Rose and Crown

This week has been slow, and my Friday night plans have been interrupted by my state of mind. You have to be in the right headspace to go out in London on a Friday. This evening I’m not feeling like getting stuck in to the throng. I was going to go to Vault before this mood descended. If I lived in the countryside, I’d bolt the doors, put a few logs on the fire, apologise to the dog, and blow the dust off one of the tomes in my library. As it is I’m just going to avoid getting on the tube. But I’ve dragged myself out into Chelsea. This mood was partly brought on by aggressive letters from creditors. Spending money is not high on the agenda. But it’s a Friday night. I’m meeting a friend in the local cheap boozer. We’ll take it from there.

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The Rose and Crown. My very very local boozer. It’s a miracle it’s still open and long may it continue. They’ve got a Thai chef that fell through a wormhole from the ’90s. The landlord probably still thinks the food’s Chinese. “All that noodles and shit.” There’s  weird memorabilia on the walls and an absorbent red carpet on the floor. Wood panelling. Black and white photos of bygone heartthrobs, green flock paper and stains. Irish music on the jukebox. A couple of old guys playing pool. Terrible stinky loos. A varied crowd, mostly sitting on stools round the bar. Lots of strong London voices cutting through the air. Vests and tattoos next to three piece suits. The hum of conversation and laughter cut by the creaking of the door hinges that haven’t been oiled since 1965 when Roger passed on. The occasional dull *ktic* of the pool balls, the occasional *kchunk* of the cash drawer. “Mumble mumble semi-final *ktic* *creak* got to live on it *kchunk* don’t you worry about *ktic* *creak* ha ha tell you summink.”

Two lads are in conversation with a woman who I think is Eastern European but occasionally speaks with an Irish accent. She has so many scarves and she keeps going to the loo and coming back looking even more immaculate. When she goes to the loo, the lads sit completely silent, arms folded, waiting. When she’s back they are falling over each other to speak. Behind me a couple speak in a language I don’t recognise. I think it might be Thai. Maybe they’re the chefs. At the bar near me, two old geezers reminisce, while now the two lads have suddenly gone to the loo together leaving the woman to vanish into twin pink telephones while topping up her lip balm. She’s trying to persuade a friend to join her. But nope. They’re all off somewhere “I’m going to pretend to be Alex’s girlfriend” she says as she gets up, and the lads ripple. Immediately an infectiously smiling elderly couple have appeared in their place to drink their pints with two hands and to do the Times crossword. And the buzz continues.

A place like this, it’s very easy to be alone quietly. I can sit and not be seen if I choose, and I do choose. If I wasn’t meeting a friend this would do. A bit of human nature, a bit of curiosity. Then back to a peaceful flat and a cat, for tasty cheap food…

Video games

There’s an old friend of mine who I haven’t seen much of in the last decade. Today reminded me that once you’re really friends with someone, you’re just… friends with them. We went to Hawksmoor with his dad. His dad very kindly picked up the bill, which I’d been quietly worrying about but rolling with the idea of. We were having steak ahead of the main event: A computer game exhibition at the V&A.

I got banned from the computer room at boarding school aged 10 because I had a pirate copy of Strykers Run. No way I could afford a real one, obviously, and no way my parents would pay for a computer game. There was trade going on frantically at school around pirated floppy discs and I had a huge advantage in a brother who was four years older than me at a secondary school who could provide me with excellent contraband.

I was sneaking into Mr Wimbush’s classroom out of hours to play Saber Wulf and Repton and Manic Miner and Chuckie Egg on the BBC. This was a boarding school. Think Brideshead and then take out all the chins. There was a BBC Microcomputer in most classrooms. God. Just imagine if the BBC had kept up!! They were at the cutting edge at the start. And there were loads of games being made for these simple 8bit computers.

Those early expressions of game design… Mister Wimbush just hated them. He was a complicated human being, in retrospect, and a bore. He was the maths teacher, but he also randomly directed the Shakespeare play in the brand new theatre. He looked like a starving and unhappy frog. He’d ban me from things as a way of avoiding conversation because I would always debate him like an equal and he didn’t know what to do with that. He expected pure and blind obedience. He was essentially a comic character to my childish imagination, and his hard-line anti computer game stance was worthy of mockery and also red rag to a bull.

When he suddenly directed Macbeth I was floored. Suddenly this idiot had something I wanted. He already didn’t like me, and I hated him, but I wanted to be an actor so I applied to be in it. People who were good at maths got the leads, and he put me in as Seyton (sounds like Satan). To his credit he got me to do loads of the set changes. That taught me early that theatre is more than what happens on stage. He cut all my lines but “The Queen my lord is dead,”  which I had to say “as fast as you can.” But I attribute my enduring love of computer games partly to his gulping and ill informed distaste for the medium when it was young. Maybe he was a lovely man. He was atrocious with me. I’d have to stand outside most of his lessons because he “sent me out.”

But computer games – the battleground for us… Repton eventually led the industry to Minecraft. Strykers Run eventually to The Last of Us. Dan has made his money in that industry for decades now, and he’s one of my closest friends. We went to an exhibition that celebrates the ability of the industry to disrupt expectation. Beautiful thought pieces like Journey, continuing experiments like No Man’s Sky. I watched three teenage boys play “Graveyard”, a thought piece where all you have to do is control a very frail old woman through a graveyard until she can sit on a bench. It’s honestly done, and it’s frustrating just because she can’t move very well and the bench is visible from the start. It’s one of many examples of this new industry working to produce a reaction for a reason, even if it’s just frustration. This industry that has burgeoned into a huge part of the economy, and has seeded its language into common parlance. Achieved.

I had a great day thinking about the nuts and bolts of gaming with my old friend and his dad, and then I went home and spent three hours playing Fallout 3, one of the many games that was released after life made it harder for me to justify spending time playing games. It still holds up. I should properly activate my voicereel so I can contribute properly to these glorious stories. They really are the most remarkable medium, invented almost entirely within my lifetime…

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Kew

Last time I went to Kew Gardens I was dressed up in Victorian costume and I had a great big bell. I was announcing the presence of Capability Brown, through the prism of a town crier. This was a few years ago now. There was another guy whose job it was to pretend to be the man himself. I was walking ahead of a horse drawn tree transplanter, clanging a bell and announcing stuff. “Hear ye, hear ye!” The client hadn’t really thought it through but it was a reasonable use of a week and we turned a lot of heads and got them to the talks by experts at North Gate.

The tree transplanter was an extraordinary antique piece of weird artifice, designed by mister adjective himself. He cornered a very lucrative and long lasting part of the marketplace. He would come to your stately home and upsell himself. “I’ll make a lake down there, and a haha between you and the lake so it looks like the lake is further away. But I’ll need to move that tree.” He was all about selling big ideas to people that could buy them. And he generated enough buzz, perhaps helped by his absurd adjective, that people paid top dollar to have him come and do whatever. He was deeply ambitious, and he created a frame of taste. People wanted his name on the work, no matter what the work was.

Part of his legacy to Kew is a fucking huge wooden carriage designed to move living trees. It needs two horses to work. You dig a hole around the roots. Then you bring in the transplanter, deconstruct and reconstruct the carriage around it, crane it up with the inbuilt crane, and move the entire living tree fifteen feet to the left so you can replant it. Because it looked terrible where it was, madam. It looks so much better where it is sir, and I’m sure you agree with me as a person of discernment that it’s worth the tremendous and very expensive work  That’ll be 375 guineas.

I wasn’t working at Kew this time. I was walking. There’s a filmmaker friend who loves the natural world. We’ve got a short film screening in Texas soon, about how we need to stop and look at things from time to time. She has a membership to Kew Gardens. We hooked up to chew the fat, to practice what we preach, and to be two human beings in the same industry. It was lovely. And I’m with the guy at Pret in the morning who gave me a free Love Bar. “It’s Spring!”

There was a robin stuck in the hothouse, singing its heart out on top of a statue. A winter bird, shouting the spring from its heart. I have a horrible feeling that the clouds are gathering and we are all about to get very very wet. But nature is moving with the guy in Pret. There are carpets of crocuses at Kew. And the daffodils are starting to show… Maybe…

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“Does your blog serve you?”

“This is a question with no agenda. But does your blog serve you anymore?”

Hi, friends. Some of you have fallen away since Facebookpagesgate. Now I have a mockery of a Facebook page because I schedule the blog for 6am and the only way I can share it automatically is through that page, which is a monetisation tool for Zuckerberg. The more I pay, the more people see it. It’s bullshit for a personal blog like this. My reach is now up to chance, and up to the number of likes. The more likes I get the wider my reach. If I was a shouty “like me” person then that’s more readers. But, as with paying for reach, sod that.

My friend had a fair question though. Is it serving me?

As we shift and grow, so too do the things we make. This wall of words has been a morning muse for many, but maybe I don’t need to put it out at 6 anymore. After all, you can still read it at 6 if you want. It’s only the six am thing that forces me to put it through a money platform without paying it money, and even though it was always something of an accountability project, this blog can be a lot of work sometimes, and that work is not translating into money. My creative time is valuable and getting more so as I grow in capability and demand. I stopped selling myself short actingwise years ago. I’ve honed myself into a powerful and valuable artistic presence. I’m useful in a rehearsal room or on a set or in a studio. I’m a professional with the calm and ease of experience. I’ve put the time in. But on this blog I still shout prose out into the void every day for free, and if I’m proud of the daily blog my thumb hovers over the “pay to get more readers” button. But that’s absurd. I’d never pay to do acting. I’ve put minimum 500 words of thought into the world daily for over two years. There are columnists out there paid a handsome fee to fill a coveted weekly spot with trite guff composed in their conservatory in Sussex. There is categorically no way I am going to pay money in order to get readers. This isn’t my book about how Jesus was related to me. It’s not my book of poems about how angry I am about my divorce. This is my blog. It’s just a thing I do.

But why? There’s the rub. I haven’t examined why I do this, recently. Two years ago I was a very different shape human. My friend who asked the question lives more consciously than I do, so it’s a fundamental question to her way of being. But me? I’m doing it because I set out to do it and I had no end date in mind. Okay It helped me be accountable, but my parents are long dead now and my ambition is fully firing so I’m not going to sink my time into nothing again anyway.  That depression is past, my grief is understood and owned. I’m growing in confidence about what I put out there into the world. I used to get a lump in my throat before I published sometimes, fearing trolls etc. But now for a couple of years, I’ve put something into the world every day and slept easy that night. That’s a useful lesson in terms of making anything. Like with Pantechnicon. I made a thing. People came to the thing. People take what they take from the thing. “If you build it, they will come.” I’ve learnt and taught a lot. I refuse to check the stats but I’ve written a fair few novels.

For now I’ll keep writing. But I might convert this, gradually. I’d also welcome your thoughts. Is it worth trying to add another string to my crowded bow by monetising my prose, and if so, does anyone have any idea how you start that journey? If I dedicated one blog day a week to poetry would that work well? How about if I tried to serialise a story? What genre?

I think I’ll need to mix it up to keep my own interest. But thank you, friend – you know who you are – for again catalysing something, as the full moon shines.

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Self tape

I’ve heard actors evangelise about the self-tape revolution that has swept through our industry, where before you even get in the audition room you send a video of yourself doing the lines out of context. “It’s great. You get control of your output.” Well, yes. You sort of do. If you have a friend with infinite patience, and all the time in the world. But if, like many of us, you have loads to do and you’re not in a loving patient relationship with another actor then it’s a difficulty. You can’t just send a hacked together tape, as you know someone else will have taken the time and you want to stay in the mix. But conversely you don’t want to eat your time too much. It’s been a luxury that, after Macbeth last night, I didn’t have to work today. I had time.

I went to a friend’s house. I’ve done tapes for her in the past, and been patient. What goes around comes around. But you can’t ask for endless takes no matter how patient your friend is. I had three scenes to record. I’d learnt the lines in a vacuum, and was delivering the scenes for the first time, while she was sight reading and thinking about camera angles and eyelines and so on. The script is fab and rolls off the tongue, which made it easier to learn short notice, but now it’s sent it’s always that odd feeling. It’s over to the Gods now. I learnt those lines. Thought those thoughts. There have been times where I’ve sent the tape direct by wetransfer and noticed that it was never even downloaded. This one will be different in that it came through my excellent agent and will be handled professionally. But the whole of my day became about peaking at that tape. And now I’ve converted it and renamed it and emailed it I’m wondering where the day went.

I’ve got another little movie to consider, back home in The Isle of Man. A friend of a friend is filming something and wants to fly me back. It feels like a very small scale thing, but it’d be nice to go home in that context – so long as it feels like the movie we make has some purpose. He’s posted me a script and I’ll get stuck into it tomorrow. Let’s see about that.

Meanwhile, after the self tape, I went to hang out with a dear and true friend and her son. I haven’t seen her for way too long, and we clicked easily back into familiarity and consumed way too much red wine way too quickly. By the time I got home it was early and I was already too drunk for a Monday, but Monday is the official actor’s day off so I’m taking carte blanche as I stream of consciousness into this blog which, she quite rightly tells me, you have to look for now. Damn you Facebook pages etc. Happy Tuesday to… Whoever remains. Facebook is not the only platform dammit, etc etc…

EMPTY TRAIN

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Maccers in Dalston

On the long tube journey home, I’m reflecting over this evening, doing Macbeth. Alex explained to the audience before the show “We don’t rehearse, but we train in a way of playing. We think of a show like a game, with specific rules, and we play to the best of our abilities.” It’s crazy, beautiful and challenging. We played well together tonight although it’s kind of hard to remember. I saw some beautiful work by friends. It was a strange, tight intimate show. The point of the game is that we create a frame where it’s possible to lose, and then play to win. The result can be compelling and immediate. Many of my greatest moments of theatre, both watching and playing, came from this sort of work. Tonight we won.

This was The Factory. There are lots of actors making up our numbers. Probably over 100 now, accumulated over a decade and more, with hugely different ranges of experience, and a wide age bracket. We play age blind. Today one of my children was older than me. We play gender blind. Macbeth was played by Leila tonight, and one of my parts was Macduff’s wife, Ross was Alix, etc etc. And we play for the joy and the challenge and the humanity.

We were doing Macbeth in a strange building in Dalston, the Dalston Boys Club. It’s a space we’ve used before although it’s under new management. They were giving us lots of strictures about their venue before we even got started right down to “Make sure people don’t drag chairs across the floor.” At one point one of us remarked “Do they have any idea what they’re in for?” The days are gone that an actor would unexpectedly smash through a wall or precariously dangle from a fragile bar. We like to respond to the space, though.

The space is amazing. It’s full of weird and wonderful stuff. Huge oil paintings of penises, detailed and unusual taxidermy, catholic iconography, royalist propaganda, old books, weird art, antique cabinets, huge beautiful plants, WANKER written on a balcony… We couldn’t really use anything though, at the request of the venue. So we played in a beautiful room, and let the room inform our play without reaching out to directly affect it. It was still there, around what we did. And it was definitely a great place to play Macbeth.

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I was a bit affected by the strictures. I felt a little fettered. I felt guilty standing on a chair. I was worried blowing out a candle, in case I’d get wax on something that shouldn’t have wax on it and hear a voice shout “STOP” from the edge. But I did it anyway when it served. In the end it worked in our favour.

The rules and strictures of the venue made for an oppressive feeling and that oppression lent itself to the show. It was dark, literally and figuratively, and doubly so if you have tights over your head. This is the first Factory Macbeth I’ve played for a while where nothing was played for laughs, and it really served it. It was human and light at times, but mostly there was weight. It landed. There were laughs, but they were in the words not the playing.

The show finished about two hours ago and I’m already almost home. That’s an unfamiliar thing. We have a new intake, but lots of us have responsibilities and families and lives. We come together to do a show on a Sunday, and then we pull apart again. We’ve trained enough over the years that we have a spine of shared understanding. Having been away for a while I could just drop in and play and it felt like coming home. “Welcome home,” I even found myself saying to a cherished friend who I had last seen in very different circumstances. And that’s part of what this is now. We had a new player tonight, Nick, who came in as Fleance. There’s still freshness and danger here. And there’s still huge joy and community. So long as it stays odd and challenging and fun, it’s the best way I can think of to spend a Sunday.

Gaming with old friends

A high proportion of my friends now have children. I’ve spent the day with two of those friends, plus one kid out of their two. It’s been lovely. Life takes on a different shape with kids. I always seem to get on with them. But then I have the special power of being unusual with most of the kids in my life. And I can send them back at the end of the day. They haven’t had enough exposure to get bored of me and I haven’t had enough to get exasperated by them. I can sometimes shut down crying episodes just by the magic power of being an unfamiliar human. But on the flip side “she’s not going to go to bed if you’re still here.” That was my cue tonight to say goodbye. BUNNY.

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It’s another way of socialising, this thing of home visiting and saying yes to small humans while catching up with the big ones. I just tend to stay relaxed and to understand if everyone suddenly disappears upstairs for half an hour. Occasionally I get called on to assist with nappy changes or bedtime stories and whatnot, but I’m just as happy to be installed somewhere with a glass of wine, waiting until the dust settles for my triumphant friends to arrive downstairs and break into conversations and wine as the monsters finally sleep.

Today I was in Elstree, right by the studio. I don’t think I’ve been back since I was seen for Holby the day before I opened a show. I hadn’t realised I’d been sent the sides in advance and probably sight-read them adequately but the director was having none of it as to his mind I hadn’t done the work. It was one of my early career mishaps. It is the meeting that taught me to check the email closely no matter how busy you are. We learn by our mistakes. It would’ve been nice to have pleased the casting director I guess, but life has so far served me a rich hand elsewhere and it might bring me back to Elstree in triumph one day.

Elstree studios is still a busy and fruitful place, and it has an extraordinary history in our industry. The new EastEnders set is coming up in my friend’s backyard. Who knows, in a year or so, once its made, I’ll be able to come to his fence and wave at his little girl while I’m on a break from filming. Right now I caught up alongside him.

Sometimes, on the weekend, Brian and I will watch each other play computer games, eat simple food, catch a movie and then say “That was a great day.” James and I caught a similar vibe. “You haven’t seen each other for ages,” said Bella at one point. “Don’t you want to catch up?” We were catching up, with snatched questions and answers over the course of a day as we played Red Dead Redemption, or snowboarding simulators. It was a lovely organic day and we both know a lot more about what’s going on internally with each other. We just used computer games as the maguffin.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is extraordinary. It’s beautiful and deep and full. Knowing what I do about working practices at the software house where it’s made, I found myself comparing it to the pyramids at Giza. But still. When I have a free month (ie never) I might treat myself to the fruits of that labour. And maybe use it as a chance to catch up with long lost friends…