Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Gentle Jazz Giant

Lester Young’s tenor sax is – along with Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet – one of the most poignant sounds in jazz. Tinged with melancholy, light as a feather, and utterly beguiling, it was quietly revolutionary in its day because it showed that the muscular tenor style and rich sound of Coleman Hawkins wasn’t the only model worth following, and it paved the way for such Young-inspired players as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Paul Quinichette.
Born in Woodville, Mississippi exactly 100 years ago – on August 27, 1909 – Lester Young was playing music from a very early age. His father, William H Young, was the leader of a carnival band, and Lester and his five siblings were encouraged to learn an instrument so they could join the family business. When his parents split up in 1919, Young, his sister and his brother Lee (a future jazz drummer) went with their father to Minneapolis which became their base for extensive tours with a minstrel show. At this point, drums were Lester Young’s instrument but he gave them up when he was 13 years old.
He later explained: “It was too much trouble to carry the traps, and I got tired packing them up. I’d take a look at the girls after the show, and before I’d get the drums packed, they’d all have gone.” He switched to alto sax but was devastated when his father dropped him from the band and told him that he couldn’t return until he had learned to read music.
After six months, he was reinstated in the outfit but the emotional and psychological effects of being excluded by his own father remained with him for the rest of his life. Any boy would find such treatment difficult to bear, but Young was a particularly sensitive and emotionally fragile soul.
In 1927, upset at the prospect of a tour of the Deep South – where racial prejudice was inevitable – Young, who cut an unusual figure with his light skin (his mother was a Creole), doleful green eyes and vaguely auburn-tinged hair, quit the band and joined a local group where he switched to tenor sax.

After a brief stint with the short-lived but highly regarded Blue Devils, he was working in Minneapolis when, one night, he heard a live broadcast by the Count Basie band from Kansas City. Immediately smitten by everything about the band’s sound except the tenor player, whom he claimed he couldn’t hear, he seems to have had an unusual attack of ballsiness: he wired Basie, and offered his services.

Basie, who had heard about him from other musicians, sent for him and Young joined the band in 1933. Kansas City was a hotbed of jazz activity, and its after-hours cutting contests between local musicians and visiting players were legendary, few moreso than the one which is said to have taken place when Coleman Hawkins blew into town and tried to take on the likes of Herschel Evans, Ben Webster and Lester Young.

When top New York bandleader Fletcher Henderson invited Young to replace Hawkins in his orchestra, Basie advised his ambivalent tenor man to accept the invitation. It wasn’t a good match: Young’s airy sound was lost in amongst the other saxes who were used to playing with the altogether more forceful-sounding Coleman Hawkins. Attempts were made to persuade Young to beef up his sound but that wasn’t the solution. Clearly he was in the wrong band, and it wasn’t long before he was back in the bosom of the Basie ensemble – just in time for their first recordings.

Before those January 1937 recordings, however, a small group recording session featuring men from the Basie band was set up in October 1936 by John Hammond, the writer and jazz enthusiast. And so it was that at the rather advanced age of 27, Lester Young was finally recorded. His first two sides – Shoe Shine Swing and Lady Be Good – polarised opinion between those who only had ears for the Hawkins sound and those who were seduced by Young’s light, floating tone.

The next few years were a golden era for Young. In the Basie band, he was not only accepted, despite his numerous personal eccentricities (his unusual style of dress, his use of made-up words, his shuffling gait …) – many of which had undoubtedly been cultivated as a collective defence mechanism because he was so chronically shy – but he was also treated as a star player. And no wonder: his solos were agile, elegant and dynamic and they explode out of the ensemble on such iconic recordings as Jumping at the Woodside and One O’Clock Jump.

Parallel to his stint as star soloist in the Basie band, he enjoyed playing in a series of informal small groups – the line-ups of which were drawn from the best big bands of the day. This was the period when he fell in love musically with the singer Billie Holiday. Their performances, both separately and together, on a series of peerless small group recordings are perfection.

Young had a way of wrapping his horn round Holiday’s vocals which underlined how close they were, and how intuitive they had very quickly become about each other’s musical thought processes.

Holiday seems to have understood Young and his insecurities and shyness, and she did her best to boost his confidence – especially when his sound was criticised. She was very protective of him, and, for an intense period in the late 1930s, they were as thick as thieves; in fact, at one point, Young roomed with Holiday and her mother. This was when he annointed her Lady Day, and she elected him Prez, short for “president”.

In December 1940, Young left the Basie band for reasons that have never been established. After a doomed attempt at being a bandleader, Young spent a happy 18 months working in his brother Lee’s band before eventually rejoining Basie in late 1943. During his period away from the Count, Young had recorded some classic sides (with pianist Nat King Cole and bass Red Callender) which seemed to hint at a change in direction; at a more ethereal, wistful, less optimistic sound than he had had before.

It wasn’t only classic recordings that Young made during this period; he also appeared in the gloriously atmospheric and Oscar-nominated short film Jammin’ the Blues, which was made by the photographer Gjon Mili and looks like a Herman Leonard photo come to life. Jammin’ the Blues shows us that Young looked as distinctive as he sounded, with his signature pork pie hat (a smoke-swirled close-up of which opens the film) and his unique habit of holding his sax at a 45 degree angle, with his head tilted to the side.

Although he seemed an unlikely candidate for the military, a terrified Young was drafted into the US Army in September 1944. What possible use they thought an alcoholic, syphilitic, marijuana-smoking, pill-popping jazz saxophonist would be to them is anyone’s guess, but he was nevertheless packed off to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for training.

In January 1945, having been found with marijuana and barbiturates in his possession, he was arrested, court martialled and sentenced to a year’s detention in military prison. When he emerged, eight months later, he went straight back into action, returning to the recording studio in October 1945 for a memorable session which included DB Blues (after the detention barracks) and Lester Blows Again.

In the late 1940s, Young joined Norman Granz’s high-profile Jazz At The Philharmonic line-up of musicians and established his own band, featuring much younger players. Although he married for the third time after the war, this was the first time in his nomadic existence he had ever tried to settle down to family life (his third wife bore him two children; he had lost contact with his daughter from his first marriage), but he found it difficult to adjust to it.

His drinking increased steadily through the 1950s, he had two nervous breakdowns, and a catalogue of health problems. During this time, he is said to have retreated more and more into his shell, gradually losing the will to live.

His second – and last – filmed appearance was in the  TV special The Sound of Jazz, recorded in December 1957. Young was one of the all-star band, which also included fellow tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, accompanying Billie Holiday on her own blues, Fine and Mellow.

Reunited with his musical soulmate for what would turn out to be the last time, a defeated-looking Young served up a solo that is as haunting and beautiful as it is simple and sad. No wonder Holiday beams first with delight and then with obvious approval and pride.

Just over a year later, Young, who had moved out of his family home and into cheap digs in central Manhattan, was taken seriously ill three weeks into a two-month engagement in Paris. Instead of checking into the nearest hospital, he boarded a flight back to New York and, on March 15 1959, died in his bed in the Alvin Hotel.

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The Wintour Issue

If I thought I was having a grim month in terms of persuading commissioning editors to part with their pennies, it’s nothing compared to how soul-destroying it must be to work on American Vogue. How do I know this? Well, because I spent the morning at the Glasgow Film Theatre watching, sniggering, empathising and cringing at the eagerly anticipated film The September Issue, RJ Cutler’s utterly fascinating and hugely enjoyable documentary which charts the production of what is always the biggest edition of the magazine of the year.
One by one, staff members are crushed by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s apparently breezy dismissal of photos, ensembles or ideas that they have sweated blood over. But it’s the veteran creative director, Grace Coddington who inspires the most sympathy. Although she and Wintour have been colleagues for two decades, she knows that her boss will make her decisions based on her own judgement alone – with no consultation. Every spread she completes is chopped by Wintour, and always when she is elsewhere in the building.
Indeed, Coddington’s editorial tussles with Wintour provide most of the drama and tension in the film. (Cutler was lucky that Coddington, being older and more Wintour-wise than the rest of the staff, was self-confident enough to speak her mind for the camera.)
Of the two women, Coddington is the one whose passion shines through. Next to her (and the insanely flamboyant editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley – who we don’t see enough of), Wintour has about as much passion as a dead fish. While Coddington is always on the look-out for inspiration and ideas, Wintour, her head bowed at Lady Di angles and her eyes often hidden behind her heavy fringe or her sunglasses (or both), seems introverted – as someone who relies solely on their own judgement and opinion must inevitably be.
 Coddington, who could get a job as an Elizabeth I look-alike if she ever gets completely fed up with Wintour, dreams up the most ravishing images (that 1920s shoot! the French chateau spread!) but it’s clear that she gets carried away and, like most of us, takes it personally when other people start hacking away at her work. She doesn’t seem to know when to stop once those creative juices are flowing – so of course Wintour has to edit her output. As she says, decisiveness is her greatest strength.
 Aside from revealing that her children are her biggest weakness, and apart from a brief hint of embarrassment at her own admission that her siblings are bemused by her career, Wintour gives next to nothing away about what makes her tick and what drives her. She must be passionate about fashion and about Vogue to devote so much time and energy to them, but there is nothing in her manner or in what she says that distinguishes her from anyone else doing a terrifically high-pressured job.
 There’s no sense that she gets anything out of it, or that it’s fulfilling – or even that she loves clothes. Only once does she register pleasure when a dress is presented to her. Every other time, she looks bored or disinterested. At YSL, she almost defies designer Stephano Pilati to impress her, and watching her making him squirm is embarrassing.



 Wintour points out that she inherited a character trait from her father – his inscrutablity. Turn a camera on her and it seems to increase the inscrutability. She may have a fearsome reputation but, based on what we see in this film, she doesn’t appear to have a personality.

  * The September Issue opens at the Glasgow Film Theatre and nationwide on September 11.

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Chandler On Screen

It’s Film Noir weekend on BBC4, so it seems like a good time to talk about Raymond Chandler – especially since the 50th anniversary of his death earlier this year only seems to have been commemorated by the literary world.
More than any single director and more than most stars, the name Raymond Chandler is synonymous with film noir. It appears on the credits of three of the handful of movies which gave birth to the genre: Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet (AKA Farewell My Lovely, its British title). These masterworks – directed by Billy Wilder, Edward Dmytryk and Howard Hawks respectively – are the grandparents of such diverse modern-day classics as the The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and LA Confidential.
 Chandler, an American educated in upper middle-class England, brought style and panache to the detective thriller. His laconic yet poetic descriptions and the wisecracking, cynical observations made by his alter ego, the “shamus” Philip Marlowe, set him apart from other crime writers.

His stories were more than merely whodunits – which is just as well, given that plotting wasn’t his forte at all. Indeed, so complex and confusing was the plot of his 1939 novel The Big Sleep that when Howard Hawks was in the middle of filming it, he had to wire Chandler to ask him who had committed one of the peripheral murders. After re-reading his own book, Chandler replied that he had no idea.

What distinguished Chandler’s stories and books was that they were rich in atmosphere and packed with quotable passages. The language was authentically slangy, and the banter between the sexes crackled with playful and witty eroticism.

So, in 1943, when Paramount Studios bought the rights to former journalist James L Cain’s taut novelette Double Indemnity, Chandler was hired to collaborate on the screenplay with the director Billy Wilder. The Austrian emigre director had decided that Chandler was the man for the job after reading The Big Sleep and being impressed with what Chandler biographer Al Clark called the “poetic toughness” of the writing. He also appreciated Chandler’s knowledge of Los Angeles and his instincts about the kind of duplicitous seductress they would be portraying in their script.

Despite this, working together turned out to be an ordeal for both men. Wilder later recalled that “there was a lot of Hitler in Chandler” while Chandler wrote to his publisher saying: “Working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity was an agonising experience and has probably shortened my life”. Nevertheless, the tense collaboration produced a seminal film noir.

Double Indemnity, like a typical Chandler novel, was told in flashback with its central character, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), narrating his story into a dictaphone as he lies dying. It featured a classic Chandler-esque “big-league blonde”, the femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) who entices the hapless hero into a web of murder and deceit. With its night shots, and shadowy sequences, it, to use the slang of the day, reeked from atmosphere; Wilder’s arresting images the visual equivalent of Chandler’s evocative descriptions.

Billy Wilder, whose great run of success really began with Double Indemnity, later said of his grumpy, alcoholic, middle-aged writing partner: “He was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence.” He also admitted that he learned from Chandler “what real dialogue is”.

None of Chandler’s other forays into screenwriting in the 1940s were as successful – not even his excellent original screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, the 1946 thriller which starred the popular team of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd and lent part of its title to the sensational, real-life “Black Dahlia” murder story that broke shortly after it opened in cinemas.

Of course, Chandler’s most easily recognisable gift to cinema is one of the most iconic screen personalities in movie history – of his private “dick”, Philip Marlowe. He made his movie debut under another name when the 1940 book Farewell My Lovely was used as the plot of one of the “Falcon” series of films about a gentleman sleuth played by debonair George Sanders.

Chandler’s Marlowe was no gentleman sleuth; he was very much a working, streetwise detective, available to hire for $25 a day (“plus expenses”). A loner with morals and a soft spot for the little guys whose inevitable deaths nobody else in the story cares about, Marlowe armed himself with a wry sense of humour despite being routinely “slugged” by brainless henchmen, and double-crossed by vampy blondes.

He has been portrayed numerous times on screen: Robert Altman’s spoofy The Long Goodbye (1973), has Elliott Gould portraying him as a pot-smoking slob in 1970s LA, while the reverential reworkings of Farewell My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978) cast Robert Mitchum as a crumpled, middle-aged Marlowe. James Garner had a crack at the character in the 1969 Marlowe, while back in 1947, the actor Robert Montgomery made an admirable attempt at recreating for the cinema the first person viewpoint of The Lady in the Lake by having the camera/viewer as detective.

By far the best adaptations of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, however, are The Big Sleep 1946) and Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on the book Farewell My Lovely. Both films met with Chandler’s approval, even though huge chunks of plot were lost as the stories were condensed for cinema audiences’ consumption.

The Big Sleep was rejigged at director Howard Hawks’s insistence so that the burgeoning romance between Marlowe and Mrs Rutledge onscreen – and Bogie and Bacall off it – was the main thread. But Chandler, who was the first to describe it as “a detective yarn that happens to be more interested in people than plot”, didn’t mind and actually felt that Humphrey Bogart was the ideal Marlowe. “Bogart can be tough without a gun,” he said. “Also, he has a sense of humour that contains that grating undertone of contempt.”

However, Dick Powell’s Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet is pretty impressive too – especially when you consider that instead of being established as a tough guy, Powell had to shake off his image as the crooning, goody-two-shoes hero of a string of 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals. In addition to its stylish direction – by the about-to-be blacklisted Edward Dmytryk – it boasts a terrific script which was able to utilise excerpts of Chandler’s brilliant prose by retaining Marlowe as its narrator.

And it doesn’t get much better than this: “‘OK, Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm till you’re as crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now, let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.'”

* Walter Neff, the character played by Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, was also the name of the local newspaper editor in The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
* Fred MacMurray only got the part of Neff after Wilder had been round the houses trying to find an actor willing to play the sap of an insurance salesman. Among those who turned it down were George Raft. As MacMurray later said: “If he’d got Bogart or somebody like that, the audience would have known instantly that the couple were going to knock off the husband.”
* Billy Wilder wasn’t the only director to have a hellish time working with Chandler. Alfred Hitchcock binned the screenplay that Chandler wrote for Strangers on a Train (1951) after the pair failed to see eye to eye.

* Two less well-known 1940s films were based on the Philip Marlowe story The High Window: Time to Kill (1942) – which starred Lloyd Nolan (best remembered now as the father in the 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters) and was one of the Michael Shayne series of movies – and The Brasher Doubloon (1947), which starred George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe.

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Five Star Reviews From Edinburgh & Nairn

It may have been a musician down (pianist John Bunch called off due to illness) and have a tenor sax star lost in transition (Scott Hamilton, whose first flight of the day from northern Norway to Oslo was cancelled), but the Nairn Jazz Festival still managed to pull a magic evening out of its hat on Thursday night. Everything went according to plan; in fact, it went better than could have been planned, because an extra piano materialised towards the end of the hitherto two-piano concert.
This summit meeting involved veteran American wizard Dick Hyman plus younger, German pianists Chris Hopkins and Bernd Lhotzky – in other words, the three pianists who had wowed Edinburgh audiences earlier in the week with their games of musical pianos. For their Nairn reunion, they were joined by the similarly nimble-fingered Rossano Sportiello – and the results were sensational.
Of course, the numbers which involved all four pianists were the most exciting – and the most fun to watch, as a certain amount of contorting and Marx Brothers-like horseplay took place as the musicians arranged sheet music so that two pianists could read it at a time, and arranged arms and torsos so that complex duets were feasible.
Among the highlights of the many different line-ups within this quartet was a beautifully delicate duet by Lhotzky and Sportiello on George Shearing’s Children’s Waltz, Hyman and Hopkins’s hard-swinging Opus 1/2, and Sportiello’s sublime solo version of Wonder Why, which was so romantic that the old couple next to me were moved to hold hands..
There’s no doubt about it: this year’s somewhat reduced Nairn International Jazz Festival would have been an altogether lesser affair had it not been for the contribution of American jazz star Dick Hyman. The veteran pianist is so versatile that he played an important part in preventing this year’s event from feeling like a diet version of the usual programme.
On Friday afternoon, Nairn audiences were treated to a history lesson from Hyman, whose acclaimed and epic CD Rom A Century of Jazz Piano is about to be released as a CD box set. His two-hour guided tour of the jazz hall of fame was an exercise in musical time travel: among the many greats he managed to squeeze into concert (which really demands a sequel) were Erroll Garner, George Shearing and Bill Evans.
Just as an impersonator can drop different voices into a conversation so Hyman elegantly conjures up the spirits of his piano heroes, most thrillingly such early pioneers as the ragtime composer Scott Joplin, with whose eternally exciting Maple Leaf Rag he kicked off the afternoon, and stride giant James P Johnson whose Keep Off the Grass Hyman played at such speed that his hands were a cartoon-like blur.
On Saturday night, he was back for a staggeringly energetic festival finale with fellow octogenarian Bob Wilber (clarinet, saxes) – the highlights of which were the oldest numbers, Running Wild, Royal Garden Blues and CC Rider.
Wilber had arrived on Friday to play what turned out to be a superb concert with tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton – who had finally arrived from northern Norway, more than 24 hours after he had set out. Red Bull energy drinks perhaps deserve some credit for his performance (what Wilber’s secret is remains to be seen – he’d been playing till 4am in France earlier that day), but the wildly enthusiastic response of the audience to the Nairn debut of this particular line-up (with the wonderful Rossano Sportiello on piano duties, joining resident bassist Andy Cleyndert and drummer Joe Ascione) no doubt helped power both stars.

DICK HYMAN PIANO LEGENDS, THE HUB, EDINBURGH (published in The Herald, August 4th)

If Sunday night’s concert at The Hub is anything to go by, the secret to being a spry octogenarian is to play regular games of musical piano stools. American pianist extraordinaire Dick Hyman may be 82 but that didn’t stop him from joining fellow ivory-ticklers Bernd Lhotzky and Chris Hopkins in a couple of rounds of stool-hopping as the three men worked their way round two grand pianos, while serving up rafters-raising versions of The Sheik of Araby and I Found A New Baby.
Those two thrilling numbers – played with great style as well as humour (the younger players’ mock territorialism over the keys, a bit of business involving who had the longest sheet music etc) were highlights of an exhilarating evening. But they weren’t the only highlights. On faster, stride numbers, a solo Hyman can sound like he’s playing with multiple hands, and his dynamic take on James P Johnson’s classic Carolina Shout was a terrific example of this.
Less flamboyant but equally impressive was his original piece, Thinking About Bix, which captured the beguiling peculiarities of the compositional style of the legendary Bix Beiderbecke as well as evoking his unique cornet playing.

Although Hyman was very much in charge of proceedings, his young cohorts – both first-timers at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – had plenty of opportunities to shine, notably their electrifying duet on Somebody Stole My Gal, and Lhotzky’s duet with Hyman on Harlem Strut.



Following his piano extravaganza of Sunday night, Dick Hyman returned to The Hub on Tuesday evening for a concert which showcased his equally prodigious talents as an arranger and a bandleader who can whip even the most ragtag bunch of star soloists into a tight, working unit. Some of the musicians on Tuesday night’s bill had quite possibly never met before, let alone played together before, which undoubtedly added to the excitement of the music – as well as underlining bandleading Hyman’s skills.
Mind you, with the likes of Alan Barnes (saxes and clarinet), Dave Green (bass) and John Allred (trombone) in his septet, Hyman had at his disposal some superb players, several of whom looked as if they were getting a real kick out of playing such rarely performed numbers as a thrilling Dooji Wooji (Hyman revealed that he’d once asked the bass player Milt Hinton was this meant, only to be told “Better you not know..”).
Alan Barnes must sometimes rue the fact that he’s so versatile because it often means that he does back-to-back shifts on the bandstand. Tuesday night was no exception, as his turn as a European All-Star followed fast on the heels of his first guest appearance with the Classic Jazz Orchestra. Their programme of Benny Carter music might have benefitted from an interval but it was a treat nevertheless to hear this top-class band dish up such cracking Carter numbers as Symphony in Riffs from the 1930s and Katy-Do from his Kansas City Suite. Barnes’s superb work on alto (on the latter tune especially) was the icing on the cake.

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Hollywood’s Renaissance Man

Today’s Hollywood comedies are a lacklustre lot. If they’re not completely puerile and catering to the lowest common denominator, then they’re saccharine sweet and ultimately as unsatisfying as a quick sugar hit. Anyone looking for snappy, intelligent dialogue and interesting characters with more to them than good looks and a permanently youthful appearance either has to wait for the next Coen Brothers movie or check out the work of one of the greatest exponents of the comedy genre: Preston Sturges.
Sturges, who died exactly 50 years ago, produced movie comedies which have not only stood the test of time, but have also influenced generations of writers and filmmakers, of whom the Coen Brothers are the most overt examples. During a flurry of intense creative activity in the early 1940s, Sturges, a maverick character with an insatiable lust for life, made a string of unforgettable films which quickly established him as the master of comedy in much the same way as Hitchcock was the master of suspense.
The sexy screwball comedy of The Lady Eve, the high-octane hilarity of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and The Palm Beach Story, and the poignant tragi-comedy of both Sullivan’s Travels and Hail the Conquering Hero, all helped to make Sturges a familiar name to wartime cinemagoers. At the height of his success, he was Paramount’s top director. More importantly, he was Hollywood’s first writer-director, paving the way for the likes of the better-remembered Billy Wilder.
But his determination to have complete control over his work led to a falling-out with his home studio. In just a few years, he went from being Hollywood’s boy wonder to being one of its forgotten men.
So who was this pioneering filmmaker – and where did his genius come from? Of Sturges’s achievements, filmmaking was only one on an incredible list which also included perfecting a kiss-proof lipstick, owning and running two restaurants, penning pop songs and Broadway plays, and inventing a silent engine. He was, as the French director Rene Clair, observed: “like a man from the Italian Renaissance, wanting to do everything at once”.
The greatest single influence on the young Sturges was his mother, Mary Biden, who married his father in 1897 and spent the duration of the marriage trying to get rid of him. Sturges later said: “Mr Biden never sounded like much of a husband to me, but it must be remembered that he was one of Mother’s very first ones, and like the celebrated Mrs Simpson, she did better later.”
Sturges was born in 1898, and in 1901 Mary married Solomon Sturges, an eminent Chicago financier. Even after her marriage, she spent much of her time in Europe with her new friend, the dancer Isadora Duncan who persuaded her to dress in Grecian robes. Sturges later wrote: “When I look back at what I was exposed to as a child, I realise how extraordinarily lucky I was never to have become a male interpretative dancer with a wreath of gold leaves around my head.”
Sturges claimed to have had a bellyful of culture in his childhood, but his bohemian upbringing had a profound effect on his filmmaking style. His films blended European sophistication with snazzy American dialogue and humour, and were populated by the kind of oddballs that his mother so readily attracted.
The young Sturges tried various careers and although brilliant at whatever he did, he was always restless. In an interview with four years ago, his widow, Sandy, told me: “He read a book entitled Two Lifetimes in One – or How Never to be Tired, and he said that it had changed his life. He said that to rid your body of fatigue and restore your vivacity, you just need to lie down for 15 minutes in total peace and quiet.”
In 1928, Sturges read a tome entitled A Study of the Drama, and realised he had found his vocation. His second play, Strictly Dishonorable, was written in just six days but became a long-running Broadway hit. Brought to Hollywood in 1932, he wrote an original screenplay, The Power and the Glory, based on stories told to him by his second wife, socialite Eleanor Hutton, about her ruthless tycoon grandfather. But Sturges was not happy with the resulting film, and decided that he had to get into the “directing racket” himself.
Over the next six years, while he freelanced as a screenwriter, his frustration increased. Finally, in 1940, he made Paramount an offer they couldn’t refuse: the script for The Biography of a Bum for $1, provided they let him direct it. Retitled The Great McGinty, it was the first film to have the credit “written and directed by” and it won Sturges the first Oscar in the newly created category of Best Original Screenplay. A box office smash, it is said to have influenced aspects of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and it confirmed Sturges’s theory that “good dialogue is the cheapest insurance a producer can buy”.
With the 1941 screwball romance The Lady Eve, which starred Barbara Stanwyck as a sexy cardshark who first cons and then falls in love with goofy Henry Fonda, Sturges established himself as the king of comedy. He was to the movies of the 1940s what Woody Allen was to 1980s films or what the Coen Brothers are to today’s: a unique, almost self-contained operation with his own stock company of memorable character actors.
The movie which earned Sturges the genius tag was Odyssey-like Sullivan’s Travels which he wrote to demonstrate that “there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh”. Strikingly original, it moved gracefully between knockabout slapstick and stark realism, between raucous badinage and poetic philosophising, between scenes of life-affirming laughter and those of human suffering. Unusually long sequences free of dialogue but full of visual eloquence, blend into scenes which feature some of the fastest exchanges of the screwball era. It catapulted Veronica Lake to stardom and revealed Joel McCrea’s hitherto untapped flair for comedy – a discovery which he attributed solely to Sturges’s dialogue and direction. It is without doubt a masterpiece.
In 1944, Sturges tested the loyalty of his studio and courted controversy with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The story of a small-town girl who falls pregnant to a GI, it brilliantly blended slapstick with pathos. Sturges managed to get this ahead-of-its-time movie past the censors to give Paramount another hit.
Sturges’s reign as the king of comedy ended later that year with Hail the Conquering Hero, a satire which summed up many of his thoughts about patriotism and the public’s readiness to accept anything at face value – a recurring theme in his movies. By the time the film was playing in cinemas, Sturges had fallen out with Paramount over its apparent lack of faith in his 1943 drama The Great Moment.
By 1959, Sturges had finally found happiness in his private life, with a fourth wife and their two young sons. He was offered a huge advance to begin work on his autobiography provisionally entitled The Events Leading Up to My Death.
On August 6, 1959 Sturges wrote: “These ruminations, and the beer and coleslaw that I washed down while dictating them, are giving me a bad case of indigestion. Over the years, though, I have suffered so many attacks of indigestion that I am well versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don’t croak it.” With typical Sturges irony, croaking it was exactly what he did.

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Ya Beauty!

Tuesday last week, three days after The Herald Magazine ran my spread on the resurrection of Tutti Frutti, 22 years on from its last broadcast. I’m pushing a trolley round Asda when I get a text from an unknown number. “Emma T assures me I should speak to you soon. I have been in a crazy six-week shoot, had no time for anything else. Shall we talk tomorrow? Robbie C.”
It takes a moment for the names to register. Then I realise that it’s Robbie Coltrane finally taking up the interview request (following a fair bit of persuasion from his mate Emma Thompson) to discuss Tutti Frutti, John Byrne’s classic series in which Coltrane played both the lead, Danny McGlone, and, in archive footage, his late brother, Big Jazza.
Two days later I find myself sitting at Coltrane’s kitchen table, in his converted barn at the top of a hill in the countryside near Glasgow. Only Tutti Frutti – and Emma Thompson – got me in the door, and once he turns up from waving off one of his precious American Jeeps as it heads for the Museum of Transport, he clearly relishes the chance to talk about what he regards as a “seminal piece;” one which he has been asked about at least half a dozen times a day since he made it.
Coltrane and Thompson tried to buy Tutti Frutti from the BBC so they could release it themselves, he reveals. “We thought it was a very important piece – not just because we were both in it, but because it was the absolute first-ever, 20 years before any other, TV series that was incredibly funny and also very serious. People think of that as the norm now but no-one had ever done anything like that back in 1987. I remember people at the BBC pestering John, saying: ‘Somebody commits suicide in this – is it a comedy or not?’ And John goes: ‘Yes, it’s a comedy. It’s a comedy and somebody dies. In other words – it’s like real life.’ And now you’ve got Clocking Off and umpteen shows like that where it’s perfectly acceptable to be funny and tragic at the same time.”
Coltrane first met Byrne in 1977. “I joined the Traverse Theatre and then John’s Slab Boys came along. I don’t think he particularly wanted me for it but he had to take me – and we hit it off very quickly. I knew his art works. [Indeed, his house is full of them.] It was a joy to do that play, it was so funny. It was the hit of the festival – there were lines and lines of people and at one point we thought we’d have to do two or three a day just to get the people in because it was mental. It’s typical John Byrne: it’s hilarious then somebody tries to kill themselves, and you go: ‘Whooooooaaaa’.”
The pair worked together on several productions, including two pantomimes – one of which featured Coltrane as a keyboards-playing pussycat named Travolta, a part that Byrne cited as inspiring him with the idea of Coltrane as the lead character in Tutti Frutti. That must have been wonderful, at that stage in his career, to have something written specially for him?
“Well, at any point – to have somebody that talented writing for you, to be worthy of their interest, is just wonderful. When I read the script I laughed till I was sore, and when Em and I sat down and went through it for the first time, we kept falling off our f***ing seats – it was so funny.”
By the time Byrne began work on Tutti Frutti, he knew Coltrane well enough to not only write Danny McGlone with him in mind from the outset, but to endow him with the actor’s personality too. Did Coltrane recognise himself in McGlone?

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he says somewhat sheepishly, “all my weaknesses and pretensions laid large. Oh, he got me to a tee!”

Even the banter between Suzi and Danny is mirrored in real life by the badinage between “Em” and “Rab”. “Yeah, we do have that kind of relationship – a lot of bantering – but John wouldn’t have seen us together before he wrote it. He’d have sussed it pretty damn quick though.”

Of course, it was Coltrane who suggested Thompson for the part of Suzi Kettles, the fellow art school graduate who, somewhat reluctantly, joins the Majestics, the rock ‘n’ roll band into which Danny has already been co-opted for their silver jubilee tour. “I won’t tell you who they wanted,” he says mysteriously, “but they had thought of all kinds of singers, and I said: ‘No, we don’t want a singer who can do a bit of acting. We want a really, really good actress. Hello? Major thrust of the story: the big romance between Suzi and Danny. She’s got to be quite irresistible and a very good actress.”

Coltrane proudly recollects how everyone became smitten with Thompson when they met her, how she mastered the guitar in just three weeks “and sings like a linty”. He reads out the debate-provoking comments from her Herald interview in which she said there is “so much genius, but so much misery” in the Scottish arts scene. “Yup, she’s not far wrong there … That’s a brilliant picture, isn’t it? That’s a lovely picture of Em, a lovely picture. God, she’s got great gnashers – hasn’t she got great gnashers?”

Coltrane’s favourite scenes to shoot were the ones he and Thompson filmed early in Suzi’s flat. “That was the first time I had been required to do that kind of acting, proper relationship acting. I wasn’t, as people have unkindly said, the most obvious pin-up as a leading man so I hadn’t had that chance before.

“Those scenes were great because you could feel the developing relationship; you saw that they were like any other couple going through their defence mechanisms before they admit that they find life impossible without each other, and I thought John traced that absolutely perfectly.”

When the show was going out, the Suzi and Danny relationship became a national obsession, remembers Coltrane. “The papers were full of ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ It was astonishing. People would beg me to tell them if Suzi and Danny would get off with each other. People offered us money – did Em tell you that?” His greatest thrill was receiving a letter from George Harrison in which the Beatle said: “Tutti Frutti is exactly what it’s like being in a band and I rather like the way you played the guitar as Big Jazza. You are fab.”

So, what does Coltrane think Danny McGlone would be doing now? “I often wondered about that because there was talk of a follow-up – plus you do have to think about that, about a character’s journey, when you’re playing him. Suzi and Danny weren’t the kind of people who would have settled down to ‘parochial mediocrity’, as Danny put it. He might have been an IT consultant by now – or working for the health board. It’s a good question, isn’t it? I think she would have been more likely to do something interesting than Danny – he was a bit of a dreamer.”

Given that in the parallel universe of Tutti Frutti, the Majestics will be celebrating their golden jubilee in 2011, does Coltrane reckon a follow-up could work?

“Frankly,” he says, “I think John Byrne could make anything work.”

* Tutti Frutti is out on DVD now. The Herald Magazine spread can be seen at


102 Calder Street, Govanhill – location of the bus stop where Big Jazza totalled Mr Clockerty’s motor, and where Danny is interviewed for the TV expose on the Majestics
The Burrell Collection, Pollok Country Park, 2060 Pollokshaws Road – only opened three years before Tutti Frutti was filmed, this was where Suzi and Danny start to get to know each other; in his favourite section – the Twelfth Century Tapestries room.
Greek Golden Kebab Restaurant, 34 Sinclair Drive, Battlefield (0141 649 7581) – the 1970-style Greek taverna where Eddie Clockerty invited associates for a “wee shish kebab” and “a Macedonian fruit amphora”
Coopers, 499 Great Western Road – back in the late 1980s, this pub was Chimmy Chunga’s, the Mexican bar where Suzi Kettles is working as a cocktail waitress when in walks her old art school crush, Danny McGlone
56 Kersland Street – Suzi’s first floor flat
2 Southpark Avenue – the dental surgery
Gardner Street – Eddie Clockerty’s shop, Manhattan Casuals
The Glasgow School of Art, 167 Renfrew Street – the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed college which Danny and Suzi visit several times during the series, notably en route to eating out on “Chicken Harry Lauder”
Pavilion Theatre, 121 Renfield Street – the venue for the climax of the Majestics’ silver jubilee tour..

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