Rite of Passage. Catherine Bainbridge. Studio Gallery, Scarborough.

988816_751329468219895_1804879838_nChildhood has always been fertile ground for artists, writers and musicians to explore. Catherine Bainbridge’s exhibition, Rite of Passage takes the clichés and obsessions of childhood and explores their meaning in a way which is both comforting and sometimes unsettling. Childhood is a place that we never quite leave behind. However far we may travel from the setting where we begin it is where our deepest convictions and attitudes are formed. We may cling onto it, comfort ourselves with it, rail against it or hide from it but it is always there. We tell ourselves a story of how it was and as time goes on there are fewer people to challenge our own version of events and less evidence to cling to. It is an odd business.

I was reminded of a conversation that I had once with a perfectly ordinary grown woman who described how each day she would choose which of her soft toys were allowed to come down to breakfast with she and her husband. Catherine Bainbridge’s papier mache rabbits with their outer skins made from children’s story book texts and their little knitted outfits have the kind of comforting presence that makes you understand why someone might do this, but there is also something unsettling about them. Disconnected words mean secrets, text which can only be half understood, and their faces remain blank. A group of rabbits on the floor form a disconcerting group with their own identity, threatened by a seagull. Other animals appear, bringing with them their own mythology and resonance. A crow hangs motionless, caught up in twine and three hare heads stare out from the wall with empty eyes.

Among the animals strange blank faced children play and watch. They have the same storybook outer skins and the kind of cosy, comforting knitwear that shows that someone somewhere cares for them as they explore, observing, balancing and swinging. We can no more know their thoughts than we can know our own as we look back to the small child that we once were from a far off point that was once beyond our imagination. They have a connection with the strange world that they explore which is now beyond our reach.

I enjoyed this little exhibition very much and my chat with the artist over a cup of tea and a biscuit. It will be interesting to see what comes next. As Grayson Perry or Paula Rego would tell you this is a theme which can run and run and there are new and deeper levels of strangeness to explore.

Last Stop Scarborough. Scarborough Art Gallery. 12-07-13

IMG_0006

Seeing Scarborough Art Gallery’s exhibition Last Stop Scarborough on a day when Scarborough News is reporting that the number of struggling families appealing to the council for financial help has doubled in the past year and that the Futurist theatre on the south bay seafront is very likely to close is quite a poignant experience. These are difficult times for the town but it hasn’t always been that way. Scarborough has had two boom times and a long standing tourist industry. During Victorian and Edwardian England the great and the good spent their holidays on the Yorkshire coast and during the 1960’s and 1970’s, along with Blackpool, it was one of the two entertainment Meccas of northern England. For a long time people have loved Scarborough and no matter what may be happening there now people will still smile and tell you a fond memory or two when the town is mentioned. Visitors still come. They may not arrive in the numbers that they used to and they may not spend as much, but they still have a good time. The Railway posters in Last Stop Scarborough form a lively account of how the town was sold to the visitors during the last century when the tourist industry was at its height and many people arrived by rail.

IMG_0023The advantages of the town’s setting haven’t changed. They have always been sun, sea, sand and family fun and in every decade this has been a major selling point. There is a beautiful early poster using the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s Alice with the walrus and the carpenter cheering “to see such quantities of sand” and an early tribute to the pester power of an Edwardian toddler showing a curly haired little Edwardian girl before and after her arrival on the beach. In Edwardian times Scarborough was patronised by the wealthy and stylish and probably my favourite of all the posters is a richly coloured image of the Spa in its heyday filled with glamorous people enjoying a night out. The crowds are shown making the most of all the possibilities that the town has to offer, a romantically lit performance at the Open Air Theatre, an orchestra at the Spa, swimming at a lido. A 1930’s couple settle down to eat in a fine restaurant, a well dressed young woman from the 1950’s is followed by an admiring young man, a passenger ship sits in the harbour lights ablaze. These are stylised image of pure aspiration. It isn’t just railway tickets that these posters are selling. They are selling dreams. In an era where many people didn’t have holidays a trip to Scarborough had all the cachet of a few days on the Cote D’Azur. It was somewhere to aspire to, a place to put on a suit and tie for, not somewhere you decided to nip over to in the car at the last minute if it was a nice day. Looking at these posters is like leafing back through the town’s photograph album, but this album contains the life of the town as it wanted itself to be seen, not as it really was. It all happened, but never quite like this.

As I left the exhibition I thought about the children sitting opposite me on the Hull train as I arrived in Scarborough. When they heard the announcement “This is Scarborough, our final destination” they cheered. So long as children are still doing that a much loved little town can hope that the good times will return.

David Hockney. Etchings based on fairy tales by the brothers Grimm. Woodend Gallery. Scarborough. 11-08-12

A Black Cat Leaping. David Hockney.
Etching, Aquatint. 1969

The Haunted Castle. David Hockney. Etching, aquatint. 1969

The light and airy gallery space at Woodend in Scarborough makes a good home for a small selling exhibition of some of David Hockney’s cool and precise etchings from the 1960’s based on six fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. I am always reluctant to call these tales fairy tales as they are dark and disturbing and not meant for children. They explore the cruelty and strangeness of life unflinchingly. Fairies were not thought of as cute little beings with pretty wings at the time that they were written. They are strong stuff. Hockney has responded to them with great skill and draughtsmanship. He has chosen some of the bizarre elements in the tales and visualised them with a mixture of stillness and tension which gives the work an otherworldly quality that is perfectly in keeping with the character of the original tales. The etchings are witty and surreal and have great presence. Looking at them takes you back to the original tales and reminds you all over again just how eerie and dangerous they are. A long strand of hair dangles down from a tower, a princess sits calmly in her rooftop captivity, corpses burn, one with eyes closed and the other staring impassively out and looking strangely like Adolf Hitler and a sexton hides, perfectly still, in disguise as a rock. Boys hide away inside fish or eggs, curled up calmly to avoid danger. There is violence too. A stabbing is frozen in time by a single gesture and we are shown the instant before a mauling as a huge black cat leaps on its human prey, but there is no emotion here. The etchings simply record the facts, however unlikely, and they are all the stranger for it. The original tales are fables from which we can learn lessons about courage and endurance, a safe space where we can examine the horrors of everyday life which may threaten to destroy us and overcome them, so emotion would be misplaced. There is real mystery here too. Seeing single moments from a story, like the roomful of straw in Rumplestiltskin, allows you to tell your own tale as you look at them- especially if the original tale is a more uncommon one which you have forgotten like The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear. What a terrific title that is! This is something that we all have to do in life and the tale can help guide us on the way and give us strength.

I would have liked to own one of these etchings very much and I would probably have chosen the boy hiding inside the fish if I had £950 to spare. Like Hockney himself I am very fond of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and he has captured their essence perfectly.

Detail from The Princess in her Tower. David Hockney. Etching, Aquatint. 1969.

David Hockney. Rapunzel, Rapunzel Let Down Your Hair.
Etching, Aquatint. 1969.

A reflection of Hockney’s Corpses on Fire.
Etching Aquatint. 1969.

Inside the gallery space at Woodend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Brunswick centre. A Scarborough temple.

Shopping malls are often compared to cathedrals and sitting in the Brunswick Centre in Scarborough on a damp autumn Saturday it is easy to see why. This is a cathedral, a cathedral of the ordinary where the mundane is celebrated and communed with.  Sound echoes in the enclosed space and light spills down into the central area from the glass roof. A hum of background music provides a sense of bustle. The music has been carefully chosen, it is modern but not too modern, upbeat, but not too upbeat, designed not to be noticed. There are three floors with balconies, decorated with plastic flower arrangements on oval shelves around the edge. The flowers are red and white with trailing greenery which will never grow or be watered. The only living things here are the people who move like tiny ants over the smooth tiled surfaces. Slow stately escalators glide between floors and the bright blue lift makes its way silently upwards towards the car park while the occupants gaze out. I know that I am in Scarborough, outside this place there is the smell and the sound of the sea, a beach swept by the tide, moving air and vibrant life, but while inside it I could be anywhere in Britain. Every inch of this place is comforting, branded and familiar. It is meant to be.

The initiation process for this religion of commerce is hidden away in secret. It takes place behind the lighted frontages where plastic offerings are passed to the manicured and lipsticked priestesses behind the tills. The icons which are given in exchange for them are taken away by the acolytes in bags marked with the name of their chosen god. Here in Scarborough we worship cut price gods. The box shaped temples which line the balconies bear signs dedicated to them. These signs are carefully illuminated and reflective, siren signs to lure us in with easily recognisable symbols and typefaces. Evans, JD Sports, Dorothy Perkins, Clintons, Debenhams, Argos. The shoe shop Jonathan James has the word sale visible no less than seventeen times in its two windows, written in large white capital letters on a fluorescent orange background. Absolutely all sale shoes less than five pounds. We pay homage where we can and look on, faintly disappointed, when we can’t. Major deities like Versace, Chanel or Christian Lacroix are not worshipped here. They  require pilgrimages and offerings too rich for our purse.

People talk a lot about retail therapy and sometimes describe themselves as shopaholics but I can’t see much joy on any of the faces inside here. There are few smiles among the people going up and down the escalators and wandering across the tiled floor. Maybe looking for your next fix is not as much fun as they claim. Nobody is rushing. It is a place deliberately designed for wandering and wondering. There are no clocks visible. People sit with coffee or ice cream, silent with their own thoughts. It’s what a cathedral is for. A girl kisses her boyfriend. He kisses her back, sharply, aggressively, and she recoils to snatch another bite of her sandwich. A bald headed man with a jaw worthy of Desperate Dan sits on the edge of the footplate of a little green and white bin lorry whose large eyes and flashing indicators wait to lure children in. He glares out while the lorry chatters. “Hello, what’s your name?” A young teenage boy with blond hair has run ahead down the escalator. He watches his ten pence piece progress along the handrail intent on catching it when it rolls off. “Oh man, be careful!” Three people lean against the highest balcony looking down into the central space. There is a mild excitement in their eyes as they take a last look at the hallowed ground before they retreat to find their car. A little girl with a bright pink ice cream leans back and stares upwards at the glass roof. She is staring in delight at the light and space above her while her dad reads his newspaper. Someone should take her into York Minster and show her the kind of space that people could create when they really felt like worshipping something. I think she would like it.

Memories of Scarborough Summer Shows.

If you know Scarborough today and think that it gets crowded in the summer that may well mean that you never knew it during one of its heydays in the late sixties and seventies. One of the best ways to illustrate this is to think back to the summer shows of that time. The two main venues, the Futurist theatre and the Floral Hall both held around two thousand people. Right through the summer, twice nightly, both venues would run a single show starring some of the big name entertainers of the time and they never lacked an audience. Work the numbers out, add in the visiting Sunday shows and those who went to the show at the Spa or smaller venues in town, and you will see that it’s a lot of people. An awful lot. The announcement of which star names would be coming to Scarborough for the summer was big news, keenly awaited by the crowds who would be holidaying or visiting later in the year. The shows were expensively produced, full of sparkling dancing girls, music and laughter. The pattern of them varied only slightly to suit the strengths of the headliner, who would usually make a short appearance in the first half and then be onstage for most of the second half, after the interval. Each one was a party, with a holiday atmosphere among the crowds who had come straight in from the beaches, cafes and arcades. If the audience was asked whether they were enjoying themselves, as they often were, there was only one possible answer- they would roar back a loud YES! on cue. Going to Scarborough was a much bigger deal back then. It wasn’t just somewhere that you nipped over to in the car if the sun was shining. It was an event. Money was spent, treats were had, and the biggest treat of all was going to a show. Not enjoying it was out of the question.

My parents and I always went to the first house of both shows when we were on holiday in Filey throughout those years. It was always the first house, because it was earlier and we could get the last bus back. It was also cheaper, and my mum thought that there was less chance of my little ears being shocked by a comic daring to be too suggestive. (I got my revenge years later by taking her to see Dave Allen live at the Futurist, she told everyone for weeks afterwards how “blue” he was.) I would arrive in my seat after a day of noise, colour, excitement and fish and chips, hardly able to believe that the best was yet to come. Afterwards, as we left, we always had to walk past the queue waiting to get into the second house. They would be watching the faces of those coming out, anxious to know whether it was a good show or not, and they would be told. My favourite venue of the two was the Floral Hall. There were always plenty of flowers, as promised, and it was lighter and airier than the rather ugly Futurist. It was often the better show too, the Black and White Minstrels were regulars at the Futurist and they were for oldies as far as I was concerned. Not that I ever complained about being taken along. They were the glamorous Saturday night television entertainment of their day (the Futurist was even bought by their management as a summer “home” for them) and the colour of their faces was never questioned. It seems strange now, but that’s how it was. I can remember absolutely loving their main comic, Denny Willis but sadly time has completely erased the reasons why.

We saw pretty much all the big stars of the day. The best of them were Bob Monkhouse, who was one of the sharpest live comics I have ever seen, Les Dawson, who had masterly timing and a face made for stage comedy, Tommy Cooper, who made me laugh as much as anyone I have ever seen on stage- a joyous, overgrown, childlike presence- and Des O’Connor, who was much younger and sexier than those who have only seen his later chat show career on television would expect. The only act who it was definitely best to book second house for was Ken Dodd. He was surreal, quite anarchic in his way, and absolutely hilarious. I don’t know what time the diddymen went home but it was well known that when he got on stage for his main set after the interval of the second show he was very unwilling to come off again, and value for money has always been important in Yorkshire. When Michael Barrymore jumped down from the stage and caused chaos giving away free ice creams from the stall at the start of the second half of his show my dad’s only comment was “I bet they wouldn’t have let him do that before t’interval”. I always enjoyed it most when a comic was top of the bill rather than a singer. The bands who I thought were cool at the time wouldn’t have been seen dead doing summer season. I didn’t want to see Frank Ifield live yodelling I Remember You, or the Bachelors still crooning out I Believe, I wanted the Osmonds, The Carpenters or the Jackson Five. The chances of any of them whiling away a whole summer among the donkeys, ice creams and deckchairs along the foreshore were pretty slim.

Along with the big names there might also be newer faces who would surprise everybody. The first time I saw Cannon and Ball they were just starting out and they completely stole the show, both funny and charming. They were the ones that we told the second house about on our way out. Spit the dog was also a revelation to me before he became  a TV star. A simple idea (can a dog be a one trick pony?) but if you’d had a day out in the sun and a few lucozades it really worked.

I feel lucky to have been around to share in the era of the seaside summer shows. There was a real goodwill and a shared purpose among the audiences which must have lifted the performers and helped them to keep going for a whole summer. You would have to look hard to find audiences as wholehearted and unsophisticated as that now. If only Morecambe and Wise hadn’t played Blackpool for their summer seasons each year my joy would have been complete.

Life of Riley. Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 16-10-10

Alan Ayckbourn’s new play Life of Riley is familiar territory for him. There are three middle class couples who all have relationship issues to resolve, an offstage central character, scenes which overlap, some clever gags and plenty of painful humour. In many ways he has gone back to what he does best, dissecting middle class mores and sexual politics within a clever structure and making us laugh at a character even as we feel their pain. All three women have been involved with the offstage George at one time or another and now that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer this throws their present relationships into disarray, as their past feelings for him resurface in the face of his demands for support. We are never sure whether George is being mischievous, irresistibly charming, or wanting to put a few things right before he leaves this world (all three possibilities are hinted at during the play) but whatever his intentions the effect his actions have on the three couples, for better or worse, forms the basis of the plot. The offstage character is one of Ayckbourn’s favourite devices and he has used it before to marvellous comic effect, especially in Absurd Person Singular (which is one of my favourite plays) but George Riley is really the central character of Life of Riley and that is a first. It takes a master of dramatic structure, like Ayckbourn, to make that work, and he certainly does, although George never became quite as vivid to me as I would have liked him to be. The way that he manages the action however, with three gardens on stage using simple details to delineate time and space is a joy, for example fairy lights in a tree up in the lighting rig, a large plastic crate of glasses and loud music coming out from behind one of the voms are enough to make a convincing extravagant sixteenth birthday party for instance. He knows the space of the Stephen Joseph and its possibilities intimately and not a word of dialogue or a moment of time is wasted. His writing has mellowed a little since he skewered the pretensions of the middle classes with such devastating accuracy back in the seventies and while this is a shame it also gives a wistful poignancy to some of the exchanges which is very effective. As a director of his own work of course he is supreme. He understands his talent, his actors and his theatre space perfectly. You know exactly what you are going to get, and while this makes a new Ayckbourn play something to look forward to it also means that it may well be just a little bit predictable.

The characters in Life of Riley are nicely contrasted and all of them are very well played, especially the women. Ayckbourn is always very acute and sympathetic when he writes women characters and there were times when the women in the audience were laughing in recognition and their men folk were looking sheepish and maybe just a tiny bit aggrieved. Laura Doddington was wonderful as Tamsin, a well meaning, bruised, young woman who was by no means as airheaded as her taste in clothes suggested. Liza Goddard’s Kathryn is a sharp and sometimes cruel woman who uses this front to hide the pain of a miserable marriage. Her constant griping and controlling is her way of asking her husband to take a lead. Monica, George’s ex wife, is played delicately by Laura Howard. It is the least showy of the three women’s parts and needs a subtle touch which she provides beautifully. The male characters are each hapless in their own ways. Jack, played by Ben Porter, is prey to his emotions and ready to follow any wind that blows, Colin is a slightly inadequate and very boring doctor who is faced with a marriage that fizzled out years ago- he probably has no idea exactly when, and Simeon played by Jamie Kenna is a farmer whose heart of gold remains hidden from the world in general thanks to his inarticulacy.

A very entertaining and thoughtful piece of theatre then, which the almost full house of mostly older theatregoers at the Stephen Joseph lapped up with great pleasure. It’s always good to have a new Ayckbourn play back on stage here in Scarborough. He has given the town a far greater gift over many years than it understands or deserves.

The Harbour Bar. Sandside, Scarborough.

The Harbour Bar on Scarborough’s Sandside has survived almost unaltered since it opened in 1945. It is still thriving, run by the Alonzi family whose ancestors arrived in Scarborough in 1896. The outside is plain and not that impressive but when you get through the door you will realise why people have cared enough about it to keep it spotless and unchanged. You can enjoy a Knickerbocker Glory ( unless you’d prefer a Strawberry or Pineapple Glory, a Fruit Cocktail, a Pear Melba, or a Banana, Chocolate and Jelly Delight) and watch yourself reflected in its mirrored walls surrounded by a confection of ice cream colours which makes it look as if you are sitting inside a giant banana split while you eat it. Everything sparkles, from the chrome to the lighted advertisements around the wall which advise you to try a fresh farm egg milk shake and eat ice cream every day in order to stay fit and get your vitamins the easy way You can almost hear generations of children quoting that in an attempt to get a second helping out of their parents but given the size of some of the ice cream sundaes on offer one might just about be enough! The bar has been cherished and looked after with care for all of its sixty five years and looks ready to march on towards one hundred years of serving ice cream by the harbour with no trouble whatsoever.

My own earliest memory of the Harbour Bar was when I was taken in there on a family trip to Scarborough. My cousin ordered a Knickerbocker Glory and I can still remember the awe I felt when she sat there and ate the lot. I was a faddy little thing at the time and probably asked for a bottle of lucozade. My loss. From then on I always insisted that we go and sit down at the counter in there each time that we were in Scarborough- ignoring the fact that I didn’t like ice cream. Even at eight years old I liked its style.

There are very few ice cream parlours left from the 1940’s era which still have their original fittings and the Harbour Bar is one of Scarborough’s real treasures. I still don’t like ice cream much but they serve a great milky coffee and you can sit there and dream yourself back in time. The nineteen forties may not have been a time which you would want to have lived through in reality, for obvious reasons, but people will always need to relax even in the hardest of circumstances and it had a sparkle and glamour all its own. To recapture that aspect of the 1940’s you can always watch an MGM musical, but better still you can visit the Harbour Bar, a place where the harsh realities of life (both then and now) have been removed. Sit down at one of the red topped stools around the long curving yellow counter, order yourself a treat and enjoy some real life glamour from the past.