"This . . . is London": Approaching Edward R. Murrow

I have returned from my latest London trip; my stimulated mind is filled with assorted impressions that I now ready for recollection in relative tranquility. Rather than pouring out those impressions like the content of an overstuffed suitcase, I shall meet the challenge of assembling them into a sequence of composite portraits, portraits not so much of myself but of the experience of gathering ideas and collecting thoughts. You might call this manipulation of the everyday a form of “method living”: a mental aligning and creative channelling of life’s vast, fleeting, and potentially overwhelming influences into something resembling a design of my own making.

There is to me nothing more thrilling than the tracing of a pattern in the patched-up fabric of the everyday. Granted, I often impose such a design by snipping off too many of the loose ends and by choosing that to which I expose myself with rather too thorough discrimination, by excluding the ill-fitting piece or neglecting the odd thread. Yet the satisfaction of finding sameness where others might only detect difference is not necessarily the program of a narrow mind. I try to do as much stitching together as I do selecting or cutting away. Atropos, Clotho, and Lachesis—I intend to do the handiwork of all three fates.

One of the threads I chose to follow during my wanderings through the maze that—compared to the comforting simplicity of New York City’s map—is sprawling London was the career of American journalist Edward R. Murrow. In his late 1930s broadcasts from London, Murrow had encouraged Americans to connect with world affairs by bringing the hardship of those under Fascist attack home to radio listeners who, in the confines of their living rooms, might have imagined themselves immune to such devastating influences. Later, he exposed fascism of another kind in his commentaries on misguided patriotism and undemocratic perversions of unity.

After a brisk two-hour walk from South Kensington, across Hyde Park, I arrived at Murrow’s former residence in Marylebone, not far from the British Telecom tower. I took a few photographs and walked on. I experienced no great stirring of emotions, let alone a spiritual connection. Yet the site itself, along with the act of finding, approaching and appropriating it pictorially became part of a design, enforced by the screening of Good Night, and Good Luck. my mate and I attended a day later. It had not been altogether planned that way; indeed, I was surprised to find the film to be still in such wide circulation. The quietly impressive motion picture and my altogether unremarkable photographs do not so much amount to a biographical composite sketch of Murrow, a man who shaped history by recording it. Rather than capturing his past they suggest his presence—or our need for it.

Much of what Murray reflected upon in his broadcasts—even in reminiscences such as this one from 3 December 1944—is anything but dated, if only you permit yourself to look beyond the names of places and persons and weave his expressions of hope and fear into the fabric of our current wars and crises:

You remember those mean streets in London where so many died; the men stretching canvas over holes in roofs and walls, trying to patch things up before the winter comes, anything to keep out the rain and cold. At the airfield you remember that it was just here you watched Mr. Chamberlain descend from his plane when he came back from Munich, waving his written agreement with Hitler and talking about peace in our time. That was such a long time ago. And you wonder when there will be peace again and what it will be like. . . .

You recall all the talk of a better world, a new social order, a revolution by consent, that marked the desperate days, and you realize that talk of equality of opportunity, of equality of sacrifice, of a peace based on something other than force, comes more readily to the lips when disaster threatens. There isn’t so much of it now [. . .]. 

Europe for a long time will be concerned with the urgent problems of day-to-day existence. The fundamental economic and social conflicts will not have been settled by this war. [. . .] 

For years after this war Europe will be in torment and [ . . . ] you wonder what part America will play in it all. In battle and in production we have been magnificent. We have delivered the planes, tanks, guns and ships and the men to fight with them. The evidence of our strength can be found all around the world. We’re not as tired as the others. Our industrial plant is undamaged. Our homes have not been blasted. We enjoy security and relative comfort and our responsibility is frightening, for Europe will look to us—not for charity, advice or admonition, but for an example. Democracy hasn’t been very fashionable over there in recent years and there are many who doubt that it can survive the strains and stresses of peace. . . .

Is democracy still “fashionable” anywhere? Is it the gear of choice or an imposed uniform that ceases to be fashion by resembling fascism? Has the current war on terror (or the terror of war) done much to preserve it? Are we still talking about a “peace based on something other than force”? The patterns we discover when engaging with the so-called past are often disturbing rather than reassuring. And yet, to ignore them, to refuse recalling them into our everyday, might be more disturbing still—a wilful refusal to connect that, far worse than passivity, is a violent act of tearing apart the fabric along with its flawed design.

“This . . . is London”: Departures for, of, and at the Theater

Well, I’m afraid this journal entry is going to be all over the place—like my luggage, as I am preparing for tomorrow’s trip to London. I would have enjoyed sharing one of my “What Those Who Remembered Forgot” obituary footnotes to commemorate the radio career of Oscar and Tony winner Maureen Stapleton (1925-2006); but I could not find any recordings of her performances heard on Best Plays, a US drama anthology that premiered on 8 June 1952 with a production of Winterset. Nor have I come across Stapleton’s guest appearances on radio’s Quiz Kids program. So, after some searching, I had to give up on the tribute and continued to plan my theatrical entertainments for the days ahead.

I have yet to see a truly great stage production in London, most of the plays I attended during my previous visits having been less than scintillating. Let’s see, there were the lackluster revivals of The Philadelphia Story and Once in a Lifetime, starring Kevin Spacey and David Suchet, respectively. While colorful and quirky, Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of Edward Scissorhands (discussed here) was choreographically far less impressive than his Swan Lake.

Rather more to my liking was the staging of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which, as discussed here, offered few surprises (being faithful to the novel), but a genuinely creepy finale.

Then again, I’ve always been fond of unabashed melodrama, even though, at today’s prices, theatrical thrillers are a decidedly rare and guilty pleasure. Gone are the days when everyday people flocked to the theater for some choric hissing of villains in plays with titles like The Worst Woman in London or The Ugliest Woman on Earth. I’d settle for a production of William Archer’s The Green Goddess, but doubt whether our politically correct climate—in which even a cast member of South Park balks after discovering his scientologically reconstituted conscience—still allows for the blossoming of such vulgar delights, now relegated to that slowly deteriorating hot house of popular culture, the movie theater.

Imagine a scene like this—as described by Charles Dickens—at one of today’s West End temples of drama:

We were a motley assemblage of people [. . .] . Besides prowlers and idlers, we were mechanics, dock-labourers, costermongers, petty tradesmen, small clerks, milliners, stay-makers, shoe-binders, slop-workers, poor workers in a hundred highways and byways. Many of us—on the whole, the majority—were not at all clean, and not at all choice in our lives of conversation. But we had all come together in a place where our convenience was well consulted, and where we were well looked after, to enjoy an evening’s entertainment in common. [. . .]
Between the pieces [a pantomime and a melodrama], we almost all of us went out and refreshed [. . .]. The sandwich—as substantial as was consistent with portability, and as cheap as possible—we hailed as one of our greatest institutions. It forced its way among us at all stages of the entertainment, and we were always delighted to see it; its adaptability to the varying moods of our nature was surprising; we could never weep so comfortably as when our tears fell on our sandwich; we could never laugh so heartily as when we choked with sandwich; Virtue never looked so beautiful or Vice so deformed as when we paused, sandwich in hand, to consider what would come of that resolution of Wickedness in boots, to sever Innocence in flowered chintz from Honest Industry in striped stockings. When the curtain fell for the night, we still fell back upon sandwich, to help us through the rain and mire, and home to bed.

Perhaps I could have done without those assorted noises and scents after all; but I sure enjoy an evening of unpretentious theater. Unfortunately, both Jerry Herman’s silent-screen musical Mack and Mabel and Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, starring Judy Dench, won’t open until April.

Instead of such revivals, I might be singing the Resurrection Blues. There is Robert Altman’s production of Arthur Miller’s play of that title, of course; but I have never been particularly fond of Miller, mostly due to his denunciations of radio, the medium that not only sustained him during the lean 1940s, but that influenced the mind-as-stage explorations attempted in plays like Death of a Salesman and After the Fall. I’d much rather see Altman’s latest movie, A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor’s own adaptation of his popular radio series.

I’ve still got my eye on Glorious!, that other play about the odd career of vocally challenged Florence Foster Jenkins, one version of which, titled Souvenir, I enjoyed when last I was in New York City. Well, we shall see what tickets I can manage to snatch up at the half-price booth. Next week, at any rate, I hope to share some souvenirs from what I trust will amount to a glorious time in the metropolis.

"This . . . is London": Getting Ready to Take in the Sounds Again

Broadcasting House, London

Well, it has been a rather gloomy weekend, a few hours of which were spent finding a publishing house and home for Etherized, my doctoral study on old-time radio. I have been slow to send out proposals but am aware that I cannot rest on my laurels until they begin to smell. The fresh air being too damp, cold, and swiftly circulated, I sought shelter by the fire and found pleasant company in an unflappable adventuress by the name of Eve Peabody. Surely you’ve met Eve Peabody, the blues singer whose voice, by her own admission, is strictly of the “bathtub” variety? You know, the gal who once crashed a ritzy social gathering with a pawn ticket for an invitation. Yes, that Eve Peabody—the gold-lame garbed, Bronx Local-hardened heroine of Mitchell Leisen’s deucedly clever screwball comedy Midnight (1939).

There’s much to be learned from an urbane charmer like Eve (as portrayed with pitch-perfection by Ms. Claudette Colbert). Lessons in picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again, I mean. Having escaped a Monte Carlo disaster—a failed system that left her practically penniless at the roulette table, with the exception of that one French coin with a hole in it—Eve takes a gamble by hopping on a train to not so gay Paris.

Alighting none too delightedly with damp and dreary prospects before her, she inquires with sarcasm, rather than incredulity: “So this, as they say, is Paris?” Not altogether reassured by the conductor, she wryly remarks: “Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.” I might find myself saying something not unlike this when I step out of the train in London this Wednesday. The forecast is not promising; but, like Eve, I am determined to make the most of my stay.

Perhaps, my idea of a good time differs from that of most visitors, but, aside from the shops and a West End show or two, Edward R. Murrow’s house in Hallam Street is right up there on my list of must-see attractions. As I reported a few weeks ago, a blue plaque has been placed on the façade of Weymouth House earlier this year, commemorating the contributions of its former resident, Murrow, to bringing the terrors of the London blitz home to American radio listeners, many of whom may have otherwise been indifferent or downright hostile to the British, quite willing even to let my Nazi ancestors have their way with them.

“This . . . is London,” of course, was Murrow’s famous introduction to his blitz broadcasts. His reports made a distant fight for survival seem real and urgent—unlike that picturesque firework display that stood in for the air raids in the recent Judy Dench-starrer Mrs. Henderson Presents. After all, radio can produce terrors far more immediate than video or photography, provided you have mind, heart, and guts enough to translate dreadful sounds into horrible images.

Walking through London again, I might do what I used to do when I first came to New York City, which is, besides taking in the sights, to take in the sounds as well. When the broadcastellan journal was still in its infancy, rather than its present adolescence, I contemplated the soundscape of Britain. For, surely, London has one of the most distinct sonic designs of any Western metropolis, the chiming of Big Ben being its most memorable earmark. So, as an exercise in getting in tune with said town, I will tune in again to “A Portrait of London” (20 July 1956), a CBS Radio Workshop tour conducted by Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah, who took American listeners right into the bell tower of Big Ben.

“So this, as they say, is London, huh?” I might find myself saying on Wednesday as I step out onto the platform at Euston Station: but, hearing the inimitable sounds of the big city, I am unlikely to add “Well, to me it sounds an awful lot like a rainy night in the Welsh hills.”

Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Mary Margaret McBride, Commercial Correspondent

There is a plaque at last on Weymouth House, erstwhile London residence of Edward R. Murrow. I’m not sure how much it is owing to Good Night, and Good Luck. (which I have not yet seen); but this recognition was long overdue. They are all over London, those blue signs, telling passers-by of the notables who once lived, worked and made history behind otherwise nondescript façades. Looking up at them makes me feel that I am walking among those who made a name for themselves—or, if the name fails to ring a bell, plain ignorant. What’s in a name? Well, you could look it up, for starters.

Being that I am in the middle of a series devoted to “Wireless Women,” I shall let that plaque speak for itself and switch from the celebrated Ed “This . . . is London” Murrow to one of his most popular if now less well remembered female colleagues: Mary Margaret McBride (seen above in a picture that appeared in the premier issue of Tune In magazine, March 1943).

Born in Missouri (and her voice will tell you as much), McBride began her broadcasting career at station WOR, New York, in 1934, playing the fictitious “Martha Deane,” dispenser of household hints. A few years later, she signed a contract with CBS and was heard thrice weekly interviewing noted contemporaries, writers, actors, and politicians. While few recordings of McBride’s talks are available online, a tantalizing clip from one of her programs is interspersed in this NPR interview with McBride biographer Susan Ware.

McBride is chatting with brazen Tallulah Bankhead, who manages to break a broadcasting rule while politely inquiring about it:

Bankhead: “I can’t say, uh, ‘hell’ on radio, can I?”
McBride: “No.”
Bankhead: “Well, excuse me.”

Not that interviewer McBride was starchy or self-conscious. Indeed, she succeeded in making acceptable what, to the ears of many, listeners and journalists alike, was radio’s dirtiest kind of talk: commercials. Shrewdly enterprising, she was not above promoting the wares of the sponsors. She even turned her audience into advertisers, reading letters she received from loyal tuners-in who had tried the products she endorsed during her talks.

Apart from reaching millions of Americans with her broadcasts, McBride also exerted influence on the younger generation with proto-feminist novels like Tune In for Elizabeth (1945). Subtitled “Career Story of a Radio Interviewer,” Tune In is McBride’s commentary on—and vindication of—her own profession, packaged as a piece of juvenile fiction.

Within the framework of her story, McBride offers advice and encouragement to those who, like everyday heroine Elizabeth Cary, are trying to break into radio without having to churn out serial romances (a career suggested to her by a female colleague): “World War II, it seemed, had cracked completely the walls of the Fourth Estate where women were concerned.”

The title character is one of those aspiring young women who pushed her way through the temporarily loosened patriarchal brickwork at a time when executive doors were still reserved for her male counterparts, too few of whom had gotten, let alone accepted, McBride’s message.

Elizabeth moves from Glendale, Illinois, to New York City in order to pursue a career in journalism. Family connections in the newspaper business notwithstanding, she finds herself drawn to the world of broadcasting; her inspiration is radio interviewer Janet Adams, a fictional stand-in for McBride. Rather than imitating her idol, who started out writing for the papers, Elizabeth is eager to venture straight into radio:

The times—and especially radio—are moving too fast for that. I think a new technique is developing in radio itself. I think that people like Janet Adams are its pioneers.

Working for Adams, Elizabeth is impressed how seriously the interviewer is taking her job; she becomes convinced that broadcasting can be an honest business, run with dignity and integrity—despite the commercials that Adams is contractually obligated to read on the air:

[Elizabeth] had thought of commercials as necessary evils, watching the announcer check off the list of products, everything from tea to toffee, as Miss Adams said a few words about each in the course of her broadcast. She had heard from her mother and other sources that housewives all over America trusted Janet Adams, took her advice without hesitation. But she had assumed that the product part of the program was arranged in advance with the sponsors, on the understanding that Miss Adams would feed it into the program as occasion offered. Elizabeth felt a glow of satisfaction. Granted that radio, as it was organized today, could not live without advertising, it was invigorating to learn that one program spoke its mind boldly, even where sponsors were concerned.

In addition to McBride’s justification of her part in radio advertising and the role of commercials in broadcast journalism, the novel emphasizes radio’s respect for the audience. Reading listener mail,

Elizabeth resolved never again to think of people as the public, to be dealt with on the basis of polls and surveys and experts who glibly listed the things ‘They’ liked or told you what they were able to understand. Why, they understood the whole wide world, these men and women from everywhere who tuned you in—or out, as you deserved—and who, if you were wise enough to keep close to them, would guard you from the awful conceit and self-satisfaction that would swiftly wreck both your job and you.

This is how McBride wanted to be perceived by her listeners. Expressing her ideals in uplifting fictions, she improved on—embroidered and enriched—this cherished relationship. In fiction, at least, she could generate fan mail without becoming the mouthpiece of corporations.

Original? Sin!: Romancing the Reproducers (Part Two)

Well, I did say “romancing,” didn’t I? It may have sounded more like “pooping on” in the entry I balderdashed off yesterday. The accompanying image, by the way, referred to the new television series Balderdash and Piffle (on BBC2 in the UK), which invites the public to challenge, edit and amend the Oxford English Dictionary. More about that in a few days, perhaps. So, why “romancing”?

For one thing, I am very much attracted to and fascinated by remakes and adaptations. I am not one of those clamoring for so-called original material in favor of a smart revision or charming homage. Let’s face it: “originality” is a downright prelapsarian concept. There are only so many juicy stories to tell. We should not expect to be handed another forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge; which does not mean that we should settle for any old lemon.

Reworking a so-called classic can be a questioning of its definitiveness, its very status. It can also mean a translation of a great idea or worthwhile thought into a context and language more accessible to present-day audiences, thus a way of keeping the original alive in spirit, rather than slaughtering it.

As diverting as both King Kong and The Producers might have been, I feel they have failed on both accounts. Yet even though I am not infrequently disappointed with remakes and sequels (which are often remakes in disguise), I seek them out again and again, embracing them—in concept, at least—as an alternative form of criticism.

Last night, for instance, I watched The Saint in London (1939), which aired during the first week of January 2006 on BBC 2 in a series of four Saint adventures. The movie is a reworking of Leslie Charteris’s mystery “The Million Pound Day.” So, I could not refrain from digging up that story from my library and will probably report my comparison in the near future, drawing on the 1940s Saint radio series as well.

I felt compelled to do the same after watching King Kong, of which I found an undated radio adaptation, with Captain Englehorn as narrator. And I might take the same multimedia approach to the Charlie Chan mystery, The Black Camel, having recently come across a first edition of the 1933 omnibus The Celebrated Cases of Charlie Chan at a local second-hand bookstore.

Tracing an adaptation to its source—not necessarily an original itself—often enhances my appreciation or understanding of a work and its workings. It does not follow that the older version is superior by virtue of its antecedents, even though our fondness for it may make us sceptical of any attempts at revision.

While in London, I saw two 1930s plays. One was the Kaufman and Hart comedy Once in a Lifetime, the other And Then There Were None. The latter is based on the 1939 Agatha Christie novel in which ten strangers find themselves on a remote island, murdered, one by one, by an unknown adversary among them. Rene Clair’s 1945 film adaptation is a marvel of both atmosphere and fidelity—right until the very end. One reviewer having his say on the internet movie database (IMDb) remarks that the novel’s ending “would never *ever* work in a dramatized setting, film or stage”—but Kevin Elyot’s new stage adaptation proved him wrong. I couldn’t wait for the play to be over. Not because it was so awful, not because I wanted to know the identity of the murderer (familiar to me from book and film)—but because I needed to see what was being done to the ending. And very satisfying counting down of corpses it turned out to be.

Once in a Lifetime—staged by the National Theatre, no less—was dead on arrival. Even the spirit of nostalgia, if I were possessed by it, could not assist in animating this propped up carcass. Period costumes, smart sets, and fidelity to the script—itself much in need of tightening and deserving of fresher jokes—are no substitute for a director’s knowing and assured handling of material that was still relevant and topical in 1930 (the advent of cinema’s sound era), but that now comes across as a quaint and pointless revisitation of Singin’ in the Rain—without the Singin’. A soggy muddle indeed.

The program for the show supplied a “Once in a Lifetime Glossary” to an audience confronted with a slew of 75-year-old in-jokes. What’s left is a dim farce of decidedly low wattage. Very few directors can work up and sustain the energy to prevent the potentially zany from being plain dull.

In short, rummaging through remakes and revivals can be a disenchanting exercise; but there are rewards in romancing the reproducers, especially if they take you to the occasional gem you might have otherwise overlooked.

Original? Sin! Romancing the Reproducers (Part One)

Well, it seems that complimentary wireless internet access is not yet a standard feature of the average London hotel room. Jury’s Inn, Islington, for instance, charges £10 per day for a broadband connection. That’s about 20 to 25 percent of the cost for a room, and as such no piffling add-on to your bill. So I felt compelled to take a prolonged but not unwelcome break from blogging, taking the small fortune thus saved to the theater box office, the movies, and the temples of high art. Meanwhile, my lingering cold (the New York acquisition mentioned previously) was worsening into something well-nigh debilitating; a numb skull and eyeballs ablaze in their dried up sockets kept me from keeping up with the out-of-date—ever the broadcastellan motto—for another week.

Time healing (or hardening you into accepting) most anything eventually, I am returning at last with something approaching gusto and will try now to sum up my recent pop cultural experiences in a few lines that, it is hoped, add up to a composition fit for your perusal.

Even though I have used the phrase myself, I have always pitied those who, when asked “What’s new?” merely offer the wan reply of “Same old, same old.” There is an art to finding the new in the old—and those who don’t possess this life-skill are likely to be miserable, dissatisfied creatures. There is a difference, however, between making the old merely seem new—which is a form of deception—and making new what merely seemed old—which is a philosophy. Hollywood has always been great at deception; but either its powers or my willingness to be duped are beginning to fade with age.

Take The Producers and King Kong, for instance. In the theater, where revisiting old favorites generally means playing it safe, revivals can be corny or cozy, as Once in a Lifetime and And Then There Were None demonstrated to me. At the museum, people are forever flocking to see the oldest and most reproduced of paintings, as those on display in the exhibition “Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape.” And on the radio . . . ahh, now there’s a repository for the lost and found. Listen!

The Producers hoofed into UK theaters on what is celebrated here as Boxing Day, which is precisely when I saw it. Nothing screams indifference louder than rows of empty seats on opening night (make that “matinee”). I’m not sure whether the Bialystock and Bloom formula of making money by staging a flop will serve those involved in bringing back the original leads of the stage remake of the 1968 film.

I have seen the stage musical twice; back in September 2003 at the St. James Theater in New York City, with John Treacy Egan and Don Stephenson heading the cast; and again in January 2005 starring Lee Evans and Brad Oscar at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London. Watching a filmed musical is like clutching an opera glass—parts at the expense of the sum. As a motion picture, The Producers was all picture and little motion. Opportunities to flesh out the Little Old Lady Land routine as some suitably bizarre Technicolor spectacle or to go all Busby Berkley with the Swastika dance were squandered in this stagy hokum of hummable tunes and ho-hum jokes.

And King Kong? While hardly an abject failure, this Titanicized remake of Jurassic Park (or the 1925 film adaptation of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) comes across like a momentarily diverting thrill ride rather than a definitive version of a cinematic classic, let alone anything worthy of a nook in a time capsule.

Like The Producers, which mainly serves to preserve the performances of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick for posterity, King Kong makes little effort to be of its time, to provide any commentary save the by now tiresome postmodernist winks of self-reflexivity. The 1933 film smartly commented on the Great Depression, on the big city dreams gone bust; Peter Jackson’s film recreates the era with all the passion of a miniature train collector (from the shantytowns in Central Park to the Amos ‘n’ Andy sign in Times Square), but has little to say about our times.

Even when referencing Conrad’s familiar and perennially relevant novella The Heart of Darkness, the flashy new King Kong, unlike Apocalypse Now, does this pointlessly. Nor were the sexual tensions in this love triangle played out any more overtly than in the Hollywood pre-code version dreamed up by Cooper and Schoedsack. Might not there be accommodation for a few comments on, say, America’s anxieties about the constitution of marriage, terrorism and its countermeasures, or the future of immigration in a melodrama about an abducted alien forced into slave labor and desperate enough to die for a dream the realization of which those professing to be civilized are prepared to prevent at all cost?

It was beauty killed the beast, all right; but it’s a lack of vision that’s killing the movies. As the considerable decline in revenues suggests, the traditional cinema is about to die out like vaudeville; interactive computer games for the sit-at-home folk are taking their place. No longer able, let alone content, to follow the storylines so carelessly strung together by today’s filmmakers, audiences will want to create their own stories with the narrative fragments tossed to them by the Xbox builders now axing box office profits . . .

Hold on, while I am applying a fresh coat of Vicks VapoRub. Better make that “See you tomorrow.” Promise!

Dancing with Scissors? Bourne Tinkers With Burton at Sadler’s Wells

Well, I have returned from London—just in time to dodge the “poison clouds” that were expected to blanket the city on 12 December after what the Evening Standard proclaimed to be an “apocalyptic” conflagration in Hemel Hempstead. I did notice the black band of smoke on Sunday afternoon, but failed to match either my observations or my persistent respiratory problems (my cough being a New York City import) with the headlines I had read just hours earlier. I don’t know, somehow bold print on a front page always makes news spell something not pertaining or happening to me. What did happen to me that day was a theatrical experience that, while not quite a blot on the sunny skies of my holiday disposition, left me colder than the wet ashes of an extinguished winter blaze.

I am referring to Matthew Bourne’s production of Edward Scissorhands, the quirky fairy tale created for the screen by Tim Burton and scored by Danny Elfman back in 1990. Burton’s motion pictures are distinguished by a peculiar tension of aesthetics, a confrontation of Post-Modern and Victorian sensibilities, of the queer and sentimental, that conjures up the bathos of a melancholy drunkard slipping in and out of consciousness at an anything goes Halloween bash. The Penguin in the bleak cityscape of Batman Returns comes to mind; or the lonely giant of Big Fish. Sometimes this aesthetic exchange feels rather forced and irksomely disingenuous.

The opening scenes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a movie-qua-computer game about as charming and magical as a dead rabbit pulled out of a plastic top hat, seem as authentic in their winter-of-our-discontentedness as the patched-up seconds of a third-rate Oliver!. With the sweet-and-sour confectionery that is Edward Scissorhands, on the other, finger-licking good hand, Burton got it just about right.

I considered myself both tickled and stirred. Here, the dark scenes contrast with and accentuate the bright in such poignant counterpoint, it is like watching an energetic MTV-age cut of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Unfortunately, Bourne did not manage to infuse his stage version with the same bathos.

Whimsical scenery and a general busyness of dancers jogging about in costumes apparently on loan from a touring company of Hairspray are violently yoked with more or less static scenes depicting Edward in quiet despair. I could have told Bourne that making Edward both move and moving would prove an impossible assignment: you simply can’t dance with scissors.

Edward cuts a dashing figure, all right, but it’s the topiary. At one point, this good twin of Freddy Krueger sheds the shears to take his limbs for a spin; but that only underscores the weaknesses of Bourne’s less than cutting edge production. It would be less painful to watch a clipped wings edition of Swan Lake, the resplendent ballet spectacular that had me in tears at Sadler’s Wells the previous year.

To borrow from an old Saturday Night Live sketch, the modern dance theatre version of Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells is neither modern, nor dance, nor theater. . . . Now talk amongst yourselves.

A New York Souvenir Is Glorious! in London

Well, I am on my way to London in a few hours, even though I have barely recovered from my trip to New York City, a souvenir of which is a lingering cold. Still, I am looking forward to a weekend in the metropolis, where I’ll be reunited with my best pal to celebrate his birthday and the twentieth anniversary of our friendship. We used to have our annual get-togethers in the Big Apple, but the Big Smoke will do.

While there, I would love for us to take in a few shows, impervious as he is to the wonders of the “wooden O.” I, for one, have had some terrific theatrical experiences lately, including a rare staging of the outrageously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy at New York City’s Red Bull Theater, an all-male production of The Winter’s Tale by the touring Propeller company, and an out-of-tuneful Broadway evening with Judy Kaye in Souvenir. True, the 9 December issue of Entertainment Weekly did not exactly endorse Souvenir, reviewer Thom Geier calling Stephen Temperley’s play “too broad, too shallow, and far too long for [its] modest pleasures.” Still, Kaye is marvellous in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the tone-deaf soprano and unlikely recording artist who managed to fill seats and thrill audiences in NYC’s Carnegie Hall, unaware that many came to gawk and deride, not to admire her.

I have seen musical-comedienne Kaye several times onstage and even had an after-theater drink with her, back in November 1992, when she played Sweeney Todd‘s Mrs. Lovett at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Her portrayal of the real-life phenomenon that was Florence Foster Jenkins managed at once to amuse and touch me, even though Souvenir, as written by Temperley, is slight, repetitive, and less than incisive.

You’ll have to get up close and zoom in on Kaye’s features—the snare and shelter of Jenkins’s oblivion expressing itself in innocent smiles and youthful exuberance, the firm belief in her musical disabilities as she refuses to heed the at fist cautioning then caustic words from her hapless accompanist, and the terror of recognition when at last she discerns the cruel laughter of the crowd—to wrest any oomphs from Temperley’s pleasant and chuckles-filled survey of the dubious diva’s odd career. Fortunately, I sat in the third row. Anyone back on the balcony is unlikely to get half as much out of this play, which is suited to a smaller venue than Broadway’s grand Lyceum.

Upon returning to the UK, I learned that another dramatization of Jenkins’s life, conceived by another playwright (Peter Quilter), is currently playing in London. Called Glorious, this version stars Maureen Lipman, whom I have last seen opposite Ian McKellen in the pantomime Aladdin at the Old Vic. Ms. Lipman hasn’t got Kaye’s pipes, but her acting garnered some favorable notices. I am sufficiently intrigued by Jenkins’s antics to judge her performance myself later this year.

How come there are two plays running simultaneously about a 1930s New York City curiosity, a novelty act who, like those making a spectacle of themselves during last year’s American Idol auditions, has become an old joke few can recall? It is encouraging, somehow. Ready to rediscover most anything, the public might yet turn a favourable ear to the golden age of radio. I sure wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to . . .