The Day the Oscars Died…Again.

Morgan FreemanWith the Oscars arriving this weekend, I thought I’d repost this one as it’s a bit more relevant now than when I originally posted it. If anyone has their own Oscar letdowns they just can’t let go of, please feel free to share. On the other hand, it may just be me…

Villager at Large

This is a bit of fun I had, the result of a song stuck in my head and a bee stuck in my bonnet for oh, going on 18 years…

I should mention that I don’t think that Forrest Gump is the worst film in the world, just one of the most overrated. No offence is intended to those of you who love the movie, of whom there are many. I do love The Shawshank Redemption, which may become obvious the more you read..

As I said, just a bit of fun.

The Day the Oscars Died

(To the tune of “American Pie” by Don McLean)

A long long time ago

I can still remember how Shawshank made me smile

And I knew with a bit of luck

The Oscars that year wouldn’t suck

And Shawshank would win best picture by a mile

But that March evening made me shiver…

View original post 592 more words

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Celebrating Mr Lee and Mr Looper

Mr Hooper

Big Bird’s sketch of Mr Hooper, drawn by Big Bird’s puppeteer, Carroll Spinney.

Will Lee was an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life. Until recently I knew nothing about Lee, other than the fact he had played Mr Hooper, an extraordinary character on an extraordinary TV show, Sesame Street. Mr Hooper was a part of my childhood and as real a character as has existed in children’s television, so it is a strange thing to learn of his ‘other life’ as Will Lee, an actor, a teacher, and in essence a humanist.

Will Lee would have had the fullest of lives even if he had never once appeared on Sesame Street. Lee got his start in theatre during the Depression, and was drawn to theatre groups which were at the edge of experimental and socio-politcial theatre. Lee was firmly leftist in his political leanings, and by the time of the McCarthy era had begun to receive some unwelcome attention when he was called to testify before the House of Unamerican Activities Committee. To his credit he refused to be bullied into confessing any communist affiliation. He and other members of his theatre group, The Actor’s Laboratory, were consequently blacklisted. Opportunities for Lee in the theatre and film industry were now severely limited.

By this time Lee had already served in World War II, stationed as far as Australia and the Philippines, where he helped stage shows to entertain the troops. Lee continued to act but got little work due to his blacklisting, so began teaching acting while picking up roles where he could. He appeared in the first season of the soap “As the World Turns” and began to build a reputation as a superb character actor during the late 1950s and 1960s. Lee continued to teach even while working on Sesame Street, primarily at the American Theater Wing, where he taught amongst others a young James Earl Jones. Lee had been part of the Group Theater in the 1930s, which was an early proponent of naturalistic acting. This theory would later become popularised by Lee Strasberg’s Method school of acting.

It is, however, as Mr Hooper that Will Lee will be remembered. Lee played store owner Harold Hooper from Sesame Street’s inception in 1969 until his death in 1982. My memories of Sesame Street (like a lot of my generation) are of the shows produced in the late 70s and early 80s. I remember some of the skits and stories that were played out, but for the most part it is the characters that I loved and remembered.

One of Sesame Street’s greatest strengths was to always treat its audience with respect. The show’s creators knew how smart children were and how discerning they could be. If something didn’t ring true, kids wouldn’t watch it. As a consequence, the characters were written as a reflection of the viewers. As in life, the characters (particularly the Muppets) weren’t perfect. At times they could be silly, angry, stupid and even thoughtless. They were, however, always well meaning, and in learning from their mistakes they taught us how to do the same.

The adults on the show were primarily there to play the parent/teacher role, and Will Lee was perfect for this. Mr Hooper was a brilliantly conceived role. In order for the street to have the right feel and balance, it needed a centre, a heart. This was Hooper’s Store, and at its heart was Mr Hooper. Mr Hooper represented the best aspects of age and experience. Will Lee brought to the role wisdom from a life lived to the full and from battles both won and lost. He would listen to everyone’s problems, and if he couldn’t find a solution would set them on the path to finding it themselves.

Lee and Hooper became so entwined that children would approach him in public and ask how he got out of the television set, or simply whisper “I love you”. One of the long running jokes on the show was Big Bird’s constant mangling of Mr Hooper’s name. It was always Mr Cooper or Mr Looper, or even once, an ad-libbed ‘Mr Cunningham’. The whole set-up was telegraphed, but it was funny and always played beautifully by Lee and Carroll Spinney as Big Bird.

The most memorable moment on Sesame Street was also the hardest to watch. When Will Lee died in December 1982, the show’s producers and writers made a tough but incredibly brave decision. Rather than have Mr Hooper simply ‘move away’, they paid children the ultimate mark of respect – they told them the truth. The following November an episode aired dealing with Mr Hooper’s death. The episode centres on Big Bird wanting to share pictures that he has drawn of his friends. Big Bird finally comes to Mr Hooper’s picture, but can’t find him. He asks the other adults where Mr Hooper is, and what follows is probably as raw and real as any television you will ever see.

If you saw it at the time (it screened once in the US and precious few times elsewhere including here in New Zealand) then you will already know what happens. If you haven’t seen it, I have included a link below. My description could never do it justice. When I saw the episode I would have been older than the target audience, and at that point only occasionally watched Sesame Street, almost like catching up with old friends – which is exactly what the characters had become. I remember being shocked and saddened by Mr Hooper’s death, but it was the reaction of the actors that really affected me. It was clear to me that this wasn’t a performance. These people were not just dealing with the loss of Mr Hooper, they were grieving at the death of their friend, Will Lee.

This was my first real contact with the concepts of death and grief, but I didn’t realise it at the time. I just remember feeling so sad for these brave people who had lost their friend.

If Jim Henson can be called the father of Sesame Street, then I think Will Lee could be considered its honorary grandfather, as Mr Hooper was to so many children. I was lucky enough to grow up with a Sesame Street with Mr Hooper, and I feel sorry for younger generations who missed out on the wonderful episodes from those years. I know a lot of these classic episodes have been released on DVD – I do hope they find a new audience, they deserve to be more than just a wonderful memory.

And yes, I know I got the title wrong for this post – “it’s Hooper of course, Big Bird, not Looper”. I just prefer it that way.

Thanks to Muppet Wiki for most of the information on Will Lee. There is also a wonderful website featuring interviews with key members of the Sesame Street team remembering Mr Hooper and Will Lee:

http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/shows/sesame-street-farewell-mr-hooper

Big Bird’s friends explain Mr Hooper’s death:

If anyone has more information on Will Lee or Mr Hooper or simply personal memories, do let me know. I would love to hear from you.

More Than Boys – Luke Jackson

Photograph by Sean Hardy

Photograph by Sean Hardy

Luke Jackson is a young singer-songwriter from Canterbury, England. “More Than Boys” is his debut album, released in August last year.

I first came across Luke Jackson via Bob Meyer’s weekly Folk show on Radio Wey. He first released an EP (Run and Hide) and since then has been busy performing while continuing to write, steadily building an impressive repertoire of songs. As a consequence, More Than Boys arrives as something far more accomplished than anyone would have the right to expect from an 18 year old.

First albums are often given the tag ‘promising debut’, which has always seemed to me to be a backhanded compliment, as if promising is the best we can expect from a newcomer. More Than Boys stands on its own merit as an outstanding album, one that Jackson can be justly proud of.

Jackson and his producer (highly regarded Welsh musician Martyn Joseph) have shown astute judgement in the album’s production, stripping the songs to their bare bones. There is always an inherent risk when presenting songs this way. Any flaws will be exposed, and the songwriter really has nowhere to hide. Thankfully however, Jackson clearly knows his songs inside out and in his hands the simplicity of his songs are a strength, giving them a solidity and grounding which offsets nicely the gentle tone of his lyrics.

For the most part it is just Luke’s voice and his acoustic guitar, showing off impressive technique and a touch of colour to his playing. Jackson has a warm but strong voice which he keeps in check for most of the album, in keeping with the understated arrangements.

Jackson clearly has a natural feel for songwriting, but he is clever with it too. Many young writers try to tackle life’s big subjects before they have really experienced any of them, and ultimately their words don’t ring true. Most of the songs on More Than Boys focus on Jackson’s childhood and the uncertain transition from boy to man. You can forgive the often wistful, nostalgic feel to songs like “Baker’s Woods”, “Big Hill”, “Kitchener Road” and “More Than Boys”. These are tales of the carefree days of youth when responsibility is something for others to worry about. It is sometimes comforting to look back on these moments before embarking into the unknown world of adulthood:

“Hours in our hideout, safe from the winter breeze

Yes and I, well I wonder if it’s still standing up there, at the top of old wives lees

And it’s where we’d talk about our first loves, with our hearts worn on our sleeves

It turned out we were far too young, to really know what any of that means

 

But now it seems like all my childhood songs have been sung

And it feels like all my childhood dreams are now, they’re all done

 

The things that I have done and the places I have seen

Will help me to become, the person I will be

And it’s already begun, I’m starting to see, the man in me

The man in me”

From “Big Hill”

More Than Boys will appeal to fans of folk and roots music, although you can definitely sense a real pop sensibility from Jackson, something he may choose to explore on future releases. With a little more experience and some well earned confidence, we may well see some more ambitious compositions from Luke in the future, along with some fuller accompaniment and arrangements to suit.

None of that is necessary on More Than Boys, which is just fine as it is. Very fine indeed.

For more information on Luke and info on buying the album, check out his official website:

http://www.lukepauljackson.com/

Luke also has a Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/lukepauljacksonmusic

This is a live rendition of one of my favourite tracks from More Than Boys, the infectious “Let It All Out”. It is a performance from one of the Rugby Roots series of concerts:

Discovering Eastbourne

Looking out to Wellington from Days Bay near Eastbourne

Looking out to Wellington from Days Bay near Eastbourne

On a recent trip to Wellington for our summer holiday, my wife and I discovered the quaint and charming seaside village of Eastbourne. Located just across the Wellington Harbour, we took the ferry from Queen’s Wharf in the city, around a 30 minute trip.

The Ferry to Eastbourne

The Ferry to Eastbourne

The ferry disembarks at  Days Bay, one of a number of tiny bays in the Eastbourne area. Days Bay is a popular swimming beach, and features the popular Days Bay Pavilion Cafe. From there it is a ten minute walk around the coast to Eastbourne. Most of the houses along the bay here appear to be baches (seaside holiday homes), many of which have been extended, some to an almost palatial extent. Like much of Wellington, there are great examples of historical wooden housing, as well as homes with a distinctly Art Deco feel.

The Eastbourne township is centred predominantly on the main street (Rata St) with a number of relaxed and friendly cafes, a lovely art gallery (Rona Gallery) and a small but intriguing antiques and curios store (where I managed to find a long sought after Lindisfarne record!). My wife was particularly impressed with the gelateria (Gelissimo), a welcome surprise. As a coeliac, it is rare for her to enjoy such a treat, but all of the gelatos and sorbatos were gluten-free so it made for a special treat on such a hot summer’s day.

An antiques store on Rata St in Eastbourne

An antiques store on Rata St in Eastbourne

There are more good swimming spots at Eastbourne, as well as good windsurfing on Wellington’s frequent windy days. We jumped on one of the frequent buses to make it back in time for the return ferry, enjoying the views of the Wellington Harbour on the trip back.

I thoroughly recommend the trip if you’re in Wellington, especially if you want a quick getaway from the noise and bustle of the city. My wife and I will certainly be making a return visit when we get the chance.

In case you’re wondering, the wonderful photos are courtesy of my wonderful wife!

Looking across Days Bay.

Looking across Days Bay.

A Song For the Week: Galveston

Galveston Bay at sunset

Galveston Bay at sunset

This Christmas I had the good fortune to receive the recently released but long ago recorded “In Session” CD and DVD featuring both Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb. This session was recorded and filmed in 1988, but until late last year had never had a commercial release. In listening to it over the last few weeks, I have been reminded of two things in particular – for one, the almost symbiotic artistic relationship between Campbell and Webb. It never ceases to amaze me how Webb’s music is so perfect for Campbell and how well Campbell captures the essence of Webb’s songs. The other reminder is what an extraordinary songwriter Jimmy Webb is. It is easy to overlook his best known songs when you have heard them so many times, and it sometimes takes a fresh approach to these kinds of standards to appreciate just how good they are. On In Session we hear renditions of classics like “Where’s the Playground, Suzie?”, “MacArthur Park” and “Wichita Lineman”, but the song that made me fall in love with it all over again was “Galveston”.

Galveston has always been one of my favourite Webb compositions, in fact it probably sits above all others bar Wichita Lineman (how could you top a song with the lines “and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time”). Campbell’s original recording was released in 1969 to great success. Webb notes during the In Session recording that this version was faster than he would have preferred, more of a “medium march”. Three years later Webb recorded the song himself on his “Letters” album. This version was how Webb intended the song to be heard. I have to agree with Webb – I love both renditions, but Webb’s arrangement fits the song so perfectly it is hard to imagine it done any other way. Galveston’s lyrics are reflective, almost to the point of being meditative, and the music requires time to reach a depth equal to the words. Webb is in good voice on the Letters album, but I always longed to hear Campbell’s voice put to Webb’s arrangement. I don’t know how often Glen sang Galveston in this style, but the In Session recording is the only one I have heard. Finally, with the release of In Session, my wish has been granted.

As I stated earlier, Glen’s voice was made for Jimmy’s songs. Glen might argue that Jimmy’s songs were made for his voice, but either way they fit together seamlessly. Campbell has extraordinary control over a voice that glides effortlessly through pop arrangements, bringing a textured country edge or a deep and rounded gospel tinge to proceedings. On this occasion a distinctly spiritual feeling is evident. Between them Campbell and Webb turn a meditation on love and loss into a prayer.

The song’s protagonist is a soldier fighting in the Spanish-American War at the turn of the Twentieth Century, a war fought largely on the foreign soil of Cuba. His is a love song to the girl he has left behind, but it is also a desperate attempt to cling to a reality that is quickly becoming a dream. Campbell’s gentle pleas of “Oh Galveston” sound like a call to God, for help or release, or simply for some light amongst the darkness of war. The last verse in particular brings this home. Campbell sings “Oh Galveston” like a man lost to his fear, then delivers the confirming line with devastating effect: “I am so afraid of dying”. The last words are delivered like a man not knowing if they will be his last. We are left with a glorious visual imprint: “Before I watch your seabirds flying in the sun, at Galveston”. Campbell’s final note when he sings “At Galveston” is as fragile and tender as I have ever heard him.

There are precious few times a standard is improved upon. This is one of those times. The arrangement and rendition make the lyrics hit home so hard it takes your breath away. It was worth the wait.

Campbell’s original recording and arrangement from 1969. It has lost none of its impact, forty three years on.

Webb’s recording from 1972’s Letters album. For an equally good piano based arrangement, check out Webb’s recording on “Ten Easy Pieces”, released in 1996.

In my opinion, the definitive recording. Campbell and Webb on the “In Session” show, recorded in 1988. I urge you to listen to the whole recording. Other highlights include “If These Walls Could Speak” and “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”.

Plumbing the Depths: Five Questions Raised in the Wake of ‘Taylorgate’

Ross TaylorOkay, so “Taylorgate” hasn’t been coined yet in relation to the Taylor captaincy debacle, but it is only a matter of time so I thought I’d get in first…

If you don’t follow cricket then this won’t mean a lot to you, and if you don’t follow New Zealand cricket (most people would fit into this category) then you won’t really care, but I thought it might be timely to summarise the goings-on of the last week with five pertinent questions that have yet to be answered.

    Should Ross Taylor have been stripped of the captaincy?

This one is difficult to answer unless you are able to see all aspects of Taylor’s performance as captain, off-field as well as on. I have to admit I was in the camp that supported McCullum as the best candidate to replace Daniel Vettori when Vettori stepped down as captain. I still think McCullum would provide the best style of leadership for this particular team. Taylor has been in charge long enough for the coach to be able to make a judgement on whether he is the right man for the job going forward. All things being equal, and as long as personal issues don’t come into it, Mike Hesson is within his rights to recommend a change of leadership.

      If a change of captaincy was the right call, was the timing right?

This is where things start going wrong, and fast. Let’s be honest, changing your captain is a big decision. Assuming that team coach Mike Hesson thought long and hard about his recommendation to strip Taylor of the captaincy, wouldn’t he have also thought about the best time to do this? Common sense dictates that this discussion should have taken place either directly after the tour of the West Indies, or after the Sri Lankan tour. Instead, Hesson spoke to Taylor in a meeting on tour in Sri Lanka, directly before the first Test. Hesson claims he spoke of recommending that Taylor stay on as Test captain only. Taylor has a different memory of that meeting, stating that Hesson told him he would be stripped of captaincy in all three forms of the game, including Test matches.

The whole feel of this meeting is one of an ambush. Whether that was the case or not doesn’t really matter now – what looks like an ambush and smells like an ambush is going to be perceived as, well, an ambush. The fact that Taylor managed to score over 200 runs in the second Test and lead the team to a face-saving victory says a lot for his character, knowing that it would most likely be his last match in charge of his country.

     Who should take responsibility for the handling of this matter?

New Zealand Cricket must take responsibility for the mire they have created. Every aspect of their handling of this issue has been an unmitigated PR disaster. It wasn’t as if New Zealand Cricket stood as a shining light of public goodwill as it was – the sport needed this like a kick in the head. The New Zealand Cricket Board accepted Hesson’s recommendation without hesitation, without ever questioning the timing. NZC’s Chief Executive, David White, wasn’t even in the country at the time. How can such an important decision be made when the protagonists are spread halfway around the world? White and the board are, of course, backing Hesson’s version of events in regard to what was said in the meeting in Sri Lanka. Hesson’s claim that he offered Taylor the Test captaincy seems dubious to me – one would think Taylor would remember a detail like that! Taylor has spoken out more in the last few days than he ever has as NZ captain, and fair enough. He is entitled to present his side of the story, especially when the Board and White are doing their best to smooth ruffled feathers…or denying they should have been ruffled in the first place.

No one in New Zealand Cricket is prepared to put their head on the block for this, and this isn’t likely to change. Everyone is looking after their own interests. No surprise there. The only one who is likely to be shown the door is John Buchanan, the Director of Cricket, who is conspicuously the only member of New Zealand Cricket who has publicly backed Taylor.

      Should Ross Taylor go with the team to South Africa?

Well, he isn’t going, so this is a bit of a moot point. In my opinion however, he should go. The biggest disappointment of this whole sad affair (and yes it is only a disappointment, not a tragedy as has been said – nobody died, people!) is that the New Zealand team will be missing their best player on what is arguably the toughest tour in world cricket. New Zealand is ranked eighth in Test Cricket and ninth in One Day Internationals. Even in the hit and giggle of T-20, we are a lowly eighth. South Africa is deservedly the number one team in Test Cricket, the pinnacle of the game. With our best team, we would still struggle. That team would include Daniel Vettori and Jesse Ryder (both missing) along with Taylor, so the cupboard is really starting to look bare. One can only hope there are no injuries to key players on tour ( this means you, McCullum!).

You get the feeling that Taylor would have gone if things had been handled better. It appears that his relationship with Hesson has deteriorated so much that he cannot focus on his role as a member of the team while Hesson is in charge. Taylor has intimated that he is keen to return to the side, possibly for the home series against England early next year. The question has to be asked  – what is likely to change between now and then that makes Taylor think that his relationship with Hesson will be any better?

     Is McCullum the right man for the job?

Which brings us to the brave new world of a McCullum-led New Zealand cricket team. This is certainly how things have been portrayed by the media in New Zealand, as if Taylor and McCullum are chalk and cheese. Whether this is the case remains to be seen. Yes, McCullum appears to be a much more obvious on-field captain, vocal and forthright. It has been suggested that as a tactician he is more of a gambler, but this theory needs to be tested in the high-pressure world of Test cricket, something McCullum hasn’t experienced as captain. Personally, I feel McCullum has a great opportunity to show his class on this tour. He has never lived up to his enormous potential as a player, what better opportunity to inspire than from the front against the best team in the world. If he can do this as a leader and a batsman, he may drag some of the others with him. If he does lift the perfomance of the other batsmen, he will have achieved something that Taylor never did.

Realistically, we will beaten by South Africa. This isn’t defeatist, it’s just the way it is. New Zealand has never won a series in South Africa, it is unlikely they will change that statistic from where they stand. Barring disastrous form, McCullum will be given another shot at captaincy for the England series early next year. Anything else would be an admission of error from the Board in ratifying Hesson’s recommendation in appointing him. Hesson is another matter. Heavy losses in the next two series would lead to serious finger pointing. If the captain changes and the results don’t, who is next to go? The coach, of course. The public is already baying for blood – if New Zealand Cricket need another scapegoat to keep the wolves at bay, Hesson will quite possibly be sacrificed. Enter Taylor back into the fold…?

These are all important questions, and we will get answers to at least some of them over the next few months. Unfortunately it is hard to foresee an improvement to the game in New Zealand in the near future unless there is a concerted attempt by all to work for the greater good of the game. Without this, the sport will continue to falter and support for cricket will continue to dwindle.

Surely cricket lovers in this country deserve better than that.

http://tvnz.co.nz/cricket-news/david-white-black-caps-captaincy-video-5271770

http://tvnz.co.nz/cricket-news/taylor-accuses-nzc-lying-5278098/video

Calling Out the Cowards: A Fan’s Perspective on Anti-Semitism in Football

Being a West Ham fan, I have to say that I am used to disappointment. Perhaps unfairly, we West Ham fans tend to expect a lot from our club, despite the fact that only once in the club’s history have they been a force in English football. This was in the 1960s, when the club boasted names like Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, who starred for England during the 1966 World Cup.

Nowadays we are more realistic. Staying in the Premiership is essential, but we also hope each season that the club can finish in the top half of the table, and even have a half decent Cup run every few years.

If this doesn’t happen, we can deal with it. We Irons are a resilient bunch.

What happens off the field is much harder to deal with. The despicable actions that took place at White Hart Lane on Saturday were awful to witness, no matter where you were. The level of anti-Semitism directed at the Tottenham team and fans by part of the section of travelling West Ham fans was abhorrent and beyond disappointing.

I couldn’t call myself your typical West Ham fan. I’m not from East London to start with. I’m not even English – I’m a New Zealander. Even when I lived in the UK for close to two years, I lived in West London. Despite all that, I am as loyal and die-hard as any West Ham supporter, and have supported my club for 31 of my 39 years. I like to think that my reaction to the scenes in North London would mirror that of 99% of West Ham fans around the world.

Unfortunately, like many clubs, West Ham has a small contingent of “supporters” who are essentially societal dregs who like to make their prejudices and hatred known to as big an audience as they can.

Well, this week they got their wish.

Like recent incidents in football involving allegations of racism, the anti-semitiic chants and ‘gas chamber hissing’ that were heard at the Spurs-West Ham match became headline news, creating far more interest than the match itself.

Should this have been the case? By pushing the incident to the front of the newspapers, has the FA given these lowlifes the platform they are seeking?

A few years ago I might have answered yes to this question. When bringing hate crime issues out into the open to help find a solution, there is always the potential to give its proponents and worst offenders some mileage while creating more hurt for victims.

To be honest, that is a chance we have to take. Any kind of hate crime cannot be tolerated in the slightest, whether it is in a political context or a sporting one. The social ramifications are too serious to ignore. We all know what happens in tough economic and social climes – the blame game begins in earnest. It is much easier if there is someone else to blame.

The FA and West Ham United need to find as many of the culprits as they can, and I believe they will. There have already been some arrests made and more may follow. I do think that they are still a minority, but they are a cancerous blight on a wonderful football club and need to be rooted out and made an example of.

Kudos to Harry Redknapp for his words this week. Too many managers prefer to stay silent on matters like this, preferring to live in a bubble where sport lives beyond the reach or touch of the rest of society. Harry knows West Ham and Tottenham culture as well as anyone, having managed both clubs, and isn’t afraid to speak his mind:

“We don’t want to go back to what we had with  all the violence in the Seventies — we can’t have that again. When they get in a group it’s filth. It’s  disgusting and people are supposed to stand there and take it. They chant at managers, at players and at  each other and it has nothing to do with the football. They are cowards. It’s  disgusting and I keep hearing it, but it’s not right.”

This isn’t what fans want to hear, but it is the cold, harsh truth. Until we face this and start dealing with this kind of behaviour then we risk undoing all the good work that has been done in football to combat racism and hate crimes.

We cannot let this happen, it is simply far too important.

If you’re interested in reading more on this issue, I highly recommend Billy Blagg’s article on this incident, posted this week on his ESPN blog:

No Defending the Undefendable