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Monday, 29 May 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong

A visit to Leeds Grand Theatre revives memories of near disaster with sound effects fifty years ago.

Last week I was at Leeds Grand Theatre & Opera House for the first time in forty-four years. It was an evocative return. We sat in the same area of the upper balcony and saw almost the same kind of show. In 1973 it was Monty Python on Tour (remembered here). This time it was The Play That Goes Wrong.

Poster: The Play That Goes Wrong

The setting is an amateur production of a nineteen-twenties murder mystery, during which just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Ornaments and pictures fall off the wall; a door won’t stay shut except when needed open; a platform collapses with actors on it; members of the cast are knocked senseless and have to be replaced by stage hands reading from the script, which of course gets dropped on the floor and scrambled; a corpse has to crawl off stage unnoticed after a stretcher rips apart. The production is brilliant. It had us all giggling hysterically.

At one point the characters on stage all stop and stare towards the sound technician on the balcony who is obliviously reading a book, unaware the play has reached the point where he needs to produce twelve clock chimes. The wait is interminable. And not to disappoint, when he does become aware of the cue, he fails to count the chimes correctly.

That could have been me fifty years ago. A few friends at the youth club we went to had joined a drama group and were rehearsing George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. It would have been good to have had a part, but having missed out by getting involved too late, I attached myself to the support team.

There is a moment, early in Act I, when Professor Henry Higgins calls Eliza Doolittle a liar for claiming not to have enough money for her lodgings. “You said you could change half-a-crown” he reminded her. “You ought to be stuffed with nails, you ought,” Eliza replies as she flings her flower basket at his feet. “Take the whole blooming basket for sixpence.”

Just then, a church clock strikes the second quarter, and Higgins, hearing in it the voice of God rebuking him for his lack of charity, utters the words “a reminder”, throws a handful of cash into the basket, and leaves.

Grandfather clock
I don’t know why we didn’t just clang a length of pipe for the clock sound effect. I think we took the instruction “strikes the second quarter” too literally. I offered to tape-record my dad’s heirloom grandfather clock which did the full Big Ben chimes. Later we decided that “bing-bong-bing-bong, bing-bong-bing-bong” took too long, and that we would have just a single chime. But unthinkingly, the tape-recorder mindset remained.

I sat backstage at Snaith Secondary School, tape-recorder on pause, awaiting the cue. We were presenting Act I of Pygmalion in some kind of drama competition. The cue came.

“Take the whole blooming basket for sixpence,” said Eliza.

I set the tape going.

Now I truly wish I could tell you I had put the wrong tape in the machine and that Manfred Mann’s Five-Four-Three-Two-One blared out of the sound system, exactly as happens with Duran Duran in The Play That Goes Wrong. The truth is more ordinary. I had wound the tape back a little too far, so instead of producing an immediate clock chime, I watched the reels silently turning for what seemed like an eternity, while the actors on stage paused not knowing quite what to do. It might only have been two or three seconds, but it was far too long. A scared rigid Henry Higgins must have heard far more than the voice of God during the hiatus. When the bong finally came, he hurriedly squeaked “a reminder” and seemed rather too eager to get off the stage. 

It makes you appreciate just how slick the effects in The Play That Goes Wrong actually are.


The artwork for the 2017 UK tour of The Play That Goes Wrong is owned by the Mischief Theatre Company and its reproduction here is believed to be fair use, serving as a means of visual identification within this posting.
 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Trump and Tusk

Donald Trump meets Donald Tusk
When Donald Trump met Donald Tusk, what did they talk about - the elephant in the room?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Bonking

Definition of bonking

I once had a book by a pair of American educationalists called Curtis Jay Bonk and Kira S. King. Students used to call it the bonking book. The surnames of the two authors were juxtaposed on the spine in such a way as to make it look as if it was a book about bonking: “a bonking good read” perhaps.

The cover shows the first author’s name in full, but elsewhere in the book and in his professional life he prefers to go by the shorter Curt Bonk. Does he know how that sounds to English ears? Perhaps he does. It might be his come on line.

Bonk and King: Electronic Collaborators
I’m not sure when I first encountered the euphemism. It wasn’t at school in Yorkshire. Bonk would then have meant hitting someone on the top of the head, or perhaps the percussive knock made by a large piece of wood. Runners and cyclists also now use it to mean running out of energy. I don’t think it emerged in the sexual sense until the nineteen-seventies. I imagine I can hear it in Jo Kendall’s elegant but naughty voice in “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again”, but perhaps she never actually said it. It would have amused me if she had.

The alternatives would have been completely unacceptable on broadcast media in the seventies, despite the efforts of Brendan Behan and Kenneth Tynan who came out with the F word on live television, or even the music hall comedian Hector Thaxter who is said to have got away with “arse” on the radio in 1936.

Most of the time we don’t notice now. Swearing has little effect. I preferred it when it was the exception rather than the rule. The world was kinder when broadcasters went no further than “naff off” and “bonk”.

I like this well-researched article in the Scotsman in 2008: Swearing - does anyone give a f@#k anymore?