Monday 23 September 2013

AAA Dramas and Plays (News, Views and Music Top Five Issue 212)

How do you celebrate 40 years since Dark Side Of The Moon? Well, if you’re Pink Floyd you celebrate it with lots of bombast, animated trailers by Aardman Animation (though sadly no sign of Gromit flying on a hospital bed for ‘On The Run’ or Shaun The Sheep munching away to the strains of ‘Time’) and that ultimate in prog rock spin-off projects, a radio play. We’ll be reviewing ‘Dark Side’, written by Tom Stoppard, below, but first here are another four plays for both Tv and radio that AAA fans might be interested in:

“The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Piano Player” (BBC 2, 1970)

We’ve talked a few times on this site already about all the aborted Kinks TV special that nearly were or might have been (TV adaptations of ‘Arthur’ ‘Preservation’ ‘Everybody’s In Showbiz’ and ‘A Soap Opera’ among others), but the closest Ray Davies came to seeing one of his ideas on screen was when he was asked to star in someone else’s play (sadly unavailable officially, although despite rumours to the contrary it does exist and wasn’t wiped by the BBC – keep an eye on youtube for it...) The theme is a tired and fed-up piano player in a pub whose life is going nowhere until he hits on the idea of entering the record books for the longest continual piano performance. The pianist suffers something of a nervous breakdown along the way, slogging his guts out in the name of music and working against an unrelenting ticking clock – a fact which must have tickled Ray, coming just three years after his own much-publicised nervous breakdown. Perhaps surprisingly Ray only performs two songs during the 45 minute ‘play for today’, despite the ‘character’ playing for some 48 hours: an early version of ‘We Gotta Be Free’ (the finale to The Kinks’ anti-music business concept album ‘Lola Vs Powerman and the Money-Go-Round’ released later the same year) and the otherwise unreleased ‘Marathon’, a world-weary piece that’s more of a plot device than a song but still deserves to be more widely known. Incidentally, Ray is an expert actor in the film and outshines most of the more established acting cast alongside him.

“Lifehouse” (Radio 4,1999)

‘Lifehouse’ is the concept that refuses to die – Pete Townshend tried to make the work an album, a box set and a radio play since The Who aborted the project in 1971 (if you own the ‘Who’s Next’ album then you’ll already know half of the songs intended for it). In 1971 it must have seemed outrageous: a totaslitarian future where a Government regime are squarely in control, dictating what people listen to and where the only ‘humanity’ comes from ‘underground’ movements on a concept known as the ‘lifehouse’ that collected details about every human being and turned them into art, words or music. Once the internet was born (and everyone seemed to have their own blog – yes, me included) suddenly the lifehouse concept made sense and Pete Townshend was proved not to be mad (like so many of his bandmates and music journalists assumed) but 30 years ahead of his time. A ‘play’ version of ‘Lifehouse’, with major input from Pete, seemed a sensible move then in the year of the biggest internet boom. Unfortunately the play ended up something of a lost opportunity: the central characters aren’t that likeable (not as much as ‘Tommy’ or ‘Jimmy’ from Quadrophenia anyway) and Townshend’s decision to spend longer on the vulnerable father tracking down his missing daughter (as opposed to the other way round) is also a bad move (if understandable – Pete figuring he now had more in common with the ‘older’ character than the 60s hippie radical his daughter represents). There’s also too much talking and not enough music, although the extracts we do have (acoustic re-recordings by Pete solo rather than the original Who recordings) are very good indeed. The play does work better in its full length by the way (around two hours, issued on cassette and CD; the version as broadcast was 90 minutes) but the plot still doesn’t hang together that well and there’s no clear resolution (the project ending as ‘Who’s Next’ did on the ambiguous ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, instead of ‘The Song Is Over’, the more glowing, rounded song I’m sure was written as the grand finale). We made our own AAA tribute to the album that might have been on news and views no 81 by the way.

“Lennon – A Week In The Life” (Radio 4,2010)

This tribute to Lennon on the 30th anniversary of his death (or near enough), not long after what would have been his 70th birthday, was another bit of an oddball. Taking in events from the last week of Lennon’s life (December 1-8th 1980), it features genuine Lennon clips (many of them used ironically, Lennon talking about how safe he feels in New York and how he feels at one with the ‘outsiders’ who keep asking him for autographs) interspersed with a Beatle fan’s reaction to the awful news of his death. The play is good at reflecting the helplessness and sudden-ness millions of Beatle fans felt in 1980, taking days from work ‘off sick’ and ticking off everyone who doesn’t get what the fuss is all about, but it all seems a little pointless: we all know this already and none of the characters are all that likeable. In fact some of them sound as fake as the Liverpool accents do: even punks in 1980 wept for Lennon, even if they didn’t feel the pain as big as their parent’s did, despite what’s pictured here. Lennon deserved better than this, especially on such a big anniversary – the producers would have been better off getting some one to ‘play’ John and Yoko for a straightforward account of Lennon’s last month alive, full of all the enthusiasm and hope that came from the ‘Double Fantasy’ period before it was cruelly snatched away. John Lennon for president!

“Burning Both Ends” (Radio 4, 2011)

Imagine a drunken conversation between actor Oliver Reed and his old mate Keith Moon after learning about the latter’s death in 1978, full of drunken brotherly love, unhealed wounds and lots of nostalgic references to past parties. To be honest, Reed didn’t seem all that bothered in real life when Moony died – it probably only reminded him of his own passing mortality anyway, rather than the inspiration for a bunch of memories (the highlight being Moon flying a helicopter out to Reed’s house unannounced and landing in his garden while he was sunbathing in a hammock). Still, this play is arguably the best on the list, possessing just enough feel for the two very similar but actually very different characters (Reed drank to forget; Moon couldn’t even remember that he was drinking to forget) to ring true, even though life probably wasn’t like that for either of them.

“Dark Side” (Radio 2, 2013)

A world where fictional characters who've died through solving 'ethical philosophical problems' (such as the perennial 'which person do we throw off from a hot air baloon to save the others; the answer should be obvious - it's any Spice Girls fans) isn't what first springs to mind whenever I hear 'Dark Side Of The Moon'. Indeed, at times Tom Stoppard seems to have never actually heard the album at all, using the music for 'background' rather than adding anything that changes or develops your understanding of the album (there's some theme of madness and of identity and a rant about bankers during 'Money', but that's about it). Not that Stoppard doesn't' 'understand' the Floyd philosophy; I thought his 'Rock and Roll' play was exzcellent and used music well, the playwright showing a special fondness for the Barrett-era (hence, perhaps, why the central character in 'Dark Side' is called 'Emily' as in 'See Emily Play'), so in purely Floydian terms 'Dark Side' seemed a bit of a lost opportunity (after all, the modern pressures of life amnd identity - paranoia, aging, mortality, money, divisions and racism and madness - are the backbone of many great plays down the centuries). That's not to say this is a bad play though: like most things Stoppard, there are several clever ideas at work here with very complex themes made to seem easy without being patronising, like a lot of his work. In fact 'Dark Side' was something of a 'Stoppard greatest hits' in terms of debate about fate, philosophy and madness and all it was missing was two characters called 'Pink' and 'Floyd' tossing coins and we'd have had the complete works!

Talking of writers, its a shame that Douglas Adams never lived to write his play because he'd have made a great AAA one. His last Hitch-Hiker's book, 'Mostly Harmless', was written at the same time Pink Floyd's 'Division Bell' came out and pretty neatly mirrors that book. Strangely Douglas doesn't include the Floyd as part of his 'dedications' though: a big music lover, he often dedicated a book to whatever music he'd listened to over and over during the making (including Paul Simon's 'One Trick Pony' in the foreword of the second Hitch-Hiker's book, 'The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe', where he alsoticks Paul off by saying 'five years between albums is far too long!)

Right, now that the drama's all over, we're off to think up some ideas for next week's newsletter...join us next week for more news, views and music!

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