Friday, 30 May 2014

Review: Paul Hollywood - Get Your Bake On

You know what's fun? Spending an afternoon drinking a quantity of wine with your best mates and then spending the evening with Paul Hollywood.

Not like that. 

Though I imagine that would also be fun. Lots of fun... 

But I digress. Having spent an afternoon drinking wine and eating Indian street food on the South Bank, three of us headed off to the bright lights of Croydon to see Paul Hollywood's theatre tour, Get Your Bake On.  

The tour is essentially hardcore bakery porn masked as a series of demos: pie porn (apple pie), cake porn (black forest gateaux), enriched dough porn (couronne) and bread porn (multi-seed loaf, plus a freakishly quick eight strand plait). Man that's a lot of uses of the word porn in one sentence. The porn is supplemented by 'an audience with' style anecdotes, chat and the general cheekiness that you'd expect if you're familiar with Paul's solo shows plus some audience participation segments (complete with judging, obviously). 

The atmosphere is pretty relaxed. Phones don't have to be switched off, ostensibly so you can tweet questions throughout but actually used to take photos and videos, and despite the size of the venue and the intrusive-but-necessary onstage cameraman it feels pretty intimate too. 

Sound fun? That's because it is.

Of course the main thing that makes is fun is the man himself. For all the slightly laboured reminders of his northern working class roots, Paul is a fantastically engaging host. His anecdotes are fun and refreshingly unpretentious, his jokes about Mary Berry are just the right side of cruel and obviously his baking is fab. I think even the most experienced baker would've left on Saturday feeling that they'd learned something, I know I wish I'd taken some notes. Also, he's super hot in person and there are A LOT of lingering close ups on his hands for those of us who like that sort of thing. I refuse to believe it's just me. 

If you like merchandise - and I really like merchandise, especially when I've had like five glasses of wine - there is much for you here too. I bought the programme, which as well as being aesthetically pleasing tackles at least one very important question as you'll see below, and a t shirt because my friends are terrible enablers. 

Frankly, there's disappointingly little to criticise. I wasn't fussed by the audience participation stuff - in the time spent on that there could've been another of Paul's demos which I'd have rather seen than some random members of the public. And I think someone on the production team would do well to check out one of the Strictly pros' tours and incorporate a proper Q&A the way they all do. But those are tiny things though. Otherwise it's excellent. 

If you want to check the tour and its bakery porn out for yourself then it starts again in the autumn (dates on And if anyone who wishes to get into my good books for any reason happens to be reading this, I'd like to see it again. Just saying.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Cannes Film Festival: Best Dressed

The Cannes Film Festival is ace isn't it? Two weeks devoted to film and fahion; it's like the Oscars are happening for two weeks.

I'm not gonna lie, I'm mostly in it for the fashion. Cannes fashion has a very particular aesthetic: glamour, glamour, glamour. The Couture houses are kings here and I love it.

Here's my top five (well, fiveish) ladies on the Croisette this year...

Blake Lively in Gucci Premiere... Twice

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Cannes must have a Queen and this year there's no question in my mind that it's Blake Lively. One beautiful actress, one super talented design house and two completely different looks. The first is the definition of modern glamour - simple, slick and stunning. I love the rich burgundy hue and the slick styling. The second look is classic old school glamour at its absolute best. I think this might be the best Blake Lively has ever looked (Ryan Reynolds, also in Gucci, looks ok too I suppose). Everything about this look screams old Hollywood and I adore it. Spot on styling again too, especially the amazing up do.

Uma Thurman in Aterlier Versace

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Yellow is tricky to pull off but this proves that it can be done to stunning effect. The colour is perfect for Uma's skin and the fit is beautiful. The cross over detailing on the bodice and the cape detailing to the shoulders seals it for me.

Lara Stone in Calvin Klein Collection

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Proof that a simple cut when executed well is as effective as the most voluminous ball gown, but then would we expect anything less of Calvin Klein? The colour of this is spectacular. Minimalist styling just adds to the overall affect. David Walliams is a lucky, lucky man.

Freida Pinto in Oscar de la Renta

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I loved this gown when it walked down the catwalk and I love it even more on the beautiful Freida. It's opulent and regal - classic Oscar de la Renta really - and the embellishment is to die for. Top marks for the bang on trend pointy metallic heels too.

Natasha Poly in Oscar de la Renta

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This look is so much fun, so glamorous ans so sexy. More low key than most OdlR red carpet gowns (see above) but no less beautiful. I love the detail of the layered skirt and the fit is perfect. A perfect example of a dramatic smoky eye too.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Politics and emotion: in praise of the human beings

"It is objectionable in both men and women to cry over a political defeat, but more so in men. Clegg is an embarrassment."

So thinks Louise Mensch apparently. What utter, utter rubbish.

I don't usually 'do' politics on this blog (regular readers fear not, regular service will be resumed shortly) but I'm going to make a very brief exception.

The past few days have been horrible - horrible - for the Lib Dems. Even as someone who's been taking a horribly selfish ('hey guys, you've made me redundant twice now so if you don't want me then I don't want you') sabbatical from active involvement in the party until very recently, I'm hurting right now.

For all the things that annoy me about the party, all the people in it that I don't agree with or straight up don't like (looking in your direction, Matthew Oakshott), it's my party. It's part of who I am, for better or worse. So yes, for all my affected nonchalance, when it takes a kicking I get upset. When it takes a kicking as hard as it has done recently, I get very upset. And maybe there's something weirder about people that don't than there is about me.

It's much more personal than that though. I've made most of the best friends I've got through the Lib Dems; people who've made my life much richer and who I know I'll be friends with for a very long time (not forgetting those who I really wish we're still around - Andrew you're so especially missed at times like this). And a lot of those people have had their lives completely turned upside down by the events of the past few days. Fantastic, hardworking politicians and their, in my admittedly very biased view, even harder working and more fantastic staff woke up on Monday morning wondering what the hell to do now. I've been there, I know how much it hurts, how frightening it is and it's breaking my heart to see people I care about going through it now. Maybe there are people in other parties, even in the Lib Dems, who haven't made these sort of connections or who just don't care about them. I feel really sorry for those people.

That's why I'm in no way embarrassed to admit I've cried over a political defeat in the past few days. I've been hurt and so have the people I care about - why wouldn't I? And if I've shed a tear or several - someone who's delivered maybe three rounds of leaflets, artworked a couple of tabloids and helped out at one count in the past year; who's career and financial security are in no way at stake - then why shouldn't others? Why shouldn't Nick Clegg?

I've only been a Lib Dem member for 10 years. I've never been elected and nor would I want to be. I think anyone who's prepared to be publicly associated with a political party in that way at any level is incredibly brave. To be leader? I think that's frankly a bit insane. To be leader of the Lib Dems at the moment? Well, that's something else.

I think Nick is incredibly brave. I think he's a fantastic leader and a gifted politician. From my experience he's also a genuinely nice guy who cares about this party and what it stands for. Of course he's upset about the last few days and, given how some people seem to think it's entirely his fault (they are of course 100% wrong), he arguably has more reason to be than anyone else. And I know if I was being subjected to the sort of nonsense from people in my own party, let alone the actual opposition, as he has been I think I'd be upset too. He gives a shit, y'know. I like that.

So Louise Mensch can keep her unfeeling automatons. I'm glad we have a leader who actually cares, who hurts along with the rest of us, who isn't so ridiculously backward in outlook that he's afraid to show it.

And, by the way, I hope we have him for a while to come.

So what's to be done now? I'm not much of an expert (you've likely noticed this by now) but for me personally the answer is pretty simple. Put my battered ego back in its box and get back on the horse. I hope a few others will join me. Because if there's one thing that's for damn sure, I have no intention of feeling this bad again come May 2015.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Book Review: Philomena

Did you see the film of Martin Sixsmith's book, Philomena, last year? 

I did, and I loved it. The film is based on Martin Sixsmith's book of the same name and, given that the book is almost always better than the film, I snapped it up when I spotted it in a Waterstones two for one offer recently.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, Philomena the film follows Irish pensioner Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) who enlists the help of cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) as she attempts to track down the son that she, then an unwed teenager, was forced by the Catholic Church to give up as a baby. Philomena the book is the story of that baby.

It's a remarkable story too. Antony Lee, rechristened Michael Hess, was adopted by an American family, moved across the Atlantic, excelled in school and university and went on to a successful career as a lawyer, eventually becoming Chief Counsel to the Republican party. Michael Hess was also gay, had a crippling need to fit in and be accepted by the establishment and died a grisly death from AIDS.

The themes of 'outsiderness' and the psychology of being adopted are given a really interesting exploration in this book. Michael's need to fit in is desperately sad and the fact it leaves him working for a government who are actively blocking funding for AIDS treatment at a time when he is dying of it is the most awful logical conclusion of that need. It makes for a great narrative as well - one of those great biographies which is as good as any fictional stories you'll read.

I don't think you need to have seen the film to enjoy the book. Nor do you need to have read the book to enjoy the film. The film is essentially the story of the book being written, so it is genuinely interesting to look at them as companion pieces. Michael isn't a character in the film - we're shown Philomena searching for him in America, but she arrives far too late and he's already dead. On the flipside, Martin Sixsmith himself is only fleetingly a character in the book (and then only to explain his research at the end of each section) whereas in the film he looms large. 

The other major difference I found between the two is that the sense of anger at the Church that pervades the film is absent from the book. In the film, it's the character of Martin who brings this in; Martin the author does not. I think this is probably for the best - the story of Michael Hess is much more interesting than just a rant against the Catholic Church in Ireland. And frankly if you can read this book and not get angry at the Church then I question your understanding of the story. It doesn't need to be reinforced.

So if the book better than the film? I'm not sure. Both are equally good at telling different aspects of the same story and as such both are worth your time. The film is out on DVD now so pick up the two when you next have a free weekend. Go on treat yourself. You deserve it (probably).

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Best Dressed: Met Ball

I find it weird that until a few years ago I was largely unaware that the Met Ball was even a thing given how utterly in love with it I am now.

Technically, the purpose of the evening is an annual fundraising shindig for The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. In reality it's the most exciting fashion event of the year with anyone who's anyone (and Kim Kardashian) rocking up on the red carpet to show off their fashion cajones.

It's all about the outfits. It's not about looking pretty - it's about making a statement.

It's go big or go home made flesh.

So who rocked my world this year?

Blake Lively in Gucci Premiere

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I mean, do I need to explain why this is good?! Best dressed of the night by some way for me. This look just takes my breath away: the dress, the accessories, the hair and makeup are all just perfect. Also +100 for the cape.

Charlize Theron in Christian Dior Haute Couture

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God I love this. Proof that going big doesn't have to mean a million colours and crazy embellishment, this is polished and stunning. The insouciance of the tux jacket thrown over her shoulders is to die for. Glamour personified.

Arizona Muse in Ralph and Russo Couture

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A classic ballgown in a classic colour executed perfectly. The diamond necklace is the perfect accessory. So simple, so classic, so huge.

Rihanna in Stella McCartney

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Style is all about being yourself right? And this is Rihanna being Rihanna at her best. Edgy and cool but without trying too hard. White haute.

Reese Witherspoon in Stella McCartney

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ELLE WOODS WENT TO THE MET GALA AND IT WAS AWESOME! Ok, bit over excited there, sorry. But seriously, this colour + this neckline = all kinds of win.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Fashionable London: The Glamour of Italian Fashion vs The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

For my birthday, The Bloke (yes we're still a thing, believe me we're as surprised as you are) got me a couple of exhibition tickets. When I say 'a couple', I mean single tickets for me to go to two exhibitions I'd been talking about seeing. On my own. He thought they looked boring. Romance.

Anyway, unencumbered by a bored and complaining middle aged man (love you baby) I headed off for a very fashionable Easter Saturday taking in The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 - 2014 at the V&A and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Barbican.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion is, as the name suggests, an overview of the work of the Italian design houses in the post-war period. And it's a comprehensive overview with menswear and womenswear, couture and ready to wear and shoes and accessories all covered. Set out chronologically, the exhibition is well curated and the explanatory displays throughout the rooms are really informative and accessible (trans: idiot proof).

It's impossible to leave the exhibition without a sense of the enormous debt that fashion in general, and couture in particular, owe to the Italian fashion industry. Some of the pieces are absolutely stunning. The 1950s couture displays were my favourites - the craftsmanship is mind blowing and they're just beautiful to look at. Seeing some of Liz Taylor's favourite Bulgari jewels is a thrill too.

That said, I felt like there could have been more. Yes, the clothes were beautiful but when you consider all that Italian fashion has done, all the drama and the innovation, the exhibition just felt a bit lacking. Good, not great, but worth seeing.

Across town, and the Barbican's Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition is another kettle of fish altogether. The Fashion World is a restrospective of the career of Jean Paul Gaultier. Spread over two floors of the Barbican's art gallery, it covers everything from his couture gowns to stage costumes for the likes of Kylie and Madonna to his corsetry work to his ubiquitous Breton striped tops.

And it's absolutely fantastic.

I don't think I've ever seen an exhibition that I genuinely think is a must see before but this is definitely one. Even if you're not interested in fashion, you should go.

It's not just the breadth of work on display - and how stunning it is - that makes this exhibition something special, though that alone is certainly special. It's the innovative way it's presented. In contrast to the traditional 'here are some things, they're in case or behind a rope, don't get too close and don't even think of taking photos' approach of most exhibitions (The Glamour of Italian Fashion included), The Fashion World shows its pieces on animated mannequins that talk and sing to you. There are no cases or ropes. You're encouraged to get up close and take photos (as long as you don't touch or use flash).

Here's the man himself welcoming guests to his exhibition:

Jean Paul Gaultier greets you in room one of The Fashion World

It's hard to pick a favourite piece from this exhibition, but for me the pieces from JPG's mermaid collection were definitely up there.

Marion Cotillard wore the white version of this stunning gold and black gown to The Oscars a few years ago:

And the detail on this corset is breathtaking:

Detailing generally is one of the things I loved most about all of the work on display. And because the display is so cleverly done you can actually get up close and fully appreciate it - none of the photos in this post were taken with a zoom of any kind. Here are a couple of my favourite bits of detailing:

Jet beading on a denim evening gown
'Pin stripe' made of buttons
Leopard 'skin' made of beads with rhinestone 'claws'

That beaded leopard 'skin' with rhinestone 'claws' has to be seen to be believed.

And of course no Gaultier exhibition would be complete without some of his trademark cone bra corsets, as worn by Madonna:

I really can't praise this exhibition highly enough. See it, see it now.


Friday, 2 May 2014

Book review: Alison Weir - The Six Wives of Henry VIII

I'm not much of a history buff. Like most people of my age who dropped history before degree level and went to state school I know a lot about the two World Wars, a bit about the Suffragettes and not a whole lot else. And when I use the word 'know' I of course mean 'have forgotten'.

Back in the bronze age when I was in primary school we also did a bit about the Tudors. Or to put it more accurately, we also did a bit about Henry VIII. I remember being fascinated then, and a raft of excellent BBC documentaries in 2012 (I think) rekindled that fascination. Last year I also devoured Hilary Mantel's amazing series of historical novels - Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies - that tell the story of Henry's marriages through the eyes of his right hand man Thomas Cromwell.

I noticed in Mantel's bibliography that the name Alison Weir kept cropping up. She'd also cropped up as an expert in some of the BBC docs. So when I spotted The Six Wives of Henry VIII, her collective biography of the six unfortunate women who married Britain's most infamous monarch, on a trip to the massive Foyles on Charing Cross Road I decided I'd give it a go.

My motivation in buying it was largely as a companion piece to whichever Mantel book I was reading at the time. I was interested to know how much of her narrative and her characters were fictionalised. But that does Weir's work a disservice. It's an excellent book in its own right and well worth reading whether or not you've read any of Mantel's books (and if you haven't then why the hell are you wasting your time reading my blog?!)

Everyone knows the story of Henry VIII and his succession of wives - divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. I imagine/hope most people know the story of Henry divorcing Katherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn and the resulting split with Rome and religious strife it caused. I guess most people won't know much more than that.

Weir's book concerns itself with telling the stories of all six of the women's lives as well as that of Henry himself and other key figures in the story, including Cromwell. It's told chronologically (so Katherine and Anne do take up more of the book than the other four wives) and researched from contemporary sources.

The quality of the research, to this untrained eye, is impeccable and the analysis offered - informed and balanced, particularly on the more divisive figures involved such as Anne and Mary Boleyn - is one of the major things that makes the book so good. It's also written in an incredibly straightforward and accessible way so that even an idiot like me can follow the story, with its huge cast of characters, and understand the analysis. There's also a refreshing lack of moral judgement of any of the characters too, something that the BBC documentaries and many of the articles analysing Mantel's books suggest is pretty rare on this topic.

For me, the book is at its best when talking about some of the lesser known wives. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about Katherine Parr (who I think is my favourite wife) and Catherine Howard who I didn't really know anything about before reading the book. Mary Boleyn also emerges from the book (and Mantel's) as an amazing character and I've bought Weir's biography of her too.

Overall it's a great read. Did I enjoy it more because of my love for Wolf Hall et al? Probably - it's fascinating to see Mantel's characters as real people, especially as many of the ones I assumed she'd made up are in fact real, especially Thomas Cromwell.

Is it a brilliant book anyway? Yes: it's accessible, interesting and I genuinely learned lots. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Review: A Small Family Business

Alan Ayckbourn is one of Britain's most prolific playwrights and yet I'd never seen one of his plays until last weekend. Weird. He's also one of those playwrights who doesn't explicitly 'do' politics, and thus does it much better than many who do.

A Small Family Business, playing at the National Theatre, is one of the moral comedies that Ayckbourn is famous for. It tells the story of Jack McCracken, a straightforward, honest family man who takes over his father in law's struggling furniture business with the aim of making honesty the central principle of the way it's run. It's not long until he discovers that his entire family, who all have stakes in the business, are on the take and even have connections to the Mafia. The story tracks the hugely likable Jack in his descent from being genuinely outraged at his family's actions to ultimately being complicit in, and reaping the rewards of, them.

The plot is admittedly slightly predictable. In an early fit of outrage at his family for apparently thinking that stealing is acceptable, Jack says the line: "Thou shalt not kill. What about that then? Let’s have a crack at that one next, shall we?" From that point on, you know where the play is ultimately headed. But for all that it's still supremely - and darkly - enjoyable.

Nigel Lindsay stars as Jack and he is superb. His early play Jack is a lovable, funny and slightly bumbling character whose warmth and energy make him hard to dislike. By the end of the play he has transformed into a Mafia Don-esque figure, sinister and ruthless. Lidsay's performance makes the transformation subtle and believable, something you only really realise is so shocking when reflecting on the play after it's ended. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent too - I particularly liked Debra Gillett as Jack's scatty-but-actually-quite-manipulative wife and Stephen Beckett as his wideboy brother-in-law Cliff.

The staging here also deserves a special mention. Set on the Olivier stage's famous revolve, the NT have built a house. A lifesize, depressingly anonymous house with working plumbing in some rooms. This one house set serves as all of the different character's houses and is the only scenery in the production. It's fantastically effective - both as a feat of scene building and a way of conveying the sameness of the Thatcherite dream that all of the characters aspire to.

Because ultimately that's what this play is about. Jack is seduced and corrupted by the 'greed is good' mentality of that period of history (the play was first performed - in the Olivier - in 1987). He is prepared to overlook and then participate in his family's actions because they make money and enable them all to live the lifestyle that they so covet. 

It's a very, very funny play, but thinking on it afterwards you realise how depressing a lot of the stuff you've been laughing at is. To use a quote that Ayckbourn himself is apparently rather fond of, overheard from an audience member after one of his plays: “If I’d known what I was laughing at when I was laughing, I wouldn’t have laughed.”

This is definitely one to put on your cultural agenda (I'm sure all my readers have such things). If you can't make it to the NT in person, the production is getting the NT Live treatment on June 12th.