Wednesday 28 June 2017

Britain, after all these years, is still no country for old, gay men

Michael Penn is 76 years old. He was born during the Second World War in 1941. Michael was 45 years old when his partner, Brian, fell ill in 1986. He recalled : 'We were spending the Christmas break at our holiday home in Suffolk. Brian spent all of Christmas Day in bed and on Boxing Day morning I could tell he wasn’t getting better. I called a doctor friend to get his opinion. He took one look at Brian and said we must take him to hospital straight away. Anyone who contracted HIV back then, as Brian had, was almost certain to die. On top of that, there was so much we didn’t know about how the virus worked or how it was transmitted.'

Fifty years ago, Michael was 26 years old when the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 'decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21.'

Twenty years later Michael recorded : 'On 28 May 1987, Brian died. He was just two months away from his 40th birthday. It was a tragic year for me, as I received my own HIV diagnosis too. Having cared for Brian in his last months, I didn’t know how long I would live and I assumed the worst.'

He also recalled that, back then : 'The Government had recently launched its National Awareness Campaign, 'Don’t Die of Ignorance', featuring tombstones and icebergs, and every household had received the now infamous leaflet. Everywhere I looked there was the idea that HIV was a death sentence.'

In 1990 Michael was told that he needed to go on medication to control the virus : 'At the time only azidothymidine, known as AZT, was available. I was confused about whether I should start treatment. I’d heard about the dreadful side effects and, to be frank, I wasn’t sure if it would help me or hurt me.' In fact, he did start the medication and experienced side effects.

At the age of 55 in 1996, Britain had become a country where Michael had the prospect of becoming an old man : 'My world changed for ever. Combination antiretroviral therapy became available. It was revolutionary. It wasn’t a cure, but it enabled people to live well with HIV, with few, or in my case no, side effects.'

Michael says : 'Today, I take just two pills once a day. Effective treatment works by suppressing the HIV virus. It is reduced so much that it can no longer be detected in the blood. We now know this also means, incredibly, that it can’t be passed on.'

Yet, despite this, he is still, ill at ease : 'I worry about stigma as I grow older and hear stories about terrible treatment of those with HIV in care homes, with staff who have never really had to think about the virus and although I am healthy and speak openly about my status, I have experienced stigma myself. There is still a lot to do to bring public attitudes and awareness up to date with the medical reality.'

To confirm Michael's fears, a recent 'Terrence Higgins Trust Survey' revealed that nearly one in three Britons wrongly believed that HIV can be transmitted by sharing toothbrushes and one in five think that HIV can be transmitted by kissing.

Friday 23 June 2017

Britain is a country which says "Goodbye" to Brian Cant where many remember him as a friend who entertained them on tv when they were young

Brian, the presenter of several long-running series in the Golden Age of children's television from the 1960s to 1980s, has died at the age 83. In a career in kid's tv which spanned a total of 40 years, Brian entertained successive  generations which must have totalled millions of children. He spoke to them directly in his simple, gentle manner and they trusted and loved him in return.

What the kids didn't know about Brian was that he was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, in the Summer of 1933 and grew up in Lancing
Avenue in a new semi-detached house, where the family was supported by his Father who worked as an engineer. Having passed his 11+ during the Second World War he took himself off to Northgate Grammar School for Boys towards during the Second World War in 1944. In the school photo taken after the War in 1948, taken when he was in the 4th year, his smiling face can be picked out in the centre of his serious-looking contemporaries.

For someone who later became the consummate theatrical professional, he later confessed that : "I never did drama at school. I was too shy." In fact there was no family connection "with showbiz except for my mother's father who was a roller-skater on the halls. He used to go round the music halls doing his skating act on a tiny little portable rink; the only thing I know about him is that there's a sepia photograph of him doing a pirouette and on the back there's a message to my grandmother saying something like "Hello dear, I'm playing Colchester next week and hope to send you some money!"

Brian left school at 16 and, no doubt at his Father's suggestion, was enrolled as an apprentice lithographer at a printing press in the town. He described his role rather grandly as : "A lithographic artist in a fine art shop in Ipswich."  Working, on what must have been the unexciting and unexacting process where metal plates were used create images for the print shop, Brian sought outlets in sport and the stage.

These were the years when he still had dreams of playing football for Ipswich Town, having trained for the club in their youth section while at the same time, as he recalled, he would "watch the Ipswich Theatre and started joining in a bit, helping and then I began doing amateur work around Ipswich" and "used to watch all the old music hall stars, Max Miller and all the rest, at the local Hippodrome and I went to all the summer shows at Felixstowe and Clacton and just got the feeling that I wanted to do this."

After returning home after his two years National Service in the Armed Forces in the early 1950s, his desire for the theatre was undiminished and at the age of 24, in 1957, having graduated from stage hand to actor he performed in an amateur production of the thriller, 'Safe Harbour' and was damned with faint praise in a review which said : 'Mr Cant does incredibly well within the terms of an almost embarrassingly inept caricature.' This was the year in which theatre called him away from Suffolk which he left for London, having "got a girlfriend who was in RADA."

To support himself he continued working as a printer by day and acting by night, mainly with the amateur Mount View Theatre Club, which met in Cecile House at Crouch End in North London. Formed by Peter Coxhead while he was in the Navy during the Second World War, it put on about 20 plays each year and, as Brian later said, it was "amateur, but there were also lots of pros keeping their hand in so-to-speak," After being spotted by an agent, he took the plunge the following year, jacked in his job as a printer, turned professional and spent the summer season in rep at Buxton, Pavilion Arts Centre in Derbyshire, where his income fell dramatically from £23 to £3 10 shillings per week. He recalled : "Luckily, when the season finished, we went to Peterborough and took over there. We were the Penguin Players and I spent two years there playing all sorts of parts. That's really where I learnt my trade." 

In 1960, at the age of 27, he made the transition from stage to television when a friend, Dennis “Slim” Ramsden, introduced him to a BBC TV director and after a successful audition he was cast as a P.O.W in one episode of a six part Second World War 'The Long Way Home.' He then, over the next four years, played by turn in tv series : a miner in 'The Secret Kingdom', a corporal in 'Sir Francis Drake,' a police constable in the comedy series 'Bootsie and Snudge', a Special Branch man in 'The Sentimental Agent', Det. Sgt. Barnes in 'No Hiding Place' and Det. Sgt. Bailey in 'Detective'.

Then in 1964, and now 31, Brian recalled : "I had been doing a lot of schools' programmes and in one of them I was being a Roman sitting on an urn." The production assistant, Cynthia Felgate, told him she was setting up a new show, 'Play School' to which Brian, the pro from hundreds of children's audiences from his days in rep said : "How do I audition ?"

Although, Brian continued to pepper his career from that point with roles in serious drama, it was his work in children's shows that earned him the love and affection of successive generations of children. The start of what would be his 21 year involvement in 'Play School', which led directly to his work providing the voices for the Gordon Murray puppet series, 'Camberwick Green' in 1966, 'Trumpton' in 1967 and 'Chigley' in 1969.

Between 1971-84 Brian co-hosted 'Play Away' while presenting the children's show 'Bric-A-Brac' from 1980-82 and at the age of 57 he began to play the part of Brian, the farmer in the tv puppet programme, 'Dappledown Farm' and completed that work at the age of 70 in 2003. It was in that year that he began work on the Channel 5 shows 'MechaNick' and 'The Softies.'

Play School 
Joy Whitby recalled in 2012 : 'When Brian Cant came to the audition, I asked him to sit in a cardboard box and imagine going on a journey. He sailed away with a broomstick and found, he said, a wellington boot full of custard. He was totally natural and he became Mr Play School.'

Brian recalled : "They wanted a programme aimed at the single child at home, so you were working eyeball-to-eyeball. I think that was why it was so successful; whoever you were talking to, you had to make them feel that they were the only one, that you were doing it just for them, and so there were all sorts of guidelines we had to follow. We were never allowed to say "ask your mother/father" because they might not have a mum or dad, so you'd say "ask a grown-up" or "ask an adult", and you couldn't talk about going to play on the lawn, because there'd be lots of children in high-rise blocks who didn't have gardens, so you'd talk about playing in the park."

"You were always trying to make the child feel that you were doing the programme just for them; I think it paid off, and I think it's why so many people remember it as being special to them, because they got to know each and every one of us as brothers, sisters, uncles or whatever. But no-one ever called me Uncle Brian; it was more as if I was just a grown-up mate who came over and messed around, chatted, read stories."

Brian and the clock :

Brian the bird :

The Trumpton Trilogy 
Set in the fictional county of Trumptonshire was the market towns and villages of 'Camberwick Green' in 1966, 'Trumpton' in 1967 and 'Chigley' in 1969, Brian narrated each part and sang every song in the 39 films of the series, which told the gentle stories of everyday events in the lives of the postman, doctor, farmer, milkman and others. What his audience didn't know was that Brian : "Never saw the puppets or the filming of any of the shows” and “used to go round to Freddie Phillips’s house and sit in his cupboard, which was also his recording studio. I would do roughly three shows a day in there. It was tiring work.”

It was Brian's voice that weekly introduced kids to the townsfolk of 'Camberwick Green' :

“Here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside. Can you guess what is in it today ?"

Mrs Honeyman and her Baby 

Captain Snort

Peter the Postman

His opening words for 'Trumpton' and remain familiar to many who were the kids who watched the programme, were addressed to that town’s firemen :
“Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub” 
Brian's 'Play Away' was a live entertainment spin-off of 'Play School', for older children, incorporating comedy songs and jokes, it ran between 1974 and 1987 with him as a presenter throughout.

One feature of the programme was a sequence of short one line gags based around a theme, for example :
“I’m a bean, I’m a bean, what kind of bean am I?”
Jeremy Irons also presented the show with Brian during its early years.

Brian played the owner of a kind of junk shop, who went round finding things that began with different letters of the alphabet and in 1984 faces in a mirror :

                   Dappledown Farm 

He took the role of a farmer on a farm full of puppet animals which included Dapple the Horse, Mabel the Cow, Stubble and Straw, the two mice, Columbus the Cockerel, Lucky Ducky, Colin the Coot, Millie the Moor hen, Fiona the Frog and Harry the Heron.

In 2010 when he was 77, Brian was given a 'Special Award' at the Children’s Baftas and began his acceptance speech with :
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. When I became a man I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child and they paid me for it." 

At the time Brian was asked by the BBC's Bill Turnbull : "what would he have liked his young viewers to take away from his programmes ?"
He replied, with perfect self-deprecation :
"Maybe, that I made them laugh and generally made them feel happy"

Mission Accomplished Brian

Sunday 11 June 2017

Brexit Europe is no continent for old men from Britain living on their pensions

From the 1990s onwards cheap air travel, increased longevity, rising British house prices, inflation-proofed pensions, together with Spanish property speculation and the EU principle of free movement, added about 310,000 British citizens to Spain’s current population and over 106,610 of these are elderly old men and women claiming and in some cases, heavily dependent on their state pension from Britain. The southern regions of Costa del Sol and Alicante have been their most popular places to live.

Most of them make no effort to integrate at all. One-third rarely or never meet Spanish people, apart from in shops and restaurants and 60% do not speak Spanish well. Instead, they congregate together British restaurants and pubs, eating English breakfasts and drinking pints of bitter.

Other EU countries also have substantial numbers of British citizens : Ireland has 255,000 and France, 185,000 out of a total of 1.2 million British citizens living abroad in the EU and many of these are also pensioners.  At the moment. thanks to EU regulation, they receive the same annual pension rises as those back home in Britain, when such rises are denied to pensioners living in most non-EU countries.

Now there could be trouble ahead for these old Brits because the pound’s fall against the euro has already shrunk the pension’s value by 10% in one year and Britain’s withdrawal from the EU may also mean the ending of the index-linking that pensioners inside the EU presently enjoy.

Another concern for them is healthcare, where at the moment there’s a big imbalance between British pensioners using European health services and European pensioners in Britain using the National Health Service. In Spain, for example, 70,000 retired British citizens use Spain’s doctors and hospitals, while in Britain only 81 Spanish pensioners are registered for treatment by the NHS.

At the moment reciprocal agreements between the states inside the 'European Economic Area', which consists of the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, mean that costs are covered by the migrant’s home nation. On this basis, Britain paid £674.4m in health bills to other EEA countries in 2014-15 and claimed back only £49.7m. However, if Britain leaves the EEA as well as the EU, this health provision, which is free at the point of delivery, would, unless it is renegotiated with individual countries, also come to an end.

In the words of Sir Roger Gale, the Conservative MP and pension campaigner, the victims include “a lot of very elderly, very frail people" who "have sunk all their disposable income into their properties.” 

These old Brits are trapped. They can't sell their homes at the price they paid for them and the inflated house prices or rents in Britain make their return impossible. What was once their idyll in the sun is starting to turn into the millstone around their necks.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old conductor called Jeffrey Tate, whose life bore testimony to the power of the human spirit

That is no country for old men..
Caught in that sensual music all neglect 
Monuments of unageing intellect.    

Jeffrey, who has died at the age of seventy-four served his apprenticeship in the world of professional music in his late twenties in the 1970s as a 'repetiteur' at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under the tutelage of Sir Georg Solti and he loved it. He defined his role as one of "bashing notes into players" and "the dogsbody of an opera house and great fun."

As his reputation as a coach grew in the 1970's, so too did the calibre of the artists with whom he worked : Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman and in 1976, Maria Callas, who was : "very suspicious of me at first as I was of her, but after the month was up, I think we'd become very, very close friends. Whether I could actually coach her is another matter." 

These were the years in which Jeffrey loathed opera and : "Used to go to Convent Garden and wonder why the singers were never with the beat always sang out of tune and why the productions looked so horrible and I would rather go to the Royal Shakespeare Company." He had not seriously considered conducting and thought that he would "rather be the best coach than one of many second rate conductors." 

He became a conductor "purely by accident. I was in Bayreuth assisting Pierre Boulez on 'The Ring' and he put me in charge of all the piano rehearsals and maybe that began to get me think that I could do that kind of thing. One thing led to another and I ended up conducting a series of 15 Carmens at the Gothenburg Opera and it sort of snowballed slightly from there with a reluctant Jeffrey sort of 'tagging on behind.' " 

After his conducting debut in 1978, in Sweden, he graduated to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City the following year and the stage was set for his international career.

Recognition in Britain came at the age of 42 in 1985, when he was appointed the First Principal Conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra and the 'Principal Conductor' of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden the following year, the first person in the House's 250 year history to hold the title.

From 1990, when he left the English Chamber Orchestra, he performed less and less in Britain and reflected that : "After I gave up the ECO, everything sort of dried up here. My mother's friends would ask her, 'Where is your son? Why doesn't he come to Britain any more?' They all thought I had gone into exile or something." He was Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 1991 to 1995 and in  2005, was appointed Music Director of the San Carlo Theatre of Naples and remained so for five years.

Jeffrey reappeared briefly in Britain in 2008, when he returned to Covent Garden to lead a production of Wagner's 'The Flying Dutchman' then formally took up a Hamburg Symphony post the following year. Fluent in German, he always felt that Germany was his spiritual home. "Whatever the politics seem to be there, culture is always very central. In Hamburg, there are three major orchestras, an opera house, and one of the great concert-hall acoustics in Europe at the Laeiszhalle, in a town a fifth the size of London. And that's not unusual. In Germany, there are dozens of towns with two or three orchestras. The connection with music goes very, very deep."

His accomplishments were recognised with a knighthood in the 2017 New Year Honours for 'Services to British Music Overseas.'

What you possibly didn't know about Jeffrey, that he :

* was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire half-way through the Second World War, in the spring of 1943, the son of Ellen, who had Welsh antecedents and Cyril, who worked in the Civil Service as a Sales Representative for the Post Office.

* had Ellen say of him : "When he was a baby I didn't notice that he was disabled. He was a sweet little boy. You couldn't image that anything was wrong with him. Only when he couldn't walk properly was he examined by a specialist."

* at the age of three, was examined for the benign condition of 'flat feet', but was found to suffer from, in addition to congenital spina bifida, the complication of kyphosis, a forward rounding of the back and breathing problems and compressed internal organs.

* recalled that : "I was odd from the word go. Slowly, as I grew up, my back began to stoop over and my left leg became shorter than the right one."

* in terms of music : "began playing the piano when I was about five and had lessons for about five years and then stopped because my parents wanted me to concentrate on more important things, so they thought and I just went on playing the piano. That was instinctive, I suppose, and I used to go to my local library and get out books of operas and I sang a lot and in a way, therefore, taught myself to perform."

* said that his Mother "played rather well" and played Mendelssohn when he was very small. In addition remembered that Grandfather Evans : "loved opera and there was masses of opera selections in his piano stool where I used to go sit when my father went to the football match with him and my Mother's cousin played the violin quiet well, so I'm not absolutely without predecessors." 

* found that, despite the fact that he had a younger sister and his parents encouraged him to be "a perfectly normal child" and insisted that he "do errands, clean my room, ride my bicycle into town to get groceries, things children generally do," he still had a lonely childhood.

* felt that he was "isolated from the other children. By their own reactions to me, I would retreat to a piano, often with a book. My great childhood thing was to take a book that I was reading put it on the piano and literally improvise as I was reading the book. It was a very curious state of affairs and I would do that for hours. My mother said I was perfectly happy then, just let my fingers stroll over the keys and would not miss anybody. I'm sure that music and the notes were my friends rather than the children." 

* had his first stay in the Rowley Bristow Orthopaedic Hospital in Surrey, previously known as the 'St Nicholas' Home for Crippled Children,' when he was eight and spent 6 months there after major surgery.

* recalled that he : "lay on my back for four months and had to relearn to walk. I suddenly realized that the world was a much nastier place than I ever imagined" and forty years later was able to reflect that : "an atmosphere of children on their own isn't a particularly happy one, I mean 'Lord of the Flies' is not an unreasonable book. In that sense children are very nasty to each other particularly in isolation, particularly under stress. and I learnt to lie and do all sorts of terrible things that I hadn't really done before." 

* passed the 11+ exam in 1953 and gained a place at the all boys, Farnham Grammar School, where, things took a turn for the better because, as he said, he was "lucky enough to go to a school which was immensely sympathetic in all respects."

* had "a great music master with lots of music and a very fine play reading society" and "found a lot of companionship in people of like intelligence." As to his disability, found that : "in the last resort, I stopped worrying about it" and at the age of 17, was chosen as Head Boy, which he later reflected was "a tremendous gesture on the part of the Headmaster" who was George Baxter.

* found that school life was still punctuated by "perpetual check ups and terrible visits to places which had to measure surgical shoes for me" which he "got fed up with it. It was just boring."

* on his two month stay in hospital in 1955, when he was 12, while in plaster, was wheeled into the hospital’s radio studio so that he could put his hands through the bars on his bed to play the piano and 'The Mountains of Mourne.' for other patients and thus made his first public performance.

was lucky to have Alan Fluck, who later founded 'Youth and Music, as his 'lively music master and took part in school productions as one of the 'pickled boys' in front of Benjamin Britten in his 'Saint Nicolas', and on the piano in front of Gian Carlo Menotti in his one act opera 'Amahl and the Night Visitors.'

* was photographed at school, in the centre, with a cake-cutting Benjamin Britten. As to his disability

* in 1961, the year he left school and with his life before him he : "Was told when I went for a life-insurance exam when I was 18, that I was not likely to live past 50, so I refused to pay the premium." 

* probably knew by this time that he would never achieve his full 6'6" height and would, instead, be confined to 5'10" but, at the same time : "had a great sense of debt to medicine. I realised I was an ambulant creature because of what science had done for me, so I got into Cambridge on a state scholarship to become a doctor."

* attending Christ's College at the University for his medicine degree in the early 1960s, also started to direct theatre productions.

* in the mid sixties, finished his medical training at St Thomas' Hospital, London, planning to specialise in ophthalmology, but where he felt increasingly ill at ease : "I would go on ward runs in black leather jackets and jeans and I knew more and more I couldn't fit into the doctor cast."

* initially, had another lonely time and : "spent an awful lot of time alone particularly in my twenties after I came down from Cambridge and came to London and got very much used to thinking and being by myself. I didn't like it particularly, but I got very used to making my own world up for myself." It was then he got "entangled in a rather wonderful opera workshop and spent much more time learning how to coach Rhine maidens than walking the wards. So I failed part of my finals and that was a great shock to me because I'd never failed an exam in my life." 

* reassessed his career. A friend put his finger on it when he said : "You're pining to be a musician." He applied a place at the prestigious London Opera Centre for Coaches based in the old Troxy Cinema in Stepney and recalled : "I remember finishing my ward rounds, getting a tube to Covent Garden, and playing to a formidable and terrifying panel of people. I thought I had played appallingly, and went and got very drunk at the Salisbury in St Martin's Lane."

* to his surprise was offered a place and kept it open while he completed his finals when he "decided I had to give it a whirl. I had to discover if this was the way of the world or not. I spoke to my consultant who was very good and said "yes if you do a year of opera, no one's going to say "no" if you come back to medicine." So I did that year on the assumption that if I hadn't found my feet at the end of that year then I'd go back to medicine having tried and then I couldn't say at 49 : " never did it." "

* in 1975, at the age of 32, finally liberated himself from the uncomfortable plastic brace he had worn "religiously" from the age of 12 which "started below my arms and went to my groin and one day in '75 in a very, very hot summer in France I decide no more. This is enough, even if I fall down and I took the damn thing off and didn't need it."

* found that, as time went on, developed strategies  to cope with his disabilities and, for example, always felt "a bit odd walking in front of all those people" and as a consequence tried to do it slowly. and learned this the hard way, when. : "Conducting I rushed on to the podium and slipped on the first step and fell into the arms of the viola player and, of course, it took me about half an hour to recover from that. I learnt a savage lesson for that : that despite being nervous and very self-conscious, walk very, very slowly."

* made a supreme physical effort during his performances and lathered up to such an extent that between opera acts he had to change right down to his shoes and socks but despite this, found that they had a therapeutic effect and found : "after a rehearsal of a performance that I have more breath, and can walk better and climb stairs better than I could before. It's as if I've expanded my lungs doing it. Basically speaking, conducting is quite a healthy profession." He professed : "If people had told me that I would have the stamina to conduct 'Ring Cycles,' I would have been amazed."

* was convinced that his disability had given him a sense of detachment, since he felt different physically to most people : "So I observe life a little bit, rather than participating in it. That's a good description of the conductor's role on the podium, too: conducting involves controlling and criticising the musical experience."

* in 1989, became and the President of UK Spina Bifida Charity 'SHINE'  (Spina Bifida, Hydrocephalus, Information, Networking, Equality)

* when he reflected on his disability, said : "Of course I'm bitter. I'd be stupid, not to be bitter. There are times when, of course, I'd love to be perfectly straight and perfectly normal. There are many occasions in my life in which it would have helped a great deal. Others in which it wouldn't. The bitterness is part of a great sort of panoply. It's a useful thing to know about bitterness. I don't think it's bad to know what bitterness means. I'm not basically bitter, but it does perhaps represent seven to five percent of my life. Why not ?"

* enjoyed the company of his partner of forty years, Klaus Kuhlemann, a German geomorphologist. who he had met while conducting at Cologne in 1977 and concluded that : "The gay world is immensely hung up with physical perfection for some curious reason. Therefore, being disabled in that world is harder."

** on BBC Radio's 'Desert Island Discs' in 1989, chose, as his last record, one which he put on when he was "feeling particularly sad and it makes me feel even sadder. In fact, it's also full of hope. It reminds me of America, which I love. It's Billie Holiday singing 'Ill be seeing you.'  

* chose Piero della Francesca's 'Nativity' from the 1490s as 'The picture he would take with him to his Desert Island,' because it was :

"full of people singing and wonderful."