An Ungrumpy Old Man

John Mortimer has died. What a life – defending the Sex Pistols’ ‘Never Mind…’ sleeve and Oz magazine’s ‘gay Jesus’ case with one hand, while writing all those Rumpole stories and plays and screenplays with the other. Someone who never fell into the easy trap of becoming a grumpy old man, his 2003 memoir, ‘Where’s There’s A Will’, about how to write and indeed how to live,  is a real inspiration.  He wrote it as a kind of last message to the world, but still managed to squeeze in five further novels between ‘Will’ and the grave. Another message, then: keep doing it till you really do drop dead.

I’m sure among the obituaries and tributes there will be those lovers of a good myth-buster (like myself) who will point out that Mr M never actually wrote the screenplay to the 80s TV version of ‘Brideshead Revisited’. It was the director and producer, Derek Grainger, who penned the adaptation, pretty much leaving the Waugh novel intact – which is why it took so many hour-long episodes. Mortimer was contracted to submit a script, so although it wasn’t used they had to keep his name on the credits.

I’m currently reading Russell T Davies’s excellent ‘The Writer’s Tale’, his epistolary account  about writing for and executively producing the present Doctor Who. As with ‘Brideshead’, he also mentions the occasional discrepancy between the names on the writing credits and those who actually supply the words. One Who story in particular, ‘Human Nature / The Family Of Blood’, is credited to Paul Cornell, adapted from his novel, though Davies says:

‘I had a whole Sunday of people saying ‘What a brilliant script. Paul is a genius.’ Which he is. But I’m thinking, if only you knew how much of that I wrote! …People know that I polish stuff, but they think that polishing means adding a gag or an epigram, not writing half the script.’

The obsession with the writer as sole auteur works fine with books, but falls apart when it comes to most TV programmes and films. The nature of the medium encourages creation by committee – Doctor Who itself was created by a BBC focus group in the early 60s, rather than by a single writer. There’s a fascinating in-house report from the period, stating why the Corporation should make science fiction drama at all- and what the point of science fiction IS. The works of Ray Bradbury are cited, demonstrating the importance of blending engaging, inspiring sci-fi ideas with sympathetic human characters.

Last Wednesday – to Barden’s Boudoir in Stoke Newington Road, to see the bands Deptford Beach Babes, Sexton Ming, Tropics Of Cancer and Rude Mechanicals. All are vastly enjoyable. Lots of bluesy madness, twangy guitars, mad scattershot drumming, brimmed hats, costumes. The Tropics of Cancer feature Ms She, who I remember once kept me company at the club Lady Luck, where she worked behind the bar.

Rude Ms singer Jo Roberts is unforgettable: cartoonish whiteface make-up, dusty grey beehive wig, vintage ballgown and bare feet. She’d be visual attraction enough, but there’s also the violinist – a transvestite in a tight skirt who occasionally plays with the bow between their legs, while the drummer is a deadpan butch android. Like the Deptford BBs, both wear sunglasses, thus straddling the line between deadpan cool and deadpan comedy – and deadpan comedy IS cool, after all.

Sunglasses onstage always work best as part of an overall costume. Dressed-down rock bands who wear shades are so tiresome. ‘Listen to me, don’t look at me’ is an attitude I’ve never understood. Why get on a stage if you don’t want to be looked at?

Barden’s Boudoir is a newish venue, and one of many signs that Stoke Newington is becoming a bigger part of the capital’s cultural life. Only thing is, the venue is too new for my liking. One complains about grotty small venues, then one complains when they’re not grotty enough. As usual, I want things both ways: I want unbattered, working equipment AND thick layers of graffiti. I enjoy my suits not smelling of other people’s stale cigarettes the day after, yet I’m suspicious of sobriety.

Chat to Vicki Churchill, who sings with the Deptford BBs. Years ago, we once signed a couple of dollar bills in a semi-drunken pact, promising to each other to get to New York before we die. Last year I made it there (thanks to Mr MacG), and it turns out that she did too, visiting the city a few months later. Pact completed. Next goal: published books. She’s beaten me to that one, though, having brought out a children’s picture book a few years ago. I think it’s about a vole.

On the overground train from Camden Road to Dalston Kingsland, I bump into Roger from the band Exile Inside. He recognises me from the time Fosca played with E.I. at the Purple Turtle in December – gosh – 2005. Turns out we both listen to BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, both finding it a suitable substitute for John Peel’s show. In Stoke Newington Road, before we part company, he points out the Turkish restaurant where Gilbert & George usually have their evening meal. They’re not in tonight, but I don’t mind – I was glowered at by Victoria Wood in the High Tea tea rooms earlier.

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