Tales of the City: Everything but George Formby

John Walsh@johnhenrywalsh
Thursday 24 April 2014 06:12

Call me blinkered, but I've never seen the ukulele as a sexy instrument. Small, compact, cute and miniature, yes. Sexy, nah. Chic, uh-uh. Cool, I don't think so. There's something about an electric guitar solo that looks supremely noble, the male hero wrestling with a giant phallus. There's something about a ukulele player that fatally suggests a shy wet-nurse trying to suckle a small brown mammal.

So I wasn't expecting much when I went to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's weekend gig at The Spitz, that fashionable music bar beside Spitalfields market in the City. I knew what to expect; a dozen or so nerds from Winchester or Harrow, who'd joined the Ukulele Society for a hoot while at Oxford and who would do hilarious close harmonies in posh voices like Instant Sunshine and expect everyone to love them because they were just so British. I wasn't keen. But two and a half hours after I entered, I found myself yelling drunkenly for more, as the strains of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" reverberated off the walls and the hyperactive, bouncing American visitors beside me got so excited they walked on Michael Palin's toe.

What a revelation they were. They started off with the expected plinkety-plunk noises and the choppy chords you associate with You-know-who, the Lancashire gargoyle, but then the demure, dark-haired woman launched into "Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll" and everything started getting all unexpected. In David Bowie's "Life on Mars", a surreal burst of the theme from Love Story wove seamlessly into the melody, somehow mixed up with "I Will Survive". Soon it became clear that you could play anything with a ukulele, from Monteverdi to thrash madrigal. It took some doing to reproduce the race-around theme tune to Dick Barton on six mini-guitars, but they did it. It took some cheek for George Hinchcliffe, the orchestra's boss (he started the band 16 years ago) to lead the chorus of "(You Make me Feel Like A) Natural Woman" or, later, to reinvent Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" as a cocktail-jazz croon, but he did it. It takes some taste to do a ukulele version of Tom Waits's "Shiver me Timbers", not to mention a hilariously deadpan "Anarchy in the UK". By the end, I was a delirious convert to the instrument, despite the fact that no uke band will ever rival, say, the Strokes for on-stage drama. Watching seven performers strumming away, playing blinding solo runs and interlacing fill-ins on their tiny bits of German plywood, you can't but think how much this bonsai chamber septet looks like a disastrously fidgety prayer meeting.

Oh and Michael Palin was there because a cousin told him about it. "Did you know," he asked me, "that George Harrison was a big ukulele fan?" At the bar I met the dark-haired woman who sang "Shiver me Timbers". "You guys should play 'Layla'," I said. "You could, couldn't you?" "We play everything," she said shortly. "Everything but George Formby."

Never mind the director's vision, spot the continuity errors

I was watching Brief Encounter the other day (I've got this secret vice thing about Celia Johnson's voice) when my attention was distracted by a small, on-screen mistake. In the Kardomah café where Celia and Trevor Howard have lunch and start to fall in love, the air is thick with fag smoke. Everyone except for them is sparking up post-prandial Craven As. But as they leave, they pass a sign saying "Smoking Room" with an arrow pointing downstairs... Is it a cock-up? Does it count as a movie mistake?

Oh damn, I've gone and joined the fastest-growing band of art anoraks – the mistake spotters. When Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released on celluloid, it took just a week for the smart alecs to find 20-odd continuity errors (such as the basins in the girls' loo, which are smashed by the ogre but miraculously restored a minute later). Fans of The Lord of the Rings (both the book and the film) tend to be strange, inbred, squat-browed and pedantic individuals anyway, and it took them barely a weekend to find 113 filmic blunders (like when Frodo's eyes change colour, because his blue contact lenses are momentarily dislodged).

Now Spider-Man has opened and American cinemas are evidently crammed with sharp-eyed kids bearing spiral notepads, noting down mistakes. The first report I read quoted 80 errors. By yesterday the figure was 113 and rising. Villains are flung through plate-glass windows, which appear unbroken seconds afterwards, cable cars trundle by with "Universal Pictures" emblazoned on them, and the thong worn by Spider-Man's girlfriend appears and disappears above her jeans in a single scene.

This is a terrible trend. The new generation of filmgoers are not devout cineastes who love the rhythm and texture of cinema, the droll wit, the shifting point of view and the Steadicam fluency, but only go to films to see if they can spot the crew reflected in a doorknob. Still, it is rather a gas checking out your favourite "oops sorry" continuity moments – like the scene in Titanic when Leo DiCaprio hands Kate Winslet a note on yellow paper; when she opens it, it's a note on white paper. But the best filmic mistake is surely in Krakatoa, East of Java. The mistake is in the title. Krakatoa is, in fact, west of Java.

I want, I want...

David Beckham has put a clause in his £14m contract with Manchester United, stipulating that they must give him a pair of Old Trafford goalposts for his own amusement at home in Sawbridegworth. A club mole who was present at the contract talks said, "There have been some tough player negotiations here over the years. But this is the first time we have encountered the goalpost clause – we just hope that it doesn't set a precedent." He's probably too late. It's an inspired idea for people who are accustomed to being spoilt rotten: ask for the earth, then ask for the furniture you're sitting on as well.

The toddler strain that's to be found in several millionaire pop stars and sporting giants – that grown-up variant of I'll-hold-my-breath-until-I-turn-blue-if-I-can't-have-what-I-want – has been well documented: the US band who demanded, among their backstage supplies of Jack Daniels and pure Colombian nasal powder, six bowls of M&Ms "with the blue ones taken out". Mariah Carey's minders who objected to the fact that her dressing room was on the first floor because "Miss Carey doesn't do stairs". Many years ago, Not the Nine O'Clock News featured a sketch in which two union reps negotiating a deal with management gradually upped their contractual demands to include the use of the office swivel chair, sex with the chairman's wife and the gradual "phasing in" of his young daughter.

Now we have Mr Beckham saying, in effect, "I want that, and that and that and that – oh, and I'll have those goalposts too, while you're at it." Next it will be Roy Keane demanding the electronic scoring mechanism and the central kick-off circle. Meanwhile, back in London, Madonna, 42, is having some spectacular I-want-everything Violet-Elizabeth Bott moments. She opened this week in Up for Grabs at the Wyndhams Theatre after having a series of iron whims. First she objected to the roadworks outside the building (they interfered with her concentration). Then she discovered to her horror that the dressing rooms didn't have en suite bathrooms; she's insisted that some lavatories be specially built to keep her ablutions away from public gaze. Last, she demanded the stage be raised five feet to keep her a respectful distance above the paying mob. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if, at the end of the run, she emulates David B. Will she say, "I'm leaving... but I want to take those boxes"?

The last word

Some of my younger associates are puzzling over a letter that they received at the weekend from the Harry Potter Fan Club, run by Bloomsbury, which publishes the lucrative titles. It announced with regret that the club was closing down, and thanked them for their support over the years. Sadly, most of the teenagers had forgotten that they were members – because, in the five years since the first Harry book was published in June 1997, they'd received precisely two letters from the organisers, one to welcome them aboard and one to announce a book launch at a railway station. And that was that. It takes a certain genius to set up a fan club for the most popular children's books in the history of the world, and then to have nothing to report to members about the four world mega-sellers, the multi-million-quid movie, the cover of Time magazine, the author's marriage...

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