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Posted Wednesday 10 April 2019

A Star Is Re-Born

Don’t miss Matthew Morrison in A STAR IS RE-BORN, on BBC Radio 2 at 12pm, Friday 19 April.

We've loved exploring the timeless attraction of the story and the award-winning music from the films, and the sexual politics that have permeated each retelling of it.

More info here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/proginfo/2019/16/a-star-is-re-born

Matthew Morrison (Glee, BBC's The Greatest Dancer)

Posted Thursday 14 March 2019

Lorna Luft

It was great to work with singer and actress Lorna Luft yesterday - who is of course also daughter of the great Judy Garland...

Lorna Luft

Posted Monday 10 December 2018

THINGS I WROTE WHILE I SHOULD HAVE BEEN WRITING by Aschlin Ditta | PART SIX

A TRIP TO NEW YORK

I was given an opportunity to travel to the greatest city on earth to see something I have written performed on the New York stage. When you’re a writer, few things can ever match that. Having spent years writing plays with little success, the email I received telling me that a New York theatre producer/ director wanted to adapt one of my films into a stage, was one of the most wonderful moments of my professional life. My words would be sharing a stage that had no doubt been adorned by those of Neil Simon, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, and the audiences would finally get to hear the insight I have into the human condition…and all my knob gags.

Having convinced my family that it was a good idea for me to spend a weekend in New York to see my play and do a Q and A with what would undoubtedly be several beautiful and inspirational people, I replied to the director that I would be in attendance. What’s not to like…a weekend in my favourite city talking about how great I am to beautiful people who wholeheartedly agree. Tickets were bought, hotel booked and new trousers purchased. I decided that a playwright has a different look from a screenwriter, not so well-off, more in touch with the people, less in touch with shower gel. I needed some jeans that looked like they’d been to a lot of rehearsal rooms instead of the chinos that looked like they’d been to a lot of restaurants. I had a feeling that this might be the only time I would have a play on off-broadway, partly because it’s never happened before and partly because I don’t write plays, and if that was to be the case then I was going to look the part.

Travelling to New York had always been a wonderful experience. I should have realised that this trip may not have been heading for greatness when I was greeted at customs by a man who looked like he should have actually been working as a 1950s longshoreman, a man who decided instead of stamping my passport and letting me in, to take me to the room full of Bin Laden suspects. I am going to tell this part of the story separately, partly because it’s a story in itself and partly because it’s not totally relevant to what I’ve set out to write about - suffice to say it was one of the strangest and most terrifying ordeals I have ever undergone, which is saying something if you bear in mind I once spent three days in a Yugoslavian jail and have twice seen John Bishop live.

So in true movie style, let’s jump cut past the enormous emotional trauma that was getting into New York straight to being in New York. I was relieved and thrilled. I love New York. I had that wonderful journey ahead of me through Queens and under the Mid-town tunnel before popping up into the emerald city. My driver was an Indian immigrant who hated the city and hated Americans, I saw an opportunity and talked at length about my Indian heritage, my love of cricket and how much I loved it when Tendulkar scored runs against Pakistan. It was a good decision as he decided that we were brothers in arms and didn’t charge me for the journey.

Things were picking up and the hotel was fine too, not brilliant but fine. It was high up and in New York, that said had it been a disgusting hovel inhabited by crack heads it would still have been fine. I emailed the director of the play and awaited his response. I had imagined that we would be meeting for dinner and discussing the triumphant reviews while receiving visitors to our table unable to hold back from expressing their gratitude to the creative team. The response I got set the tone for the next thirty-six hours.

He replied about an hour later apologising that he wouldn’t be able to meet me that evening as he was currently being held in a New York jail having been arrested for demonstrating against the Venezuelan Government. Seemingly one of his compadres had smuggled a phone into the cell and managed to tap into the free wifi. I wasn’t sure what impressed me more, the fact the man directing my light romantic comedy was actually a fierce Central American activist or that he was able to get wifi in jail when I struggled in Ipswich.

I decided to make the most of the situation. I was a father of two children under five, I hadn’t been out on my own in years, I had a whole city to play in. However, I had also not slept in five years so instead of walking the mean streets and meeting wonderful characters and having secret trysts, I ordered a pizza and fell asleep. Things were looking up after all.

The thing about being a writer is that what we essentially do for a living is make things up. Many writers will tell you otherwise, that in fact we put up mirrors to society, that we use fiction to reveal truth. Well I make things up, and what became apparent that evening in the Big Apple was that I had possibly made up this whole thing. I hadn’t made up the fact the play was going on or that I was about to watch it and then do a Question and Answer session to several hundred people…no, I had made up the other bit, where this was going to be a wonderful experience, that the theatre was off-broadway, that this director/Producer was a director/Producer, that the thing had been properly rehearsed and that it was something that would finally make me proud on the inside. Yeah, that stuff I clearly made up.

The theatre was off-off broadway, in fact it was so far away from broadway the cab couldn’t find it. It was off-off-off broadway, it was about as off-broadway as my house, which is in South East London, and not off-broadway, but off Peckham Rye. The Director/Producer was indeed a Venezuelan activist and when I arrived at the theatre in a part of town that Scorcese would have dismissed as a location for being too tough, he was there waiting for me. He was a charming man, his wife was a charming woman, and his nine friends were charming friends. He very quickly told me that he had been in jail for fighting for the rights of his people and that if he could he would start a revolution and murder the leaders of the illegal junta that called themselves a government. I could immediately see why he had chosen my film to adapt as a play. The similarities between the struggle for socialist ideals in a country riddled with capitalist corruption and gangland murders and my film about how tricky it is to know when you’re really in love, were clear for all to see.

The next thing he told me was that he had changed his name from Leonard Lopez to Leonard Zelig, after his hero Woody Allen’s great creation. I wondered why out of all of Allen’s characters he would choose to take the name of the one who had no identity of his own and morphed into anyone he spent time with. Maybe he was trying to morph in to me. The result would be odd, a mixture of Leonard and I would probably look rather like an overweight Che Guvara with a receding hair line and a slight stoop.  Che has no idea how lucky he was to die when he did, imagine that poster on your wall.

The next alarm bell should have rung when I was introduced to the actors. The green room in a theatre is often a place that mixes good humour with slight anxiety, this one was like the waiting room for women applying to be Press Officer for The Taliban. Their faces were the faces of the damned, the kind of faces I used to see backstage at stand-up gigs in Hull and Middlesborough. The only thing that made me feel better was their apparent relief at meeting the man who wrote this bloody thing. The British members of the cast were quick to say hello and that they loved the writing, then just as quick to apologise for what I was about to see. One of them said being directed by Zelig was like being directed by a man who wants to murder a government. Actually she didn’t say that, she said that being directed by him was like being directed by a useless twat who had no instinct for the piece or for the theatre. I could hardly wait to see the show.

I was astonished to see the theatre fill up, Leonard looked at me with pride as it did so, and I had to slide along the cushioned bench seats to allow all the punters to get in. A rather large woman with a strong Brooklyn accent sat next to me. Our arms were touching like two sausages on a pan that refuse to be separated however much the cook wishes them to be so. But it was fine, it was minus 8 outside so sharing human warmth was acceptable on this occasion. She cleared her throat and pulled out a large bag of nuts as she settled in. She didn’t strike me as the kind of person who would spend a Saturday night in New York watching a fringe adaptation of a film nobody saw. At best, she seemed to be the kind of person who may have gone to see a musical on Broadway or a cock fight in Queens. I was intrigued and I asked her how she had heard about the production. She looked at me with a smile that revealed the most perfect of teeth, even the most unhealthy Americans have amazing teeth, it’s just true. She told me the reason she came was the Q and A after the show. I couldn’t help feeling a mixture of anxiety and pleasure at the thought that my being here was bringing people to see the show, that they were coming here to see me. ‘They said that the guy from the film was going to answer questions. I love him, I’ve seen every film he’s ever made.’ I thought that was interesting, I’ve only made two but I had a fan, a real life large woman from Brooklyn.  She added: ‘My favourite was Star Wars Episode one’.

Yes, it transpired that the place was full and waiting for Ewan Mcgregor. I checked the poster. It read: Q and A with the star of the film. Before I could work out how to get the hell out of the theatre, the lights went down and the opening chords to the show started playing. I was locked in. 

An hour and a half later I was paralysed with horror. What I had just witnessed was nothing short of a nightmare. The worst acting, the worst production and the worst theatrical experience I’d had since my daughter’s first nativity, which at least managed to get one laugh when the donkey shat itself. Apart from a couple of actors who may, with an actual director, have come close to delivering, the show was populated by the kind of actors that make me want to remove all funding from the arts.

The audience were, however, applauding, some of them even whooping. I wanted to stand up and tell them to stop, that they should be throwing fruit, pissing on the cast, anything but this.

Then I remembered. I was about to be asked to talk about it, to tell them how wonderful it had been to see my lines brought to life. I was to be cross-examined by a madman who clearly thought I was someone I quite clearly was not, and who was very possibly merely using me as an alibi in a Central American terrorist act.

Zelig then stood up and with great pride introduced the star of the film. I won’t ever forget the look on the faces of the audience as I took the stage. Who was this man? Where was Ewan Mcgregor? This man looks like he might have eaten Ewan McGregor but he’s definitely not actually Ewan McGregor. The woman with the fat arms was devastated. I heard her say ‘I was sitting next to him, is he the guy? The guy with the big arms?’ The level of disappointment in the room was remarkable. I suddenly knew how it felt to be my father, every time he came home. I was fucked, surrounded by actors desperate to hear how much I liked it and by an audience desperate to hate me for not being Ewan.

‘So Aschlin…did you enjoy it?’

Beat.

‘Of course. I loved it. What a thrill to see it brought to life in such a brilliantly insightful and entertaining way. Ewan will be thrilled when I tell him.’

‘So are you and Ewan friends?’

Beat.

‘Yes of course, if being a friend means not really knowing him and being too scared to talk to him on the rare occasions we have actually met.’

They laughed. They may have still hated me for not being him but they were at least starting to thaw.

‘Tell me, how did you come up with all the stories.’

‘Well they had been playing around in my head for some time and…’

‘Sorry to interrupt but do you really not know Ewan?

‘No.’

‘What about Dame Eileen Atkins? Is she a friend of yours and is it true that each  time you see a Dame you have to bow?’

‘Er…no…and no.’

Silence.

‘Do you know any famous people? I mean who’s in your next film?’

‘Well I made a movie called French Film which starred Hugh Bonneville who was also in this film and is of course quite a well-known actor.’

‘Sure, was he in Four Weddings?’

‘No, that was Hugh Grant, but he was in Notting Hill.’

‘No, Ash, that was Hugh Grant too. I know because my wife won’t stop watching it.’

The session went on for a very long half an hour, with each new question about who I did and didn’t know accompanied by a few more people walking out muttering their disappointment. I had underestimated just how much self-deprecation the average New Yorker could take, almost none.

By the end, I was left on stage with Zelig, just me and him and a handful of the cast, watching, listening and wondering what the hell they had been involved in. Zelig was a madman with a dream. The truth is the cast were merely actors in the crazed delusional mind of a lunatic fantasist who dreamt of having a play on in New York City, to be a part of the great theatrical tradition…but what I realised, was that man was me.

Posted Monday 8 October 2018

THINGS I WROTE WHILE I SHOULD HAVE BEEN WRITING by Aschlin Ditta | PART FIVE

LIKEABLE

Some of the least likeable people I have ever met spend a lot of their time telling me that my characters need to be more likeable. I was in a meeting with a very successful film Producer recently and she said that while she loved my script, she felt that the character wasn’t likeable enough. I asked her what she meant. She said that she couldn’t put her finger on it and she didn’t want to remove all of his darkness, she just wondered whether I could make him lighter, more obviously loveable. I asked her whether she meant before he killed his wife or after. She said ‘right up until he kills her.’

They insist that an audience will turn off / leave the cinema / put down the novel / leave their families / start on a murder spree, if the lead characters aren’t likeable. As a writer, the quest for likeability is the bane of one’s life, perhaps because, as a group, we are seemingly anything but likeable, but also because, as a term, it’s incredibly difficult to define. What do we mean by likeable? Am I likeable? Are any of my friends likeable? That Sri Lankan man who reads the BBC news seems likeable, as does the man who lives in my street and always gives sweets to my kid. Then again, my mother always said Jimmy Saville was likeable and he, it turned out, was…not. I once met Tony Blair, he was wonderfully likeable, a more charming and engaged man you could never wish to meet but he went on to sanction mass murder, so this whole thing can be tricky to get right.

In my world, in the world of films, likeable is a must, something that you absolutely need to find in your characters in order to sell the script.

The producer wasn’t the first one to question my characters’ likeability, in fact she was one of many. I was confused, anxious, who wants to write unlikeable characters. I started thinking. It’s what I tend to do when I’m confused, which is probably the reason I’m confused in the first place. I appear to have that in common with those murderers they interview on Death Row who insist that it was only when the fifteenth knife wound went in that they started thinking about what it was they were actually doing. Not as dramatic obviously, but it’s the same mental stalling - one moment you’re out food-shopping for a dinner party and the next, you realise you’ve come home with a bottle of bleach, some condoms and an apple…and there is no dinner party.

The confusion I was feeling was whether it was just film Producers who are so terrified of losing money that they want everyone to be likeable, or it was everyone. Wouldn’t we all like to be that likeable? Surely most of us are, aren’t we? It certainly appears that way. How often do we see a neighbour of a serial killer interviewed in the news making it clear that the man in question seemed like a good bloke, ‘very likeable in fact.’ The truth, it transpires, was that the man they shared likeable pleasantries with every day was in fact incredibly unlikeable, unless we’re defining likeable as picking up young men, fucking them, killing them and eating their rotting flesh. So seemingly most of us are using the cloak of likeability to hide the dark truths that lay inside. That would mean that being likeable is actually something we shouldn’t trust. We should eschew the likeable.

Until I started being lectured by Producers on the subject, I hadn’t thought about such issues in a very long time, probably since childhood, but recently I have thought about very little else. Forget fiction, what about real life? My real life. What if people don’t like me anymore? Could that be the reason very few people call me and ask me to go out and drink with them? How can I be expected to write likeable characters when clearly I’m not? I’ve taken my eye off the ball, I’ve got on with my life instead of keeping tabs on my increasing unlikeability. Is that even a thing? It must be, I have it. Shit I used to know people, hang out in pubs all day and share witty badinage with good people, likeable people. Are they suffering like me? Are they somewhere else? In a place surrounded by kids, bills and cholesterol testing kits, coming to terms with the fact that no one out there likes them enough to go out drinking anymore? Except, obviously, for that one bloke who’s so unhappy he’s grown a beard.

As a kid, I always thought that being liked was a good thing. It felt clear early on that if other kids liked you, you were less likely to be kicked or spat at or hit. Don’t get me wrong, you still were kicked and spat at, but only by the really unpleasant kids. The pleasant kids would leave you alone and get on with developing their magic cloaks of likeability.

But it wasn’t just the desperate need to avoid being kicked in the face that led to me needing to be liked. Being liked definitely became a theme in my life following an incident that took place when I was five years old.

We were living in Ipswich at the time. My father was an actor and so we lived anywhere that had a theatre that would employ him. This generally meant we spent a good deal of time in small towns, often near the sea, and often full of people who were either bored or mental. We had been in Ipswich a little while when Dad finally got my mum the thing she had always dreamt of having, namely a little house of her own. Obviously it wasn’t her own - it was rented from a man who had just over a thousand houses of his own, but to her it didn’t matter. She could decorate it and play with it and walk around it and tell her sisters all about it. She was deliriously happy. It made for a pleasant period in our lives. As I remember it, Dad would be around all day, playing with me and teaching me valuable life lessons, like never trust a man who works in a bank and remember that anyone who supports Spurs is probably evil. Then at night he would go to the theatre to play Vershinin or Captain Pugwash or whatever it was they wanted him to do, and my mother would walk me around the house telling me how when she grew up she had to share her house with seven siblings and an Indian mother. I never really knew why her mother being Indian made it any harder than had she been English or Spanish but she said it nevertheless.

Then one night Dad happened to be at home, something about an understudy run. So we were having a rare evening as a family. My memory is that Bruce Forsyth was on the television but I imagine that anyone trying to write about their childhood memories going back as far as William Of Orange would be safe to assume that Bruce Forsyth was on the television. The show involved families making fools of themselves and as far as I remember, we were loving it. It was wonderful seeing my mother and father laughing. It’s something I have loved seeing all my life, watching my father make my mother laugh was a beautiful thing, as more often than not he seemed to make her cry or punch him hard in the face. I remember feeling happy, secure. At five I was just starting to get what this whole family thing was gonna be about. Then, out of nowhere everything changed. A brick came cascading through the window and onto the carpet, the section of the carpet on which I was sitting. It struck me on the temple and I fell over, presumably screaming. All hell broke loose. My dad jumped up and ran to the window. My mother was screaming blue murder and I was joining in. Dad had seen the guys that did it. They were on bikes. He ran out of the house and chased them down the road shouting things like ‘come back here you fucking cunts.’ Not something you heard a great deal in Suffolk cul-de-sacs in the early seventies. Had he caught them he would have killed them. Fortunately for everyone involved he didn’t. Instead, he caught himself on an abandoned garden rake and pierced his abdomen and nearly tore a testical clean off. They thought he was angry before?

Meanwhile at home, my mother was in shock. She had read a note that had been attached to the brick. It said very simply: ‘Pakis out.’ I asked what that meant and she told me that some people don’t like brown people, ‘you know people like your Grandmother,’ yes, the one she had kept telling me it was hard to live in the same house as. She said that some people are, what is known as, racists. That means that they don’t like people who are different to them. They’re not very nice people. I was baffled. So why were they throwing bricks through our window? We’re not brown people. My Dad was from Aberdeen for God’s sake, with his clothes off you could barely see him, and I certainly wasn’t brown, I was slightly blue if anything. I asked her whether these racist people had a problem with slightly blue people. She told me to shut up and listen. The truth is, she said, ‘some people think we’re Pakis but we’re not.’

-‘We’re not?’

-‘We’re not. We’re Indians, well, half-Indian, you’re barely Indian at all.’

I was five, this level of insanity was beyond me. I looked back at Bruce who had just been comically offended again and was looking at the camera until people laughed, which they did. ‘Some people,’ she went on ‘just don’t like us. You just have to get used to it.’

So being liked suddenly became real, an actual life-saving necessity. It felt to me that life must be easier lived liked than not liked. However, as I grew into adulthood and now middle age I have started to shift. It did me well for a time but then it started to work against me rather than for me. Being likeable started to become a pain in the arse. ‘Oh get him along, he’s very likeable.’ The trouble with being that bloke is that you end up being one of two things - tedious or disappointing. No one wants to be likable in middle-age. They might as well be saying ‘oh get him along, he’s a fucking dullard with no meaningful opinions or thoughts on anything.’

It’s hell from start to finish. So having thought about this whole likeable thing, I can come to one conclusion. If a Producer wants a character to be more likeable, it’s because they have no idea what it actually means, and if you’re ever described as likeable in your actual life, then it means you have nothing of interest to say. So now, whenever a Producer asks me whether my character is likeable, I have a simple response… ‘I don’t know, are you?’

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