By Tania Carver
Well, it’s that time of year again. I don’t mean Christmas or the holidays or whatever you call it. I mean the time of year when people bombard you with lists. Best book, best movie, most profound cup of coffee, whatever. Newspapers love lists. They’re great space fillers, no brainers. They remind their readers what happened during the year and they’re cheap to produce. Even better if an editor can solicit someone else’s opinions. They can do the heavy lifting for them. You’re an author, what were your three favourite books? You’re a war photographer, what were your three favourite conflicts? You’re a porn star, what were your three favourite positions? Legal ones, please, if you don’t mind, it’s a family paper. You know the kind of thing.
So why should we be any different here?
My first thought was, obviously, books. But I honestly don’t know if anyone cares enough for that. I’ve read some great books and some not so great ones. The great ones have made me want to give up, the not so great ones have made me feel like that in different ways. I haven’t chosen a best novel of the year or even a top five. I figure everyone else will be doing that. And as a writer I feel I can sometimes become a bit monocultural: only talking about books, only reading books, only writing books. So I decided to cast the remit wider than that. But I did want to do some kind of list thing. It’s traditional.
So I’ve decided on best cultural event of the year. Obviously this is a personal thing and I wouldn’t expect everyone (or anyone) else to agree with me. So what kind of cultural event do I mean? Well, something that moved me in some way, that changed the way I felt about things. Something that spoke to me individually and directly.
There were two. So here they are.
The Flicker Club organise special screenings of classic movies. But more than that, they also pay homage to the literature that spawned them. In the past they have given us such events Night Of The Hunter with Mark Rylance channelling Robert Mitchum in a reading from Davis Grubb’s original novel, two screenings of It’s A Wonderful Life, with Bill Nighy reading Philip Van Doren Stern’s original short story and John Simm the next time and Scrooge with Tom Hollander reading Dickens’ original. You get the idea. They take classic movies and turn them into an event, a celebration.
That’s how it was with Hammer. The Vault is an incredible venue to start with. Behind Waterloo Station in London are a vast amount of railway arches, all cold brick walls and vaulted ceilings. And here’s the thing: the one they staged the Hammer retrospective in used to be the mausoleum for the necropolis railway. Heard of it? It was opened in 1854 as a response to severe overcrowding in London’s cemeteries. It was supposed to take coffins down the line to Brookwood cemetery in Surrey. The Necropolis. It’s no longer in use but the tunnels are still there.
The Vault was decked out in plush red velvet cinema seats with a small stage in front of the screen. The events were given full introductions and the guest reader brought on. And there were some great guests. Liz White, the titular character, read from The Woman In White before the film, the gorgeous Madeleine Smith did a couple of stints, reading from Le Fanu’s Camilla before the screening of The Vampire Lovers and from Frankenstein before Frankenstein And The Monster from Hell, both of which she starred in. Mark Gatiss read from the Conan Doyle original before The Hound Of The Baskervilles. You get the idea.
And I loved it. Couldn’t get enough.
I’ve been a Hammer fan since my earlier teens, if not earlier. Hammer films were staying up late to be scared, the thrill of the illicit. They were suave vampires and body-reviving counts, buckets of blood and of course cleavage-heavy nubile young women. What teenage boy wouldn’t want that? I’ve collected magazines devoted to the films, books, comics, posters, t-shirts, even mugs. Yes, I’m a bit of a fanboy.
So I went along. I should explain that I’ve got most of these films on some format or other at home. VHS or DVD or Bluray. So why did I go to the trouble and expense of seeing them on the big screen? The answer’s in the last phrase. The big screen. I’d only ever seen the films on TV. The chance to sit there, in plush, blood red velvet seats, in a Victorian mausoleum with stars from the original films in attendance was too good to miss. So I didn’t. And it was brilliant.
But not just in a nostalgic way, although obviously that played a big part. The films themselves, for the most part, really held up well. They come from an age of film-making we just haven’t got in this country (or any, sadly) any more. They weren’t made to be great pieces of art to stand the test of time. Their purpose was to scare, to entertain. Then to disappear and be replaced by the next double bill. They were put together by jobbing craftspeople who knew exactly what they were doing. There was no pretension about them at the time.
But . . .
They’ve survived. Not only that, their critical reputation has grown over the decades. And when you watch them again, on the big screen like they were intended to be seen, you can see why. They still have something, a fascination, a spell to weave over an audience. Yes, they might be a bit clunky and laughable in places now. But they were never less than the best that their makers could do. There was some damned good work in them by actors, writers, designers and directors who spent the majority of their careers being underappreciated. Some of the directors’ families came to the screenings. It was very moving to see their reactions, the pride they had in the work.
I came away with a renewed sense of what cinema – and art – can achieve with the most miniscule of budgets and the hugest amount of belief.
So that’s my list. It’s a short one. The only thing that came close was a gig I attended in April. I was booked to do an event alongside Mark Billingham and Val McDermid at the Laugharne Festival in Wales. Linda and I went for the weekend and had a wonderful time.
Laugharne is, of course, famous as the birthplace of Dylan Thomas. Some of the events take place in what used to be his boathouse and his writing hut has been preserved exactly as it was. The festival takes place every spring and it isn’t confined to one venue – it takes over the whole village. And it’s not just about one thing: there’s literature, music, theatre, comedy, art, everything. We saw John Cooper Clark do what I thought was the best show of his career (or certainly the best gig I’ve seen him do – and I’ve seen him lots of times), My old mate Lydia Lunch did an event with Viv Albertine, late of The Slits, comedian Graeme Garden was there, as were plenty of others. But the highlight of the festival was Y Niwl.
Who? What? Y Niwl. It’s Welsh for ‘the fog’. They’re a surf guitar band from North Wales. Intrigued? Listen to them here:
It was a proper dad rock night out. We’d all had dinner at the hotel and knew that Y Niwl were playing at midnight. Did we all feel like going back out? Well . . . maybe. Maybe not. Oh go on, let’s. So we did. There were five of us. We got to the venue, upstairs in the rugby club. And waited. And waited. Midnight came and went. No sign of them. We would just have one more drink then head back. One o’clock was almost upon us when the doors opened and in they came. Hurrying to set up instruments on the tiny stage, soundchecking as they went. They had finished a gig in Wolverhampton earlier that night and driven straight down. They got set up in record time, the doors opened, the audience came in and off they went.
And it was, no exaggeration, one of the best gigs I have ever seen. They blew us away. Short, sharp melodic, instrumental surf rock. None of the songs have names, just numbers. In Welsh. Brilliant. We were all on such a high after that. Fantastic.
I’d go as far to say as they’re probably the best live band currently operating in Britain. They deserve to be seen by as many people as possible. Buy their records. Go to their gigs. Tell them Martyn sent you. You won’t be disappointed.
So there you have it. Two events. One looking backwards, one looking forwards. Just the thing for the end of the year.