Saturday, 7 November 2009

Guest November 2009: Phil Bowen

Phil Bowen was an ideal guest for our first show. He is based in the south-west, living in Cornwall. Although primarily a writer of poetry and plays, he's also been involved in film and visual art. And the day of the launch show coincided with the first night of his play 'Anything But Love' at the New End Theatre in Hampstead.

We have Phil's hour long interview in our digital archive and  it is now available on my co-host Rachel McCarthy's website - keep an eye out for future interview podcasts. I don't intend to transcribe or summarise our conversation which traced his life from childhood in Liverpool through college in Chester and onto careers as a teacher, publican and writer touching on his favourite music and how it has informed his work as a writer.

His New and Selected Poems 'Nowhere's Far' has recently been published by Salt. He has edited books about Bob Dylan and the Beatles. He is the biographer of the Mersey poets Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. His plays have been staged in England, Scotland, Wales and the USA. He conceived of 'Adrian's Wall', an art installation for Liverpool Year of Culture 2008. And he has inspired a love of poetry in thousands of children in hundreds of schools as well as staged plays and made films with young people.

There follows a list of links we used in preparing for Phil's visit to the studio:


Career Resume
Salt Author Page
Nowhere's Far
Shearsman Review
Stride Magazine Review
Anything But Love video
Books on Amazon
A Gallery to Play to - Preview
Dylan Thomas Festival talk in The Independent
Larkin Society talk
Database of Plays (incomplete)
Poetry in Schools
At Port Eliot Festival
Sample Poetry Lesson
Sample Poetry Workshop
Poets on the Buses

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Playlist: November 2009

My memories of the November Show are already hazy and our audio recording is sans music - for copyright reasons you understand - but these are some of the tracks we played:

1. 'When the Man Comes Around' by Johnny Cash off 'American IV: The Man Comes Around'

What better way to kick off than with Johnny Cash singing his last great composition. The chugga-lugga rhythm of his early work on Sun records and Colombia isn't for everyone - it is for me - but few discerning ears can resist the five albums - and one boxed set, 'Unearthed' - he made with Rick Rubin and released on American Recordings.

2. 'The Man With the Child in His Eyes' by Kate Bush off 'The Kick Inside'

Maybe not the most apt way to introduce a school teacher, but even Phil Bowen knows this is a great Sunday morning record. Kate Bush was in her early teens when she wrote it. Most artists spend a career never getting close.

3. 'Wonderful Land' by The Shadows off just about any Shadows compilation you care to name.

Phil still hasn't forgiven Rachel for playing 'FBI' instead. And I haven't forgiven Phil for insisting we play this as well, two Hank Marvin instrumentals on one show...

4. 'She Loves You' by The Beatles - their second single

'Please Please Me' came first but this was their first number one, their best seller to this day, and the record with which they conqueured the UK, America and the world. Phil Bowen comes from Liverpool too, you know.

5. 'I Want You' by Bob Dylan off 'Blonde on Blonde'

One of Bob's more melodious and romantic numbers off possibly the greatest album of all time, purportedly written about Anita Pallenburg, then girlfriend of Brian Jones, one time member of The Rolling Stones and wearer of Chinese suits.

6. 'Suzanne' by Leonard Cohen off 'Songs of Leonard Cohen'

Rare proof that a good poem can become a great song, 'Suzanne Takes You Down' was first published in 'Parasites of Heaven' then recorded by Judy Collins who introduced a nervous Leonard Cohen to the world of music. Mr Cohen is 75 and back on the road.

7. 'Downtown Train' by Tom Waits off 'Rain Dogs'

Still probably Tom Waits most recognisable - and most covered - song, Phil used this as an excuse to reminisce about his publican years, sharing early morning snifters with Keith Floyd in Clifton, Bristol.

8. 'I'll Give You Anything But Love' by Ella Fitzgerald

Phil Bowen's play 'Anything But Love' - a fictitious meeting between Dorothy Parker and Dorothy Fields - was opening at The New End Theatre, Hampstead the Sunday we interviewed him. Ella turns this Dorothy Fields lyric into a slow burning smooch.

9. 'Human Nature' by Miles Davis off 'You're Under Arrest'

Some find the Miles' late work a little too close to elevator music for their liking - we had complaints that said as much - but whatever you think of the eighties synthesized setting, the trumpet playing on this John Bettis/Steve Porcaro written number locks into the melody and never lets it go.

10. 'Human Nature' by Michael Jackson off 'Thriller'

And the complaints continued as we segued into The King of Pop's take on the song which we used to introduce my review of 'Michael Jackson's This Is It'. Not that we cared. The sweet Jacko vocal and limbic Quincy Jones production still move the eighties child inside the noughties man. They use a Michael Jackson CD as a doorstop in the Phonic FM studio, you know.

11. 'Psycho Killer' by Talking Heads off 'Stop Making Sense'

The link was corny - leading into my 'Maestros of the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock' feature - but there's nothing corny about the music, off one of the greatest concert films and live albums ever released.

Maestros of the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock was devoted to the production of pure cinema, directing 52 films.

Beginning his 50 year career as an art designer in the silent movies, he was a master of visual story telling, story-boarding every scene. So far as Hitch was concerned, most of the work was done before the cameras rolled. Compare his working sketches of 'The Birds' with the finished product.

He was a master technician, being able to call shots and count frames without needing to be behind the lens, and loved to work within constraints and innovate his way out of them:

- 'Rear Window' was filmed within and looking out of a single New York apartment, that becomes a window on the world.

- 'Rope', possibly the first mainstream movie to feature homosexuals as the - albeit murderous - protagonists seems to happen in real time and be composed of just one shot, in fact ten spliced by clever edits.

- In 'Frenzy', he used a similar technique to maintain the continuity between scenes shot in Pinewood Studios and Covent Garden, London.

- Hitch and his cinematographer Irmin Roberts introduced the dolly zoom, moving the camera in while zooming in to stretch an image, mimicking the experience of vertigo in the film of the same name

- They also pushed blue screen technique further and got better results than any other crew, though his preference for studio over location and love of car shots sometimes gives the modern viewer a sense of unreality; some of the remake of his own 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' was shot in Morocco, but you wouldn't know it

Although his minor works have dated, budding film directors can still learn plenty from his finest creations:

- Direct the audience, not the actors. The cast are there to fake it, the audience to feel it. Method acting made no sense to Hitchcock; you don't need to feel how it is to be a murderer to act like a murderer; and if you're feeling murderous, you won't be a bundle of fun on set.

- Make the film before you make the film. For all his use of ground-breaking set design, Alfred had the first cut down in his head before the clapper board came down. Every frame of the famous shower scene in 'Psycho' was conceived and sketched before it was filmed.

- Tell the story with the sound turned off. Hitchcock began his apprenticeship in the silent German cinema of the Expressionist era, when visuals were primary and music completed the emotional palette; when used, dialogue was there not to carry the plot, but to illustrate it in words.

- Music has more emotional impact than words. Hitchcock's closest working relationships were with his camera men, set designers and, most of all, the composers of his soundtracks. Actors might be fun socially, but were never co-creators. Bernard Hermann's decade long stint as Hitch's own maestro took the sound of movies from the melodic and orchestral to the screeching electronica of 'The Birds'.

- Suspense is the withholding of information: from the audience, from the characters, from the actors. Hitchcock was the master of the long pause: a steady, silent shot while something crucial was happening just out of hearing, just beyond view, became his trademark. He wasn't a horror film maker, but every film maker working in that genre learnt their tricks from Hitch.

Not all of his work will satisfy the modern audience. By the sixties, he was over-stretching himself, making more than cameo appearances to introduce his TV series and working on multiple projects when his best works were his sole obsessions. By the late sixties he'd lost touch with the times. Not all of the comedy in 'Family Plot' was intentional.

His raw material was pulp fiction and cod-psychology and in most of his work, neither plot nor character motive bear too much scrutiny. It was on the occasions when the screenplay transcended its source and the movie-making transcended its screenplay that he achieved greatness; his greatest scenes get beneath the conscious mind and into your dreams.