On my first trip to the Big Apple in 1975, I was in time (just) to see Jack Dempsey's joint on Times Square, which I believe was the original for Mindy's in the Runyon stories
Saturday 18 January 1997
I got a horse right here,
Its name is Paul Revere...
In his sensational revival of the show, due to occupy the National Theatre's Olivier stage for the next three months, Richard Eyre sets the scene for this poignant ditty with a galerie of Runyonesque characters as devious as their adopted home turf of Broadway, the only thoroughfare on Manhattan which refuses to conform to the island's rigorous grid-plan. (It follows the course of an Indian forest track.) The stage pollulates with flim- flam artists, gunsels, thimble-riggers, corner boys, crap-shooters, hookers, sidewinders, geeks, stumblebums, hustlers and gorillas, all chivvied along by a trio of New York's Finest.
But what took my breath away were the dozen or so neon signs which glow feverishly above this frantic menagerie. In the theatre programme, Eyre says the idea came as "divine intervention" one day in Paris when he discovered a book called Let There Be Neon by Rudi Stern, who declared, "Neon is writing with light". As well as providing illumination, the staccato urban poetry of the adverts is perfectly in tune with the fast-talking characters of Runyon's Broadway: "Planter's Peanuts: A bag a day for more pep", "Take the Rock Island Rocket to Chicago" and, best of all "I'd walk a mile for a Camel". This appears above a working replica of the famous "Smoking Man" which, for many decades, puffed real smoke into Times Square.
Seeing this phenomenon in operation, while on my first trip to the Big Apple in 1975, I was surprised by two things. Firstly, the figure was dressed in modern clothes (I had only ever seen photographs from the Thirties), and, secondly, he blew smoke-rings - a refinement beyond the technical capabilities of the National Theatre. I was also in time (just) to see Jack Dempsey's joint on Times Square, which I believe was the original for Mindy's in the Runyon stories. It had already closed down and, in Manhattan's unsentimental fashion, was shortly to be demolished, but the pugilist's name still gleamed over the shuttered door in art moderne stainless-steel lettering.
The milieu which Damon Runyon stylised so brilliantly and romanticised more than somewhat can be glimpsed in an exhibition of photographs from New York's Museum of Modern Art currently at the Victoria & Albert Museum. One of the stark works by the lensman Weegee shows a guy apparently slumbering in the front seat of his car on a suburban street. But the presence of several great-coated cops and a photographer wielding a bulky Speed Graphic camera hints at the drama revealed in Weegee's terse caption: "Harry Maxwell Shot in Car, 1936". Another snap, "Cafe Society, New York, 1943", reveals the sort of smoky, boozy, rackety nightspot where Runyon would have felt much at home. "The idea of Cafe Society was all right, except for the cafe," recalled a fellow denizen. "What actually ruined the whole goddam thing was alcohol and noise." Similarly, Runyon himself was a far less appealing character ("cruel and steely-hearted", according to one study) than his stories suggest.
When Mrs W first visited New York with me five or six years ago, I knew she would not be disappointed - there is no more electric place on earth - but, nevertheless, I was slightly concerned that the modern city might prove a trifle staid for one who was well-versed in the adventures of Sky Masterson, Harry the Horse, Rusty Charley et al. I needn't have worried. Even before we emerged from the airport bus into the ghastly Port Authority Terminal on 40th Street, we saw half a dozen policemen, equalisers in mitts, in hot pursuit of some miscreant. "Wow," exclaimed our New York friends, when we reached their Upper West Side apartment, "we've lived here 17 years and never seen a policemen pull his gun. How lucky can you get?"
One of the earliest American photos in the V&A exhibition is an eerie study by Edward Steichen of Rodin's statue of Balzac. It may have been this monumental casting, 12 feet in height, which a BBC team was almost sent to film sometime in the Eighties. One of Balzac's sprawling human comedies had been adapted for TV and the producer thought that Rodin's portrait of the great man would be ideal for the credit sequence. Tickets for the US were purchased, visas obtained, bags were packed, when a secretary happened to remark that she believed there was another casting of this masterpiece in her home town. Instead of heading stateside, the film crew were less than overjoyed to find themselves dispatched to the Kodak Building in Hemel Hempstead.
Though by no means Tony Blair's biggest fan, I found my feelings warming to him last week when he was filmed in a south-London joinery workshop sawing away at a lump of two-by-four. Intended to be a wholly innocuous photo-opportunity, it inadvertently revealed that the champion of New Labour is no horny-handed son of toil. "That bloke," sniffed Mrs W, "hasn't the faintest idea how to hold a saw." While some may see such cack-handedness as something of a defect in the leader of the People's Party, I view it as an incomparable asset. Tony is clearly one of us, the maladroit gang for whom wood is always chock-full of knotholes, chisels are imbued with deceit and mallets ingrained with perverseness.
Insanely, I was forced to learn the dread trade at school. "Come on, boysh," the sibilently challenged woodwork master would urge, "plane and shet-shquare." No matter how long I planed my lump of timber, its corners would never conform to the 90-degree authoritarianism of the set-square. Shavings piled up around me, while my classmates would cackle: "Sir, sir, Weasel's making a pencil." Even in the simplest exercises, my dove-tail joints flew apart, my mortice-and-tenons were less than tenacious.
After two years, I finished my first piece. While everyone else was presenting their homes with toilet-roll holders or foot-stools, I proudly delivered four pieces of wood formed into a square (to be honest, more of a parallelogram) with three holes on one side. After admiring the varnish, my parents asked what it was. "A test-tube rack, of course," I squeaked resentfully. Though my father bravely tried to use it as a pipe-rack, the object proved to be irredeemably unstable. A year later, when others had graduated to staircases and bookshelves, I produced my second, equally pointless creation, a pen- tray. After that, I switched to chemistry. I have never since laid hand on plane, vice or fret-saw and I'd advise Mr Blair to follow suit. All he needs to do now is reveal a detestation of sport and a pathological untidyness, and I'll know he's a true soulmate.
The January issue of John Kennedy Jr's political monthly George (it's to do with Washington, you see) comes in a choice of two covers. For Democrats, Claudia Schiffer pouts winningly while wearing nothing more than a Clinton- Gore sash. The Republican version has Claudia as a luscious loser in a Dole-Kemp sash (with a black polo-neck) and dabbing at a glycerine tear. Inside, the supermodel gives readers the benefit of her political wisdom in a Q & A page entitled "If I were President". To the question "Your greatest weakness would be?", she gives the bizarre response: "I'm a fool for Kissinger's accent." In fact, the ponderous strategist talks in an almost impenetrable Teutonic growl. Like him, La Schiffer is a child of the Fatherland - you don't suppose she speaks the same way, do you?
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