On the Buses

83

This is a photograph of the front of one of the buses I took to get home this evening, taken so that I could get a record of the vehicle number. What you can’t see in this photograph is the driver – clearly one of First Manchester‘s finest – giving me the finger through the windscreen. Presumably this is what they mean in their customer promise when they pledge to provide “helpful, friendly driving staff”.

It hadn’t been a very successful evening. I’d got to the bus stop at the top of Oldham Street in Manchester at about 8.40pm, hoping to catch a bus towards Oldham. Between the 83 and the 183/184 services, there should, at that time on a Sunday night, be a bus every ten minutes. Nearly thirty minutes later (!), an 83 arrived (this kind of interruption in this particular service, unfortunately, is not at all unusual) – destination Sholver, so this was the 9.10pm service (God only knows what happened to the 8.50pm 180 or the 9.00pm 83, but that’s all part of the joy of travelling with First Manchester). There was quite a crowd waiting to board this service – this stop is the terminus – and as I boarded, there were a lot of people behind me who were also trying to get on the bus. In front of me, there was a woman who was trying to buy a ticket from the driver. In order to avoid creating a bottleneck at the door, I stepped around her while showing the driver my pass. You’d think this would be the sensible thing to do, right?

Wrong.

The driver didn’t like it. Oh no, he didn’t like it at all. He started shouting at me – I hadn’t said a word to him at this point – telling me off as if I was a naughty schoolboy. The best gem in his stream of invective was the part where he told me he couldn’t bloody multitask because he wasn’t a bloody woman. Now, yes, there is a way of delivering that line that would put a (sexist) comic spin on it – but no, he was deadly serious. It was a full-on tempter tantrum – one which other passengers commented on – and it was provoked by nothing more than my trying to step aside so that other people could step onto the bus. Since there were a lot of people trying to board behind me, I said nothing and took a seat; a couple of people behind me, though, did tell the driver he was out of order.

When the bus arrived in Oldham about thirty minutes later – I connect there to another service – I had a choice. I could get off the bus and say nothing, which would probably have been the wisest move, or I could tell this driver that I found his behaviour unacceptable and ask for an apology. On the one hand, given his temper tantrum when I boarded, clearly there was no way any complaint about his behaviour would end well. On the other hand, I am a paying customer, and I am not prepared to be yelled at for the heinous crime of stepping to one side while holding up a bus pass. I do, though, understand that sometimes people snap in the heat of the moment (because, really, my holding up a bus pass while simultaneously stepping aside to allow space for other people to step up onto the bus must have been so excruciatingly stressful for him that it’s a wonder he didn’t end up with PTSD), and I think it’s only fair to ask for an apology directly before putting in any kind of complaint – if he’d said sorry, that would have been that. There was, sure, probably also an element of my having just Had Enough after enduring day after day after week after week after year after year of appalling service from this company. And anyway,  First Manchester‘s complaints process, more often than not, is a waste of time – either they don’t bother to respond, or they send an insincere and sometimes badly-spelled letter of apology, and then three days later the exact same thing you just complained about invariably happens again.

So, when the bus had stopped at Oldham bus station, I went to the driver, told him I’d found his behaviour unacceptable, and suggested he owed me an apology. I didn’t raise my voice. I didn’t use bad language. I did, I suppose, offend him simply because I refuse to be bullied, but that’s not my problem.  The predictable result: more yelling. He doesn’t come to my workplace to tell me how to do his job, apparently, and I could bloody get off his bloody bus. During this rant – which went on for rather longer than those couple of sentences – he was pink and shaking with rage, and repeatedly jabbed his finger at me. Nice.

Again, let’s go back to First Manchester‘s pledge to provide “friendly, helpful driving staff”. This particular gentleman was so friendly and helpful, he must have undergone intensive training. When you encounter this level of rudeness, the management deserve at least some of the credit. This driver would not have started shouting in the first place unless he knew he could get away with it.

I got off the bus – I was getting off there anyway – and stepped in front of the vehicle (which wasn’t going to be leaving for a couple of minutes, there was a line of people waiting to board), and got out my BlackBerry to take a photo of the vehicle number on the front (on First Manchester‘s newest buses, this number is not clearly visible anywhere inside – it’s somewhere up above the driver’s head, and given that he was yelling at me and shaking with rage, asking him to move his head a bit so I could see the vehicle number was probably a non-starter). Guess what? More yelling, loud enough that I could hear it through the windscreen. I wasn’t going to take his photograph (I wasn’t trying to), and if I didn’t put my ****ing phone away he’d call the… whatever, that’s when I stopped listening and walked away. As I walked away, he gave me the finger; he’d already done so once as I was taking the photograph. Again, nice. Presumably there’s a page in his training manual which outlines in detail under exactly which circumstances that gesture may be employed.

Now, OK, asking for an apology, given his previous volatility, was probably “asking for it”. But this is a company whose front-line employees, again and again, seem to be under the impression that they are entitled to treat their customers like dirt (it speaks volumes for First Manchester‘s management that the vast majority of drivers can’t even manage basic courtesies like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), and really, enough is enough. His original behaviour was thoroughly unacceptable, and I don’t have to stand there meekly and accept being yelled at for no good reason by some arrogant jerk in a tatty uniform who gets off on treating his customers like crap, just because he can. This evening’s experience, granted, was particularly bad, but it’s not as if rude drivers are at all unusual. Polite drivers are the exception, and they’re rare enough to be worth remarking on. This evening’s driver, though, was something else. For a start, somebody that angry is probably not fit to be in charge of a vehicle on the public highway, much less any kind of vehicle carrying paying passengers.

So, yes, I’m still waiting for that apology. I won’t be holding my breath. For First Manchester, awful customer service is simply par for the course, and unless they start employing people who know the difference between customers and cattle, that isn’t going to change.

Note – credit where it’s due: over the past week or so, the weather here has been dreadful, and has caused significant disruption on the roads; First Manchester have done a much better job, this year, of keeping services running through bad weather and keeping their customers informed than they ever have in the past, and that’s an encouraging sign. But today the snow was mostly gone, and services were running normally, and their impressive work over the weekend does not excuse or in any way mitigate the treatment I received this evening.

Same sandwich, different ham

I’m not going to write a full review of the play, because I did that already, but this afternoon I saw the second touring production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean‘s cleverly updated adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters. Paying a repeat visit to something like this is always a tricky proposition; the first (brief) UK tour took place between the production’s initial run at the National and its first run in the West End, and we got to see the glorious original cast that ended up taking the show to Broadway a few months later. The play itself was fun – a smart, stylish update of a comic classic – but that cast, headed by James Corden, was pretty much perfect, to the point where it wasn’t easy to imagine the play without them.

In fact, it works perfectly without them, although maybe a little differently. While every member of that original cast did superb work, Corden provided the kind of out-and-out comedy star turn that comes along far too rarely these days, and he dominated the reviews (and the awards nominations) so much that it was easy to get the impression, reading about the production, that it was basically The James Corden Show, which is more than a little unfair to the company that surrounded him. This time, with comedian Rufus Hound taking Corden’s role as Francis Henshall, the ex-Skiffle-player-turned-gofer for two on-the-lam criminals, the play’s balance changes. Before, it was a star vehicle with a very fine supporting cast; now, it comes across as more of an ensemble piece, and the other players get a little more of the spotlight. Hound, actually, is terrific, landing the physical comedy and the one-liners with equal aplomb, and he’s quick off the mark as well. Not everything that looks improvised in this show is quite as spontaneous as it seems – and when you see it for a second time, you’ll be anticipating some of the “surprises”, which actually doesn’t make them any less funny – but there certainly is plenty of unscripted interaction with the audience, and an enthusiastic college group from Pontefract meant that there was a little more of it this afternoon than there usually is. Hound works the audience beautifully, is never stumped for a one-liner, and is giving a performance of considerable skill and charm. He possibly doesn’t quite have Corden’s effortless star quality, but it doesn’t matter – he makes the role his own, and you never feel you’re watching a Xerox of his predecessor’s performance, which is all too often the case when you watch a replacement cast.

That’s true of the rest of the cast as well – they’ve all been allowed to put their own spin on their characters, and they’re all giving fine, funny performances. Unusually, the most skilful supporting performance in the show, possibly, comes from a woman whose character is not listed in the program, and whose role is confined to one scene in the first half… and to say much more would be to give too much away, but Alicia Davies does something quite difficult, and does it brilliantly well, maintaining the facade right until… well, to say much more would be to give too much away.

Also impressive: Jodie Prenger as the fabulously full-bosomed feminist book-keeper Dolly. Ms. Prenger has big shoes to fill – Suzie Toase was spectacular in the role in the original cast – and my God, she fills them, and her performance here is an object lesson in why it’s perhaps not a good idea to sneer too much at those cheesy reality casting shows. Here, as in her lengthy stint in Spamalot, aside from her powerful singing voice, she reveals genuine star quality, along with a wonderfully sharp way with a one-liner. Her comic timing, simply, is immaculate, and she proved this afternoon that she’s as quick with an off-the-cuff line as anyone else in this cast. Once upon a time, the TV reality show route wouldn’t have been necessary for someone like her, because musical theatre was full of opportunities for this kind of musical comedienne – but this is 2013, and that’s showbiz, folks.

I was surprised, actually, at how well the show as a whole stood up to a repeat viewing, given that so much of it is based on the comedy of surprise, and on seemingly-improvised bits that aren’t quite as spontaneous as they first appear. Bean’s script is extremely clever, giving the actors a fair bit of room to manoeuvure, but building each scene towards a comic payoff that does not depend on interaction with the audience. Nick Hytner’s seemingly bombproof direction also helps, as do Grant Olding’s surprisingly durable songs and musical interludes (there’s even a cast album – I bought it the first time I saw the show, and I’m surprised how often I find myself listening to it). It’s an out-and-out romp, a show that doesn’t have any purpose other than to give you a good time – but, actually, that’s just about the hardest thing to do in the theatre. Even on a second viewing, without the stellar original cast, this is a show that very definitely lives up to its own hype. These days, that’s far rarer than it should be.

Oh yes – purely coincidentally, on my way to the theatre I ate a hummus sandwich.

All misérable, all the time!

Several hours ago, I saw the movie adaptation of Les Misérables. I am still waiting for sensation to return to my buttocks.

That makes it sound like it’s a terrible movie, I know, and it isn’t, although it isn’t perfect either. It is, however, very very long. OK, it’s about twenty minutes shorter than the stage version – but the stage version has an intermission. After an hour and a half, you can get up, use the bathroom, walk around, stretch your legs, or do ANYTHING other than watch people sob in tune about how downtrodden they are then get killed. In the film, after an hour and a half, there’s still well over an hour to go before you can move, and that break is missed. If you’re going to get full value out of spending pushing three hours watching people suffer and die to music, some respite, however brief, helps. A lot.

It’s not as if I didn’t know about the length going in. It’s a long time since I first saw the musical on stage, and I’ve seen it several times (in fact, three times in London, twice in Manchester, twice in Toronto, and once each in Paris, Prague and New York). I’ve seen the Royal Albert Hall and O2 Arena concert versions on television, I own a number of cast recordings from stage productions (although I only really ever play the ones in French), I’ve read the big glossy hardback book that was sold a couple of decades ago as a tie-in to the stage production. I am, in short, as familiar with the material, probably, as anyone who doesn’t identify as a ‘fan’ of the show could possibly be, and while I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘fan’, and can point out all kinds of shortcomings in the material, I enjoyed it on stage very much. I enjoyed it on film as well – but not quite as much as I usually do on stage. Tom Hooper’s film, I’m afraid, makes two things abundantly clear: one, that Herbert Kretzmer’s English-language lyrics for the show are dismally predictable, and two, that Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s thrilling, exceptional direction (still, I think, the best work either has done on the musical stage) was more responsible than you might think for the show’s impact in the theatre.

Here, unfortunately, we don’t have Trevor Nunn and John Caird. We have Tom Hooper, a large budget, brilliant art direction, sets, props, costumes and all the rest of it, and a lot of quick-cutting any time anyone sings counterpoint. ‘One Day More’ is a stirring piece of music, but on stage, when it’s sung well, it’s spine-tingling – and the film, I’m afraid, makes it crystal clear that that’s at least partly because of the stage picture, and the fact that, as the number progresses on stage, all of the various participants are right there in front of you, sharing the same space. You don’t just hear their counterpoint, you see it as well. Hooper can’t replicate that in the film, so he just keeps cutting between the different members of his cast, and the result, unfortunately, just doesn’t have the same impact. Because the sequence, as beautifully produced and designed as it is, is less thrilling than it was in the stage production, you pay more attention to the lyrics, and in this material that’s not a good thing (there is a reason I usually listen to the French recordings rather than the English ones – both French texts are much, much better); they tend towards the banal, and you’re usually two or three steps ahead of the rhymes. The material is what it is, and the stage show has been so extraordinarily successful that major changes were never going to be made – but film is a more literal medium than theatre, and this material’s flaws are far more obvious on screen than I’ve ever found them on stage.

Hooper’s best move, in fact, is his much-discussed decision to have his actors sing live on set, rather than pre-recording their musical material in the studio then miming their songs when the cameras roll. It’s a very definite stylistic choice, and it mostly works to the advantage of a principal cast who do not all by any means sing at the level that has usually been required of their counterparts in the stage show. The singing is often startlingly conversational, and all the better for that; these actors are all simply playing their scenes in song, rather than facing front and Delivering A Big Number. This is an enormous film, but it’s often, paradoxically, almost uncomfortably intimate; solo numbers are delivered as soliloquies, often in extreme close-up, and the singing, even from the strongest singers, is often somewhat ragged around the edges, because everyone involved is working within an aesthetic that privileges acting over purity of musical tone. I wasn’t sure I’d like this, but it works, and mostly works well.

Having said that, even given this very definite aesthetic choice, not all of the singing is unimpeachable. Hugh Jackman delivers an absolutely superb, thoroughly compelling acting performance as Jean Valjean, but his singing voice isn’t always the best fit for Valjean’s music (he’d never have been cast in the role in a stage production). He makes most of it work for him, but he’s defeated, I’m afraid, by the formidably challenging ‘Bring Him Home’, which sits in the least comfortable part of his voice, and which should have been transposed down for him. Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette is radiantly pretty and absolutely charming, but the music really demands a proper soprano, and she isn’t, and when she moves into her head voice her vocals are thin to the point of wispiness.

And then there’s Russell Crowe’s Javert. I know Crowe can act because I’ve seen him do it before, but it seems sometimes he simply chooses not to. Obviously, this is one of those times. He acts like he’s constipated, sings like he needs a good night’s sleep and a big dose of Sudafed, and in his hands Javert’s two big solos are by far the worst things in the film. It’s as if his adenoids showed up every morning and the rest of him stayed home.

Fortunately, Crowe’s is the only completely duff performance. Eddie Redmayne brings real fire (and a very strong voice) to Marius – not easy, since Marius in the musical is frankly a bit of a drip – and his fellow insurrectionists, led by Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras, are terrific. Samantha Barks is possibly even better as Eponine. It’s no surprise that she sings beautifully – she’s already played the role on stage – but she’s the only person who, in negotiating the film’s very particular aesthetic choices, manages to turn in a performance that’s completely satisfying musically as well as dramatically. Sacha Baron Cohen (an actor I usually very strongly dislike) and Helena Bonham Carter are a very welcome surprise as the Thénardiers – they don’t, thank God, fall into the trap of playing the comedy too broadly, they’re properly threatening when they need to be, and their ‘Master of the House’ is a sly, insinuating triumph.

Which leaves Anne Hathaway, whose work in the film has probably generated more column inches (and awards buzz) than everyone else put together. It’s a tiny role – maybe twenty minutes of screen time – but she grabs it with both hands and doesn’t let go, pulling a full-on Charlize as she charts the destitute Fantine’s descent into prostitution, and her eventual death from – well, something nasty and probably sexually-transmitted. She’s painfully thin, we see her getting all her hair cut off, and she has her teeth pulled (only the back ones, though, because she’s Anne! Hathaway! so we can’t make her look too ugly), and she sobs and gulps her way through ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – the show’s most overplayed song – in a single, mesmerising take. It’s an absolutely compelling performance – although, in common with many of her colleagues, her rendition of her music is probably not the one you’ll want to take home and listen to on your iPod – and it’s undeniably moving, at least up to a point, but it’s also absolutely calculated, and blatant Oscar-bait. It’s the film’s showiest supporting turn, but Barks and Bonham Carter do more subtle, more interesting work, and other actresses, in stage productions of the show, have generated more emotional fireworks through this song via less overtly demonstrative performances.

William Nicholson’s screenplay shifts some scenes and musical numbers around and makes a few judicious trims, and does a generally effective job of translating the material into a form that makes sense on screen. There’s a new song – ‘Suddenly’ for Valjean, sung as he carries Cosette away from the Thénardiers’ inn, and it’s pleasant enough but not terribly memorable, although it’s one of Jackman’s better musical moments. Hooper does an efficient but not always inspired job of the crowd scenes, and does not spare the blood towards the end of the lengthy barricade sequence. And the crowd scenes, actually, provide one of the film’s greatest pleasures: this is through-sung pop opera, and the bit parts are luxury-cast with a who’s who of British musical theatre over the past 20 years. From Les Mis itself, we have Colm Wilkinson (original Valjean) as the Bishop of Digne and Frances Ruffelle (original Eponine) as a whore, and they’re both wonderful; beyond them, we have one-or-two-line turns from Daniel Evans, Hannah Waddingham, Marilyn Cutts, Bertie Carvel, Adrian Scarborough, Linzi Hateley and God knows how many others. The supporting/bit-part performances – and there are a lot of them – are consistently spot-on.

The film as a whole, though, is perhaps slightly less than the sum of its parts. It’s certainly enjoyable, and parts of it are tremendous, and the closing tableau of the dead and living mounting the barricade for a final rousing chorus of “Do You Hear The People Sing?” is as effective on film as it was in the theatre – but not everything preceding it is as effective on film as it was in the theatre, although the creative personnel involved here have all made consistently intelligent choices in adapting the stage production for a medium that makes a very different set of demands. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music works well enough in the cinema, and stands up to the more conversational, less declamatory approach taken by the film’s cast. Yes, it’s all a bit relentless, and yes, a couple of individual performances aside, it has roughly the subtlety of a steamroller, but it works. It isn’t perfect, and the film’s soundtrack certainly won’t replace any of your cast recordings, but this is probably as good a film as could have been made from this material, and it’s head and shoulders above several recent-ish big-screen adaptations of hit stage shows. Yes, Hairspray and Phantom and Rent, I mean you. All of you. It also seems to work for people who aren’t ‘fans’ – at least, I saw it with a friend who has never seen the stage show, and he enjoyed it, albeit with some caveats.

Just take a cushion, or spring for the premium seats. Trust me, your buttocks will thank you.

Stay classy, WH Smith!

whsmith

This is a set of fridge magnets. It’s on sale in the branch of WH Smith on the main concourse on Manchester Piccadilly railway station. This display is helpfully located between the books for children and the soft drinks and sweets. It’s on a low rack, just about at eyeball level for your average six-year-old. It’s tacky and crass and totally inappropriate, and the individual who decided to display it there, in the area of the store where children are most likely to see it, pretty much has to be genuinely stupid.

It’s not, actually, precisely the word itself that bothers me. I certainly can’t claim that I never use it myself, although I do wince when I hear it used, as it often is, as either punctuation or a substitute for the word ‘very’. I don’t have a problem seeing it in print either, and I’m not particularly offended by it – but the word itself, here, is only part of the point.

What I do find offensive is the idea that a profanity with potent layers of meaning attached to it, that a significant number of people still consider to be an absolute taboo – it’s a word that, for example, I have never ever heard my mother use – should be devalued to the point where it can be plastered all over a set of tacky fridge magnets and put on sale in a newsagent’s shop between a shelf full of books for children and a display of sweets and Coca-Cola. I don’t have a problem, as I said, with the word itself – but context is everything, and in this context, it’s tasteless. Words, including this one, exist to be used – but words this strong need to be treated with respect.