I am a late arrival at the platform containing one of the most hyped plays of modern times. Alan Bennett, lugubrious Yorkie, has been feted like some kind of colossus of literature for this tale of 80s grammar school sixth-formers aspiring to the silver spires of Oxford or Cambridge. Perhaps because I was not caught up in the critical storm of approval for the theatre production, and later movie, that I can take a more dispassionate view. One thing struck me immediately as discordant – the setting in 1983 did not tally at all with the story which was clearly based on Bennett’s own experiences of the 1950s. In fact it was ludicrously out of sync. To have quasi-intellectual teenagers quoting from popular movies and choosing Brief Encounter instead of say A Man For All Seasons was just wrong. And then there was the covert and later overt homosexuality one associates with public schools – certainly not grammar schools in the 50s or even later. I can see the appeal of pupils being subject to different ways of inculcating the intellectual tools required for the Oxbridge exam from an old veteran master and a new, flashy one but I felt it fell down on too many levels. I speak from some experience. When I went to grammar school, my later next door neighbour Shirley Williams, decided we should go comprehensive. After three years being whipped by masters in black capes we were then bashed by thugs from the local secondary modern. Incredibly, in a small poverty stricken coastal town, and despite the trauma of the change, five of my chums got into Oxford. An infinitely more dramatic tale which I may, one day, write about,
Culture by Al Smith
Starring David Calder (Tony in the Archers)
Part of Radio 4’s Dangerous Vision series, stories about dystopian futures. This one concerns a grim future for the NHS when antibiotics cost £15000 and each hospital has a quartermaster’s court to consider those without insurance who may get free care. A Romanion pianist can’t afford to pay for a hand infection to be treated and faces amputation. Privatisation taken to the ultimate degree.
What I am about to relate to you is one of the strangest stories I encountered during my time as a journalist of more than 30 years. In that period I encountered many strange people and events. I have been chased by Rottweilers owned by the Yorkshire Ripper’s psychiatrist, cursed by a witch, assaulted in a courtroom and once had dinner at the home of Nasser Hindawi – an outwardly pleasant chap who later planted a bomb on his pregnant Irish wife in an attempt to blow up an Israeli airplane.
I often related these various amusing tales at speaking engagements at writers’ forums and women’s institute gatherings. On one occasion I was invited to address a meeting of aspiring crime writers.
As was unusual, I moulded the audience, leading them through the creative processes, adding a pinch of anecdote and ended by inviting a sprinkling of questions.
I told them I had just a few minutes because there was a train to catch but one query stopped that planned journey in its tracks. A bespectacled man in his early fifties asked me what was the strangest crime story I had ever come across. I had numerous tales to tell and was reminded of my old chum Will, a crime correspondent at the Liverpool Echo who was so terrorised by the gangsters he wrote about that he ended up in an asylum. But there was another event, that although I never wrote about, was something that, to this day, fills me with dread. I told the audience about the chef.
I had met Jean-Paul in my early twenties when I spent six months on a short term contract working for a newspaper in London. One day a colleague asked me to a dinner party; persuasively he said I might find the chef for the evening quite entertaining. Jean-Paul was taking his first steps in the profession under a famously brash and flamboyant Michelin star cook.
Already some of his mentor’s less sociable habits had begun to influence him. As we slipped sauvignon blanc in the dining room we could hear a string of expletives from the kitchen, apparently aimed at an unfortunate assistant.
Those gathered around the table found it amusing enough but I was less comfortable with the situation. However the food was as good as had been promised.
Later in the evening I was speaking to the fiery Frenchman himself and mentioned to him my interest in cooking. His returning look said pah but he was kind enough to humour me. Our paths didn’t cross again and I moved back to the North West.
It must have been a decade later that I was invited to a new restaurant opening close to my home in Liverpool. It was with some surprise that I discovered Jean-Paul was running what was a trendy waterside eaterie. Clearly he had progressed from those early days in London and when I introduced myself he remained puzzled. However he was all Gallic charm and extended an invitation to return for a meal. I gave him my business card which contained my number and address,
Under deadline pressure I was unable to take up his offer immediately and months drifted by. Then, one evening, I was working late in my study listening to the wind howling outside and watching rain drumming a beat on the patio doors.
It was December so the coal-effect fire was casting shadows in the corners of the book-lined room. I was swirling a glass of wine and was ready to call it a night when the solitude and silence was interrupted by a knock at the door. I answered it to find Jean-Paul, dripping wet, edgy, with hands as if in prayer in classic latin imploring pose. I let him into the house and led him into the study where he began babbling. I told him to calm down and offered a brandy.
Jean-Paul’s breath was wheezy as if he has been exerting himself and he spoke quickly, too quickly, so I asked him to slow down and collect his thoughts.
It transpired that all those years ago while working for the famously belligerent chef he had eventually worked his way up to become his close assistant, although both being rather volatile they had threatened to part on numerous occasions.
One evening he was left in charge of the kitchen and unknown to himself a well known and influential food critic had been served while something of a crisis had taken place. It was one of those things that do happen in the best of kitchens but some weeks later the critic delighted in panning the restaurant and it’s staff. Naturally the head chef was furious and naturally Jean-Paul got the blame and resigned.
This turned into a difficult period because when it comes to the restaurant industry London is very much like a village with gossip and tittle-tattle helping to make or break reputations. He decided to remove himself from the goldfish bowl of the capital and moved to the West country. where he found a benefactor in the form of a wealthy builder’s merchant who desperately wanted his own successful eating house.
This was an opportunity Jean-Paul relished and he shaped and formed the new restaurant just how he wanted it. It was a great hit and not only for the food; our friend had developed his furious-genius approach into something akin to cabaret. Diners would gather to hear his tirades of abuse towards staff echoing from the kitchen.
Business was good and although he was pleased to be recognised as a creative chef his burning desire was to own his own restaurant. He campaigned relentlessly with the owner of the restaurant for the chance to open a second outlet on a shared partnership basis. There was a certain reluctance but eventually Jean-Paul won the day and began searching for the location he wanted.
He borrowed heavily from the bank and other investors to match the money being provided by his partner. This was a real risk but also exciting as he imagined finding a city or town to match his aspirations and talents. That city turned out to be Liverpool and the location was the waterfront. The ingredients were just right as Jean-Paul set about creating a restaurant unique to the region and one that would command respect and recognition.
Jean-Paul was fired with enthusiasm but conscious that this was also a business with his own livelihood as stake. Nevertheless he did not play it safe but created an exciting concept that captured the imagination of visitors.
The response following that opening night that I attended was very enthusiastic not least because the city did not have the greatest reputation for fine food. Everything seemed to be going well until a familiar face returned to the scene.
This is what Jean-Paul told me in his own words. The reader must imagine his broken English: “I was very happy with the restaurant, of course it was a dream come true, everything I had wished for. You know I had gone through a very dark period after leaving monsieur Vincent and truthfully it could have finished me. Luck and hard work made life worth living again and branching out on my own was very special. We soon built a good clientele and I discovered Liverpool took to something new and exciting even though people had mocked my plan to come here at first.
“Saturday night was very busy, we had a number of large parties in. I didn’t disappoint them of course and let them hear my screams of frustration from the kitchen but really I had never felt better. I went out into the restaurant to ask customers if they were enjoying the food when a face caught my eye. I knew him vaguely but couldn’t quite place him.
“ He saw me staring at him and smiled broadly. I continued doing my round when suddenly I realised who it was, I felt a surge of panic. It was the critic Mr White. After he had ruined my reputation I found things out about him and had seen him on food programmes. I did not feel good, I thought he had come to do it again to me.
“My mind was turmoil, my plans and desires rushed through my mind as I saw them crumbling in rolled newsprint. You must understand this went beyond anxiety, I was struggling to breathe and open a bottle of wine in the kitchen. This is something I absolutely forbid so you can imagine how puzzled my staff were. I quickly swallowed a few mouthfuls to try and gain some control but I felt my heart beating fast and my hands were becoming moist with sweat.
“ I asked the waiter how Mr White’s meal was and before he could answer I found myself screaming abuse at him and told him not to make any effing mistakes. He looked a bit ashamed and admitted he taken the wrong first course. My heart sank and my legs nearly buckled and I knew it was all over.
“I then found my mind racing. How could I get out of this situation? I knew there could only be one solution; I had to do anything I could to prevent his review devastating my business. I asked one of the waiters to ask him if he was enjoying his meal and to try and find out some information about his movements.
“The waiter asked if he required a taxi at the end of the meal but he said his hotel was within walking distance. It could only have been the Plaza so I rang them and asked to be put through to Mr White in room 105. I was told he was in 326 but was not in at the moment. I waited until after he had left and took a knife from the kitchen and made my way to the hotel.”
Jean-Paul was still agitated and I noticed for the first time that his right hand was clutching something tightly in his coat pocket. He then continued his narration as I too became anxious, realising that I did not like where this particular story was going. Sure enough he went to the hotel and to the critic’s room where Jean-Paul, unsure of what to do, had accused the critic of trying to ruin him. He tells me that, as White tried to bundle him out of the room, the knife suddenly lodged itself in his chest. The poor man apparently lay dying as Jean-Paul fled the scene.
I was unsure of how to react. It seemed to be something farcical, as if from a TV comedy drama. Jean-Paul slowly brought his hand out of his pocket and held both the weapon and a crumpled piece of newsprint. It was from the morning newspaper:
Panoramic Restaurant review
By Michael White
“Rarely have I been to such a badly organised restaurant; a kitchen occupied by a foul mouthed dervish, waiting staff who seem to revel in spilling food and meals of such dull greyness that it rather spoiled my appetite. The whole business seemed to be based on Fawlty Towers.
“Actually that was what I wrote about a restaurant many years ago. The chef, Jean-Paul Blanchard, was clearly in the early part of a drastic learning curve. “Now he has clearly completed his culinary education. His new restaurant in Liverpool is a delight and the food cooked by hands touched by angels….”
I looked at Jean-Paul and he said; ” Yes he had already written and sent his review praising me from his room by computer by the time I reached him.”
Of course Jean-Paul was locked away but anytime I think of acting in haste over something serious or even trivial, I remember the strange case of Jean-Paul Blanchard.
BBC production 2017
Adaption Melissa Murray
Director Marc Beeby
Actors: Blake Ritson
This is the third BBC radio version of the Science Fiction classic although the 1950 production has been destroyed like so many of the corporation’s early dramas.
Of course the one that still resonates down the years is the Orson Wells American airing in 1938 that scared the pants of listeners thinking it was a real-life Martian invasion.
What was particularly interesting for me is that I was reading David Lodge’s fictionalised account of HG Wells life while this was being aired. Quite a contrast. While his books are full of clean-cut leading characters the man himself was a salacious sexual predator.
It’s amusing in a way, he was a small tubby man with unremarkable looks but clearly wealth and position were as much a magnet to some ladies then as they are today.
Wells’ first marriage to Isobel was a letdown for him – his voracious lust was not matched by his wife who lay back and thought of England rather than enjoying the physical side of their relationship.
Robert, our hero in this story, seems to have a somewhat sterile relationship with his wife Margaret. When the pair meet up at the end after both thinking the other had perished at the tentacles of the Alien invaders, it was an oh-so-English how-do-you-do and shall-we-have –a-cup-of-tea.
The production is strong on soundscape as you would expect from the BBC with eerie mechanical clanking denoting the presence of the Martians. Sticks pretty faithfully to the book.
Lancashire v Middlesex 9/6/17
Trafalgar Road, Southport.
Lancs won by 8 wickets
It had it all – a sun blazing on my baldy pate, a washed out day fit for gumboots or goloshes and two other days that at times required a jumper and an overcoat. The cricket weren’t bad either and even though just three days of play were possible, the Red Rose were able to inflict the champions first defeat in 21 outings.
There is something unique about outground cricket, especially at the seaside. But Birkdale is the posh bit of Southport, far from the commotion of the funfair or the whiff of fish and chips.
The cricket ground is not far from the golf club which will host the Open championship in July.
Birkdale has wide rolling boulevards and most homes have their own driveway – nevertheless at the southern approach the authorities have imposed a staggering mile-long parking exclusion zone.
I can’t quite make out if this is to funnel motorists to the designated car park zone (fiver a go and throw in a lengthy hike) or to ensure the top cops and senior Town Hall officials who inhabit these parts are not disrupted by the hoi polloi. One thing is certain, it is not on traffic management grounds.
At the ground there is something of a queue. Given the heightened atmosphere over security I imagined there was a frantic scrabble for exploding sandwiches.
In the event it was an alcohol search. A table had been put up for the contraband and was groaning with two cans of cider.
An old lad in the queue recalled the 1981 encounter with Middlesex at this very venue when the lines snaked down Trafalgar Road and the beer ran out by 2 p.m as Clive Lloyd knocked a few into the leafy avenues. The occasion? A day off for the common people while Charles and Di tied the knot.
A couple of temporary grandstands had been erected and chairs and benches dotted the ground which backs on the rail line ferrying passengers between Liverpool and Southport. Even though a sign stated that no dogs were allowed on the ground I spied Jack Russell eager for a book signing to commence.
The first day really was a scorcher, ice creams and Crabbie’s ginger beer being gobbled up greedily. Three chaps behind me were debating various matters relating to the game but the foremost question seemed to be when to get the first ale in.
‘Is the sun over the yardarm?’ one asked. ‘Who knows’ quoth another. They decided on 11.45.
After a slurp of lubrication they embarked on the highlights of their careers in organised cricket – top scores of 24, 20 and 9 respectively.
In the meantime the Londoners appeared to be ruing the decision to bat as wickets quickly fell. At lunchtime there were rumours of dark mutterings from the Middlesex players about the pitch.
I took a stroll around the boundary and bumped into an old colleague from Trinity Mirror. Inevitably it descended into him bemoaning his lot – forced to work from home on a rota made for a Roman galley slave. And one of the lads had to take a 25% pay cut! Imagine having to survive on 90 grand a year in austerity Britain.
Middlesex were skittled for 180 but cynical Lanky lags merely looked to the heavens when Davis and Livingstone departed in the opening over. The ship was steadied to leave Lancs 123-4 at the end of day one.
In contrast to sunburn weather on the first day, the following was a complete washout. Not many ice creams sold or £4 sausage barms for that matter.
Day three was decisive and particularly innings from MaClaren (75) and Bailey (58) which propelled Lancs into a lead of 129.
I disappeared due to family commitments but was back on day four when Middlesex were struggling to build a lead with four wickets left.
This time the weather was a mixture of overcast condition and blue skies but still very much on the parky side.
Still a good crowd in but with an air of inevitability about it. The champions cobbled together a lead of 107 which was never enough to make a game of it. Lancs won by eight wickets with Hameed showing a glimmer of form by painstakingly making his way to 38. While most players are greedy for runs the young man ekes them out in miserly fashion, almost unhappy at having to leave his defensive pose.
A great day out is outground cricket and I am pleased to say Lancashire have also played at Liverpool and Blackpool this season. Sir Ian Botham has also made noises about taking Durham back out into the heartlands. Surely its time Yorkshire eyed up some of the haunts they abandoned? Eyy up lad, there’s nowt like it.
Anton Lesser, Don Warrington
Adapted by Sean O’Brien
Directed by Jim Poyser
If Wells and Verne are the fathers of science-fiction then Yevgeni Zamyatin is the Godfather of dystopia.
The Russian penned this masterwork in the years following the Bolshevik revolution and in it we find the themes of depersonalisation and the triumphant rise of bureaucracy and totalitarianism.
The influences on Orwell, Huxley and Levin are self-evident.
In this radio adaption Anton Lesser takes the lead character D503, the chief engineer of the Integral, a spaceship being built to conquer new worlds.
Lesser is a superlative radio performer and brings a fragile sense of himself which is ruthlessly exploited by 1-330, a rebellious female who drinks, smokes and flirts.
We discover that outside the glass city is a green wall cutting off inhabitants from nature – and the band of humans intent on wrecking the system. Parallels with Logan’s Run and This Perfect Day are obvious.
The production and eerie space-filling music demonstrate BBC radio drama at its best.
Writer: Val McDermid
Actor: Gina McKee
Producer: Susan Roberts
Val McDermid created a bacterial doomsday scenario after attending a workshop that included a presentation on the failure of antibiotics by the chief medical officer Sally Davies.
The workshop organised by the Wellcome Trust resulted in this three-pater for Radio 4.
The action takes place in the North East with the bug from a dodgy sausage at a music festival spreading panic and mayhem.
Given the setting it was surprising that there are so few local accents except for the main character Zoe Meadows played by Gina McKee. Now Gina was born a few miles from me but she put on a really exaggerated Geordie-type accent that quite frankly grated all the way through.
Still, it’s an exciting fast-paced story but I’m not giving the game away!