“With Heart and With Voice” – National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company Review

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For the last two evenings, I have been at the Norwich Theatre Royal watching the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s productions of Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, and Ruddigore.

It has been rather a long while since I took the time to see some G&S at the theatre, partly because the same old operas get performed time and time again, and sometimes I think I can recite the Modern Major General’s song as reliably as those in the cast.  (Please don’t ask me to; I’m exaggerating).

I was very much “into” G&S when I was a teenager – ah yes, I was that popular kid at school.  In fact, school was to blame as my first school production was of the The Mikado.  It got me investigating the other operas, too, borrowing copies of them from the local library.  And then in 1989, the BBC broadcast the complete G&S on Radio 2 and I dutifully taped them each week and listened to some of them repeatedly.  (As a side note:  Does anyone have copies of these performances?  I would so much like to get hold of them again as they are, bizarrely a key part of my teenage years).  Perhaps understandably as a fifteen year old teenager, the two “supernatural” works grabbed my attention most of all at that time.  However, they were never performed by touring companies coming to Norwich, so the nearest I got were those often-dry TV productions from the early 1980s.   As I grew older, my tastes changed, and G&S got put on the back burner in favour of Elvis, Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and jazz.  And then, this year, I saw that The Sorcerer and Ruddigore are finally being performed in the Theatre Royal, which is literally outside my front door.  Finally seeing them live was an offer I was not going to refuse.  I re-familiarised myself with the music, and then expected to be disappointed.

The Sorcerer was preceded by Trial by Jury as a curtain-raiser last night – although The Sorcerer is quite long enough by itself for an evening’s entertainment, but Trial is always good fun, so who’s complaining?  What is interesting after seeing Ruddigore tonight is that it highlights the problems with The Sorcerer – and I’m not talking about the performance, but the source material – and those problems aren’t apparent when watched separately.

There is probably a good reason why The Sorcerer is not done very much, as there really isn’t a great deal of plot and the characters aren’t particularly likeable on the whole.  And yet the music is often some of the most beautiful in the G&S operas (something I remember from that BBC production from 1989), and luckily most of the best songs are in the first act which, to say the least, has a meandering libretto.   Constance’s “When He Is Here” is a lovely ballad, as is Dr. Daly’s “Time Was When Love and I Were Well Acquainted.”  But the opera doesn’t really come alive until J. W. Wells appears about fifty minutes into the proceedings.

This isn’t really noticed in the current production, which is transported to (I’m estimating) the 1930s.  That in itself is enough to grab our interest while Gilbert finally gets around to providing us with a plot.  The opening chorus, presented to us as a choir rehearsal, is performed with so much zest and energy that it’s hard not to be sucked in.  In fact, it’s true to say that I have rarely seen the chorus in an opera provide as much joy to the audience as the soloists.  They throw themselves so much into their individual characters, over-acting their socks off (intentionally, I might add), that it’s hard not to fall in love with them and wait intently for them to return to the stage, which, I’m pleased to say, they often do in The Sorcerer.  It’s this sense that the performers are having a ball that made the last two evenings so enjoyable.   The soloists also share the same enthusiasm, although, oddly, they have less to work with in their parts than the chorus.  Richard Gauntlett provides us with a spiv of a John Wellington Wells (which works very well), and Ellen Angharad Williams shines as Aline.

Ruddigore is, rather bizarrely, a reversal of The Sorcerer:  the plot comes thick and fast from the very beginning, the main characters are much more interesting, but the male chorus in particular have much less to do – which is a shame as they were great fun on the previous evening.  Seeing the two operas side by side, there’s little doubt that Ruddigore is a much better work on the whole.  Again, I’m talking about the source material here and not the production.  The first half of the production is a lengthy eighty minutes, but it seems to zip along at quite a pace, helped, perhaps by the episodic nature of it and the split into three seamless scenes.  Another big bonus here is that it gets off to a strong start through Gaynor Keeble’s impressive “Sir Rupert Murgatroyd” (what a wonderful voice she has).  And then there comes the huge shock – Bradley Travis who is playing Robin/Ruthven is under fifty!  Actually, under forty.  Possibly under thirty.  Of course that IS the intention, but anyone who has seen G&S in the past will know that the leading male and female roles are often NOT played by age-appropriate cast members.  Robin is meant to be in his twenties, I believe, but on the Malcolm Sergeant recording from the 1960s is played by a 78 year old.  You see where I’m coming from here?  This makes a massive difference to the performance – not least by the amount of physicality that can then be brought to the role – although Travis spends much of the second act writhing around on the floor (as you do).

This youth element is what enlivens these productions more than anything.  When I was singing G&S at an amateur level, I’m sure no-one else was under sixty.  Ian Smith, Chairman of the company, boasts in the programme: “I don’t know of any other Opera Company in Britain that takes as many graduates from the leading Music Colleges as we do.  Young enthusiasts with splendid voices embarking on their professional career in the very safe hands of Gilbert and Sullivan.”  And he is right to boast about this.  Not only is this giving young performers a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but it also pays dividends for the company in giving the productions more energy and vitality than they otherwise would have had – and if you want proof of that check out the chorus work in Trial/Sorcerer (there are some members of the chorus who grab your attention despite not having a single line of their own) and the young cast of Ruddigore.

Both of these operas must be very difficult for a company on such a tight budget as this one – they almost beg for special effects and clever sets. They don’t get either here (and at one point, The Sorcerer pokes fun at itself over that), but don’t let that put you off.  Also don’t let it put you off that you might not know these particular works.  Ruddigore, in particular, provides the tried and tested G&S formula – indeed, compare the finale to Act I of The Mikado to the finale of Act I of Ruddigore and, dramatically, it’s pretty identical – just replace Katisha with Despard and you’re almost there.   I really do wish that audiences would be more daring with the choices they make – these performances were far from full houses, and it’s such a shame with so much to enjoy.   I hope that this doesn’t mean that the company resorts to bringing us The Mikado and Pirates instead next year, as it’s really nice to see these other works performed.

What you get with these two productions (and I’m guessing the others on the current tour) is a damned good evening of entertainment – and that, really, is exactly what G&S should be about.   I’m not going to pretend that these are the most polished productions you will ever see (although it might be the ONLY production of The Sorcerer you ever see), or that the sets are the most exciting in the world, but that is more than made up for by what else is being offered – fun.  That is what the evening is all about, and these fresh, sometimes intriguing productions, certainly provide that in abundance.

I’d like to make another comment about the programme note from Ian Smith, in which he states the company receives just £21,000 combined in grants and donations compared to the millions of other opera companies centred in London (he mentions the ENO).  We have to start realising the worth of the arts in this country.  Funding has been cut for the arts subjects at university level, there has been discouragement of taking arts subjects at schools, and funding has been cut for companies such as this one.  The government can try to drum it into our heads that we need scientists more than musicians, but there’s not much point in finding cures for deadly diseases if we don’t have music and the arts to enjoy during those extra years we gain by these cures.  And that goes for whatever areas of the arts provide your enjoyment.  Companies such as this HAVE to survive, as do our orchestras, our independent film makers, and so on.  If our country really is going to continue with this hair-brained political suicide, we’re going to need something to take our mind off it – and I very much doubt that most of those spouting the nationalistic twaddle on Twitter have ever seen a single opera written by two of our country’s national institutions in their lives.  And that’s an irony that Gilbert himself might well have appreciated.

I’d like to conclude by saying health has thrown quite a bit of crap my way over the last couple of months – but for six hours this weekend I forgot about it completely and did a great deal of smiling, and what more can you ask of a theatre trip?

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No More Tears: A Response

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I have great respect for Charles Epting – one of the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and certainly energetic young silent film enthusiasts around.  He is at the helm of The Silent Film Quarterly magazine, and has today made a post on the publication’s blog claiming that the 90% or so of silent films that no longer survive are, basically, no big loss (I admit I paraphrase).  My respect for Mr. Epting notwithstanding, on this occasion he has missed the mark by a long way.  Before reading my response, take yourself over to the original article (and check out some of the other great blog posts while you’re there):

No More Tears article on Silent Film Quarterly’s blog

The problem with Epting’s view is clear from the start, where he writes: “If all we have is 10% of the silent films ever made, what brilliant, ground-breaking, revolutionary pieces of art are we missing out on?”  This would suggest that the only important films are the ones that were brilliant, ground-breaking, revolutionary, or even works of art.  But is this really true?  Are the films that have shaped our cultural history really all brilliant movies?  Of course they’re not.

He goes on to try to tell us that everything is actually OK because most of the works of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Griffith, von Stroheim, and DeMille still survive, as do most of the movies nominated at the first Oscar ceremony.  And they do mostly exist, that is true.   But let’s take a step away from thinking that film is all about big name stars and directors and Oscar-nominations, and look at it from another point of view.  To do this, I shall take you into a niche area of silent movies.

My PhD and subsequent book (still available if you don’t mind remortgaging your house to buy it thanks to the wonders of academic publishing) was about “male-male intimacy” in early film.  In other words, it looked at gay characters, homosocial environments, homoeroticism, sissies, fops, romantic friendships, and the like.  The films give us an insight into how homosexuality and homoeroticism were viewed in the first three decades of the 20th Century.  These primary sources help us to piece together an important part of our cultural history.  Now, you might be thinking that you haven’t seen many such characters or narratives in silent film – and that’s because they rarely occurred in the films made by the major directors and stars listed by Epting, and in many cases we only know about these movies at all because comments on them exist in old copies of VarietyFilm DailyMotion Picture World, and other such publications, which we are able to access thanks to the wonders of the Media History Digital Library.

Let me take you back to the early 1910s, when there was a whole flurry of films made in Hollywood containing the stock character of the “sissy” – and yet probably the only film anyone will have seen from the period with this stock character is Algie the Miner from 1912.  Why?  Because most of the others have been lost.  But can we actually presume that Algie is representative of all of the films containing the sissy character from the pre-war period?  Of course not.  For that we would need to see the likes of A Cave Man Wooing (presumed lost), Just a Boy (presumed lost), Hilda Wakes (presumed lost), Sissybelle (presumed lost), The Pay-as-You-Enter Man (presumed lost), and He Became a Regular Fellow (presumed lost).  What the trade publications tell us through their reviews is that the character of the sissy changed drastically from Algie in 1912 through to Keep Moving in 1915.  In 1912, he is treated as a sympathetic character, by 1913 he is, according to Moving Picture World, an “abomination,” and by 1916, Musty Suffer is so disgusted at the sissy that he puts a lighted firecracker in a package and then gives it to him.

Charles Epting, in his piece this morning, would argue that these films are not important, and that their loss is no big deal.  They would not have been great films, and they would not have had great direction or acting, and so why spill tears over them?  But the reality is far from that, as these four years of short, probably not very good, comedies would demonstrate to us just how Hollywood and the public at large changed its view of gay/effeminate/queer (we don’t know which, as we can’t see them) men during the years directly prior and during the First World War, and we can only presume that the advent of WWI caused a shift in how masculinity (or lack of) was treated in film.

Let’s also think about the issue of genre, as well.  It is well-documented that “horror” was not used as a genre description before 1931 (there is evidence to counter that now, but by-and-large this is true).  So, how were what we now call the horror films of the 1910s and 1920s described or viewed by audiences?  How did their content change in the run up to Dracula in 1931?  Sure, we can view Lon Chaney films, The Cat and the Canary and Caligari and presume that we can judge from those movies if we want, but we would be foolish to do so.

Today the majority of horror films we watch are not big productions and, instead, medium-budget films with lesser (often unknown) actors.  In fact, the majority of horror films made today are straight-to-DVD/streaming affairs.   According to the scenario laid out by Epting’s piece, as long as It and The Conjuring survive in a hundred year’s time, everything will be fine because the horror genre in the 2010s can be judged from those big productions.  But that clearly isn’t true.  There are hundreds of horror films that aren’t big productions, but they are as much part of the genre as It and The Conjuring, and tell us just as much about film-viewing in 2018 (not to mention how they might comment on the political situation).

The idea that only films that received positive reviews and praise at the time of release are worth worrying about when it comes to lost films is flawed, and always has been flawed.  What if we applied this idea to classical music?  We would assume that a great deal of music written by Wagner, Brahms, and Beethoven was bloody awful.  “I believe that I could write tomorrow something similar inspired by my cat walking down the keyboard of the piano” wrote a critic – of Tannhauser!  What if THAT was a lost work?According to Epting’s premise, it would be no great loss.  In the world of film, we can learn just as much about cinematic and/or cultural history from Ben Model’s release of Whispering Shadows on DVD as we can from Phantom of the Opera.  

Every lost film and TV programme is a gap in our cultural history.  It doesn’t matter whether the item in question was great art or a trashy horror movie – unless we can see what we are missing, we are not in a position to judge its cultural worth. 

 

Revisiting Dorian Gray (2009)

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Perhaps the biggest reason why the 2009 film of Dorian Gray is so disappointing is that Ben Barnes is probably the most suitable actor to play the role since Hurd Hatfield in the 1945 MGM version.  Barnes might have been twenty-seven at the time of filming, but he looks younger and, perhaps more importantly, is both beautiful and contains a childlike innocence during much of the first half of the movie.  If Hatfield had come across at fragile with his porcelain-like features, Barnes portrays Dorian as naïve – something I could never believe Hatfield to be, he seemed far too wicked for that.  And in both versions of the story, the lead actor was relatively unknown – Hatfield particularly so, but the public was only aware of Barnes through his role as Prince Caspian in the Narnia series, and a jolly jape misfire of a Noel Coward play.  And the public’s lack of familiarity with the lead actor can help with something like Dorian Gray.  By the time Helmut Berger was cast in the 1970 film, he had already appeared in Visconti’s The Damned, and, after that, who could ever believe that Berger could be an innocent?

Unfortunately, the 2009 movie falls down in so many places that the potentially perfect casting of Barnes becomes almost immaterial.  The opening of the film is a case in point, unable to convey through its CGI-laden visuals whether the audience should prepare for a horror movie or a fairy story.  This is an issue that continues throughout the film, with even some of the acting (particularly Rachel Hurd-Wood as Sybil Vane) making audiences wonder if they are watching a Wilde adaptation or a Tim Burton movie.  Ironically, a Burton take on Dorian Gray might be an interesting venture if Burton was feeling inspired that day, but here the visuals are too pretty, too clean (even in the sordid moments) and without the underlying wickedness that Burton is capable of bringing to such seemingly-innocent images.

But the film fails mostly because it dares to show us, repeatedly, just what Dorian’s sins are.  We know very little of them in the book, or, indeed, in the Hatfield film, but here they take place before our very eyes.  The issue here is that this is a mainstream film and, because of that, none of the sins appear particularly sinful – especially to a modern audience.  I very much doubt that anyone watching the film is likely to faint with shock that Dorian has a threesome, or has sex with another man, or that he doesn’t mind a bit of S&M even if it means roughing up that pretty little face of his (albeit temporarily).  Sure, he commits a murder too, but you only have to tune in to ITV3 every night to see half a dozen of those thanks to Midsummer Murders, Foyle’s War, and Poirot.  Trying to shock audiences (or even to titillate them) in a 15-certificate movie through some images of fetishist sex is hardly going to make us realise just what an horrific fellow Gray has become, especially when Fifty Shade of Grey is more likely to make one giggle than get aroused.

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It might work if it was a movie made by an independent filmmaker, with an appetite to come up with something more genuinely shocking, explicit or, at least, visually stimulating.  But Ben Barnes with his shirt off kissing two women at the same time is hardly a startling, hedonistic existence in a world where you can do a search on Google and be shown all kinds of sexual activities that you never knew existed – and all because you were looking for the amount of calories in a bowl of corn flakes.

Hinting at Dorian’s sins would have made for a somewhat more mysterious, maybe more eerie, film.  Even the decaying picture itself gets shown far too often for the changes to be remotely shocking – quite unlike the 1945 version where the colour insert of the decaying picture is in itself quite a jolt for the viewer near the end of the black and white film.   The script itself is formulaic for the most part, and the special effects really not very special – check out the explosion at the end of the film.  There are parts of the movie where it looks like an ITV Sunday night two-part adaptation, only with Colin Firth as Lord Henry instead of Jim Nettles.

Going by online reviews, many blame the film’s failings on Ben Barnes, but I would suggest that the film is bland and disappointing despite of him, rather than because of him.  You can’t make a good film with a bad script, and that is exactly what this film has – from the underdeveloped characters to the pointless changes to the source text, including the introduction of a back story where Dorian was the victim of child abuse, which seemingly has no purpose in the narrative and no influence on the character.

Dorian Gray is, unfortunately, a highly frustrating if somewhat watchable mess, but with a TV series in development and another film version out this year, perhaps someone will get an adaptation of Wilde’s own novel right at some point in the near future.

Robert Harron: Griffith’s Boy Bobby

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This is a rather poignant interview with Robert Harron from 1918, and first published in Photoplay in April of that year.   This vintage article is included in Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities, available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.

Griffith’s Boy – Bobby

Harron, the Screen’s Premier Juvenile.  “The Boy” in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance

Author: Elizabeth Peltret

 (Photoplay: April, 1918)

One of the most effective scenes in The Birth of a Nation is a quiet one; a scene without a trace of “dramatic punch,” but it remains vividly in your memory after many a more spectacular scene is forgotten.[1]  It is the meeting of the two boy chums in a sleepy little Southern town before the war.  They poke each other in the ribs, chase into the house, dodge around the furniture in the big hallway, and run upstairs, their arms around each other’s shoulders.  “Everyone” says of this scene that it doesn’t look a bit like acting.  Then, too, the light-heartedness of it, and the peacefulness of the little town, are in poignant contrast to the battle scene where the two boys meet again only to die in each other’s arms.  The Southern boy (Bobby Harron) crawls over to his Northern chum, and puts his arm about him.  It looks as if they are tired from too much play and are just going to sleep for a while.

Since the making of the Griffith masterpiece, Bobby Harron has seen a great deal of battle and sudden death.  Last year he was in Europe with D. W. Griffith, and Lillian and Dorothy Gish, making war scenes for the great director’s next picture.[2]  One can only surmise the number of times he must have been called upon to die, or nearly die – the story may have a happy ending – but it is possible that he is killed or wounded in this war, counting rehearsals, innumerable times.  Also, he has seen real danger, and real history in the making – among other things the arrival of General Pershing and his staff in Europe, for the Griffith party went over on the same ship – and yet with all this, he seems just the same fun-loving boy he looks to be in The Birth of a Nation.  But underneath is a keen knowledge of human nature and an equally keen sympathy.  He seems more interested in people than in events.  In discussing the war, he said more about the effect it would have on individuals than about anything else concerning it.  For example, soldiers themselves:

“It’s going to be just as hard for a lot of the fellows to come home from the war as it was for them to go,” he said.  “They’ve changed a lot, of course, the fellows who used to work in stores, and offices, and factories.  They’ve made new friends; they’re heroes – members of the military caste, you know.”  He mentioned Service’s poem, The Revelation:[3]

The same old sprint in the morning, boys, to the same old din and smut,

Chained all day to the same old desk, down in the same old rut;

Posting the same old greasy books, catching the same old train:

Oh, how will I manage to stick it all, if I ever get back again?

Don’t you guess that the things we’re seeing now will haunt us through all the years;

Heaven and hell rolled into one, glory and blood and tears;

Life’s pattern picked with a scarlet thread, where once we wove with a grey,

To remind us all how we played our part in the shock of an epic day?

 “But that won’t apply so much to the moving picture actor.  We’re funny people!  We have plenty of time evenings and between scenes, and yet we hardly ever learn anything outside our work.  Most of the fellows who go from the film will have to begin all over again, when they come back, even if they aren’t maimed or crippled.  There are quite a few moving picture actors and it’s not a bit hard to forget them.”

Probably very few persons have thought of this phase of the subject.  If there were only a few of the “thin red ’eroes” it would not make so much of a difference.  But in this war the individual is lost in the great throng of men who, while their praises are sung today, will have to come back later when the tumult and the shouting has died and people are speaking in prose again.  Nearly every young man who goes to war sacrifices something in a business or professional way, but there is before him the chance to win, in a brief time, a degree of fame that otherwise it would take him years to gain, and, whether he wins distinctive military honors or not, his war record will give him preferment and a sort of distinction.  But the motion picture actor who has won any marked degree of success is known the world over.  If war takes him away for a year or two, he must look forward to the probability that when he comes back his name will have been virtually forgotten, not only by the public but by managers as well.

Although he did not mention the fact himself, the war will possibly cost Bobby Harron much in those things everybody wants – success, income, material security and a foothold on the ladder that leads to fame.  For he has been drafted, too, and is only on leave of absence.  Although so serious a matter to him, he turned it off with a characteristic story.

“I heard of a fellow who went to a dentist and had all his teeth pulled before going up for examination.  The examining officer looked him over and said, ‘You’re exempt; you have flat feet.’

“I tell you what,” Harron said with quiet sincerity, “I’d rather leave my family, my friends, my work and my club forever – I’d rather die right now – than to be told I wasn’t wanted because my health was not good enough.  To know – absolutely know – that you are not physically fit would be worse than to go through a hundred wars.”

Although he is very slight, his clear eyes and skin and the impression he gives of buoyant vitality would seem to indicate perfect health.

“It’s a case of sooner or later with me,” he said.  “I am going when we finish this picture.  The other day, Mr. Griffith said, ‘Well, Bobby, I guess you’ll be glad when we finish these scenes,’  ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘get them right, if it takes ten years.’”

Bobby laughed heartily at the recollection.  It seems that the unexpected answer so surprised Mr. Griffith that he looked almost petrified, but presently a light dawned.  “I gotcha,” said the great director, “the longer we take on these scenes, the longer you live.”

“That wasn’t what you might call an especially encouraging remark to make, now was it?” remarked Bobby.

Bobby Harron has been in the pictures since 1907, when he was fourteen years old.  He started in with the old Biograph company in New York.

“I was going to a parochial school,” he said, “and one day, I asked the Brother to let me know the next time he heard of a place for a boy.  A little later the Brother sent me around to the Biograph studio.  The man in charge was named McCutcheon; his son, Wallie, is now a major in the English army.[4]  He asked the usual questions, and the upshot of it was that I went to work in the cutting room at a salary of five dollars a week.  After I had been working in the cutting room about two months, he took me out and gave me a small part in a picture.  It was a comedy named Dr Skinnum (sic).[5] Anthony O’Sullivan was in it, I remember, the same Tony O’Sullivan who is now in charge of the “lot” over at Mack Sennett’s.  I remember thinking at the time that there was no future in that kind of work for a young fellow, and that as soon as I could I’d go and get another job.  But I never did.  I kept on when Mr. Griffith took charge; came with him to California, and have been with him ever since.”

His first leading part was in a picture called Bobby’s Kodak.[6]

“This picture gave me my first big joy in life, because it gave me the chance to be the kind of kid I had wanted to be in my dreams, but had never had the chance to be in real life.  My oldest brother and I had always had it in us to be little devils, but we lacked the teamwork of the Katzenjammers.  We always took it out in fighting to see which one was going to play the lead.  For instance, I’d come to him and propose that I play hookey and fix up a nice little story for him to tell the Brother, but he’d say, ‘Well, I don’t see why I can’t play hookey and you tell the story to the Brother,’ and so it would end by neither of us playing hookey.  It was that way with every bit of mischief we tried to do – we were great chums” there was no pause but a hurrying on of speech – “he’s dead, now – killed two years ago in an automobile accident.”

Bobby comes from a family of ten children and is the oldest of seven living; five sisters and one brother, all in school but one sister.  One brother, aged 14, has appeared in a picture with Louise Huff.

“Oh, he’s a comer, all right!” said Bobby.

Speaking of his trip to Europe, one of the first things he mentioned, referring to it with an air of tremendous pride, was that they went over with General Pershing and his staff, “taking the same high place in French history that is given to Lafayette in American history.”

“Of course the fact that the general and his staff were to accompany us was supposed to be a deep and dark secret of state.  It was quite some secret.  The first I knew of it was two days before we sailed.  I was walking down a New York street, when a fellow I knew stopped me, took me aside, and looking around to be sure there was no one who could overhear him, whispered, ‘I’ll tell you something if you’ll promise me not to tell anyone.’ Of course, I promised, and he said in a slightly lower whisper, ‘You’re going over with General Pershing and his staff.’

A little later I met a man who had booked with us for passage.  ‘Heard the news?’ he asked.  ‘No,’ I said.  ‘What is it?’ ‘General Pershing is to sail with us, but for goodness sake, don’t tell anybody.’

“After that, knowing it would make Mother feel easier to know that every care would be taken of General Pershing, I decided to tell her that he would be with us.  I knew she wouldn’t say anything about it, but nevertheless my conscience troubled me a little until just as we were going aboard, with a lot of dock hands within easy hearing distance, someone yelled at the top of his voice to a friend at the foot of the gang-plank, ‘Hey, who do you think’s on board – General Pershing!’

“Yes, it was quite some secret.”

For Bobby seasickness was not one of the horrors of war.  “I didn’t get really seasick at all,” he said, “because every time I felt there was any danger of it, I went to bed and stayed there until I felt right again.  I didn’t get up at all for the first three days out – not because I was really sick, but because the roll of the ship bothered me a little and I wasn’t taking chances.”

Speaking of taking chances, he had only been back in Los Angeles about a week when he went with a party on a little two-hour trip to Catalina Island; a trip that is nearly always disagreeable and choppy.  Everyone on board was sick – everyone, that is, with the exception of three passengers, and he was not one of those three.  He admitted that he was so sick he wanted to die and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he has been kidded to death about it ever since.

“A lot depends on what you happen to be in,” he said in explanation.  “We went over to Catalina in a launch.  And when it’s choppy on the li’l old Pacific and you’re in a launch, you know it.  There may be more roll on the Atlantic, but then the ship we went on was as big as this –” his gesture embraced the whole Los Angeles Athletic Club where he lives.

“Not to change the subject at all,” he went on, “we landed at Liverpool and I, for one, went through a regular third degree.  And I knew that one wrong answer would result in my being shipped right back again.  Most of the questions were posers.  For instance, I was asked if I had been invited to come or had come of my own accord.  I took a chance and answered that Mr. Griffith had send for me.  It turned out to be the right answer.  If I’d said that I had come of my own accord, they would have ended the interrogation right there.  Then I was asked why Mr. Griffith had sent for me and not for someone else?  Was I, then, absolutely indispensable to Mr. Griffith, and, if so, why?  Couldn’t someone already in England do the same work I was brought over to do?  Why not – it was awful.

“Of course, I knew that women were doing everything in England.  But one thing that gave me a shock, was that, just as we stepped off the train in London, a young woman ran up to me and, touching the little visored cap she wore, said, ‘Carry your grip, Sir?’

“Coming back, the ship we were on was camouflaged – painted in green and grey blotches to make it indistinct – and exactly the same secrecy was observed as we had going over.  For instance, whenever we mentioned the name of the ship, even to each other, it was always in a whisper.  We didn’t even know exactly when we were to sail until almost the last minute.  When I went to see about my passport, the room was full of people, so when the official asked me the name of the ship I was going to sail on, I leaned across his desk and whispered, ‘Adriatic.’ ‘ADRIATIC’ he bawled in a voice loud enough to carry a block.  ‘When does she sail?’”

He made a valiant attempt to curl the ends of a very diminutive moustache.  He was able to get hold of it, and that was about all.

“How do you like my moustache?” he asked.  “I’ll tell you what I was going to do:  I was going to get a lot of English clothes, with a cane and a monocle and all that stuff, and walk into the club here just as I’ve seen other fellows do after a trip ‘Abroad,’” he put on a very supercilious expression to illustrate – “and I was going to keep it up, accent and all, for about three days until I had everybody saying ‘Well, will you look at that?’ and ‘What do you think he thinks he is?” but I couldn’t do it.  The first person I met was Jack Pickford and we’ve been chums for so long that it was too much for me.  Perhaps I’ll do it next time only a little differently.  I’ll miss this club when I go to war, but it would be fun to walk in here with a waxed up military moustache and a long beard. That’s exactly what I’m going to do to!” With a flash of inspiration, “Just after peace is declared – no, better still – I’ll have the ruling powers inform me of that even in advance so I’ll have plenty of time; I’m going to grow a beard.  Then I’ll strut in here with a good long one, to say nothing of the moustache, a member of the ‘military caste,’ don’t you know?”

He wore his own moustache in Intolerance.[7]

“It’s the only way to do,” he said.  There was just a suggestion of pride that he was able to grow one at that time.  “Not even actors – fellows who ought to have known better – thought it was my own.  There’s a man up here who can make such good ones.  But any kind of a false moustache is hard to get on, and if you don’t take it off at lunch time, you’re always eating hair.”

The little moustache evidently brought out a resemblance to his father none of the family had noticed before.

“I had always thought that I looked a little like both my parents.  It was a big surprise to me when my father told me that a woman had stopped him on the street – that was in New York – and said ‘I beg your pardon, but aren’t you Mr. Harron?’ He admitted that he was, and she explained, ‘I recognize you by your son on the screen.’

“Do people often come up and speak to you on the street?” he was asked.

“Oh, no, not often,” he answered.  “Those who do are mostly middle-aged women.  It’s different with Chaplin, though.  Everybody recognises him.  We used to run around quite a bit together and wherever we’d go someone would be sure to say ‘Oh, look, there’s Charlie Chaplin,’ and kids would run up to him and say ‘Hello, Charlie.’

“I’d like to be a comedian – wouldn’t you?”

[1] The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915)

[2] Hearts of the World (D. W. Griffith, 1918)

[3] The Revelation by Robert William Service (1874-1958)

[4] Wallace McCutcheon Sr (1858-1918) and Wallace McCutcheon Jr (1884-1928)

[5] Dr Skinum (Wallace McCutcheon, 1907)

[6] Bobby’s Kodak (Wallace McCutcheon, 1908)

[7] Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, 1916)

In Defence of 13 Reasons Why

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I have already written in a previous blog post about how uncomfortable I am about the adult critic responses to the second season of 13 Reasons Why (Netflix), and that post can be found here: https://silentmovieblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/a-bunch-of-self-obsessed-teens-adult-responses-to-13-reasons-why/.   This post, however, is essentially a review of the second season itself.

**contains spoilers**

I have never had any doubt that the series has its heart in the right place, and that it intends to be both entertaining and a frank discussion of the issues that affect teenagers in schools today, not just in America, but elsewhere as well.   I have yet to see a wholly positive review of the second season – the knives were already sharpened and out, so that the critics could jump on the bandwagon of bashing the series, say how shocked they are, and what harm the series will do our kids.  But it seems to me that the reasons that adults have a problem with the series is that it paints them in a worse light than anything that the teenagers do.

The opening episode of the second season is a disaster – and I don’t mean by that that it is irresponsible, but that dramatically it is a mess.  Most people watching last saw these characters a year ago – and it’s not like this is a small cast.  Season two presumes that we remember who all these people are, that we remember what stories were told about them on the tapes, and that we can put together for ourselves what happened to Jessica and Alex in the months between the two series.  The narrative jumps around, trying to be sophisticated enough to show rather than tell us what has happened and what is going on, but fails miserably.  Thankfully, from episode two onwards, this is no longer a problem, and the series finds its feet once again.

The majority of the series uses the trial against the school over Hannah’s death as a kind of hook for each character’s story, thus allowing the same structure as series one, with each episode featuring current day scenes and flashbacks.  Sometimes the viewer isn’t sure of which of the flashbacks are real, and which are distorted tellings of the story as told by the witnesses.  Only when Bryce takes to the stand do the writers go out of their way to tell us he was lying, by giving us the real flashbacks at the end.  The writing of episodes two to twelve is, by and large, very good.  Sure, it flags a bit in the middle, and most episodes could have been better off with five or ten minutes shaved off their running times, but beyond that, for the most part, this is dark, and yet realistic, gripping drama.

Contrary to what most reviews will tell you, there are not a huge number on inflammatory scenes.  Other than flashbacks lasting a couple of seconds, there is actually no reliving of Hannah’s suicide.  Yes, there are scenes of sexual assault but, for the most part, they are milder than you would see in a film that deals with the same topic – especially one that carries an 18 rating, as the series does in the UK.  But it’s not like Netflix doesn’t warn viewers in advance.  And it’s not like Netflix don’t remind us that this is for mature audiences.  That does not mean letting your fourteen year old watch this unaccompanied and then going on twitter and saying how awful Netflix are for making such a series.  Parents are responsible for what their kids do – and if your teenager isn’t ready to watch this, don’t let them, just as you wouldn’t let them watch your porn collection.  Two different things, but same principle.  The intended audience is key.

If anything, the second series has less shocking content than the first (with the exception of the final episode), and the writing is surprisingly nuanced.  The characters are well-drawn and, while I agree it’s unlikely that all of these issues would exist within a group of a dozen kids in one school, these are very real issues for our teenagers.  What is interesting here is that very few of the characters are all-good or all-bad.  With the exception of Bryce and some of the minor characters, they aren’t painted with broad brush strokes.  Good kids do bad things.  Bad kids do good things.  That’s life.   But we tend to find that hard to deal with.  When I wrote a novel about homophobic bullying a few years back, the biggest criticism was that one of the “good” kids kept doing bad things.  We all do bad things, no matter where our moral compass lies.  13 Reasons Why doesn’t shy away from that.

Like many, I have a problem with the final episode, which is, I think, as much of a mess and a misstep as the first episode – but not necessarily for the same reasons as many reviewers suggest.  Yes, the assault mid-way through is unexpected (unless you have read reviews) and brutal, but it is briefer than many would have us believe, and actually less graphic that I was led to believe it was going to be.  Sure, you see enough, but the violence is more shocking than the sexual element for the simple reason that it is on screen, whereas the sexual element is actually implied through various camera angles.   It’s hard to know what to make of it.  There is no real build-up to it, and it does come out of nowhere, and the sexual element of the assault seems almost random.  Yes, it probably is a misstep by the programme makers – whether dramatically or as a matter of taste.

Also problematic for reviewers is the whole school-shooting section.  Some have said that we should not portray school shooters as just a victim, and that makes me wonder if they have actually watched just the final episode or the whole series.  Tyler isn’t just a victim.  He’s exposed as a stalker in the first series, clearly has mental health issues, and spends much of the second series blackmailing people, exposing their bad deeds, and vandalising school property.  To characterise him as “just a victim” of bullying  who goes on the rampage is ridiculous.  Life is more complicated than that.   The whole point here, surely, is that adults should have done more to help Tyler earlier on.

However, much more troubling for me, given the target audience, is the fact that Bryce is seen effectively getting away with his rapes, and Justin ends up with a longer sentence than him despite his crime not being as great (although bad enough).  This is perhaps where the writers have been irresponsible, and not with the sexual assault.  Throughout the series, the kids have fought to expose a rapist, and when they do, he escapes with three month’s probation.  What message is that giving out?  Or perhaps it is just reflecting the screwed-up justice system.

This is one of many times throughout both series where adults fail the teenagers.  They fail them in court.  They fail them as parents (particularly Justin’s, but others too).  They fail them as teachers.  They fail them as a sports coach.  They fail them as counsellors.  And perhaps that is why critics hate the series so much – not because of content that is troubling to teenagers, but because of content that is troubling to adults.  It’s a long, hard look in the mirror.  Society does fail its children.  And if that isn’t enough, the controversial near-school shooting at the end of the series throws one more punch in society’s face, with Clay telling Tyler that shooting the kids in the school will make no impact – adults will talk about it for a week and then forget it.   And how true is that?

Beyond this, there are elements of the show that are clumsy.  The final episode has far too many such moments, most notably the shoehorning in of the “suicide isn’t the answer, kids,” message during the “13 reasons why not” sequence.  Well-intentioned, I’m sure, but horrendously done – as is Clay’s talk with the minister at the end of the memorial service.  Oh dear.  And the jury’s out on the device of using Hannah’s ghost – although her leaving the memorial service and walking out into a bright white light never to be seen again as she wafts up to heaven (presumably) is, unfortunately, laughable.  And these moments are unfortunate in a series that is mostly well-written and well-intentioned

Most of the cast shine – even more so than the first series.  Dylan Minnette seems to spend the first two episodes taking his shirt off, and the rest of the time crying, shouting, or being beaten up.  And yet, despite all of this, he makes the character utterly believable.  Alisha Boe probably had one of the most difficult roles of the season as Jessica – switching between vulnerable, fallible, and headstrong throughout, and, again, she pulls off the difficult role extremely well.  But perhaps the real acting honours go to Brandon Flynn, who is stunning as Justin, managing to make him almost an entirely different character from who we see in much of the first season, and yet being most convincing as the vulnerable, fragile, difficult teenager he has become.   But there really isn’t a weak link in the ensemble cast.

Will there be a third season?  My own guess is that Netflix will decide against it, if only to avoid more accusations of being inflammatory by adults who are uncomfortable with kids watching something that accurately describes what they see at school.  But I certainly wouldn’t object to finding out what happens next to these characters.  Only time will tell – and it’s almost certain that the cliffhanger ending suggests that a third season was planned even if it never materialises.

“A Bunch of Self-Obsessed Teens”: Adult responses to 13 Reasons Why

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The BBC, rather than taking the time to watch and review the second season of 13 Reasons Why itself, chose to put together a number of quotes from other mainstream reviews on their website.  What is interesting when the reviews are pulled together in this way is the use of language:

“A tawdry, unnecessary exercise…” (USA Today)

“Season two does enough to justify its existence…” (NME)

“Only justified in Netflix’s desire to bulk up inventory” (Deadline)

“Frustratingly unnecessary” (Hollywood Reporter)

Look at the terminology here.  “Unnecessary.”  “Justify its existence.”  “Justified.”  How many other programmes are judged on whether they are “necessary” or not?  Are people talking this way about season 2 of Riverdale?  Or season 4 of How To Get Away With Murder?  Or season 7 of Suits?  Or season 14 of Supernatural?  I very much doubt it.  But, oddly, I heard the same terminology used on Twitter by some users discussing Love, Simon, the recent high school movie featuring a gay lead character.  “This film really isn’t necessary in 2018,” was something I saw on more than one Twitter account.

One has to wonder why it is only series or films dealing with serious teen issues that need to be “necessary” or “justified.”  Of course, some will say that Netflix are making entertainment out of serious issues, but entertainment is what makes them digestible and gets those issues talked about – otherwise we might as well be watching dry lectures, Open University of the 70s style.  And it’s not like serious issues are not intertwined with entertainment in adult dramas:  racism, corruption, homophobia, rape, sexual assault, mental health issues – all of them are dealt with often in adult dramas with varying degrees of success.  So why not a series made for teens?

Some more of that terminology:

“It’s like being locked in a room with a bunch of self-obsessed teens…” (The Guardian – Sam Wollaston review)

“As exasperating and melodramatic as teenagers themselves…” (Entertainment Weekly)

This is a series dealing with, among other things, mental health issues.  The series premiered during Mental Health Awareness Week, and yet here are critics talking about teenage characters with mental health problems as “self-obsessed,” “exasperating,” and “melodramatic.”  Oh, the irony.  It’s hardly surprising why mental health issues amongst teenagers is on the rise if the adult population view them in this way when they start talking about their problems.

This shouldn’t be a them-and-us world.

The show has been criticised for possibly increasing suicidal thoughts in some teenagers (although I have yet to see any credible evidence that this is the case – if you know of any beyond a single incident in a news report, please do let me know in a comment).  One online news report talks of how 12 and 13 year olds watching the series had became distressed and talked of suicide.  (see http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/13-reasons-why-link-increase-suicide-threats-toronto-1.4164774).  But one has to ask what they were doing watching the show in the first place.  The rating on Netflix UK is “18” (which seems a little extreme to me, but that is beside the point).  So should the news report be blaming the creators of the show or the parents of the kids in question who aren’t checking up on what their children are watching?  Well, it’s not going to blame the parents, when they are the target audience for the website, so they blame the show.  Besides, it makes for better headlines.

We can’t wrap teenagers (or adults) in cotton wool and avoid the difficult subjects just because some people aren’t parenting their kids properly and are letting them watch inappropriate things on TV.  And just as harmful as the content of the programme is this talk of teenagers as self-obsessed, exasperating, and melodramatic.

As as adult with bipolar, and his fair share of “problems,” I certainly didn’t see the first season as over-the-top or in any way “glamourising” suicide (another accusation levelled at the series).  But I do seriously wonder if adults are more uncomfortable about these kinds of series than the teenagers are.    Perhaps it makes us too uncomfortable to think that our kids at school could be suffering from bullying, homophobic abuse, sexual assault, negligence, or racism.   If nothing else, 13 Reasons Why has opened up a discussion about all of those things, and tries to force us as adults to admit they exist and may be happening to our own sons and daughters or our loved ones.   But every person who sees the series as “unnecessary” is just burying their head in the sand.

I will admit that I have yet to see the second season.  I have seen two episodes of it.  I thought the first was a complete mess, but that the second was much better, but I will give a full review when I have finished the series in a week or so.  But this blog post is not about whether this season is as good as the last – although I would put forward the suggestion that many were just waiting to shoot the series down after getting so riled up about the first season. Instead, it is about the terminology being used here.

Out of all the reviews, perhaps IndieWire understand the viewpoint of the series more than most, stating “the show doesn’t offer solutions, but it does offer empathy.  And sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed.”  It’s a shame more of the adults moaning about the series are not more empathetic towards those pesky self-obsessed, exasperating and melodramatic teenagers in society that are going through serious problems and looking for some help.

Frank Sinatra: 20 Years On

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As someone who has written a book about the music of Bobby Darin, what was especially nice about the recent release of the Frank Sinatra: Standing Room Only 3CD set a few weeks back was to hear Sinatra in 1966 recommending that his audience takes time out to go and see Bobby while they were in Vegas.  The comments were, for this listener at least, unexpected, but put to bed once and for all the fake-feud between Darin and Sinatra that the media seemingly made up around 1960 and have continued to talk of as fact ever since.  It should also be added that, in a 1975 newspaper interview, Tina Sinatra said that her father would be performing at a Darin tribute concert (a concert that sadly never happened).   Another suggestion that the stories of animosity were untrue.

A second edition of my book on Bobby Darin will come out late in 2018, all being well, just as the second edition of my book on the music of Elvis Presley came out last year.   Those books take a reader through the recordings of the artist in question, from the first to the last, re-evaluating them from a modern viewpoint as well as providing excerpts from contemporary reviews and articles from trade magazines and newspapers, showing how the music was received at the time.  They have garnered some nice comments, but the question I’m asked most (especially by those who know me and my musical tastes) is “are you going to do one on the music of Frank Sinatra?”  The answer to that is always that I would love to, but where would I start?  Sinatra recorded more than double the amount of songs than Elvis and Darin put together, and if I ended up writing close to a quarter of a million words on Elvis, how much would I end up writing on Sinatra?  And what about collecting together all of those reviews and articles.  I have around 400-500 for the new edition of the Darin book, so with Sinatra I would be looking at probably five or six times that amount – at least!  I am not sure I am up to that task.

But this week marks twenty years since I switched on the TV and browsed Teletext one morning only to see on the news that Frank Sinatra had passed away.  It’s one of those moments that you don’t forget.  I had “got into” Sinatra about five years earlier while working in a used record store.  There were no customers, and so I started browsing through the albums, trying to find something to play.  I picked up, by chance, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back.  And that was the start of that.  And I have Sinatra to thank for so much more than just his own music.  I picked up the albums he made with Basie, that got me searching out his records.  The same is true for Duke Ellington after hearing the much-maligned album that Frank Sinatra recorded with him.  And then came the VHS (as it was back then) of the 1967 TV show with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.  And who couldn’t fall in love with her?  Through Sinatra, I found Basie, Duke, and Ella.  And through them I found John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson.  And through them I found…  Well, you get the idea.  But it all comes back to Frank Sinatra.  Without him, I would never have heard any of them in the wonderful, weird world of musical six-degrees-of-separation.

And so, twenty years after Sinatra’s passing, I thought it would be nice to look at ten of the Sinatra albums, TV shows and concerts that I cherish most, but which aren’t always talked about a great deal.   Of course, our musical preferences change on a regular basis – you learn to like things you didn’t, and go off things you used to love.  But, right now, here’s ten glorious moments with Frank Sinatra.   Albums dates refer to year of release.

1.  The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946).   There really is no other place to start than with Frank’s first album.  Many have argued that this was the first pop concept album.  Just as many have argued that there were earlier ones.  But it doesn’t matter, because Sinatra took the notion of the concept album to a whole new level.  In this case, not just the bringing together of eight wonderful ballads, but their orchestration with a string quartet and small rhythm section.  If I had to live without any era of Frank Sinatra music (and I hope I never have to make that choice for real), then it would be the Columbia years, but despite that, this collection of eight songs is wondrous in its concept and delivery.  And if These Foolish Things doesn’t tear you in two, then nothing will.

2.  Close to You (1956).  Let’s skip those albums you already know about, and concentrate on Close to You, one of Sinatra’s least-known Capitol albums, and one that seems like a cousin of The Voice.  Here, again, he utilises the string quartet, augmented at various points by a woodwind or brass instrument.  Sinatra avoids the over-used American standards here, and goes for more obscure ones.  They aren’t “unknowns” exactly, but more “rarely heards.”  I don’t think there is a better version out there of P. S. I Love You or Blame It On My Youth.   And Frank gives Chet Baker a run for his money on Everything Happens to Me, only to go on to eclipse all versions in 1981 when he re-recorded the song for She Shot Me Down, although it remained in the vaults for over a decade.

3.  Monte Carlo, June 14, 1958.  This concert, finally released officially in 2016 (although any self-respecting fan had it in their collection long before that) is a stunning tour-de-force, and a rare snap-shot of where Sinatra was musically at this time.  He brings something to the relatively bland Monique here that he seemed to miss entirely in the studio.  And what can be said about Where Or When?  Sinatra takes it as a stripped back ballad, and sings the hell out of it, again beating the studio version that also remained in the vaults for years.  That song alone is worth the price of admission here, and I’ll take this show over any other from the 1950s that we are lucky enough to have in our collections.

4.  Point of No Return (1962).  This is one of those albums that have had a bad rap over the years.  We hear tales that Sinatra wasn’t really bothered about recording this album of ballads, his last LP for Capitol, and his last with Alex Stordahl as arranger.  But how can anyone listening to this come to that conclusion?  When the World Was Young is as perfect a recording as I can think of.  We don’t think of Sinatra singing French cabaret-type songs, but here he does, and does so beautifully, as always completely understanding the character at the heart of the piece.  A new, jazzier phrasing can be found in I’ll See You Again, and These Foolish Things, originally recorded for The Voice of Frank Sinatra, is here darker and moodier.

5.  Hibiya Park, Japan, April 21, 1962.  This concert was released on DVD on the World on a String boxed set in 2016.  This was part of Sinatra’s charity world tour in 1962, in which he travelled with just a jazz combo to support him, and raising a huge amount of money in the process.  What is so special here is that I don’t ever remember seeing Sinatra happier on stage.  His smile seems to beam from the beginning of the show to the end.  He interacts with the crowd in a way we have rarely seen, clearly getting a kick out of the amount of children in the audience at whom he smiles, waves, and even blows kisses to at various points.  Musically, the show is shorter than some of the others on the tour, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the singing or the playing – despite the wind trying to blow music stands across the stage.

6.  The Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim (TV show, 1967).  The late 1960s were a wonderful time for music specials.  1968 brought us Elvis’s NBC TV special, and the year before had brought us this.  Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald had appeared together on TV before, but not like this.  Everything just clicks into place, from the playful, semi-serious first duet medley, through to the finale of the show where Frank and Ella just go for it.  Ella was in superb form (and, oddly, without a permanent contract at the time) and Sinatra couldn’t be happier to be jousting with her.  The medley with Jobim is also a delight, and one can only wish that somewhere out there is material that was recorded for the show but not used due to time limitations, and one day we’ll have a deluxe release.  Is there more material?  Possibly (collectors will know that there is material in the vaults from the 1973 TV special).  We can but hope.

7.  Francis A. & Ellington K. (1968).  This wonderful album seems to have been much-maligned over the years, with it said that Sinatra wasn’t in great voice, and Ellington not in great form.  And yet it contains some of my favourite performances from both the Ellington band and Sinatra himself.  All I Need is the Girl may be taken at a pedestrian pace, but it’s so exciting, with both singer and the band threatening to let rip at any moment.  And is there a better version of Sunny out there?  If so, I haven’t heard it.  A follow-up album, with Frank singing an LP’s worth of Ellington songs, would have been most welcome, but never happened.

8.  Watertown (1970).   Watertown has become something of a cult favourite in recent decades.  It’s one of those albums that few have heard, but those that have would never be without it.  This is, essentially, a song cycle about a man whose wife has left him, and he now has to look after their two children.  He doesn’t know if she will come back or not.  Sinatra was always challenging himself – and his audiences.  And that is the case here.  This isn’t an easy listening album.  It demands your attention from beginning to end.  Michael & Peter, a song in the form of a letter to his wife about his children and what they are doing, is so remarkably moving.  And the disappointment is palpable when The Train arrives at the end of the album and the man’s wife is not on it.  But nobody appears to have heard the album at the time of release – except Nina Simone, it seems, who covered one of the songs on a 1985 album.  But this is a beautiful, haunting album.  Lady Day remained unissued for years, with Sinatra re-recording it with a lush Don Costa arrangement which was released on Sinatra & Company.  

9.  The Lost Songs (1973-1978).  OK, I’ll come clean.  This isn’t really an album at all.  It is just me taking the opportunity to draw attention to a group of songs that Sinatra recorded during the 1970s that deserve to be heard.  In the studio, at least, Frank seemed to be lost during this period.  He didn’t know what to record.  Albums were discussed and discarded.  Albums were started, and discarded.  Singles came out that were never going to do well commercially.  Other singles came out that were the worst things Sinatra ever disc.  Other songs remained in the vault.  And yet, the really good recordings from this period (outside of the 1973-4 albums) are stunning and deserve to be heard.  I’m talking here of Everything Happens to MeJust as Though You Were HereDry Your EyesLike a Sad SongEmpty TablesSend In the ClownsBang BangI Love My Wife.  Most people have never heard these because many were only available on CD through a 20CD set from the 1990s.  So, if anyone from the Estate is reading, get a collection of these lost 1970s songs (and the 1980s singles too) out on CD.  They deserve to be heard.

10.  The Ultimate Event (1988).  One of those concerts that is out on DVD, but no-one is sure whether the release is legal or not.  This was recorded in Detroit, as part of a tour featuring Sammy Davis Jr and Liza Minnelli alongside Sinatra.  What is wonderful here is that all three are on fire, and the clear love they have for each other.  Davis takes the audience from Rodgers & Hart, through Newley & Bricusse, and on to Michael Jackson and Andrew Lloyd Webber in twenty minutes.  Liza Minnelli had, arguably, never been better.  Her repertoire is familiar, but she wrings every ounce of emotion out of Quiet Love and Sailor Boys.  Then comes Sinatra, showing that Minnelli and Davis created great results but so can he – but seemingly with much less effort!  Finally, the three of them come together for a wonderful medley.  Again, this is an edited show – how great it would be to see a release of the whole thing.

Perhaps that’s an idea for the next Sinatra anniversary?