Liverpool calling

It’s been nearly four months since we got the fantastic news that Liverpool will host Eurovision 2023 on behalf of Ukraine.

Things went a little bit quiet after that. There was the announcement of the production team, and a fantastic New Year’s Eve show with Sam Ryder showing just how Eurovision can boost an artist, if they want it. But if there was activity behind the scenes, not much of it was in the public eye.

Things kicked up a gear on Monday with the unveiling of the theme for this year’s contest, United by Music, and the logo and graphics, which combine the colours of the UK and Ukraine.

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777th Heaven

Banner at Kirkby showing a class 777 train emerging from darkness, with the caption "They're Coming"

It took us over ten years to get to this point.

Britain was gearing up to host the 2012 Olympics when the prospect of a new fleet of trains for Merseyrail was first floated. It was four years later that Stadler was awarded the contract to replace the sturdy but ageing Class 507 and 508 trains.

We waited patiently. The occasional press release gave a tantalising insight into progress. A completed bodyshell, preliminary testing. Things were starting to come together.

As part of the construction process, there was a mockup on display at Birkenhead for a while, to allow “stakeholders” (ugh) to give feedback on the design. I went to see it (OF COURSE) and was impressed by the technology on show and the thoughtfulness that had gone into the design. Wheelchair users, cyclists and prams had been designed in from the start, rather than as an afterthought.

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Empire State of Mind

Empire of Light is a new film recently released, focusing on the staff of a slightly faded cinema in 1980s Margate, which I saw on Saturday night with Ben.

Queen Olivia Colman plays Hilary, the duty manager of the Empire cinema. She is friendly and personable, but also has mental health issues and is prescribed lithium by an uninterested doctor. She spends her evenings alone at home, and at work she forces herself to smile and go along with the banter of her co-workers. She is having an affair with her married boss Donald (played by Colin Firth) who is rather exploiting her vulnerability. Also on staff is Norman, the projectionist, played by Toby Jones.

Promotional image for Empire of Light, showing Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman

New employee Stephen (Micheal Ward) arrives and Hilary becomes rather smitten with him. The two embark on a relationship, but issues arise because of Hilary’s mental health and the racism Stephen experiences in the town, which Hilary finds difficult to cope with. Meanwhile, the run-down cinema is chosen for a gala screening of Chariots of Fire and suddenly a great deal of attention is focused on the venue.

It’s not the most exciting film in the world, but it’s hard not to warm to the characters (well, except for Firth’s sleazy cinema manager, but that’s intentional I think). Colman is excellent as always, and Ward is great too. And the film as a whole looks gorgeous — even the shots in the cinema’s derelict, pigeon-infested restaurant look amazing.

Director Sam Mendes has cooked up a lovely tribute to the classic cinema experience, one that was on the verge of dying out in the 1980s and has now disappeared in the era of the multiplex. Meanwhile, the frank depiction of racist attitudes means this isn’t just an easy slice of nostalgia.

Also — and I hope this doesn’t make me sound too shallow — Micheal Ward gets naked at one point and he has a very nice bum.

Approach with Care

Western Approaches is a World War II museum, located in the basement of Exchange Flags, an office block in Liverpool City Centre.

During World War II, the building’s cellars were converted into a headquarters for the Battle of the Atlantic, the struggle to keep Britain supplied with essential supplies and equipment, as Nazi Germany’s U-Boats stalked vessels making the transatlantic crossing.

After the war, the complex was largely abandoned, and fell into disrepair until opened as a museum in the early 1990s.

The building was top secret at the time, and still seems to be rather well-hidden today, with many visitors to the city seemingly unaware of its existence. This is despite the big signs pointing to “TOP SECRET WARTIME HQ” – definitely one for fans of irony.

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Otto-matic for the People

On Friday night I went with Ben to see the new Tom Hanks film A Man Called Otto. There aren’t many heartwarming comedy dramas that open with the main character preparing to commit suicide, but this is one of them.

Hanks plays a recently-retired widower who finds himself increasingly at odds with the modern world. He rails at the DIY shop because they sell rope by the yard and he only needs five feet. He patrols the neighbourhood, watching for dogs who pee on his lawn and cars using the residents-only road illegally. His neighbours irritate him, as does the paper boy who leaves his bike blocking the pavement for a moment.

So far, so Victor Meldrew. But like Victor Meldrew, Otto’s grumpiness doesn’t come from nowhere. Through flashbacks, we are shown Otto’s courtship of his eventual wife Sonya, and the tragedy that struck them (the younger Otto is played by Hanks’s son, Truman).

Back in the present day, Otto can’t see a future for himself after retirement, and plans to end it all. He is repeatedly prevented from doing so by his new neighbours, a family led by the relentlessly chirpy Marisol (played by Mariana Treviño, a new name to me, but amazingly good here). Although initially resistant to Marisol’s overtures of friendship, Otto slowly but surely warms up to her, becoming a friend to her and her two kids, and even her husband, despite thinking he’s an idiot.

There are lots of funny moments here, and if you watched the trailer, you might be expecting another bog-standard “grumpy old man” film. But there is also pathos here; the ending genuinely had me in tears – and it’s a long time since a film had that effect on me. Maybe it’s because Otto, left behind in a confusing modern world after the love of his life passed away, reminded a bit of my own dad.

Also — and without spoiling things too much — another supporting character, who plays a pivotal role, is a trans teenage boy, Malcolm. He is played by trans actor Mack Bayda and it’s great to see trans representation in a mainstream film.

Still looking for a Wilma to complete my juice glass set

I told you last time I had two shows booked for 2023, and I saw the first of those yesterday with Ben.

Five years after its debut as a fringe production by some Cambridge students, Six the Musical is currently on a UK tour, having already garnered rave reviews in the West End and on Broadway.

The show recasts Henry VIII’s six wives as a girl group performing a pop concert. Through some toe-tapping tunes and jaw dropping dance moves, each wife tells their story.

It’s a surprisingly educational show. Does the average person in the street know that much about Henry’s wives, beyond the unpleasant fate that befell several of them? (“Divorced! Beheaded! Survived!” is the show’s tagline)

This is an entertaining way to tell their stories and put them centre stage, rather than their husband. There isn’t really much of a plot, beyond the idea that the women are competing amongst themselves to decide which of them was the ‘best’ wife. By the end of the show however, it’s clear that the competition is irrelevant, and there is no benefit from picking a favourite.

Having said that, Anne of Cleves was my favourite, but I may be biased because she got introduced by German techno music.

Cast of Six the Musical performing at the curtain call, with several mobile phones recording

The all-woman cast and band got a richly-deserved standing ovation at the end, and the entire audience got up to dance along with the encore performance (yes, even me).

I was also delighted to be back in the Liverpool Playhouse for the first time in quite a while. It’s a lovely little theatre, perfectly suited for a show of this type.

Six the Musical is touring the UK at the moment, and is also on stage in London and New York. And touring America and Australia. And Holland. It’s everywhere! sixthemusical.com for more info.

Twenty Twenty Two… A Re-Do… Part Two

Shakespeare once wrote: “All the world’s a stage.”

But that’s ridiculous. If all the world is a stage, that would put theatres out of business, because no-one would ever need to visit one. What a silly thing for Shakespeare to say. Why are kids made to study this FOOLISH man in school?!

Luckily, wiser counsels prevailed, and plays continue to be produced on proper stages. Here are some I saw this year, including some very mainstream hits and more… esoteric fare.

THE BOOK OF MORMON

Nine years after I saw it in London, The Book of Mormon visited Liverpool as part of its 2020 tour (Covid may have caused one or two slight delays), and was just as outrageous as I remembered.

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Twenty Twenty Two… A Re-Do

2022 will go down in history as a year. There was turmoil in the wider world and political upheaval at home.

Anyway, here are some films I watched and enjoyed.

BROS

The first gay rom-com (by a major studio). Billy Eichner plays Bobby, an uptight, slightly whiny gay man, who falls in love with Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), a straight-acting jock type. But — who would have thought it? — the relationship is rocky and punctuated by awkward moments and personality clashes before they eventually realise they are perfect for each other.

Sadly the film didn’t do too well at the box office. Maybe Eichner’s character was a bit too annoying, maybe the straights were scared off by the four-way sex scene, or maybe there were too many jokes about gay culture that only make sense to someone who has a lifetime subscription to the Advocate and has seen every episode of Drag Race. It was probably a little too gay to entice the straights in. Not that they should have diluted the gayness for more mainstream appeal. Quite the opposite: they should have gone the whole hog and left in the rimming scene.

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The Strike Before Christmas

Goodwill is in short supply this festive season. Rail workers, postal workers, nurses, ambulance workers and more have all called strike action.

The railway is in such a state in parts that it doesn’t need workers to strike to cause disruption, as customers of Transpennine Express and Avanti West Coast, among others, can testify.

The NHS is in meltdown due to chronic underfunding and understaffing caused by mismanagement. Even on non-strike days, people are waiting hours for ambulances. Is it any wonder that nurses and ambulance workers have had enough?

The government has naturally attacked the striking workers, and is now planning to pass draconian anti-strike laws. Add this to the recent laws passed cracking down on protests, and we have a government that can only hang on to control by crushing its opposition.

These are workers who were lauded as “key workers” during the pandemic, dutifully heading into work while the rest of us stayed home and baked banana bread. People stood on their doorsteps and clapped for them, now they are being attacked as lazy and greedy for making some perfectly reasonable demands. After years of pay failing to keep up with inflation, prices are spiralling. People are being forced to choose between heating their homes or eating properly. Some can’t afford to do either.

We all need a pay rise, and for public services to be funded properly. We are in one of the richest economies in the world, it could easily be done.

I am inconvenienced by cancelled trains, and delayed post, but even so: solidarity to all those who are campaigning, and Merry Christmas.

Pining for the Fjords

My Norwegian adventures came to an end, and I had to return to Brexit Island. The journey to the airport and the flight home was uneventful, and a few hours later I was touching down in Manchester Airport, where I was greeted with the usual welcome: a long, slowly-moving passport queue. Great first impression of the UK for visitors, WELL DONE.

A "Fly SAS" jet on the tarmac at Oslo airport, waiting to taxi to the runway.

Despite the problems I had along the way, it was overall an amazing trip. Norway is a beautiful part of the world, and I was glad to spend a week there sampling some of what it had to offer. Bodø in particular was a lovely surprise – a charming town with plenty to do and see.

I have to give Railbookers their due – they gave a refund for the non-running sleeper train and the cancelled Northern Lights tour without any quibble. I’m not sure, given the number of emails and phone calls I had to make to book the trip in the first place, whether a specialist tour operator required less effort than just booking the different parts of the trip separately online. On the other hand, you do have that all important ATOL protection, which may be an important consideration for some.

I’m hoping to travel extensively in 2023. Will I be going back to Norway again? Maybe not next year, but I think I will be heading to Scandinavia again sooner rather than later. Wherever I go, it will be blogged in excruciating detail – watch this space!

Photo of the setting sun low in the sky, illuminating a Norwegian landscape of mountains, trees and fjords