Sunday, 22 February 2015

Who Did it?

More properly pronounced WHO Did It?, British soap opera writers have proved again this week that they can not only write well but write believably and shockingly.

Bobby Ewing only qualified on one of those three fronts (waking up, indeed) but Bobby Beale has hit the soap bingo jackpot with all three (not to mention earning a shed-load of brownie points by being the creature responsible for eliminating one of the other most annoying characters).

Of course, I'm only assuming the murderer turns out to be young Bobby. I mean, I wrote this back on Thursday afternoon, yes? Er, on the 20th, I mean the 19th...

Even for us amateurs (I'm pretty sure none of the cast read this - especially through well-deserved hangovers) the 'live' exercise was a tough call - but one that the cast and crew rose to magnificently. Adam Woodyatt and Laurie Brett (Ian and Jane, of course) are seasoned veterans (sorry, Laurie - not so sorry, Adam) but even so, their performances were both flawless and packed with believable emotion. The likes of young Bobby (Eliot Carrington - yes, really Carrington), an almost as young Cindy junior (Mimi Keene) and Mick and Linda Carter's (Danny Dyer and Kellie Bright's) on-screen near-teen daughter Nancy (Maddy Hill) all gave similarly flawless performances as the cameras shared their thoughts and feelings with twelve million others.

I - and everyone I've spoken to so far - thoroughly enjoyed the live show(s) and the manner in which the denouement was unraveled. As I said at the top of this piece, the story had a very believable slant, no matter that the outcome was so unexpected by so many of us (I thought it was the Latvian market inspector, Alex Shirovs, or possibly Tanya Branning (Jo Joyner) but she wouldn't be coming back would she...).

I must admit that it did give me an opportunity to post a rather rude Tweet which seemed to please a few people (" I wonder how many little old ladies watching @bbceastenders tonight just said 'f%*&' for the first time in their lives?")...

Even the normally conservative (or possibly Conservative) Daily Telegraph seemed to like it if their Saturday review is anything to go by (Telegraph Review).

The shows not only provided the ultimately satisfying conclusion to the 'who killed Lucy' story-line, but they also managed to introduce some new stories-within-story.

That brings me back to Tanya Branning, briefly, who was a welcome sight after so long away (even if she did think that Adam's character was actually called Adam rather than Ian - and as she said herself on Twitter, '#leastyouknowitwaslive') and Christian Clarke who was equally welcome after a year or two away. Jo Joyner and John Partridge, the actors playing the characters, fitted their parts seamlessly ('Adam', excepted) into the whole and there was no change to their roles in terms of characterisation - no easy feat for both actors and writers, and another plus for 'Live Week'.

But then, of course, in true EastEnders style was the sight of a ghost from the past, and a very welcome apparition at that. Gillian Taylforth reprised her role as Kathy Beale/Mitchell despite us being told that she had died in a car accident almost a decade ago. Ian and Ben's mother - and Phil's ex - first appeared in the show back at the very beginning and remains one of the most believable of all the show's many hundreds of characters. So how come 'she comes back from the dead'? Well unlike the revelation of the identity of Lucy's killer I have no clue as to the  reason the scriptwriters will offer - but I would point out that her death has only been reported to the rest of the characters by Mr Honesty himself, Phil Mitchell, who is already trying to deny her a return (it would, after all, prove him to be the liar that Steve McFadden's character so patently and ominously is).

Back in 1996, we were treated to the sight of the the first of no less than five actors who have played the part of Ben Mitchell in less than ten years, But that in itself is not so unusual as child roles develop into teenage ones (and older if they unusually survive) - Hetti Bywater was the fourth Lucy Beale and her onscreen twin brother, Peter, has been played by no less than six different actors since their introduction in 1993.

Adult characters are different as a rule, though and if Ian and Ben's mother, Kathy, is to return (and little birds are now saying she will) then who better to play her than Gillian T? Back in the day she was a fiery East Londoner with far too much patience for her tiresome son and a predilection for romantic entanglements with the most obnoxious characters. Or 'very believable' in other words.

There were fireworks to end the live show, but I have a feeling that we'll be seeing plenty more within the script when Kathy confronts her past and new present.

Then there's the demise of Nick Cotton and a superlative performance from his on-screen mother played by June Brown who was 88 last week, no less.

But that's really the joy of such a show. Young and veteran, the cast is strong - maybe stronger now than it has ever been before in its thirty year life - and the current crop of writers and the producer (who gave a lovely nod to the show's original creators Julia (Smith) and Tony (Holland) in the final moments of the live show) are highly creative and bring much-needed believability to the set. The producer himself, Dominic Treadwell-Collins, saw the whole 'Who Killed Lucy' storyline as a three year project - in among other long-term tales - and must be applauded for his patience and attention to detail.

Everyone involved should also be applauded, in fact, for keeping the secret where it was known - for months in the cases of Laurie Brett, Adam Woodyatt and Ben Hardy (Jane, Ian and Peter, respectively) who have apparently been keeping the secret under extremely effective protective wraps for many weeks. And even new storylines were kept very quiet - to the point where Gillian Taylforth asked her children to watch the live show without telling them why, and they didn't bother (!). Then there's a whole new 'did he/didn't he' sub-plot as no one seems to know what happened between Mick Carter and his sister's... ok, his mother's...  obnoxious (other) son Dean (Matt Di Angelo).

And just what will happen to Dot? Do we have a new Nick Cotton lurking about the place? What will become of the new Carter baby - and who will his father prove to be? Will Stacey find peace? Will the Moons get back together? Just who is the new guy who seems to know the Mitchell girls? What will happen to the Masoods? Will Bobby's dire act remain a Beale secret? Will Ronni make a full recovery? Will.... and so it goes.

I've watched the show (on and off until recently) since the start. The whole concept of something set 'just down the road' from where I grew up (the name Walford is a mix of my hometown Walthamstow  where Tony Holland lived and Julia Smith was born, and Stratford) fascinated me - although I can't honestly say it had any influence on my decision to go back and live in Walthamstow for a few years in the 1990's.

People have complained that it's nothing like the real East End of London - but quite apart from the fact that it's a drama not a documentary, it actually is rather lifelike. Many of those complainers simply haven't lived in the area for decades and, like the show, the area has evolved as times have changed. And the soap has always been careful to move with the times and incorporate the news of the day into its stories. Who would have thought back in the 1980's that we would see a gay wedding, for example? Or an East European as a lead? Or the death of a major character?

Okay, that last one was a given really. But a child as the murderer?

I consider myself lucky that I now have thirty years of memories of the show and in what has been a hectic work-week for me, it was an especial joy to escape there these last few evenings. Mostly though I just want to take this opportunity to thank everyone for a series of episodes that lived up to their carefully-manicured billing.

I very much doubt I will live long enough to see another three decade's of EastEnders intrigue, but for as long as I can manage it I'll tune in and try to second-guess the storyline twists and turns. And if I'm ever treated to another week like 'Live Week' again, I will consider myself very lucky indeed.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Show Must Go On

My post last week got a whole heap more reaction than I had anticipated - and around 99% of it was very positive, a real success. Unfortunately, the same level of accomplishment in predicting this week's lottery numbers wasn't quite so evident, so I'm back at they keyboard for another seven days at least. The show must go on, indeed.

And anyway, the last post (how appropriate that term is looking at my lottery ticket) prompted all sorts of questions regarding its subject matter - namely, my long-standing love affair with Queen. As anyone who reads my posts will tell you - often through gritted teeth - it doesn't take much to get me scribbling, but when it comes to Queen, the muse can take a back seat. No second prompts are required.

As I've said before on these pages, I was born into a very music-loving family, although the mix of big band, jazz, blues, music hall, American balladeers, and English copy-cats - often simultaneously from different rooms in the house - left me with no particular direction as a pre-teen. If anything, the wide diversity of styles meant that I could find pleasure in all sorts of musical acts - from the popular artists of the day all the way down (yes, there was a down, even in the sixties) to Disney.

The radio was always on though (when Watch With Mother had finished it's twenty minute stint on the black and white TV) and as we entered the latter half of the decade, I became increasingly interested in some of the bands of the day. Even at five or six years old, I became very aware of the difference between the sound of the Beatles to that of the Rolling Stones - and my preference for the former was probably my first taste of 'fandom'. But then there was Herman's Hermits, The Kinks, The Searchers, Tom Jones (yes, he really was alive back then as well), Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan... the list went on and on.

Please note, though, that I'm proud to say I never liked Cliff that much.

My point is that there was never a single sound, let alone a single group, that really did it for me. The seventies started with more of the same. Actually it started with Benny Hill at number one in the UK, so maybe we should have been warned about the decade in general...

Anyway, then things started to change musically. First came the new sound of the Move and T.Rex, followed by the Electric Light Orchestra. My ears were seriously pricking up. Then came Sweet and 10cc, and I started to want to buy records with my pocket money as well as the Beano and cheap sweets.

But then I heard Liar on a (to me) late night radio show. It was so much harder back then just to find music, no matter that there were vast vinyl emporiums, and I had to wait what seemed like months before I hit the jackpot and found out what the group were even called. I pestered for their album - the only way in those days that you could even sample the rest of their music - and I recall being shocked that they had just released a second album without anyone seeming to know who they were.

And then Seven Seas of Rhye hit the charts. For me that was massive in that it presented me with a band that were not (then, anyway) popular with my contemporaries - and one that I couldn't help but be fascinated by. But it was later that year and just one word closed the deal for me. That might sound a little pretentious, but you have to remember that I was still only thirteen. I wrote about that a few months ago (in Fastidious - and now, just like at the beginning of November, I don't need to refer to any reference books (or even the Interweb thingy) to recall what happened when.

Queen were mine, and no amount of peer amusement or distaste could put me off them. They were far from fashionable among the all-male contemporaries that I attended school with, and even the occasional female I met at discos or the local youth club regarded Queen as lacking in interest. I left them all to follow their own artists of choice (I bet very few of them would admit now their love of David Cassidy, let alone Gary Glitter...) because I had found my own Beatles.

I already said here that I preferred the Fab Four to the already fabulously wrinkly Stones and in retrospect I think that was because they moved and changed their style with each album release - but always kept the Beatles sound. Even with, at that point, a tiny back catalogue of music, Queen were already showing a range of styles but all underpinned with what was to become the iconic sound that was their own.

It didn't matter what mood I was in - and young teenage males have far more mood swings than people seem to remember (perhaps because teenage females are much more overt in their mood expressions) - there was always something just right and fitting to listen to among their tracks. But then, I soon realised, my mood would always be buoyed no matter its starting point. The sound - that unique Queen key - made me smile. I didn't even know at that point just how appropriate the word 'smile' was.

They were unique to me in that regard. So many different styles of music and yet one easily recognised signature sound. It really didn't matter to me what my schoolmates thought because if their derision of my music choice got to me I could always go home and play Sheer Heart Attack until the smile returned - normally in about three minutes.

If I'd known then that Queen would retain that ability throughout their long career I might have melted.

As it was, my love affair had well and truly begun. I spent every penny I could spare of my pocket money on singles, books, posters and t-shirts featuring my new loves. I seem to recall I spent all of my fourteenth birthday present money on a ticket to see them in London at the Rainbow late in '74 - and the ticket was more important to me than my first electric shaver....

Everyone (of a certain age) remembers what happened the next year when Rhapsody blew the minds of a million teens - and millions more of all ages. Since that day I've experienced first baby steps, weddings, sporting triumphs, motorcycle madness - a hundred highs - but nothing has ever matched the sheer pride I felt at what my band could achieve.

Queen was never just Freddie and three other musicians to me. All four of them were virtuoso musicians in their own right and I soon learned - and loved - the fact that they were all capable of writing brilliant songs. That unique sound, though, was as much a product of Brian May's incredible work on the guitar and Roger Taylor's animated and yet very controlled drumming. John Deacon's base tied everything together, musically but it was the addition of Freddie Mercury's own talents that created the whole.

Watching them perform live became something close to a necessity for me, and I was forever captivated by the experience - and by seeing the great Freddie M capture his audiences in a manner that I have never witnessed to quite the same extent by anyone else - and I've seen more bands than most people even realise exist.

In other posts, I've already mentioned just how much the group meant to me back then, and for more than a decade I was able to follow their every move - and to see the incomparable band live on many occasions. I never once, though, attended a concert just to see Freddie. Sure, he could captivate and control an audience like no other front man, and sure his voice played with melodies with a seemingly effortless power and rhythm - but it was all part of the Queen sound, the Queen experience.

It still hurts to have to mention his premature death - but it was instrumental in the years that followed. For me, when Freddie died, the whole sound died with him.

In 1995, Made in Heaven brought the last - we all thought then - music from the band as a whole, and through my shocked tears I can remember understanding why John, Brian and Roger had worked through those last recordings made with Freddie - how they must have wanted to let us listen one last time to that magical sound of the four of them, together. And how that was the end.

If anything, Made in Heaven was more of a dramatic finale for the group than even Freddie's death had been.

And so time passed and it was with genuine surprise that I heard - some nine years later - that Queen were to reform with a new front man. It was soon made clear that this was not quite the case - that it would be 'just' Brian and Roger touring as Queen with the addition of Bad Company's Paul Rodgers providing the vocals. I listened to the new sound with something between trepidation and hope - but for all the brilliance of the two former band members, it just didn't work for me. It did, however, make me wonder if the Queen sound could ever be reprised - because Brian and Roger had always been such important elements of the sound that was essentially Queen. I was neither delighted or disappointed when Paul's valiant attempt ended and he returned to his former band - but I couldn't help but agree with none other than the former band members when they said that perhaps it hadn't been a  good 'fit' after all - (

It made me believe - yet again - that the Queen sound was at an end, no matter how much I yearned for that reprise.

Other groups came and went with comparisons to the unique Queen experience - think, The Darkness - but it wasn't until 2012 before I heard something that made me think my dreams might actually be possible. My first reaction to seeing and hearing Adam Lambert as the re-formed band's new vocalist was a mixture of horror and hope.

His physical similarity to the young Freddie was obvious, and the thought that he might have been selected just for that - and the fact that he could sing so well - made me shudder with barely repressed fright. But... when I say 'he could sing so well', I mean he has a voice of his own that can do justice to complex vocals - and the Queen back catalogue is nothing if not complex.

Add to that the fact that he was the choice of two of the greatest musicians of this or any era - musicians who admit that they had not judged things quite right before with Paul Rodgers - and hope started to become the strongest emotion for me.

The kicker, for me, was seeing him perform those songs (unfortunately not at an arena, but I know the band well enough to make the call anyway). He was clearly no Freddie - but just as clearly didn't try to be, either. He was no impersonator but a performer in his own right - and one that reveled in the Queen sound.

If the band were ever to reproduce the magic of their earlier years, they needed someone who could perform as well as sing, and in Adam Lambert they have finally found their man. He's no Freddie - and he doesn't try to be - other than for the fact that he can see where the music can take the group and its audience.

As I said before Queen is a sound, an experience - and Brian and Roger have found someone who can help them not only reproduce that essence, but who can take it in new, fascinating directions.

This is not the Queen of the 1970's or 1980's, and those two remaining band members don't want it to be. It's a new sound, but redolent of those older days. Brian's solo work is, I'm assured, even better than it ever was, and Roger's drum-work is as tight and frenetic as ever. With a 'new' front man - always Queen 'and', note - they have created something new and quite brilliant.

I don't want to live through the old Queen years any more - outside of my extensive collection of their recordings - but I do want a new Queen sound. To those who complain that Adam Lambert is no Freddie Mercury I would point out that they are not going to be awarded a degree for 'stating the bleeding obvious' and I would point out, as well, that no one could ever replace the great man. And that no one is trying to.

Brian and Roger are quite brilliant musicians in their own rights, and the Queen sound is unique in its complexity and excellence. That they have found a vocalist who can help create a whole new version of the sound should be applauded at the highest level.

Freddie would have approved - and his mother and sister agree. For what it's worth, so do I.

Queen aren't 'back'. But the Queen sound is - in a new but unmistakable guise. As Brian May himself wrote - and Freddie sang - The Show Must Go On.