The Excaliber Handbrake

Saturday 7th November 2015.

To the Goya exhibition at the National Gallery. Purely portraits of Spanish nobility, plus a few self-portraits. His subjects display unusually informal expressions for the late 1700s and early 1800s: cagey, jokey, rougish, sensual. The fleshy-faced young Goya looks not unlike the comedian Matt Berry, particularly in the portrait where he wears a top hat customised with burning candles around the rim, to provide more light on the canvas. His vanity is shameless: one duchess points to the words ‘Only Goya’ in the sand by her feet.

A small delight: the Moomins Shop in Covent Garden sells Moomin-branded glasses cleaning cloths.

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Sunday 8th November 2015.

The large Waterstones student-friendly bookshop in Gower Street has booted out the rather cramped Costa café in the basement, and installed an airy new in-house café of its own, on the ground floor. Better still, the café is called Dillons, in memory of the bookshop that occupied the building in the 80s and 90s (which I can just about remember). Dillons is also nicely immortalised in the first page of Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, as Nick Guest gazes at a window display, soon after the 1983 election.  

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Wednesday 11th November 2015.

Evening: with Ms Shanthi to the Leicester Square Odeon, to see Legend. This is the new film about the Kray Twins, both played here by Tom Hardy. For Reggie he plays up his beauty, all quiff and pouts and open jackets – possibly the best looking Mr H has ever been. The more psychotic Ronnie is from Hardy’s repertoire of grotesques (like Bane and Bronson): horn rim glasses, slicked down hair, hunching, growling, grunting. The film’s highlights are when the traits are swapped between the brothers: when Ronnie is suddenly gentle, and Reggie is suddenly unstable. The special effect of the dual roles threatens to upstage the film at times, making it more of a gimmick (one thinks of those Eddie Murphy films where he insists on playing six characters). There’s also a few scenes where the film is trying very hard to be a British Scorsese – a Goodfellas or Casino – with its tracking shots of gangster bars as the main characters walk around the room, chatting with everyone they meet. But Hardy is riveting enough.

Shanthi also takes me to an old-fashioned Soho bar, which I think I’ve never been to before. It’s the New Evaristo Club, or ‘Trisha’s’, at 57 Greek Street. Private members’, apparently, but tonight the staff seem to be okay with our just swanning in politely and buying glasses of wine (£4 each). The club is the longest-running in Soho, now that the Colony has gone. It is steeped in 1950s character, with dim green lighting, round café tables with tablecloths, and old photos on the wall of Sinatra and Italian boxers. Three trendy young men with beards and backpacks come in, take one look at the décor, and promptly walk out again. It is too Old London for them.

Shanthi takes a photo:


Something rare for London happens: the barmaid comes over and tops up our glasses for free. ‘Shame to waste the bottle,’ she says. I need to come back.

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iPhones with shattered screens are the new ripped jeans.

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Friday 13th November 2015.

To the East Finchley Phoenix for The Lady in the Van, the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s memoir. It’s fair to say the film is pure, distilled Bennett. It’s directed by Nick Hytner, AB’s main stage collaborator since the 90s, and it’s also something of a History Boys cast reunion, with all eight ‘boys’ and all three teachers from the original stage production (not counting the late Richard Griffiths) popping up in little roles. Plus it brings together Maggie Smith, reprising her performance as the titular lady from the 90s stage version, with Alex Jennings’s take on Bennett himself, a role he’d performed in the play Cocktail Sticks. But the World Of Bennett preservation goes further, as the story’s location – his former home in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town – is shot in situ. His old house is played by his old house. And there’s even a glimpse of Jennings as Bennett as the character Graham in A Chip in the Sugar, one of the Talking Heads monologues. At one point, Roger Allam’s cynical neighbour says that the monologue is really ‘all about him, as usual’, and so it proves with this new film. Despite the subject ostensibly being Miss Shepherd, the eccentric elderly woman who lived in Bennett’s front yard for fifteen years, the film is ultimately more about Bennett scrutinising his own life and work together. As soon as it’s clear that Mr Jennings is surreally playing two Alan Bennetts – the writer and the man – the film becomes more Brechtian than realistic, and the use of the History Boys cast works more as a reference than an indulgence.

While watching, I realised that, what with Legend I’d accidentally gone to see two films this week where both were set in late twentieth-century London, both were based on true stories, and both featured a lead actor playing dual roles. But whereas Tom Hardy’s doubling as the Krays has to work as if they’re played by real twins, Jennings’s two Alan Bennetts serve as a reminder that the film is a playful fantasy based on truth. Dame Maggie’s superb performance then works against this fantasy, putting the handbrake on Bennett’s constant flow of quips, aphorisms and literary quotations. When Miss Shepherd moves her van into the yard for the first time, she puts on the handbrake with such force that it becomes like Excaliber in Arthur’s stone, unable to be moved by any other hand. Years later, the vehicle has to be lifted out via a crane. This is a nice touch of symbolism, given the way Miss Shepherd becomes a fixture in Bennett’s life, to the point where he feels almost married to her.

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Both The Lady in the Van and Legend are romances of the city. They celebrate London as a place to form an identity. But this quality is not, of course, exclusive. As I type up this week’s diary, news comes through of the sickening attacks in Paris. The people who have died were civilians in concert halls and theatres, people using Paris to just be themselves. I take some comfort from the Fred Rogers quote about reacting to distressing events: ‘look for the helpers’.

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