28 August 2009 4:50 PM

When a man is tired of London, etc

I know, I know. It says "London Life" at the top of this screen, butI feel I've barely been in London for the past month. Rather, I've been on a whistle stop tour of the British countryside, some for holiday, some for work, all for pleasure. Off to a grouse moor outside Glasgow to bring back a brace of the first birds and have them cooked for me at Cafe Anglais on the Glorious Twelfth (you can read about this and see me in silly tweed plus fours here). Up to Norwich to visit some university friends (a review of the fine Georgian House Hotel  will be forthcoming on our travel pages). Down to Ramsgate for the weekend. Up again to Yorkshire for a friend's 50th. Out to Headcorn to go up in a 1933 Gypsy Moth to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first scheduled passenger flight, taken by an Evening Standard journalist in 1919 (more words, more silly clothes here). Down to St Ives for the weekend (for another forthcoming review of the charming, and magnificently located Pedn-Olva Hotel). Thing is, I really do feel I appreciate London anew when I get back. Especially when we landed in sun-drenched City Airport after leaving drizzle-lashed St Ives. Any carbon-footprint guilt I felt about flying inside the UK was, I admit, quelled by the terrific views of the Thames estuary and the Square Mile on the takeoff and approach to City.

Next week, I'm off for a two week holiday (I know, I know, "as opposed to what" as someone once asked Tara Palmer-Tompkinson when she announced the same thing) but next week you should be able to read my interview with Marc Price, the director of no-budget zombie hit, Colin, accompanied by a cinematic guide to Undead London.

In the meantime, a quick rant. I have been trying to cycle in town whenever possible, in a desperate bid to look more like a human being and less like a wodge of Playdough. ON days when it's not feasible (didn't feel I could turn up to meet Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler gasping and doing an impression of a portable shower unit, or hyperventilate and sweat my way through the sneak preview of the Avatar footage at the Imax), I like to take the bus. I'm a bus bore, a busvangelist. When they work, and when you have the time, buses are brilliant. So why is it that FIVE TIMES recently a bus I have been on has suddenly and without warning terminated ahead of its - and my - destination. The drivers I've asked are at a loss to explain it, and it makes a mockery of the supposed simpleness of the Oyster card. Because you have to get a transfer ticket (I mean, I could pay again, but it's the principle of the thing) and lots of drivers on the next bus don't seem to know what a transfer ticket is, and it wastes time, and generally destroys the calm feeling of wellbeing that a meandering bus journey should instil. And sometimes, it makes you so late, you have to get a taxi. Which defeats the whole egalitarian/conservation purpose of the exercise. Pah!

Back in two weeks...

17 July 2009 2:35 PM

Busting a gut

So I did indeed visit six Gordon Ramsay restaurants in four days, which you can read about here, and which, as a colleague pointed out, was printed in the paper a day after I 'fessed up in print to the results of a health check that found raised cholesterol and a waist measurement at the "upper end of what is considered healthy" (the nurse was tugging that tape pretty tight too). Cause and effect, to some degree, perhaps.

In brief, the bottom end of the Ramsay empire - the gastropubs and the charming but feckless Foxtrot Oscar (the only restaurant in London that tells its customers to F*** Off by its very name) - are dire. But the top restaurants, particularly Murano and Gordon Ramsay at Hospital Road, are superb and, suddenly thanks to the dip in bookings, accessible for a special occasion (or a blow out). And York and Albany, run by Angela Harnett in Camden, is great value.

This week, I went to Elena's L'Etoile. Not that I want this blog to be all about food. I'm really not that greedy. Well, I am, but... Anyway, the lunch, upstairs at Elena's, was thrown by the Critics' Circle in honour of Nicholas de Jongh. For 18 years Nick was the chief theatre critic of the Standard, and for six I was Robin to his Batman, but he has now gone over to the other side as a West End playwright and, soon, a screenwriter. It was a convivial affair, the slightly rickety, rackety setting in keeping with the crowd: the youngest people there were in their 40s, and the world of criticism is changing, across all media and thanks largely to the Web. 

The Critics' Circle itself will be 100 years old this year, the oldest professional body of its kind in the world. We (I say we, although I'm a sort of semi-detached member these days) are mulling over ways to commemorate this momentous event. Any ideas?

It's probably going to be quiet, chez Curtis this weekend - indeed, I'll probably be swigging back Benecol and slogging away on the aged bike onto which I've belatedly re-hoisted my lardy frame, in a bid to bring my cholesterol levels below Beth Ditto's. But when I was in my teens I would almost certainly have gone here. If any of you get along, let me know what it was like. They used to be much more unprofessional affairs, thick with the heady air of nerdery and collector-dom, held at the Methodist Hall in Westminster. I don't think I looked at the building itself once on the occasions I went. Too busy looking at Thunderbirds annuals. I must try and get back inside again.

10 July 2009 4:48 PM


This week, I have mostly been eating in Gordon Ramsay restaurants. Six of them in four days to be precise. To find out why, and what I thought of them, you'll have to read next Thursday's Standard. I will say that, having eaten in both her dining rooms, Angela Hartnett richly deserves her award as chef of the year in the catering industry's Oscars (my colleague Jonathan Prynn sums it up best in his blog). And that bingeing on fine dining gets you over rich food the same way smoking a whole carton of cigarettes can rid you of nicotine addiction. Not premanently, of course...

02 July 2009 3:35 PM

Eald Wic

- On researching the piece that appeared in Monday's paper about Aldwych (from the Saxon Eald Wic meaning "new settlement") I came up against a few blanks. Inquiries about what was happening to the half-built apartment hotel at the Strand end of the Aldwych central island, on the site of the old Gaiety theatre, came to nothing. So too did my attempts to find out what is happening on the Kingsway corner plot that Bank restaurant used to occupy - now nothing more then a propped-up facade. I had some nice times in Bank, and mourn its passing, although I enjoy the sight of the sky and of the warehouse stylishly converted by Zeev Aram into the Aram Store revealed by the now-gutted building. One of the plus points of London's ever-changing landscape is the reappearance of sudden, unexpected, often temporary views. Like the novel feeling of openness and airiness over St Giles when the former MOD buildings off New Oxford St were demolished. Or the broad vista of the park revealed when Bowater House on Scotch Corner was pulled down. (Don't much like the look of the Candy Bros/Rogers development that's been slowly going up in its place and impeding my journey to work on a weekdaily basis, but at least it looks like the more-money-than-sense apartments will be porous, offering views of the park. Though I presume a road will no longer run through it. And I wonder what has happened/will happen to Jacob Epstein's magnificent sculpture, A Rush of Green, that used to be marooned between the traffic lanes running through Bowater house - and which, if viewed from a certain angle, seemed to depict a certain specialist sex act between two figures in the group). So if anyone can enlighten me about what's happening on the old Bank and Gaiety sites, or what's happened to Rush of Green, I'd be grateful.

- Talking of that whole Drury Lane/St Giles/Holborn area - a bit of London which fascinates me - I was on Great Queen St last night and tested the theory that it's good to eat spicy food in hot weather. Moti Mahal had invited me along... aha, hahaha, not just me, of course... to try out their new Grand Trunk Road menu of dishes sourced from along the titular highway. I am not, quite, yet, in that class of journalist that would go to the opening of a wound, but I have, also, never been known to refuse food. The menu really is rather wonderful, pitched and priced midway the best local curry house in your area and the overly delicate, refined and expensive flavours of fine subcontinental dining places like the Cinammon Club. Ann and I were far more taken than we had remotely expected to be by the Qabali Seviyan, vermicelli and Masala chicken baked in an egg custard, which tastes far better than it sounds. I also liked the robust flavouring and succulent consistency of both the Murghi Nazakat (chicken pieces separately marinated in mint, chilli and dill, and served - gimmickily but charmingly - in their own mini-Tandoori oven) and the chilli-soused Barra Peshawari lamb chops. The nans were the lightest I've ever had, the DIY salad a nice touch if a bit of a faff, the Mojioto-style pre-dinner cocktails rendered punchy by a belt of chili. We liked the visible chef's kitchen with its beaten brass walls and the air conditioning definitely helped on a sweltering night. Oh, and be warned: we were advised to order four dishes each but three would have sufficed. Outside, I gawped again at the massive Masonic Temple of Great Queen St, which I once went inside - to watch a semi-staged production of the musical Camelot starring Paul Nicholas and Jason Donovan, of all things. I wish I'd paid more attention then, as it seems now increasingly strange that this bonkers sect could erect such a vast, mock-Egyptian monolith in the centre of town. My great-uncle Edmund was a Mason, but his older brother, my grandfather, was not, despite being a surveyor and therefore, you would think, a prime candidate for recruitment. I like to think he was approached and spurned them. At my grandfather's funeral, Edmund's wife Gertrude questioned my and my sister's paternity: this probably did more to tarnish Masonry in my eyes than any daft conspiracy theories. That and the fact that a huge crowd of them were faffing around on Long Acre a week or so ago when I was trying to get to a pub.

- I've been having physio at St Thomas's hospital recentlyand I think the NHS is brilliant.

12 June 2009 4:59 PM


Sorry. That's Dafoe. Not Defoe. As you were.


Blimey. So Lars von Trier's Antichrist has been passed uncut with an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification. This is despite a very, very, graphic bit of downstairs cutting performed by Charlotte Gainsbourg's character on herself. After she has inflicted some genital torture on her husband, played by Willem Defoe. I didn't, like the Cannes audience, laugh or boo at Antichrist. I was too busy covering my eyes. The brief shot of penetrative sex at the beginning? Ho hum. Old hat in the shock stakes. Or rather, old cock.

Antichrist may be one of the most gruelling and unpleasant films I've ever seen, but I'm glad it's been passed uncut. For all its brutality and (I think) perversely deliberate misogyny, it's a work of artistic merit. We are, undoubtedly, old enough to decide what we want to see these days. However nasty it might be.

On an entirely separate note, I thought the capital's theatre critics were unduly snippy about Jude Law's Hamlet. By my lights, his was a far more emotionally convincing and centred interpretation than David Tennant's. And I liked Tennant. But watching Law, one realised how much more of a 'performance' the Dr Who star gave. It made me recalibrate my opinion of Law's talent. It's a typically lucid production from Michael Grandage, too, where the simplest touches clarify reams of text: just having a set which contains indoor and outdoor space, for instance. I also like Penelope Wilton's Gertrude more than most of the Shaftesbury Avenue mob to which I used to belong, and Ron Cook's Polonius. Though there are some weak links, this is not just well-acted but well-spoken Shakespeare (I know I sound like a retired colonel when I say that, but trust me). And the text has been judiciously trimmed. Sometimes, it's good to cut.

20 May 2009 11:49 AM

Elephant run

I could tell you what I think about Tormented (cute idea for a Brit school slasher horror-comedy, too slow and could have done with several more script drafts). Or about Synecdoche, New York (pretty much like everyone else, a mix of the impressively moving and the exasperatingly pretentious). Or about the BFI's re-release of the fascinating Mondo mockumentaries London in the Raw and Primitive London, and my chat with their director, 87-year-old Arnold L Miller, who also helmed the seminal nudie "educational" film Take Of Your Clothes and Live. But right now I want to tell you about La Clique at the Hippodrome.

I'm a sucker for circus in any case, the sublime refinement of elegantly pointless skill. And without wishing to sound like Tina Turner, this is simply the best bid I've ever seen at making it flourish outside a big top setting. The cabaret/burlesque setup suits perfectly the run of louche acts - juggler, contortionist, acrobalancers, torch singer, aerialist, skating duo and the wonderful Amy Gee, who also skates like Les Dawson plays the piano and also mimes playing the kazoo with her woo-woo. Some of the acts, such as acrobalancers The English Gentlemen, are among the finest I've seen, and even those whose skill is not of the first order have polished their schtick to a high lustre. It's the only timed I've ever been forced into audience participation (carrying singer Miao Miao to the stage, and unzipping her trousers, since you ask) and not hated it. Even the tacky, nightclubby acretions that barnacle Frank Matcham's magnificent 1900 Hippodrome add to the atmosphere.

Here's the rub. It is undoubtedly a great shame that La Clique is being forced to move to the Roundhouse because the Hippodrome is to become a casino. Often I'm ambivalent about the change of use of old theatre and cinema buildings - as long as the structure is preserved, who cares about the use?

In this case, though, I do feel sad. As my old theatre pr friend Ben told me, the false roof that hangs over La Clique's performing space covers off the upper galleries of Matcham's theatre, including the still-intact minstrel's gallery below the sliding roof, from which divers used to plunge in to the flooded stage. Backstage and below stage, the Hippodrome's elephant run, through which pachyderms were paraded, also still exists. You can see more historic images and recent images of the place at the ever-fascinating theatre and music hall website I hope these parts of the Hippodrome survive its metamorphosis into a casino, just as they did its change-of-use to The Talk of the Town cabaret in the 1950s, and into a nightclub.

21 April 2009 11:57 AM

Keep on Trekkin'

It’s Star Trek, Jim, but not as we know it. This one’s bigger, brasher and more exciting than everything that’s gone before. JJ Abrams, the creator of Lost and Alias, has very boldly gone and breathed new life into a franchise that’s already had more deaths and rebirths - from the indifferent to the inspired - than the comparable but smaller-scale Dr Who. Abrams’ version of Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic space western isn’t perfect. But it is confident, clever and above all spectacular enough to please die-hard fans and newcomers alike.

The blockbuster film, which has its West End premiere tonight, is a prequel to the original 1960s TV series. Watching the first 15 minutes is like being stabbed in the heart with an adrenaline injection. The cataclysmic space battle that heralds the birth of James T Kirk gives us a taste of the spectacular effects to come. It’s followed by a brilliantly pacy sketch of the boyhoods that formed the headstrong human Kirk and the coldly logical half-Vulcan Spock.

In no time, Chris Pine’s cocksure Kirk is enlisting in Starfleet after failing to pick up Zoe Saldana’s absurdly slinky communications wizard Uhuru in a bar. All it takes is the arrival of a wrathful, time-travelling Romulan for him, her, Spock, old Uncle Bones McCoy and all to find themselves prematurely in charge of the Starship Enterprise, and of saving the universe.

Throughout, Abrams and his writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman adhere to the three driving forces of Roddenberry’s series: action, character, and smuggled-in, high-minded morality. The pace rarely lets up, and when it does, midway through, the story starts to look thin. Everyone jabbers about falling through black holes and “red matter” until the fighting and the whipcrack dialogue crank up again. To be honest, the plot is secondary. What’s dazzling is the way the film-makers have taken ownership of a phenomenon.

The young crew’s rough-edged relationships work in their own right and as back-stories for characters we already know well. Abrams puts in plenty of witty homages to the past without overegging it. Even Simon Pegg’s comic turn as Scotty is nicely judged. There are a couple of brilliant twists involving Spock and Uhuru that even a Vulcan mind meld won’t get out of me. And Star Trek’s message of pacifism and tolerance – even if achieved with phasers and fists – is so ingrained that alien  Enterprise crew members appear without comment. (Though not, it must be said, in senior positions or speaking roles. And miniskirts are still de rigeur for female officers, it seems.)

Chris Pine is an attractive, energetic hero but doesn’t perhaps bring the same eccentric swagger to the captain’s chair as William Shatner or Patrick Stewart. Eric Bana is also effective if two-dimensional as the villain, Nero. But Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban are superb as Spock and McCoy and together the crew makes a formidable ensemble. Sequels surely follow. Full ahead, maximum warp.

Star Trek opens on Fri 8 May.

09 April 2009 5:34 PM

Let the Right One In

Like my colleague Derek Malcolm, I've got no hesitation in recommending Tomas Alfredson's unnerving Swedish tale of vampirism and childhood unhappiness as this week's top film. The story, adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his cult novel, and set in a timelessly bleak and snowy suburb of Stockholm, is shot through with a looming sense of menace. Initially, this is because Oskar (remarkably natural Kåre Hedebrant), the 12-year-old son of separated parents, is being randomly but ruthlessly bullied at school. But there's also a killer on the loose, and then strange, watchful Eli (the magnetic Lina Leandersson) turns up, hiding a terrible secret. The film is remarkable not just for its novel take on the tropes of blood-sucker movies, and its potent stirring ability to generate fear and horror, or even for the striking performances of the two young leads. It is also very acute about the business of being 12 - the banality of playground violence and the confusion of hitting one's teenage years. I won't say any more. Except: see it. Ideally before the planned Hollywood remake

31 March 2009 2:14 PM

Ready to Rock?

YOU'VE got to love Richard Curtis, actually.

He's a one-man Ealing Studios, turning out a reliably funny, upbeat, and above all commercial comedy every few years. It's fashionable to knock his optimistic films but we could all do with a bit of feelgood factor right now.

The Boat That Rocked, which has its premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square tonight, is Curtis's loveletter to the pirate radio stations he adored in his youth. It casts the cream of British comedy acting talent as the motley crew of Radio Rock, a shipful of reprobates broadcasting the devil's music to dolly birds and schoolboys huddled around transistors, and flipping two fingers at the disapproving British authorities. Like all love letters, it's a bit gushy and over the top in places, but it also lifts the heart.

Expelled from school for smoking, Carl (Tom Sturridge) is dispatched by his mother to the care of his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), Radio Rock's owner and skipper, in the hope he'll gain a moral compass. "Spectacular mistake!", as the spectacularly louche Quentin says.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Carl's coming of age by losing his virginity and discovering his father's identity, and the attempts of Kenneth Branagh's uptight minister Sir Alistair Dormandy to sink the pirate stations. Really, though, this is an affectionate, broad-brush evocation of a bygone era, furnished with a collection of character studies and a cracking Sixties soundtrack.

There's bear-like Philip Seymour Hoffman and cocksure Rhys Ifans vying to see who can be top dog DJ.

There's snarky Nick Frost as cool dude Dr Dave, and Rhys Darby, from comedy show Flight Of The Conchords, as an irritating funster clearly modelled on Kenny Everett.

In truth, there are rather too many characters, including one called Thick Kevin whose comedy value lies in the fact that he's, um, thick.

Similarly, Dormandy's sidekick, played by Jack Davenport, is called Twatt. Ho ho. The humour, like the production design, is laid on thick.

The girls, shipped out once a week to worship the DJs, are dressed like Biba models, and the men resemble King's Road fashion plates. The one element of the script that rings really true of the era is its casual sexism. Otherwise The Boat That Rocked is a bright, breezy, if slightly aimless romp. It's packed with star turns but the real star is the music, and Curtis rightly celebrates the pirates' pivotal role in bringing Hendrix, the Yardbirds, Cream and Leonard Cohen to our ears. Rock on.

The Boat That Rocked is released on 3 April, with special previews from 1 April.