Les Vacances de M. Darling #2

Les Vacances de M. Darling #2

The search for M. Hulot …

According to those in the know Jacques Tati wasn’t the easiest fella to get along with. When shooting his films he claimed to have all the shots in his head and rarely used ‘professional’ actors – famously ‘Martine’ (the young, frivolous girl Hulot falls for while on holiday) was played by a friend of a friend. She was initially unwilling to be on location for a long period of time as she was married to a businessman from Lille. Tati simply arranged for the husband to have a part in the movie too – he plays M. Smutte – the portly gentleman always being called to the telephone.

However, this doesn’t detract from the comic genius mind that scripted, sculpted and structured his films with such deft timing and subtle nuances that they remain funny even today. Tati’s art belies fashion, trends and modernistic observations on gimmicks, trinkets and fads. Instead, he focuses on people (most notably their behaviour) and reactions to everyday situations that we all face and our interactions with one another. Sadly, in this modern age of smartphones and in-ear devices our faces are pointed towards the ground rather than upwards into each other’s eyes. Tati makes us look at each other squarely in the face, often with a question etched in our expressions or a bright, knowing smile lighting up an otherwise dull encounter.

In ‘M. Hulot’s Holiday’ a series of unfortunate events happen to Tati’s character, or rather, those surrounded by the gangling, over-polite, hesitant anti-hero with his pipe, silly hat and too-short trousers. As Tati himself once remarked ‘he is not a gag man, he doesn’t tell jokes’ – moreover things just seem to happen around him. A boat is unhitched and careers into the sea; a horse almost decapitates a man in the backseat of a car; players unwittingly ‘cheat’ at cards which sets off a passionate quarrel; mourners at a funeral are left in a state of laughter and giggles by Hulot’s nose being tickled by a feather … all seemingly tame stuff nowadays but delivered with the timing and delicate sensitivity these gags stand the test of time.

In modern day Saint-Marc sur Mer there is little in the way of mass commercialisation that you might think, at such a well-known, recognisable film location. There are no fun rides, theme-based attractions or even an authentic souvenir shop to speak of, to remind any passing visitor of the film itself. The intimate bookshop-cum-tabac has a handful of Tati graphic novels and the odd postcard but, somewhat ironically, nothing to write home about. The hotel has half a dozen Tati items in a small, unimposing bookcase: a 7 inch vinyl from ‘Mon Oncle’ (the follow up to ‘Les Vacances’) and a couple of grainy, dusty black and white stills.

It reminded me very much of one of my other favourite haunts – Heydon Village in north Norfolk, where ‘The Go-Between’ was made (Julie Christie, Alan Bates et al) in the early 1970’s. There isn’t a single reference to the film in those parts and only the knowing (some might say sad) film fanatic such as myself would even marvel at the location for that reason. Moreover, we are taken in by the sheer beauty of a place, for the unspoilt, uncomplicated nature of life, so far removed from London and other inner cities.

I guess that’s how the locals like it and want it to stay that way …

Les Vacances de M. Darling #1

Les Vacances de M. Darling #1

‘Trains, Planes and Automobiles …’

A few miles east of La Baule on the south coast of Brittany, with a beach of firm sand set between two outcrops of rock that stretch out into the Atlantic, lies Saint-Marc sur Mer. Not a town in its own right but a province of Saint Nazaire, the delightful coastal resort is best known and most fondly remembered as being the location for French film-maker Jacques Tati’s ‘Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.’

The journey to the west of France is something akin to the Steve Martin / John Candy 80’s classic ‘Trains, Planes and Automobiles’ – bus to Clapham Junction, train to Gatwick Airport, shuttle train to the north terminal, aircraft to Nantes, shuttle bus to Saint Nazaire, cab to Saint-Marc sur Mer.

Having left London in balmy, warm spring sunshine the sodden, soggy grey skies that greeted the aircraft didn’t look promising for a few days of continental warmth and much needed recouperation from brattish south London schoolchildren. However, under our most excellent canopy the taste of the Atlantic air was enough to raise the spirits and quickly as it was necessary to raise the umbrella.

L’Hotel de la Plage is precisely that … a hotel on the beach. Although the entrance is on the main road (and not the side on one depicted in the film – an added prop constructed as the actual entrance was still in use while filming took place), as soon as you head towards the restaurant you get that magical first glimpse of the instantly recognisable rocks, sand and jetty that are as much the stars of the movie as Tati and co.

Indeed the tempation to take a stroll is only puntured by the need for sustenance – a fish course, naturally (we are on the Atlantic coast) and some fine red wine from the friendliest of friendly staff.

It is early in the season and it allows almost a private excursion to the entire beach – the sand is as welcoming and as crumbly as the film suggests, the air warm and succulent, the landscape unspoilt by lines, signs and other warnings. The steps taken onto the old stone jetty are steep, jagged, broken and not at all safe but a welcome relief from ‘Health and Safety’ and people saying ‘No’ all the time. Waves splash your boots as you yourself splash through puddles lying otherwise dormant on the greeny/brown, undulating slabs underfoot. One side of the jetty has a rickety hand-rail but the other is open to the elements – again there is a sense of freedom – if you were to slip and fall then so be it – there’s no metaphorical hand-holding here, no ‘nanny-state’ cotton wool wrapped experience – just the rocks below and the lapping waves, slurping around the jetty like an eager puppy quenching his thirst after an hour spent chasing a stick in the park.

As you look back towards the hotel a ghostly figure is backlit from the streets, peering, straight-backed but leaning forward from the ankles, elbows splayed with too-short trousers, comical peaked hat and what appears to be a Clint Eastwood-style half-chewed charoot protruding from his lips.

Ah. Hulot. H-U-L-O-T. Hulot …

A Punctured Bicycle …

A Punctured Bicycle …

It’s time to wheel ‘Les Bicyclettes de Belsize’ into the bike shed for the very last time. The notion of a band who weren’t a band didn’t really catch on. The idea seemed simple enough – a collection of songs in a vague 1960’s meets the 1980’s stylee with contributions from whomever happened to be around at the time, named after a small, inocuous British film designed to advertise the Raleigh bicycles of the late 60’s.

Les Bicyclettes de Belsize only lasted for 30 minutes (or half an hour if you please), and starred Mrs Peter Cook¬† (Judy Huxtable) and the ‘Cool Cavalier’ himself from an episode of ‘The Double Deckers’ – Anthony May.

Directed by Douglas Hickox, and played on cinemas as a supporting feature to Roy Boulting‘s controversial horror film Twisted Nerve. The two films also shared a soundtrack release, with each score occupying one side each of a 1969 Polydor Records album.

The movie tells the story of a young man bicycling around the Hampstead (NW3) area of London on a Raleigh RSW16. After crashing into a billboard he falls in love with fashion model Huxtable depicted on it.

There is almost no spoken dialogue, and the soundtrack to the film is heard virtually throughout. The title song of the film, written by Les Reed and Barry Mason, has been a hit for Mireille Mathieu and Engelbert Humperdinck (a top ten hit in the UK and a top 40 hit in the USA) amongst others, though the version in the film is sung by Johnny Worth (aka songwriter Les Vandyke).

And here is the major problem, in the Google-ised world of today. Search for my band and you get Englebert Humperdinck popping up, all hair, teeth and sideburns. Although amusing to begin with, this novelty soon became an annoyance. Furthermore, the ‘band’ never actually transpired – just some rare solo excursions on my behalf backed by my trusted mp3 player and acoustic guitar.

Not that much changes … the songs will still be written and recorded – it’s just the name will be consigned to the cycle rack of history, as the tyres go flat, the brakes seize up, the chain rusts and the bell remains silent.

See you on the desolate hillside …

Heavy Metal Corner …

Heavy Metal Corner …

Something struck me earlier on today – and no, it wasn’t a Bourbon biscuit – that was yesterday (welcome to working in education in 2016 friends!).

I was thinking about our 6th formers and how they isolate themselves, with their earphones and electronic music and video devices and how that then leads to cliques forming amongst themselves and their peers. It’s an issue that has been noted – factions are warring, not just with the teachers and members of staff but with each other. Small groups huddle around a single computer teminal or a mobile phone belonging to the natural group leaders. Other students are marginalised and as a result skulk away to the darkest crevices and recesses of the school building.

When I was in the 6th form (admittedly in an altogether less refined and certainly less technologically advanced era) we had a common room – a place of sanctity from adults and of sanctuary from the punishments of the day. The stereo (for it was such a thing) was dominated by what was given the moniker ‘Heavy Metal Corner.’ Three or four lads (for they were all lads) with unkempt, lank hair and no fixed fashion sense would monopolise the record deck, with it’s knitting needle-sized stylus and chips-frying-tonight spittle and crackle emitting from enormous, quadrilateral speakers screwed perilously into plasterboard walls above their greasy heads. From within the fabric of these honeycomb covered boxes came the strangest of sounds – ear-piercingly high vocal squeals and nut-clenchingly tight-trousered guitar squarks shattering our delicate, teenage eardrums.

Our 6th form was almost a mirror to ‘The Young Ones’ in a lot of respects: ‘Heavy Metal Corner’ being Vyvyan (Ade Edmondson’s character being a confusing mix of rock and punk and more than a fair share of bubonic acne. Representing ‘Neil’ the hippy were an assortment of characters who still wore flared trousers, grew their hair over their ears and called everyone ‘man’ in a long, slow, lazy delivery suggesting a regular intake of drugs (although I doubt whether tea and aspirins really counts as Class A).

One of these individuals strutted around for two years with the same gangling walk, his cowboy boots clip-clipping the school corridors and he swished his guitar case from side to side and regaled his audience in Art lessons with tales of being stopped by the police on a regular basis, purely for “looking a bit stoned and for carrying a guitar case.” The need to fit into the coterie of cool kids was so great, his collection of Roger Dean posters adorning the common room walls so extensive that no-one ever challenged the fact that he didn’t actually play the guitar. No-one ever saw what was in the case. My first exposure to style over substance.

If anything, I suppose I belonged to Rick Mayall’s ‘Rik’ character – desperately trying to be popular, absolutely failing with girls and with a questionable taste in music – my love being Al Stewart as opposed to Cliff Richard – but you get the idea. I had bad skin, bad hair and my clothes never fitted properly. I wrote awful poetry and I couldn’t play a musical instrument to any standard required to get girls to notice me.

But then again, at least I wasn’t in the ‘Mike The Cool Person’ ranks …

Needless to say, whatever clan, gang, group, niche or squad we belonged to, we all got along okay. No-one fought anyone else, no-one battled anyone else, no-one caused much grief for anyone else. We learned to live together as a group: albeit a group of disparate teenagers with different musical tastes and notions of what passed for appropriate trousers but as a unit nonetheless.

In my work today I don’t see this. It could be age has been kind or that simply today’s 6th formers are too wrapped up, not in their own worlds, not in the agenda that they have set for themselves, but in that which You Tube and Facebook and Twitter have created for them and for which they can only play a solitary role.

Biscuit, anyone?

If music be the food of love …

So I’ve just posted Chapter 6 from the spare toilet paper that was my first (and only) novel … ‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’. Looking back at this (which incidentally I wrote around 1999) I remember now that most of the descriptions of the fictional music lessons (and music teachers) were actually quite accurate and based on my real teachers (names changed, of course).

Music lessons were an utterly miserable affair, equipment wasn’t what it is these days and we were never allowed anywhere near the piano. I still can’t remember the names of those wooden bongy things we had, individual tubular blocks that you hit with a rubber mallet thingy …

Being a large, cumbersome school in the midst of the Sussex countryside in a town that was far less interesting than it thought itself meant sheer apathy when it came to teaching music, apart from (let’s call him) ‘Mr Robinson’. A short, goatee-bearded man with a penchant for garish shirts and trousers too flared he had a temper not seen this side of Basil Fawlty losing the plot after the moose falls on his head. Moreover, he looked a lot like ‘Mike’, the unfunny one from The Young Ones, which lead to a lot of spontaneous Rik Mayall impressions and derisory snorting.

Back in the day when it was somehow legal for teachers to throw small, hard, blunt objects at the heads of small, soft vulnerable objects such as children lessons often consisted of ‘Mr Robinson‘ herding three classes of disinteredted students into a suspicious-smelling room with wooden floors and plasterboard walls that bowed and bent if you leant too far into them. ‘Robinson‘ would then strut up and down the classroom like an American courtroom lawyer, prosecuting a hopeless case of mistaken identity; imagining to himself that he’d made the wittiest of remarks, wasted on an audience of bored senseless teenagers who were wondering where ‘Miss Fanciable’, the new drama teacher with the lime-green TR7 spent her Friday nights?

Robinson’s‘ teaching method was delightfully simple – put on Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite on the record player and then strut up and down, shouting things like ‘Crotchet‘, ‘Quaver‘, ‘Allegro‘ and ‘You boy! Chewing gum in the bin you despicable prat!

Robinson’s‘ aim with the board rubber was legendary; rumour had it he could take down a kangaroo from 300 yards and he certainly got plenty of practice aiming at the acre riddled foreheads of Sussex youth. Nowadays, this thug would be arrested – back then he was simply doing his job. I heard a rumour that he’d only recently retired, due to stress. Stress! The f*cker had no idea the worry and anxiety he’d caused to me and my classmates during those dark days.

I hated music lessons. I hated music. And it was all ‘Robinson’s’ fault.

Then one day, relief of a kind arrived with ‘Miss Fanciable‘ – covering his class. Here was our chance to appreciate music, to enjoy our lesson for a change, and whatsmore, ‘Miss Fanciable’ had promised to bring in her Beatles’ record.

Yellow Submarine …

Yellow ‘effin’ Submarine …

“Ha Ha” said the clown …

“Ha Ha” said the clown …

 

“You’re the new Morrissey, son!” Management informed me, one day, sat in their office in London’s Hatton Garden district. ‘How’s that?’ I asked. “Unemployable and destined to spend your days alone in a library!” came the retort.

If I could only get over my Nick Drake crossed with Al Stewart obsession I might actually get somewhere! I’ve decided that spending 18 months working on the production of songs – with synthetic production, loops, strings, flutes, cellos, glockenspiels, multi-layed vocals and harmonies – just to run up 23 plays on Soundcloud – isn’t worth the effort. After all, I am a lazy musician (at least, I think that’s what I’m supposed to be according to my peers and elders) and life’s too short to be worrying about ‘pure rock drum fill 02’.

I have written a song called ‘Boyfriend Material’ and recorded and posted it on soundcloud as an acoustic guitar / vocal only demo …¬† recorded live in one take, more or less off the top of my head. The idea came from my school days, when my best friend also happened to be the best looking lad in my year, and thus I never stood a chance with any of the girls I fancied. I was also out of touch and out of time with my Al Stewart / Nick Drake fetish … I wasn’t cool, with long hair (that came later in ‘Taxi’ … the hair, not the cool) … and I didn’t own any Genesis records. Nor could I play guitar as well as the kids in the groovy gang – still …

Fiddling, diddling …

Fiddling, diddling …

I am such a fiddler … I can’t leave songs along (which has been made worse by Logic and Cubase etc:). At least when we recorded on tape that was virtually that.

So I am looking at some ‘Les Bicyclettes de Belsize’ songs again and scratching my head as to why I can’t get a good mix of a particular track, no matter how hard I try.

Then it hits me, right between my ears … the bass I programmed so acutely was done using completely the wrong notes! How did this happen? How did this pass me by. And what’s worse, this song ended up on a CD! I was mortified … but in the end, thanks to the part being corrected I was able to make all the other instruments fit. Who’s have thought playing the correct notes would make such a difference, eh?

I do sometimes wonder quite what it was I was thinking when I played a certain part. I guess that’s one of the downsides to doing-it-all-yourself; there’s no-one there to tell you something’s rubbish until it’s committed to tape (or binary code in the modern parlance).

To breathe or not to breathe … that is the question.

Agreed, leaving in those breaths before a line in a vocal do leave the track sounding natural and ‘real’ – especially in our synthesised, computerised musical environment. However, when yours sound like the vacuum cleaner has something inexplicable stuck in its nozzle then maybe it’s best to spend those extra few moments editing them out.

Living on video.

I spent the day wandering the length and bredth of London’s ‘Southbank’ yesterday – from the eastern side near The Design Museum, past the old wharfs (where they filmed one of my favourite films starring Bonar Colleano – ‘Pool of London’) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042851/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_23

I strolled past City Hall (no sign of Boris), took a picture of ‘Ken’s Bollock’, admired the HMS Belfast, battleship grey against a vibrant blue spring skyline and skipped past London Bridge, swerving selfie-stick wielding tourists and tone-deaf buskers running through their repertoires of R.E.M., Oasis and George Harrison covers.

I had with me my trusty video camera and a puppet prop, named ‘Johnny Handsome’ – who will star in my next project. Doing it myself was exhausting but the satisfaction gained at the end of a long, productive day is worth the toil. I only hope the results justify the perspiration.