FROM stepping out in style courtesy of Martin Creed’s rejuvenated Scotsman Steps to being bathed by a stranger, our writers reveal their personal cultural highlights of 2011
In the style of Eric Morley, Mr Miss World, my best of the idiot lantern in reverse order... Third place (bronze sash, six-month membership to Mecca nightclubs): The Shadow Line (BBC2). Terrifically stylish conspiracy thriller with three bogeymen. A coalition of them, indeed, so a show for these times. Second place (silver sash, year membership): Fresh Meat (Channel 4). Outrageously rude student comedy, mostly at expense of the posho, so again, for these times. First place (gold sash, lifetime membership): The Killing (BBC4). Something is riveting in the state of Denmark and I’m in love with Sofie Grabol.
Tom McCarthy’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was one of the most inspirational hours I’ve spent there, and confirms not only that he is one of the most subtle and challenging of novelists, but that there is still space for literary experimentation and – dare one say it – the avant-garde. His lecture went from the Oresteia to Kraftwerk, examining how technologies impact on language, and how literature, as quotation without quotation marks, is an echo-chamber of absences. Bizarrely – or not – the image of echo-chambers itself echoed through numerous other authors there.
Regular theatregoers spend their leisure time watching other people in fancy costumes, but only in The Salon Project could the audience get dressed up too. Hard to say whether this event staged by Untitled Projects at Edinburgh’s Traverse counted as theatre, installation or soiree, but whatever it was, it was a remarkable opportunity to step, like Mr Benn, from the wardrobe into the world of the Paris salon and find yourself transported and transformed.
Here’s a funny one. How can it be that my cultural highlight of 2011 was being washed by a stranger? In a candlelit bath, as I lay naked and amused? In a suite of the Point Hotel in Edinburgh during the Fringe? I know, I know. I’ve even surprised myself.
It’s not that the experience, the brainchild of Arches artist in residence Adrian Howells, was particularly pleasurable. It’s not even that I liked all of it. But, like all challenging is-it-or-isn’t-it art, it has stayed with me. This is the year I was bathed, fed and held by a man I didn’t know. Not the sort of thing you forget.
It’s been a triumphant year of spectacular museum openings and refurbishments, from Glasgow’s Riverside Museum to the Royal Museum and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. But to my mind there’s one much smaller piece of restoration that stands as a brilliant example of contemporary art and historic heritage hand in hand. Scottish artist Martin Creed’s cladding of the Scotsman Steps in coloured marble was fun, beautiful, utilitarian and unobtrusive: a piece of poetry where once there was only piss and poverty.
As the recession bites harder into theatre budgets, I imagine we’ll see more simply staged one-person shows. If they’re as good as Ten Plagues, though, perhaps it won’t be so bad. Marc Almond singing dark, often discordant songs about a man surviving the Great Plague of London in 1666 won’t be for everybody, and there were walkouts during its Edinburgh Fringe run (some people obviously thought very hard about what they were spending their ticket money on, since the show did exactly what it said it would). But it moved me more than anything else I saw this year. It reminded me of the film Man On Wire, in that its story echoed another historical event (in this case, the outbreak of HIV in the 1980s, which Almond survived, although many people he knew didn’t), but it trusted the audience to make the connection for themselves. It was unsentimental, uncompromising and all the more powerful for it.
Music innovation is at a premium. Talent shows are all-consuming. Nostalgia is not what is used to be. So when seminal Edinburgh post-punk band The Scars staged a one-off reunion a year ago, it could have triggered a more prolonged reincarnation. It did not, and instead principal protagonists Paul Mackie and Robert King launched solo projects with renewed vigour. Paul has partnered with former Twinset Rachel Bell to play as Black Snowflake, while Robert is cooking up classic punk derivatives in Opium Kitchen. Black Snowflake make electropop with intelligence and heart, and intend to play live in the new year. As does singer-songwriter Astrid Williamson, whose album Pulse was one of 2011’s most overlooked. Quality will out.
Scene: A London hotel, mid-afternoon. The lift has finally arrived. A well-dressed bald guy is hurrying down the hotel corridor so I hold the door.
BM: Thanks, are you going down?
Me: Yes, come and join me. If you make it to the basement, you win the chance to watch a film in a very small room.
BM: Oh yes, there’s a cinema down there? Seen anything good?
ME: Hugo I loved. And Moneyball.
BM smiles bravely and I suddenly realise that he is action man Jason Statham, who has a new film out. And it isn’t Hugo or Moneyball.
As I wrote on my blog when I got home from the second night of the Glasgow Jazz Festival: “Blimey, that’s it. I can die happy.” I had just enjoyed the most sublime 70 minutes of my recent life... thanks to American cornet star Warren Vache’s duo gig with the Scots piano wizard – and newly annointed winner of a Parliamentary Jazz Award – Brian Kellock. This pair hadn’t played together as a duo in almost a decade, which could explain why sparks flew during the concert. Kellock’s incendiary playing – outlandish, inventive and flamboyant – acted as a touchpaper for Vache’s solos which were nothing short of dazzling. This pair were so utterly in synch in their thinking and so complementary in their playing that it was difficult to believe they hadn’t been playing together regularly in years. That Glasgow concert – part of a new strand entitled Up Close and Personal which gave punters the chance to hear world-class soloists in an intimate setting – was such a thrill that I followed the duo up to Arbroath’s wonderful Hospitalfield House to hear their re-match a few days later. And it was worth the trip: it turned out to be the most magical night of this jazz fan’s year in music.
David Mach’s Golgotha, the centrepiece for his excellent summer show, Precious Light, at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre, is a contemporary masterpiece. It’s not subtle, but it’s daring, ambitious, beautifully made, bristling with energy. Artists down the centuries have engaged with the story of Christ’s crucifixion. Mach remakes it for the 21st century not because he’s religious (he’s not) but because it is one of the great stories which helps us understand our humanity – at its best and its worst. Jammed into the foyer at CAC, it deserves to be seen with more space around it, in Tramway 2, for example, all by itself.
I cannot pretend that A L Kennedy’s The Blue Book whizzes along with incredible ease of readability, which must be the one reason it was overlooked by this year’s Man Booker judges. If they had been looking for originality, however, it would have been a shoo-in. The story of a relationship between a charismatic medium and his partner, it is both magic and tragic as well as being structurally daring, second-guessing the reader in the same way as a medium does his audience.
If, however, you are looking for page-turning readability, whizz all the way across the firmament of fiction to Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde And The Vatican Murders, in which Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde track down a killer at work behind the scenes at St Peter’s. Bliss.
The most significant music event of 2011 was, for me, a death. The Earl of Harewood, who died in July, was responsible for my first experience of opera, managing Sadler’s Wells Opera during its 1970s Ring Cycle at the London Coliseum. Wagner’s Ring Cycle is often seen as the true test of an opera company’s quality; the Coliseum’s space-age version remained a British preforming company benchmark for me until overtaken by Scottish Opera’s performances at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival.
Say what you like about the Fringe – too big, too commercial, too full of rubbish – but every year it can be relied on to throw up plenty of weird and wonderful surprises. It wasn’t the most polished bit of theatre I’ve seen in the last 12 months, but Two Jonnies Live Upstairs, performed at the French Institute by Rennes-based company Paroles Traverses, is the one that’s lodged itself most firmly in my memory. Consisting of an eccentric guided tour of the building by onion baron William Stanguennec, and taking in some frankly barking scientific experiments in the basement (involving cute, fluffy bunnies suffering a variety of terrible mechanised fates) it had an all-ages audience beside themselves with laughter – and me phoning everyone I could think of to advise them to book tickets before the end of the run.
Two festival shows rank as my highlights of 2011. The Peony Pavilion, the classic Chinese story told by the National Ballet of China, was a production of shimmering perfection. There’s usually a slack moment in any theatrical production, but I was spellbound for two hours by the dancers’ beauty and athleticism.
On the Fringe, it was the hour-long musical oratorio From The Fire, about the devastating blaze that ripped through a New York garment factory in 1911, and galvanised the American union movement, told through the stories of some of its 146 tragic victims. The shadow of loss hung over this production by a young New York cast in an echo of the Twin Towers.
The piping album of Seudan was a great fusion of Highland history and vitality, while Northern Irish neo-traditionalist group Beoga’s How To Tune A Fish revealed their fiercely imaginative musicality. But the deepest insight into contemporary Scotland’s cultural integrity and continuity was in the (too few) performances of David Greig’s bold play The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart, before and during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. At a conference on Border Ballads, Greig’s academic heroine explodes her buttoned-up bookish demeanor and ulimately sources herself. The five-strong cast take you to hell and back in music, ballads and a text wholly, and very humorously, in verse. Superb. (If you missed it, it’s on tour in April 2012.)
With Ricky Gervais recently taken to task over his gleeful use of the word “mong” you could be forgiven for thinking that mocking minority groups was all the rage in contemporary comedy. Rev, which started a second series on BBC2 in November, provides a more empathetic comic take on life. Written by James Wood and Tom Hollander, it stars Hollander as an inner city vicar struggling to do the right thing while beset with doubts. Understanding of human frailty but still whip sharp, its intelligence and compassion offers a warm and welcome antidote to the cheap sneers of comedy’s big guns.
Candles flickered beneath leaded windows and the chill night air inside St Monans Parish Church stilled. The Orlando Consort began to sing Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, a 14th century polyphonic mass, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This is what the East Neuk Festival does quite brilliantly – filling tiny, historic venues with world-class musicians for the benefit of a devoted – and growing – audience. It was my first year, but it won’t be my last. Next year’s starts on 27 June.