Belfast – Should We Stay or Should We Go?

I was a little nervous when I took my seat to watch Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film about the life of a working-class family in late sixties Belfast. It was a time when the Troubles really exploded on the streets, and I was dreading being slapped about the face by the grim senselessness of sectarianism.

But despite the nightmarish backdrop, there’s something incredibly warm and generous about the film. Set to a Van Morrison soundtrack (with a little help from Love Affair’s Everlasting Love) and shot in radiant black and white, the tender and funny script has a simple question at its heart – leave for a brighter future ‘across the water’ or stay for kith and kin and all that’s familiar. It was a choice faced by generations of Irish people – including our own.

The sparkling cast really deliver – anything with Judi Dench gets my vote – and despite the eye candy that is Jamie Dornan, the stand-out performance has to be from Jude Hill as Buddy, the young boy around whom the story revolves.

Do they stay or do they go? Here’s a clue. Sir Kenneth Branagh is now one of the UK’s foremost actors and directors.

Here’s the trailer…

Heroes in Heels

Soppy, sentimental old fool that I am, I’m a sucker for a tear-jerker. I cried during the opening Circle of Life scene of the Lion King when I first saw it in the West End many moons ago. And I started to blub during the first few bars of Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace and carried on sobbing right through to the finale. Pass the Kleenex.

Last year Liam and I watched the film version of Everybody Talking About Jamie on Amazon Prime. There’s a scene midway through – a flashback to the dark days of the early nineties when the gossip on the street was of a ‘gay plague’ and gay men were dropping like flies to a hostile crowd.

A few brave folk fought back, and the rest, as they say…

“Even the Iron Lady couldn’t stop the show.”

It’s a time I remember well. Too well. Who could forget? Here’s the scene that had me bawling.

But then there are tears of joy too. We also saw Six, a musical about the wives of that old lecherous tyrant, Henry the Eighth. Despite their bleak destiny – divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived – the show delivers an uplifting, defiant message. It’s a message that seems to have struck an inspirational chord with young ladies everywhere judging by the audience at Norwich’s Theatre Royal and the flash mob at the Tower of London, where two of Henry’s queens lost their heads. The young faces say it all. Right, ladies, it’s time for your crowning glory. You’ve earned it.

Now that’s how to teach history.

Made in Dagenham

Released in 2010, ‘Made in Dagenham’ is a gritty, evocative and warm-hearted film about the female workers at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, East London, who, in 1968, downed tools to demand equal pay for doing work of equal value. The machinists faced a barrage of patronising and often vicious opposition from every side – from the management at Ford UK, their paymasters across the pond and the Labour government of the day but also from their male co-workers and their union, run – you guessed it – by men. Evidently, solidarity only applied to the hairy-arsed blokes on the assembly line.

It was a time when a woman’s place was in the home and even those who had to work to put food on the table were routinely paid less than men because, well, they were just women, after all. Thankfully, times were a-changing. The strike was ultimately successful and led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

A musical adaptation followed in November 2014, opening at the Adelphi Theatre in London. It’s now doing the provincial rounds and we saw the production by the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society at Norwich’s handsome Theatre Royal. Am-dram it may have been but top not notch am-dram it was with sparkling vocal performances, light-footed routines and a real sixties vibe. We caught the matinee, joining the grey herd who laughed, gasped and clapped their way through a clever and often very naughty script, witty lyrics and jolly tunes. Mind you, the nice people from St John’s Ambulance were on standby with their defibrillators – just in case it all got too much.

Here’s how they did it in the West End…

Wicked

Wicked

Our final jolly in old London Town at the end of 2019 was a trip to see Wicked – the stage prequel to The Wizard of Oz and a show every friend of Dorothy should see before they reach the end of the rainbow.

Bizarrely, neither Liam nor I had seen the musical before even though it’s been a firm West End fixture for donkey’s years and one of the rare few that just go on and on, pulling in the punters night after night. The trouble with many a classic on a long run is it can all get a bit tired. Fine wine to vinegar? Actually, no. The big scenes are still big and the current lead – Nikki Bentley, as  Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the East – has a belting voice. And the political subplot – the rise of fascism – is as relevant now as it’s ever been. There was a standing ovation at the end. All in all, not a bad gig.

Helping History Out of the Closet

The Autumn edition of ‘Link’, the South Norfolk Council community magazine, dropped on the mat. Packed with facts and fun, it’s something to thumb through over coffee and a rich tea. It’s the usual recipe of charity gigs, sport and leisure updates, seasonal treats, pub and club news, health and environmental titbits and (groan) advice on preparing for Brexit. But also thrown into the mix is a remarkable full-page piece about a roving exhibition called ‘Helping History Out of the Closet’. Intended to raise awareness about LGBT issues, the show was put together by the Thetford Teenage History Club who were shocked to discover that man-on-man action could once land you in the clink, or worse. Why remarkable?

Well, it isn’t that long ago that a council in liberal London banned a gay support group from an out-of-hours chinwag on council premises for fear of a moral backlash. I guess the powers that be thought it might degenerate into an orgy and frighten the grand old dames of Kensington. I worked for that council and had the keys to the offices in Earls Court so we met anyway, under cover of darkness.

Essentially South Norfolk is one giant field sprinkled with small towns and villages. Like most rural communities, it’s conservative with a small ‘c’ (and sometimes with a massive one) where change is snail-paced and being different can be an isolating and horrible experience. We’ve come a long way. Let’s hope it stays that way.