One day I’ll finish writing another book...
Or maybe a blog...
Here are some random jottings from various places:
A Day In The Life Of A Sound Effects Recording - written many years ago, when air-travel was relatively inexpensive.
The first set of my sound effects CDs are nearly finished, but it irks me that I don't have a recording of the Paris Metro on the disc of subway trains: on an impulse, I decide that I could spare a day to go and record some and the process begins.
London to Paris couldn't be easier - just hop on the EuroStar and you're there in three or four hours, breakdowns permitting. First problem - unless you book two weeks in advance, a standard economy round trip ticket on the EuroStar is £270; this is almost twice what I paid the last time I flew to New York and is therefore not an acceptable option. Option two is a cheap flight, which brings with it problem number two - you can't get a cheap flight unless you stay over a Saturday night, which I can't do, so the airfares start at around £184: add the cost of the transfers at either end and you're looking at the same price as the EuroStar, so option two is ruled out. At this point, I nearly abandoned the idea, but a quick check on the SNCF (French National Rail Network) web-site showed that I could get a first-class return ticket to Paris from Calais for the astonishing sum of £62 with the outward journey being on the TGV which does the journey in just under an hour and a half. A ferry crossing from Dover to Calais added £26 and a night in a cheap hotel in Calais about the same again, so suddenly, the game was afoot! The Channel crossing and the rail ticket were both booked over the internet and confirmed in minutes, even though it was 1 a.m., and our office manager found me the cheap hotel in Calais – albeit with some difficulty.
The ferry trip is uneventful and yields up some useful creaking noises as we roll our way across the Channel and, after a long walk in the steady rain, I find the hotel, which had been described as “convenient to the ferry.” They don’t have any record of the booking, even though it was made over the phone and our credit card has been billed and the young woman who is in charge can’t do anything until the manager arrives the next day, by which time I will be long gone, so I pay again and drag the kit up to a room the size of a large cupboard, having first arranged a cab to take me to the TGV station. The hotel (like a Travel Lodge, but rather less luxurious) is in the middle of a sort of industrial wasteland, and Calais closes at about 9.30 at night when it’s not the holiday season, so I go to bed without having eaten much.
The cab arrives promptly at 6 a.m. and I get to the station well ahead of the planned 7 a.m. departure, present my e-mail receipt and am handed my tickets for the journey. The TGV arrives and departs exactly on time, and by 8.35 I am in Paris Nord station. By 8.45, I’m in the Metro system with all the kit set up and ready to record. This is the simple bit, I hear you say - just sit there and wait - set levels using the first few trains and then that's it. An hour maximum, and then off for a few hours' sightseeing before the leisurely journey back: it's not like that.
First, find a suitable place to record: it needs to be mid-platform so that you get a good stereo spread of the train arriving and departing. It needs to be near a set of doors so that you get a good level for door open and close sounds, and it needs to be away from an entrance or exit so that you don't muck the train sounds up with too much people noise. I find my spot, sit down and take out the kit: normally, I'd have obtained permission to record beforehand, but a couple of RATP security guys see what I'm doing and nod politely, so I take that as a tacit admission that it's ok. Fire up the machine, steady Rover (our Rycote pistol-grip and windshield, complete with long-haired cover, looks rather like a small dog on a stick) and settle down to wait. First train comes in and I set a rough level, readjusting when the doors close because they make quite a bang. Wait five minutes for the next train and ignore the odd looks I'm getting from passers-by. Check the level is good on the next incoming train. Wait five minute for the next train to come in. A man sits a few seats away and opens a newspaper; rustle, rustle, rattle, rattle. He has a really bad cough; rustle rattle, hack, snort, etc. which ruins the next recording. He gets on the train, I wait for the next one. The current fashion for Parisian ladies is shoes with high, solid heels; click, clack, click clack, shuffle, scrape, bang: a posse of them arrive on the platform just as the next train comes in - another useless recording. They get on - I wait.
The platform is almost deserted - I can hear the next train coming and no-one is spitting, coughing, arguing in Chinese, singing in Dutch, or having a tantrum in international baby language, all of which have rendered the last few recordings useless. It's now an hour since I started recording and I don't have a usable effect yet, but this one should be good. The train rolls into the station, but there's an odd noise. The train stops, the doors open and a man playing the accordion is revealed. Well, it's very French, except that he's playing some awful pop-song and has a drum-and-bass backing track on a ghetto-blaster, so that's another one down the drain. I finally get a good one - not too many people, clean in and out and I decide to try my luck with a ride and then see if I can get a better one later. The next train comes and is, mercifully, fairly empty so on I get. Two young ladies follow me on and have a long and very loud conversation in German, punctuated with raucous laughter. I get off, I wait for the next train; it has an accordion player on it. I wait for the next train - it's so crowded I can barely move, let alone make a decent recording. Maybe I'll get a breath of fresh air and a cup of coffee. I get off at St Michel Notre Dame and have a look to see if the Cathedral is still there: it is. As the entire crowd in the square in front is made up of English and Japanese tourists, I go back down to the Metro and try for a few more ride recordings, but it's no good; half the accordion-playing buskers in Paris appear to be holding a traveling convention on the Metro today. Maybe later
A vague memory stirs that sections of the Metro run over ground and I switch lines and head up to Monmartre, where I spend another forty minutes recording nothing useful except an elderly French gentleman who says " allo, allo, allo" directly into the microphone in the middle of what would have been a perfect take. I smile gently at him, but only because hurling him in front of the next train would ruin yet another recording. I hang around for another twenty minutes or so, and finally get a good sequence, then head down to a street market that I can hear happening. This is much easier, although it's so crowded that I'm forced to carry out a slow shuffle as I'm carried along by the mass of people. This will make good material for a later CD of crowds that we're planning. Even if I get nothing else useful today, this will have made the trip worthwhile.
Back to the underground section of the metro and another hour of waiting for a decent arrive and stop to happen; it doesn't but I reckon I have enough material to do an edit and I head off to do some traffic mattes, which just involves finding a suitable bench and waiting, which I do, and manage to get some useful recordings.
By now it's midday: I've been recording for three hours and it occurs to me that I haven't eaten yet. I find a café next to the Gare Du Nord and have a reasonable steak-frites then head back down below to grab a quick recording of the RER - the Paris commuter train system, before I have to get my train back to Calais. This turns out to be pretty much a waste of time, as the background noise is too high to yield a useful recording and I don't have time to explore other stations, so it's back to the Gare Du Nord, doing the on-board ride recording as I go, which is definitely usable.
Onto the overland train and a journey to Calais that stops in Amiens because the river has burst its banks further up the line at Abbeville and stopped all train travel north and south. SNCF manage to commandeer a fleet of buses and we eventually arrive in Calais at 9 p.m., having missed the major demonstration that closed the town for most of the day. I make the connection to the ferry, settle back in the Club Class lounge (an extra £8 and worth every penny, particularly if you get through three glasses of complimentary champagne) and into Dover, where my ever-patient wife is waiting to drive me back to London.
A Vision of a Virtual Orchestra
Originally published in The Stage & Television Today magazine, late 1987, which explains the rather quaint terminology!
It was an early morning in late November. The accompanist rose blearily from her bed and wandered unsteadily to the bathroom. It was a hard life, living up to the image of a professional musician, and she had drunk more than usual last night in an attempt to prove that she was one of the boys.
She turned on the shower and tuned in the radio; BBC Radio Three was running “Digital Re-Synthesis Week” and the sound that drifted from the speaker was a computer-generated version of Sheep May Safely Graze. It wasn’t half bad, she reflected. Things had improved dramatically since the BBC had been forced to use the Radiophonic Workshop was a source for much of its classical music - that and the tie-up with the big Japanese electronics companies.
She finished her shower, dressed, had breakfast and made her way to the theatre. How she hated those prepantomime auditions, they were always so predictable. Singers who couldn’t, comedians who weren’t and acrobats and magicians whose acts relied more on the amounts of naked flesh available than any vestige of talent. And they were always so rude.
“What’s the matter luv? Can’t you find the right button? The accompanist in Scarborough never ‘ad that problem.” That last with a knowing leer and a wink.
She supposed it was just because they were nervous but it began to pall after the twentieth time.
She reached the theatre, signed in and made her way to the stage hoping that this lot would have at least got their parts in some sort of order. Yesterday had been a nightmare with disks of all different types and formats and none of the performers knowing where the song pointers that they needed were.
“Oh, I think you should find it about two thirds of the way down the opening menu, I called it AUDIT 7.SNG, I think. Well, there are so many that start with the same words, aren’t there.”
Time after time she would have to dig out the utilities disk and do a copy-and-search routine to look for the text string on the lyrics sheet and time after time she would dump the “Professionally Programmed Backing Track” into the processor only to hear the same version of My Way or Memory ooze nauseatingly out of the system. Somebody somewhere was making a fortune out of these programs, and she was not altogether sure she approved. It did, after all, reduce her function to that of a mere button pusher and it wasn’t for that that she had done four gruelling years at The Academy followed by a further four at Surrey studying Music and Computer Science as a post-graduate, to say nothing of the 12 early years entering all those competitions and practising endlessly. Still, it was work and, if she didn’t do it, then there were plenty of others who would jump at the chance.
Everyone fancied themselves as an accompanist these days. They thought it was just a question of button pushing and using other people’s software. But she scored a major triumph that morning, when a very old couple came in to do a speciality act and when she asked them for their music, they handed her some yellowed manuscript paper.
A silence fell as the rest of the company waited to see what would happen. They all remembered last year when the newly installed computer kept malfunctioning and it rapidly became apparent that the MD didn’t have a clue how to operate the manual back-up. For her it was no problem. She typed in the instruction that put the system into manual, selected “Piano, bass and drums” from the instrument menu, called up the rhythm parts from the archive optical disk and took the cover from the piano-type keyboard that was leaning against the sound-generator racks.
All those years of practice and training paid off and she accompanied the couple faultlessly, ending to a spontaneous round of applause from the darkened auditorium. At the morning break, the MD who would be running the show came over and asked her if she would dep. for him during the run. She thanked him gratefully, agreed, and out came the diaries for one of those long, involved sessions.
Six weeks later, the musical director rose from his seat in the dressing room, brushed the dust from his DJ and, in response to the call “Overture and Beginners, please” made his way to the pit. He had taken over from the accompanist in the final week of rehearsals, taking note of all the little peculiarities that found their way into any variety show, and noting that she had done most of the programming necessary for the smooth running of the show.
But it was now, with the audience restless in their seats and that electric first night sensation in the air, that his moment of glory would come. Years of keeping the music tight to the action had served him in good stead when the SWET/MU agreement had been abandoned in the late eighties. The new technology had needed someone to tame it, and he was acknowledged as the master in that field.
In the orchestra pit was the music controller that would respond to his command and the rack that held the hundreds of musical instrument sound samples that replaced the musicians. Every instrument in the orchestra was represented in those racks; they were always in tune, they never complained about the draught or the seating, they didn’t put in deps, they didn’t turn up with hangovers and, most important of all, they didn’t talk back.
There was even a Heavenly Choir that didn’t need dressing room space, nor did it have affairs with itself and conduct savagely whispered conversations in the wings. True, there were a few disadvantages. The sound was still rather stilted and artificial, but people had got used to that through constant exposure to popular music and, now that the major orchestras had been disbanded, very few members of the public actually knew what real instruments looked like, let alone sounded like. Keeping time with the live act on stage had been a major problem for a while, with the performer having to follow the rigid tempi produced by the electronics. That had been solved by the first of a series of inventions in this field, the MIDI baton.
Connected to the Musical Instrumental Digital Interface of the system controller by an infra-red link, the MIDI baton used miniature motion sensors and accelerometers to control the replay tempo and dynamic of the system. The early models had needed careful handling, and more than one MD with a flamboyant right hand had come to grief in a most spectacular way with songs speeding up and slowing down at random. The second invention was one that he found extremely useful in variety, particularly for comics and acrobats whose acts hardly ever ran to fixed patterns.
He would need it for the first act on the bill - the comedian/compere of the show who was waiting in the wings for the show to start. Ducking into the pit, he did his pre-show drill, checking that all the status lights showed green, and that the back-up computer was tagging the main performance machine. The two ran in tandem with multiple redundancy the norm on each machine, so it would have to be something pretty catastrophic to halt his end of the show. Even the power supplies were battery backed and would carry the system for 90 minutes through a small local speaker system. This was all academic of course as, in the event of a power failure, nothing else would work and he would be reduced to producing cheerful music until the technicians could fix the fault.
He loaded the two compact discs into their player for the bottom-of-the-bill act who couldn’t afford the services of the computer programmer/arranger and had to rely on off-the-shelf backing tracks, glanced through the running order on the VDU, acknowledged the cue light from corner, the applause from the audience, raised his baton and dropped the system in with a tap on the foot switch. A roll of the impeccably sampled timpani filled the theatre and they were off. The strings soared and dipped for the finale of the comedian’s first number, and then the “band” swung into the underscore for the comic patter that preceded the first specialty act.
This was where the VTR function came in. the VTR, or Vamp Till Ready function was the breakthrough that had enabled the MD to cope with any eventuality in a live stage act. When you invoked it, either in simple or complex mode, it took note of the music that had been playing and produced either a simple four bar round-and-round - handy for all those “I say, I say, I say” routines - or a complex vamp that would repeat with almost limitless variations until the MD put the system back into continuous mode, at which point the music would resume from exactly the same point at which it left off.
This year, a software update allowed you to overlay orchestral stings and buttons for the punchlines and the illusion was complete. The show ran its course, the audience was delighted and the MD controlled his electronic orchestra with grace and artistry, complementing the acts with a subtlety that had not been possible since the days of real musicians.
After the show, walking out of the stage door on his way to a pub, he heard the haunting sound of a violin being played. Peering round the corner of the theatre, he saw the erstwhile leader of one of the big symphony orchestras playing to the departing crowds, the exquisite sounds liquidly filling the cold night air.
The MD hunted in his bag, finally unearthing his Digital Audio Tape Recorder and the miniature microphone that went with it. “Waste not, want not,” he muttered to himself as he quietly sidled up to the down-at-heel musician. In a few minutes he had a recording that would clean up nicely using the digital signal processor and would find its way into the show in a few weeks time. People were tired of hearing the same old violin sound and he had been meaning to do something about it for some time now.
Dropping a few coins into the violin case he strolled off into the December night, the final notes of My Way issuing from his pursed lips, plaintively echoed by the gentle sound of the violin.
A cautionary tale for a new year? A fantastical glance into the future? I shall leave that for you to decide, but with a few final thoughts to mull over during dog days of winter.
Has your pit seen the gradual replacement of musicians with synthesizers?
Where there used to be a string section, is there now a sampling keyboard which doubles on harp, guitar and brass?
Did a live band really sound like that? And can you name any other part of a theatre’s creative team whose members are nearly all graduates with many years of study behind them, who practise regularly in order to keep their particular skill alive and who are treated with scorn and disdain, mostly by people who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, asked to work in conditions that even the lowliest actor would jib at, and dismissed generically as a bunch of drunken troublemakers.
Answers, please, on a postcard.
Postscript: some years later, a couple of devices similar to what’s described above started to appear. Contrary to what’s described above, there was a strenuous objection to the use of them in theatre pits and although some touring shows use them to augment reduced orchestras, widespread use has failed to occur. This is in no way to denigrate the work that went into creating them or the ideals of those whose intentions were almost certainly good. But everyone knows that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions...
I happen to like New York - I’ve spent some of the best times of my life there and I have a tendency to write fanciful prose. Here’s some I wrote as a sort of diary, leading up to the opening of Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers” in 2004.
There’s an Al Stewart song called “In Brooklyn” that contains the lines:
“And oh, I’m back in the city again;
You can tell by the smell of the hamburger stands in the rain.”
Well, I’m well and truly back in the city again although the weather has been pretty good so far with only a small amount of rain. But he’s right; even with my eyes closed and my ears blocked, I can tell that I’m in Manhattan just by smell. It’s a mix of the hamburger/pretzel stands, the steam from the Con Edison heating system, innumerable delicatessens and fast-food joints and the faint tang of the ocean as the wind whips through the skyscraper canyons and there’s no smell like it anywhere in the world. And I love it just as much as I love every part of this city. Sorry if I eulogise, but when I come back to New York, something clicks inside of me and I end up with this big silly grin on my face, even when I’m being frozen by the wind-chill or yelled at by a cab driver. It’s falling apart, it’s messy, it’s perennially in dire financial trouble, it has some of the most ridiculous laws and a billionaire mayor who can’t stop meddling, but it feels like home to me. So I’m happy to be here and happy to be working and I just happen to like New York.
Friday was meet and greet day: a chance for the UK creative team and acting company to meet the US cast, crew and, most importantly, the producers. Tom Stoppard had flown over for the occasion and was lurking in a corner of the rehearsal room looking stylishly elegant but slightly aghast at the number of people milling around. He’s a determined smoker but the fact that you now can’t smoke anywhere except in your own home or on the streets didn’t seem to be worrying him too much and he spoke eloquently and wittily about his delight in being a part of the whole live theatre experience.
There was coffee, smoked salmon, cream cheese, bagels, strawberries, and other assorted nibbles and speeches were declaimed and introductions made. Our director, David Leveaux, has earned a reputation as something of a hard man, enhanced by an incident at the first night of Fiddler On The Roof, where he decked a drunken columnist from The New York Times; an endeavour which gained him a great deal of respect from the Broadway community and a pair of boxing gloves from the producers. Our little party was over in forty-five minutes and the technical crowd trooped back to the theatre to get on with the real work whilst the actors got down to some serious rehearsing.
Saturday and Sunday were free days, but I spent quite a lot of Saturday nursing a bruised foot, having slammed it into the leg of the bed in my apartment whilst trying to get my bearings in an early morning daze. My associate’s wife had arrived from England for the weekend, her first ever visit to New York, and I joined them in the evening for a meal in Little Italy, having taken them to my favourite pizza joint in Greenwich Village (coincidentally called John’s Pizza) the previous evening. There was a slight altercation in the pizza restaurant resulting in the two guys in the booth behind us disappearing at high speed, one of them leaving his laptop computer bag behind him. We handed it over to the waiter and asked what the problem had been: “One of dose guys yacked his brains out on his way to da men’s room and I charged ‘em ten bucks clean-up fee.’ It seemed quite reasonable to us, though not exactly the sort of thing you want to hear when you’re mid-way through a large pizza.
I did the tour-guide bit on Sunday, starting with brunch on the upper west-side and then a leisurely walk, or hobble in my case, through the families enjoying the spring sunshine in Central Park and on to Fifth Avenue where we encountered a Greek parade complete with three gentlemen, resplendent in period costume and luxurious facial hair, riding horses and brandishing swords, much to the delight of the crowd lining the sidewalk. There were princesses, endless children in national costume, much waving of Greek flags and marching band after marching band, none of then playing anything recognisably Greek, and including a kilted pipe-band giving a spirited rendition of Amazing Grace. The effect was only slight spoiled by their military crew-cuts and a propensity for wearing wrap-around sunglasses under their bonnets.
Then down Madison Avenue, window shopping, across to Bloomingdales and further east to the Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway, a Swiss-built cable car that connects Manhattan with a 147 acre island in the East River which has been variously named Hog Island, Manning Island, Blackwell Island and Welfare Island and was once the site of the Blackwell Penitentiary which played host to Mae West and “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall fame, amongst others. Named Roosevelt Island in 1973, it’s now home to various mixed-income housing projects and two hospitals and is a haven of peace and tranquillity, being almost traffic-free. The cable car was built in 1976, initially as a temporary measure until the subway line was completed, but this took twenty-three years and by then “The Tram” was a New York institution. It’s a very different way of seeing a part of the city from above, but very few tourists seem to know it exists.
I seem to have lapsed into travelogue mode and it’s getting late, so I’ll stop for now. The rain has just started and I’m sitting here looking down Sixth Avenue at the endless waves of traffic pulsing from one intersection to the next, with the lights reflecting in the wet streets. It’s past midnight, but this is the city that never sleeps, although it does have a bit of a rest between three and five in the morning, which is what I’m going to do once I’ve opened a bottle of excellent Napa Valley Chardonnay from the liquor store across the street and chosen something to watch from the hundreds of television channels that are available on cable. I promise more local colour in the next posting, so indulge a confirmed New Yorker in his adopted second city on this occasion.
One last image: on the first night, on my way from the Port Authority building to my apartment, I passed a guy selling fashion accessories, bracelets, brooches and hair-clips from a trestle table on the sidewalk. His hand-painted sign proclaimed: “Every Item Just One Damn Dollar!” You’ve got to love it.
Another New York song – On Broadway, by The Drifters starts like this:
“They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway,
They say there’s always magic in the air…”
The neon lights are fast being replaced by high-tech LED video screens, but the idea’s the same as it’s always been: sell, sell, sell.
We’re a part of all that, as is every other Broadway show, but our marquee (the canopy over the main entrance to the theatre) is a little more discrete than some of the long-running musicals. As I mentioned before, we’re part of a series called National Theatre New York and the first show to move from London to Broadway, so we’re considered ‘art” rather than out and out entertainment. That hasn’t stopped the producers from coming up with some Broadway-style merchandising and I’m sure I’ll be wearing the Jumpers sweatshirt fairly soon. I draw the line at the baseball cap, however.
It’s been a hard week, even more so for our crew, who start their days at eight a.m. and finish at ten at night. As most of them live outside Manhattan, they tend to leave home at around six-thirty and get back at eleven thirty at night. They do get pretty well paid, however, so I don’t feel too sorry for them and once the show is up and running, life gets a little easier. A couple of years ago, I was elected to the Broadway Stage Hands’ Union, IATSE Local 1,which is quite an honour for a foreigner. After I’d read the pledge of allegiance in front the entire union board (stunned silence, then the union president said, “Gee, that’s the first time we’ve heard anyone read the pledge that fluently”), I was given my Local 1 badge, card and hard-hat and the magic phrase with which I was to counter all adversity: “don’t f*ck wid me, I’m a Local 1 guy. I pay them a couple of hundred bucks a year and four per cent of my Broadway earnings and have to promise to do picket duty if ever there’s a strike whilst I’m in the city. I get excused doing picket duty when I’m not in New York, because by the time I’ve flown three and a half thousand miles to get to the picket line, it’s stopped being my day to do duty. My membership means that I can work in any theatre on Broadway and not get shouted at when I move a piece of equipment. Oh, and I also have to give up my seat on the subway if a senior member of the union gets on and has nowhere to sit.
We did our first preview tonight, in front of a slightly baffled but very appreciative audience and now our sound team have three days to refine our part of the show before I get to come back to the U.K. and hand over to my New York associate. There was a producer’s Thank You drinks party tonight after the show at a trendy mid-town restaurant, but most of the cast and crew were too tired to stay for more than a couple of drinks. I cadged a lift back to my apartment with our leading lady and the stripping secretary (you have to have seen the show, really) and the chauffeur-driven car got pulled over by a couple of New York’s Finest for a routine safety and document check. “Hi, license and insurance, please. Any bombs or dead bodies that I should know about?”
As I’m some way from the theatre, I take the subway to work in the morning along with the rest of Manhattan’s workforce: a couple of days ago, two huge construction workers got on at 34th Street. These were the type of guys that you’d really have to take a detour around if you met them on the street and they took up a goodly part of the subway car. I suppose that they might have been intimidating but for a couple of details. One held a lunch-pail in his enormous paw with the words “Little Playmate” on the lid and the other was proudly sporting a badge that read “Love me, love my cat.” They talked about their mothers for the rest of the ride.
I tend to visit the same place for Sunday brunch whenever I’m in the city. It’s a place called Docks, a fish restaurant on the upper west side that does a very good fixed-price brunch, which usually suffices for the rest of the day. It’s a twenty minute ride uptown on the subway, but the local subway station was closed for some repair work, so I walked up to the station at Herald Square and encountered the opening ceremony of Macy’s Flower Week. For some reason there was a dog’s fashion parade outside the store and as I walked past, ‘Princess’, a very small dog wearing a ballet skirt and a tiara, was replaced on the podium by ‘Clear-Eye’, a ferret wearing a very small Easter bonnet. “Hey folks,” boomed the compére, “let’s hear it for Clear-Eye; the first ferret of the day.” Only in New York.
It’s obviously time I left to get back to the UK: my favourite bar is just around the corner from the theatre and it also happens to be the director’s favourite bar as well, so we tend to drift in after rehearsals to chat and have a drink or two. I’m not a great beer drinker and the wine isn’t all that great, so I usually drink Margaritas when in NY. This habit seems to have rubbed off onto one or two others and when we dropped in for a post-show drink last night, the nice lady behind the bar just asked “How many?” before I’d even opened my mouth. It may not be a bar where everyone knows your name, but they sure know what you drink.
It’s my last day here and I have a frantic day ahead: packing, last minute shopping, a few fixes for the show and then off to the airport for the journey home. It’s a perfect Manhattan morning: cool breeze, bright blue sky with the sun rising and the moon still visible between the skyscrapers. I can look down on the parking lot across the road and the flea market is in full swing at 6.30, with the early birds looking to snap up the bargains. My apartment is on 27th Street, just seven blocks from the Empire State Building, but these days I don’t tend to rubberneck when I’m here. Just occasionally certain things can catch me out and I turn into another gawking tourist for a moment. A few nights ago, there was low cloud over the island and most of the tall buildings disappeared into the murk: I came out of the subway station just before midnight and glanced up to see the brilliantly-lit upper stories of the Empire State apparently floating in the midst of the clouds like an art-deco space-ship. A couple of minutes later, the floodlights went out and the whole wonderful apparition vanished into the mist.
Walking home very early this morning after a few too many Margaritas with a couple of the cast members, I took a short-cut through one of the parking garages that are scattered around Times Square. There were a few stragglers collecting their cars and two beautiful and unconcerned horses tethered to a rail by the exit ramp. Although the horse-drawn carriages were still plying their trade around the city, these two were not the depressed hacks that plod their way around the streets, but perfectly groomed and handsome beasts. The mystery was solved when a pair of smartly dressed policemen emerged from a nearby coffee shop, unhitched their horses, swung into their saddles and trotted off into the night. Ten minutes later on the deserted streets near my subway station as I waited for the lights to change, six motorcycle policemen rode slowly by in perfect formation, almost as though they were in a parade.
Of course it’s Easter weekend, so the city if full of out-of-towners, all of whom seem to be travelling in large groups. Groups of giggling teenage girls with arms linked so that they don’t lose one another make walking on the sidewalk a hazardous business, so, like most New Yorkers in a hurry, I take to the road and dodge the slow-moving traffic. Believe me, it’s easier than trying to force your way through a party from the mid-west who are all walking along looking up.
I can’t finish without a word about New York’s buskers, almost all of whom are immensely talented. Times Square usually hosts the ubiquitous pan-pipe band competing with the doom & gloom preachers and the plastic bucket thumpers, but on my first night, walking down to the apartment, I passed a trumpeter playing a sublime version of Honeysuckle Rose to the empty streets. In Central Park, a sax player was improvising cool jazz in one of the pedestrian tunnels; up by Lincoln Center, a string-quartet entertains the passing crowds and in my local station the other night, an Asian gentleman was making beautiful music with a small electronic wind instrument. It’s going to be a real wrench going back to the Northern Line and endless badly played choruses of Streets Of London and Take Five.
Good flight back, although I was rather surprised when my designated seat turned out to have no actual seat cushions, just the basic chassis. “Can’t think how we came to miss that” said the bemused flight attendant, before moving me to the adjoining seat ‘as we’re quite empty up here.” No comment.
By the time they’ve fed you and administered the rather meagre two glasses of wine (you really expect a bit more when someone has paid £1200 for your tickets), there’s not much of the flight left for snoozing in, so I watched, or rather dozed through, a nice gentle movie called Kill Bill. I gather that this film is supposed to be full of reverential homage to bits of other films, but I’m sure that the biggest influences on Mr. Tarantino were the Monty Python sketch of the Sam Peckinpah remake of Salad Days, and the increasingly limbless knight in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. The fake blood bill must have been pretty high, which might account for the dreadful storyline. Still, that and the terrible prosthetic severed heads and limbs did at least raise a smile.
Arriving home, I noticed that my suitcase was rather more neatly packed than I’d left it and there was a polite note inside informing me that the Transport Security Authority had opened and searched my case. Give the amount of electronics that tend to get packed in with my clothes, I’m not surprised and rather impressed. But quite glad I did all my washing before I left New York.
A few more things that I either forgot or was too Margarita-ed to mention: our local café was The Edison Café on the ground floor of The Edison Hotel, almost next to theatre. It’s known by most of the locals as The Tea Rooms or The Polish Tea Rooms as an ironical counterpoint to the rather more famous and vastly more opulent Russian Tea Rooms (now defunct.) The Edison does probably the cheapest sit-down meal on Broadway; for $3 you can get a large bowl of chicken noodle soup with a side order of cellophane-wrapped Saltine crackers. This is no ordinary chicken noodle soup, but true Jewish penicillin and I have a suspicion that it forms the major part of the diet of rather a lot of resting actors. There’s a small roped-off seating area just inside the door with its own telephone, which is reserved for a select band of old-school Broadway producers who shun the Atkins-friendly fare offered by other, classier restaurants and opt instead for a menu that includes a rather wonderful corned-beef hash with a poached egg on top (and chips, if it’s lunchtime) and, at Passover, a special menu featuring more ways with a Matzoh than you would imagine are possible. Sooner or later, everyone turns up at the Tea Rooms and lunchtimes on mid-week matinee days are a delight for people watching. They must run coach-parties from the upper east-side, judging by the number of blue-rinsed mittel-European ladies packing the booths.
Tom Stoppard reappeared towards the end of last week and wandered into the theatre to see how things were going. The producers had booked him into one of the latest swanky hotels to emerge recently, which is simply called “W”. It has a doorman who’s about seven foot six tall and built in proportion who simply parts the crowd as he steps across the sidewalk to greet the great and the good that come to stay at this “Zen-like environment.” Tom was greatly intrigued by one item on his room-service menu, which was entitled “Sex Between The Sheets.” Further enquiry revealed that this consisted of eight different flavours of ice-cream, a jug of chocolate sauce, a very large plastic sheet and a disposable camera. He was also rather surprised and little alarmed to be called by the manager and informed that his “room-stylist” would be along shortly. This turned out to be the maid, to check his sheets and towels.
I write a lot, from time to time: I’ve even managed a book, a bit of a book, an entry in an encyclopaedia and several articles in trade magazines and newspapers. I also like to travel and sometimes I write about places I’ve visited and things I’ve done.