners were torn to shreds by missile shrapnel, we start to wonder - who is waiting for that phone call? Whose lives will be irrevocably changed by this momentary act of political or military insanity? How will we look at that empty desk chair, or row of vacant seats at a conference?

Perhaps I'm asking the wrong people. Perhaps I should be asking those who sponsor and prosecute these acts. The governments who provide the weapons, training and logistical ability to carry them out, the governments who directly target children and later claim that they "thought" they were blowing up terrorists on an open beach.

Wars are bloody. But they really are best fought by those who can fight back. Not those who were doing nothing more than settling in for an in-flight film, reading a tourist guidebook, or simply enjoying switching off from the real world and all its nastiness for a few hours, high above the world, and the things men do.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Oh, how I miss those lazy, crazy days of summer

There is a legendary episode of Hancock's Half Hour, Tony Hancock's seminal 1950s radio sitcom, in which Hancock, housemates Sid James, Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques, plus an annoying neighbour played by Kenneth Williams, endure a dull, wet, Sunday afternoon stuck indoors.

The brilliance of the Sunday Afternoon At Home episode is that, like a Miles Davis song, it's the silences that are the most telling. Being radio, the timing of Hancock's yawns and complaints ("Stone me, what a life!"), Sid James' retorts and Kerr and Jacques' helpful but irrelevant interruptions, add to the wonderful conveyance of a claustrophobic, housebound Sunday in the days before round-the-clock television, shopping or 24/7 anything.

What prompted me to think of this is the silence since last Sunday night, and the ending of the World Cup. Because, after five weeks of total immersion in what was surely the best World Cup of modern times, the silence is as deafening as the noise of a clock ticking in an empty room.

It has been an incredible, euphoric ride: a group stage in which goal-scoring records were broken, goalkeepers became cool again (after having been traditionally the drummer in the group - sat at the back, drunk and going bald), the knockout stage became as exciting for its lack of goals, the Old World fell apart, and the New World became everybody's darling. Even America came to both understand and appreciate what it is we in the rest of this planet have loved all along.

That said, it hasn't been without its pain, most notably mine at having to endure a party of loud Americans on Sunday night in an Italian restaurant asking after every decision, along the lines of: 
American Lady: "Why isn't that a goal? The ball clearly got kicked past the 'goalie'. The dee-fence did nothing to stop it."
Fellow Diner: "It's because it was offside."
AL: "It was off...what....?"
Me: "Good grief... Pass me that steak knife, I have a wrist in need of slashing." 
I jest, of course. And Dempsey, Howard & Co deserve as much credit as possible for their contribution, not least of which, pushing the now-world champions all the way.

And what of the Germans? Never exactly a fashionable pick at the outset, they powered their way through to hold the World Cup trophy aloft in Rio on Sunday. And, yes, they did so with efficiency and utter ruthlessness (just ask Brazil). There's no need for cultural stereotyping or, indeed, cheap jokes about the events of 70-odd years ago, but there's a way the Germans go about most things, and they certainly applied it over the last few weeks.

The 2014 World Cup served up far too much good stuff to contemplate in one simple blog post. Plus, by now, you would have read most of it in the papers' round-ups. Still, all I can hear now is the ticking of that grandfather clock. The good news is that the Premier League kicks off again exactly one month from today. Which means that between now and then I really would be wise to actually get a life. Stone me...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

WWDBD? goes to Montreux: Laura Mvula/Jamie Cullum

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 Georges Braunschweig for GM Press

And so, What Would David Bowie Do? takes its final stroll along Quai Edouard-Jaccoud for the final show of its glorious week at the Montreux Jazz Festival and the first to, like, involve jazz. Well, sort of jazz. OK, who really cares what it is. Claude Nobs wouldn't.

Although he created this musical jamboree with "jazz" in its name, the festival has never made itself a slave to category. Genres have sat alongside sub-genres, and categories have intermingled and then been tossed about in the festival's musical stir fry to glorious effect.

In seven days on the Swiss Riviera this year, WWDBD? heard pop-tinged folk (or folk-tinged pop, your choice), countrifed rap, Southern blues, gospel-style, Chicago blues, Moroccan style, Led Zeppelin riffs played on West African violins, melancholy R&B and a wigged-out melange of reggae, dub and trip-hop. Oh, and a 15-year-old humiliating anyone who ever thought they could play the guitar.

All this, I know, is the sort of eclecticism you find at any summer festival, but at Montreux such diverse genres get the space to breathe, the audience's listening appreciation, and the utter professional respect of heavyweight peers. It's like a three week-long edition of Jools Holland's Later..., but with better scenery, obviously.

Perhaps the reason I like Montreux - and, indeed, Holland's show - is its editorial construct. Every night, and each performance across the three main venues, feels like feature pages from an ingeniously well edited music magazine. Of course, the acts are there to sell records, but beyond the obvious entertainment factor, you also get a sense of being informed and enriched with new musical knowledge.

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival
© 2014 Georges Braunschweig for GM Press
That sounds a tad pretentious, but let's take the first act of this evening's sort-of-jazz double-bill, Laura Mvula.

A Twitter version of her career story would skimp on details - "classically-trained former receptionist delivers debut album Sing To The Moon and becomes the next big thing" - but that is essentially her journey.

But what such a resume would fail to detail is why Mvula has been feted so, and why in 2013, her breakout year, the 28-year-old wasn't so much showered in awards as had the equivalent of Dolphin Bathrooms' entire stock of fixtures and fittings dumped on her.

On paper we've been there before - and, yes, I am obliged to mention Amy Winehouse, Adele, Corinne Bailey Rae, Joss Stone and even Mica Parris in the long list of British female singers who have taken soul, jazz, nu-soul, nu-jazz, or whatever Radio 2 producers are branding it at the time, and added the influences of Billy Holiday, Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald.

But with Mvula there is something different, distinct and decidedly refreshing. The first sign is evident before she has even set foot on the stage of the Auditorium Stravinski: a harp. In time, it's owner, Iona Thomas, will take her place behind it, along with an ensemble including Mvula's sister Dionne on violin and vocals and her brother James on cello and vocals, and Winehouse-veteran musical director and drummer Troy Miller.

Instantly her "chamber orchestra", as she calls them, are in action, with Like The Morning Dew opening the show as it does the album. Immediately the audience is charmed by its spectral blend of strings, close harmonies, military drumming and the variety of shades to Mvula's own voice, including her Fitzgerald-like phrasing.

She is, she says, humbled to be playing at such an "iconic" festival, but this is just the kind of show that Montreux regulars love. As she rattles through her set - the confessional Let Me Fall, the uplifting ballad Sing To The Moon and its tale of unrequited teenage love, and She, with its soulful buildup to a grooving crescendo you'd have to be, frankly, dead not to move to - the audience warms like local gruyere softening up for fondue. Smiles that may have been of the barely-there, quizzical kind at the beginning, are now at their broadest.

Is There Anybody Out There? has a cinematic breadth to it that surely puts Mvula in contention for a Bond theme, if not an entire film soundtrack, with its Disney-esque soundscape generated by Thomas's harp and the Douglas siblings on strings and backing vocals, and Miller's pounding drums thundering away.

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin

In a word, Mvula and her band are simply enchanting. That's not a word I've ever previously used in a live review, and given the propensity for acts I normally see, unlikely to be used much in the future. But it really is the only word I can think of that fits. There is a pleasing understatement to Mvula's stage persona (she says she was once crippled by stage fright), genuine and clearly not taking anything for granted.

And if the evening had ended right there and then with the last number, a blissful cover of Michael Jackson's Human Nature, I would have gone home satisfied of my money's worth. But this was only half time.

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival
© 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin
If Mvula's performing career was threatened before it had even taken off by stage fright, I wouldn't expect Jamie Cullum to be even capable of pronouncing the condition.

At 34 he is something of a veteran, having first caught the attention with an appearance on Michael Parkinson's British chat show which led to his third album, Twentysomething, being made for a major label, which in turn became one of the biggest selling British jazz records of all time.

Except, it wasn't. It may have had standards on it like Singin' In The Rain and What A Difference A Day Makes, and may have inevitably led to Cullum being branded the latest "new" Sinatra, but its crossover credentials included covers of Jimi Hendrix's Wind Cries Mary and Jeff Buckley's Lover, You Should Have Come Over.

Such apparent brazenness, challenging the jazz snobs and the anti-MOR brigade in equal measure, has remained his schtick ever since. And as this show in Montreux demonstrated without question, jazz really is only the part of it.

Bouncing onto the stage like a Springer Spaniel let off the leash in a city park, Cullum is everywhere all at once, hitting things, playing things, jumping onto and off things, more circus performer than musician. Quickly acknowledging that he might be a tad overdressed for the gig in jacket, shirt and tie, he is quickly stripped down to a plain blue t-shirt as he hammers out The Same Things (opening track of his latest album, Momentum) on grand piano that will become his main prop for the night, along with a remarkably versatile band in which the keyboard player also plays sax, and the guitarist also plays trumpet. Or possibly the other way round.

Much has been made of Cullum's height (he is 5ft 5in), not least because he married model Sophie Dahl (6ft), and his tousled hair, prompting a predictable line of "jazz hobbit" and "pixie of jazz" comments. To get the (non-)issue out of the way at the earliest opportunity, Cullum applies his well-trodden self-depreciation, noting how perspirationally tearing around the stage is the basis of a [fictional] forthcoming fitness video, plus plans to launch a new brand of hair product. His comic timing is impeccable, but then timing is a hallmark of musical talent in such bountiful supply.

But back to the music: faithful to his album cover version of it, The Wind Cries Mary soon swings its way into the set, as inventive in its live interpretation as it was 12 years ago on Twentysomething. Next, a trio of songs in tribute to Claude Nobs, including a moodily paired down cover of The Beatles' Blackbird, another track, Save Your Soul, from the last album, then a medley that includes Cullum inventively using the grand piano as a percussive instrument, along with inserting snippets of Snoop Dogg's Pump It Like It's Hard, Pharrell's Happy and his own debut single, Frontin'.

© Simon Poulter 2014
Far from being a jazz show, with a lot of appreciative head nodding, Cullum's show is more like an old soul review, powering through the crowd pleasers with barely time to breath, reaching an encore with When I Get Famous and Twentysomething, as well as another cheeky cover, of Rihanna's Don't Stop The Music.  It's exhilarating stuff.

After a brief break to find the towel that, presumably by a roadie's omission had eluded him earlier when ravines of sweat were pouring off his cheekbones, Cullum is back out on his own, picking out an improvised tribute to Montreux on the piano, before All At SeaSingin' In The Rain and Rihanna's Umbrella add monstrous irony to a week on the Swiss Riviera in which it has, pretty much, pissed down solidly.

Not that I mind. I always come away from Montreux feeling musically nourished. Switzerland is renowned for its provision of wellbeing, typified by the spa hotel I was billeted to, wherein the lake view and a giant swimming pool provided plenty of restorative benefit (though having the colonic irrigation department on my floor presented something of a hazard when returning from an evening's beverage consumption...).

I did see the sun briefly over the first couple of days, before the clouds closed in and took the town dangerously close to the Glastonbury experience (albeit with paved roads and working drainage), but I didn't mind one bit. Because evenings like this one, where the music feeds the soul, are what will bring me back to the Montreux Jazz Festival again and again and again and again.