We were planning to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the new Freddie Mercury biopic. But the reviews have been decidedly mixed, despite Rami Malek’s astonishing portrayal as the Queen of Queen. It’s been said that, as producers of the film, the surviving members of the band all come across as a bit too saintly. Of course, they’re not saints. Nobody is. And Freddie’s sexuality has been sanitised, presumably to appeal to the widest international audience possible. Freddie’s excesses are well-documented. His AIDS-related death was awful and, for me, profoundly affecting. I remember it all too well. I once saw Freddie at a gay club back in the day, surrounded by his acolytes. There was nothing ambiguous about Freddie. So we decided to give the film a miss to avoid the disappointment. Instead, we lunched at Bishop’s, one of Norwich best indie restaurants. The meal was courtesy of the staff at the village surgery where Liam earns an honest crust. We’d already had our joint birthday treat at the newly opened Ivy Brasserie. But you can never have too many birthday treats, can you?
‘I’m going to see A Star is Born,’ said a colleague of Liam’s. ‘It’s supposed to be brilliant,’ she gushed. ‘Have you seen the original, you know, the one with Barbra Streisand?’
‘That’s not the original’ he replied.
Liam was right. Ms Streisand and her dodgy seventies curly perm was not the first. That honour goes to the 1937 version with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. Then there was the more famous remake – the 1954 musical with Judy Garland and England’s very own James Mason. And who could forget the 2013 Bollywood incarnation? No, I didn’t see it either.
Image courtesy of The Atlantic
Now it’s been rolled out again, this time with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the leads. Reviews have been star-bright and Liam’s a sucker for a gay icon – Garland, Streisand, Gaga (though I’m not sure about Gaynor, unless it’s Gloria, of course). Naturally, we couldn’t resist.
It’s a well-trodden plot – a maelstrom of passion and torment as girl on the way up mates with boy on the way down – so no need to recount it here. But was it worth the ticket price?
Well, sort of. Both leads are excellent and Lady Gaga lets it go with both barrels but the film is way too long, the dialogue way too mumbly and the script way too sweary. I’m no prude and I’ve been known to utter the odd profanity myself but, really, there’s no need to say f*ck with every other word. It dulls the effect, especially for a weepy. It left me unmoved. What would Judy say?
It’s my habit to pop out for a mid-morning coffee following the torture at the gym. One sunny day I parked myself outside a café to rest my weary bones, sip my americano, scan my newspaper and watch the ebb and flow of the eclectic crowd. A sallow-faced, reedy man plonked himself down in front of me. He was playing Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ on his phone – not too loud to cause a stir but loud enough to raise eyebrows.
A silver-haired old chap with a walking stick shuffled past.
‘Like the music?’ he asked.
‘It’s fine,’ I replied. ‘I don’t mind a bit of Rick.’
‘Some Pet Shop Boys would be nicer,’ he said with a wink.
I tend to agree. And so to the Pet Shop Boys anthem which was the soundtrack to many a young man’s coming out back in the day.
This year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival has been in full swing with the usual eclectic mix of the traditional and the avant-garde in words, music, dance, acrobatics and eccentricity. And they don’t come more avant-garde or eccentric than Le Gateau Chocolat, a black, fat bearded drag queen from Nigeria with a rich baritone voice and a thoughtful line in diversity and exclusion. ‘Chocolate Cake’ delivered his jerky, quirky cabaret with pathos and panache, receiving an enthusiastic hand from a full house of well-oiled whiskery types.
Quite by chance, a foe from my pre-Liam Soho days parked his skinny arse in the row in front of us. It was a blast from the past that instantly chilled the air. Thankfully, the cabaret raised the temperature to heart-warming. By the encore, the old foe threw a tantrum (nothing to do with me) and sleeked off into the night with his entourage.
Back to the act…
When Liam planned our ‘jolly’ down memory lane, he wasn’t to know it would be the hottest May Day holiday on record. The Sun puts a smile on everyone’s face, doesn’t it? And we smiled our way round Bankside, my favourite district of London. Back when the first Elizabeth was on the throne, old Southwark was a riot of licentiousness – playhouses, brothels and taverns – beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London’s buttoned-up elders who wagged their fingers from the other side of the Thames. This is where Will Shakespeare plied his trade among the players, the prostitutes and the drunks. That’s my kind of town.
Not that there are many ne’er-do-wells milling around these days. The area has cleaned up its act and is now home to over-priced flats, over-priced eateries, over-priced bars, world-class modern art and a working replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It certainly pulls in the crowds.
I went all thespian and began to recite the only lines I could remember from my part in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1976…
You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
And roar I did, when Snug the Joiner became the lion in a rabbit costume smelling of mothballs and accessorised with an improvised mane. Times were hard in the seventies.
Liam decided my hammy Shakespeare was putting off the tourists and bundled me onto a riverboat and took me to a different kind of theatrical show – a little fairy dusting of trad drag.
It was an eventful afternoon made all the more eventful by the delightful boys from the Abbey Rugby Club in Reading. They were on a ‘Monopoly board tour’ and had landed on Trafalgar Square for a queer beer. Well fancy that. And I did.
This is the second article originally published at On the Ege Magazine back in the day. I’ve rescued it from the bin to re-post for posterity. Why? Because I can.
Old Money, No Money
We were summoned by a Turkish neighbour for moonlit drinks. Her name is Sophia, a slightly batty older lady who speaks fluent English with a cut glass accent. Sophia has been threatening us with an invitation for weeks by rapping on our window, poking her hand through the grille and startling our visitors. Our immediate neighbours, Vadim and Beril, were also invited so we all scurried along Sentry Lane together. We approached an ornate set of heavy double-doors and rang the bell. Sophia flung open the doors to reveal a gorgeous candlelit courtyard bursting with a copse of mature fruit trees – avocado, pomegranate and lemon – laid out before a pretty, whitewashed old Bodrum house. Liam was immediately drawn to a candlelit niche in the stone wall, partially hidden by the thicket. The recess contained a small statuette of Our Lady, a replica of the original from Meryemana (the house of the Virgin Mary, near Ephesus). Liam resisted the knee-jerk urge to genuflect.
As a foreign student in the sixties, pedigree’d Sophia had acquired her regal inflection at the Royal Society of Dramatic Art. Her career in the arts was cut short by marriage to a Turkish diplomat whom she loved intensely; she travelled the world as the ambassador’s wife until his premature death a decade ago. She still grieves him, but that doesn’t stop her flirting outrageously with Vadim. His protests that he’s a one-woman man get a sceptical response from Sophia. In her experience, it’s perfectly normal for Turkish men to have a harem of women on the go at any one time, a modern twist on the old Muslim custom of taking more than one wife.
Drinks were plentiful and complemented by bountiful mezes freshly prepared by Sophia’s faithful old head-scarfed retainer she calls ‘my Kurdish woman.’ We were serenaded by Vivaldi and classic crooners – while the hired help fell to her knees and prayed with gusto next to the stereo, disregarding completely the irreverent chatter emanating from the terrace. This bizarre spectacle illustrated, as nothing else could, the polar extremes of Turkish society.
As Dean Martin’s honey tones dribbled from the speakers, Sophia pulled me from my seat for a slow smooch around the terrace.
Although she tended to dominate the conversation (in both English and Turkish), Sophia was a gracious host and the evening was a civilised, bi-lingual diversion. Sophia is old money through and through. She seems taken by us though; we’re completely baffled what ‘old money’ sees in ‘no money’.
Liam suffers from acid reflux – indigestion from Hell – which he controls with early dinners and prescription drugs. In rare cases, the condition can lead to oesophageal cancer, something most sufferers don’t know they’ve got until it’s way too late. Early diagnosis improves the odds massively. If only there was an effective screening programme for those most at risk.
Enter stage left, the boffins from the University of Cambridge. They’re trialling a low-cost diagnostic tool which, if successful, could be the answer. Enter stage right, Liam the lab rat. He swallowed a large pill attached to a length of twine. Going down was the easy bit (isn’t it always?). The pill dissolved to reveal what Liam described as a Brillo pad which was tugged up through his gullet, scraping the sides as it travelled. It was quite a performance by all accounts.
To get over the shock of the drama, Liam took himself off to Cinema City to watch Stephen Sondheim’s Follies broadcast live from the National Theatre to 2,500 venues globally. Liam is a huge Sondheim fan. I’m not, so I didn’t crash the party. The last time we watched a live performance beamed to cinemas was Billy Elliot. Now that’s my kind of musical. It’s a great way for the fiscally-challenged to watch a top-notch West End show at a knock-down price.
I joined Liam later for a bottle. He was delirious after Sondheim – almost losing his mind with the pleasure – and needed a large red to bring him down to planet Earth. Throat well lubricated, we raised a glass to the miracle of medical science. It’s keeping us alive, after all. And now we’ve both done our civic duty for the greater good, we’re feeling rather smug.