Friday, 20 June 2008

Salmond maddened by the end of the party

The Times, June 20, 2008

It is 4.30pm and time for a little something, yet, as he gazes at a pile of cakes, Alex Salmond looks vaguely mournful. Perhaps it is because Sophie Elm, a graduate art student, has told just him that the food isn't real, but made from cotton wool, glue and acrylic paint. She has created a Mad Hatter's Tea Party. The First Minister laughs - had he known he would have worn a boater and a big pair of white trousers.

Mr Salmond has come to Edinburgh College of Art to open a £20.6million new wing. Usually occasions like this are a cakewalk, but it's less than 24 hours since his government suffered its first defeat in Holyrood, the loss of the Creative Scotland Bill, and all around there are arty people who now have absolutely no idea where the Scottish government's cultural policy is heading.

At the grand plaque-unveiling ceremony, Mr Salmond offers a brief disquisition on the Edwardian architect James Pittendrigh MacGillivray before he is moved to address matters of policy and Wednesday's events in parliament.

“Running a minority government is like levitation. You have to keep the opposition parties in a state of suspended animation,” he explains to an audience of shaggy-haired professors, who look somewhat askance at the imagery. The balance, he complains, has been disturbed by the “dancing up and down” of the opposition parties. “The impertinence of it, the audacity of it,” he fumes.

Mr Salmond says that he understands the importance of the creative industries. They produce £4billion for the nation's wealth and sustain 60,000 jobs. But what he can't accept - despite growing evidence to the contrary - is that anyone other than his Holyrood opponents are against his Bill. Indeed - turning logic on its head in a Mad Hatter-ish way - his opponents are in favour of it, too! They just couldn't agree to support him. Curiouser and curiouser.

On Wednesday, Mr Salmond says, his culture minister had announced £5million of new money for the arts. “Are we actually saying that we are going to have a six-month delay in setting up an organisation that everyone supports, which will have more money in real terms, because they are worried about which pot of money it is coming from?”

Can Mr Salmond see that some people in the arts are confused? They can't work out who is driving the creative industries, the behemoth that is Creative Scotland, or Scottish Enterprise, the business development agency, which seems reluctant to release its grip on all those digital and TV industry fiefdoms that generate so much work for its bureaucrats.

“Responsibility has never been in doubt,” he snaps. “To regard these excuses for issues as the pretext for the sort of shambolic obstructing we saw is beyond belief.” If the Mad Hatter's tea cups hadn't been glued down, Mr Salmond would have started throwing them about.

“Furthermore,” he says - always a sign of impatience - “we had an agreement with the business managers which was respected by the Tories and the Liberals that if we withdrew the financial provision of the Bill, they wouldn't object to it being debated next week. All these things tell you that the behaviour of the Labour Party was the most abject piece of irresponsibility that we have witnessed in recent times in parliament. I put it down to end-of-term madness and the fact that the labour leader is no longer in control of her backbenchers.”

He sounds bitter. “I don't feel bitter. I feel concerned for the creative communities of Scotland.” And with that concern ringing in creative ears, the First Minister has sidestepped into a lift and gone.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

The poet, his wife, the actress, her mother

The Times, June 19, 2008

Two English roses, in the unmistakeable forms of Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller, a handsome Welsh anti-hero, played by Matthew Rhys, and a salivating press pack from all around the world. For centuries impregnable, Edinburgh Castle was well and truly stormed to mark the opening of the city's international film festival.

This was a media conference to mark the world premiere of the festival's opening film, The Edge of Love. Described by its director John Maybury as a “feelgood chick-flick”, it is a romantic drama about the friendship between Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin, and the poet's friend Vera Phillips and her husband, William Killick.

The film features verse, and much worse: brutality, drunkenness, violence, sex and betrayal. All in all, producing the kind of atmosphere which can enervate fans and news cameramen, but which can, after a while, weary the stars.

Through much of this trial by media, Miller seemed to be leaning on Maybury for support, perhaps fearing an attack of the paparazzi who have so often plagued her life. But she needn't have worried. All eyes here were on Knightley, cast as Vera, the poet's lover, who takes her clothes off and has sex with Thomas on screen. And this in a film scripted by the actress's mother, Sharman MacDonald.

Grey-haired and smiling, MacDonald - or “Shar”, as Knightley calls her - had already said that she never went near the set when her daughter was kissing or simulating sex. So did it feel odd for the actress to play out these same scenes which had been contrived by own her dear parent?

“I don't have a problem with that,” snorted Knightley, whose father is Will Knightley, the actor. “It's a story about relationships, about how friendship can be ruined over an absolute betrayal in the form of sex. I can't really get out of the fact that there is sex involved in it. It certainly didn't worry me that my mother actually knows what sex is.”

Another questioner ventured into the same territory. The scene would surely capture the imagination of many of Knightley's fans. And it would put to rest all that nonsensical speculation about a naturally slim actress who has had to put up with many unkind remarks about body image.

“No. It was very simple,” retorted Knightley. “It was a sex scene and I never like them when they've got bras on. John Maybury said, ‘Take your bra off,' and I said, ‘All right then'.”

Prurience aside, The Edge of Love is an evocation of four lives which are buffeted in war. It is co-produced by Rebekah Gilbertson, whose grandparents were the couple who featured in Thomases' life in the early 1940s, first in London and then in South Wales.

Philips had known Thomas as a child in Swansea, and met him again much later by which time she had married Killick, an army commando, who had been psychologically damaged in battle. One evening, after a row in a pub, Killick fired shots into the Thomases' house, kicked down the front door and then produced a hand grenade, before he was dissuaded from the ultimate act of destruction. He was later tried for attempted murder.

Thomas aficionados will have to suspend their disbelief for parts of the film. MacDonald admitted taking “enormous liberties” with these four people, and could not prove that there had been betrayals in love. “I do not know what the truth is. I don't think anyone left alive does,” she said.

Then there is the matter of casting. The poet “had a pink blubbery face with pop eyes, lose lips and a tadpole body” according to Caitlin herself, but is played here by the chisel-jawed Rhys. Caitlin, statuesque in life, could reputedly carry her husband “across streams” under one arm; here she is brought to life by the elfin Miller.

MacDonald had initially imagined her daughter as Caitlin, but Knightley demurred. “When I first read the script I completely fell in love with Vera, her subtlety, her quiet, not very dramatic way. I felt her emotions very keenly,” said the actress.

Her mother had her “revenge” on her daughter for not taking the part. As Vera, she was obliged to sing on set. That had been an ordeal, admitted Knightley. “My knees started buckling. Then someone very kindly brought me a couple of shots of vodka and everything was alright.”

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Red tape drives lone islander away

The Times, June 14, 2008

As he looks wistfully down on the little harbour, where a tourist boat is about to put in, Dick Gannon has no doubt about the appeal of his remote island home which he has just put on the market. “A Russian billionaire might buy this place or a businessman from the Far East. It's all about exclusivity,” he says, as the gulls screech overhead.

This is beautiful Sanda, which lies off the tip of the Mull of Kintyre, 13 miles south of Campbeltown and 20 miles east of Ballycastle, in Northern Ireland. Mr Gannon and his wife, Meg, bought it in 1989, “windswept and ruined”, for £250,000. Now, with its fine farmhouse, a renovated pub and cottages, it is on the market for £3.2 million, fit for an oligarch indeed.

It is impossible not to detect the bitterness in Mr Gannon's voice at his imminent change in circumstances. Partly this can be explained by his failed marriage and the fact that none of his four children have shown an interest in taking over the family tourism business here.

But these painful facts are just a pretext for a sale, Mr Gannon admits. He has grown tired of life in Britain, even here at its wildest margins, in the teeth of a sharp breeze whipping off the Irish Sea.

“I'll probably go abroad,” he confesses. “I'm completely disenchanted with this country. Civil liberties are going down the tube, but people just seem to want more cameras and more intervention.”

The surveillance society even affects him here on Sanda, he says. “We've had the environmental health police out here, the water police, the smoke police. They all turn up. You think that you can sail away from red tape, but you can't. They're always following you around with their rules and their regulations.”

For some time, Mr Gannon, 58, has been the island's solitary permanent resident, while Meg has operated as its tourism agent on land, using a base in Campbeltown to organise holidaymakers' trips to Sanda, which, with its petrels and shearwaters is rich in bird life, and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

He has even achieved a certain notoriety as “Scotland's loneliest voter” who cast his vote for the SNP by post at the last Holyrood election.

Now he's disillusioned with them, too. “I did vote SNP, because they said they would get rid of VisitScotland, the scourge of the Scottish tourist trade. But they didn't. The SNP moved it sideways, increased its power, and left the same idiots in charge. What can you do?”

Over the years, Mr Gannon has single-handedly renovated the island's ruins into an award-winning pub, refurbished the six-bedroom farmhouse and the six self-catering cottages.

Sanda's 350 breeding ewes are included in the sale, along with chickens which produce free range eggs that enjoy such a reputation customers, including the Princess Royal, have sailed in especially to buy them.

The 35-40 acres that make up nearby Sheep Island, inhabited only by a flock of 60 Soay sheep, and the small lump of rock that is Glunimore Island are all part of the Sanda islands package. The sale is to be handled jointly by Vladi Private islands, a specialist company based in Germany and Knight Frank, of Edinburgh. Anyone tempted by the thought of “this little piece of paradise” would be interested in Mr Gannon's autobiography, written over the last few months and entitled So You Think You Want to Buy an Island?

It was, he concedes an ironic title and it is yet to find a publisher. And he probably won't want it translated into Russian before the sale goes through.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Giant worm meets hobbit shock

The Times, June 10, 2008

The setting was unlikely enough, a large barn in the middle of the East Lothian countryside. The music was even more unusual, a new orchestral work with a narrative supplied by a Hollywood film star. But then, a piece with the grand title of Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift was always likely to make a name for itself.

Happily for all concerned, the cheering response of 400 school children to this one-off performance at Skateraw farm by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and the actor Billy Boyd, demonstrated that there may be life yet in classical music.

Misterstourworm is a collaboration between Savourna Stevenson, the harpist and composer, and Stuart Paterson, the Fife-based playwright who, for more than 20 years, has adapted children's myths and legends for the stage.

The work is the result of what Stevenson called a “life-changing” grant of £25,000 made by Creative Scotland in 2001.

It enabled the couple to create a tale set in a mythical Scotland in which a young hero embarks on a magical quest to free his people from a fearsome, fire-breathing sea monster, Misterstourworm.

Boyd, who played Peregrin “Pippin” Took in Peter Jackson's feature-film adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel Lord of the Rings, has long been a friend of Paterson. The playwright gave him his big break in Scottish theatre by casting him as Arthur in a Christmas production of The Sword in the Stone. He said that he had been “flattered and delighted” to be asked to narrate the performance.

Stevenson and Paterson said they had been keen to create a work in the mould of Peter and the Wolf, and originally turned to the Greek myths for inspiration. “We wanted a story where we felt there was something underneath - it's not all surface. But we also felt we had been given a grant to do something Scottish, we need to do something that felt like a real Scottish myth,” Mr Paterson said.

They fell on the tale of the stoorworm, which was said to have been as long as Scotland, and whose humps became the islands off the West Coast after its death. They added Kelpies, alluring and magical but deadly creatures, and set events in the fictitious land of Tiree.

The two had first worked together in 1986 on the writer's reworking of Beauty and the Beast for the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. “I wanted proper music for that, not rink-a-dink panto music, and she was perfect - Savourna is a delightfully talented composer, and she played it live.”

In that production, the music had been less important than the script, Ms Stevenson said. “Stuart always regarded the music as important to the show, but it inevitably gets squeezed out to the edge. In a piece of theatre it is secondary. Stuart and I always thought if I followed the story closely enough, we should be able to take the words away and the music would still hold up,” she added.

The success of the project can be measured by yesterday's album release of the music, by Circular Records, a company established with assistance from the Scottish government's Scottish Music Futures Fund, to help to protect musicians' and composers' intellectual property rights.

Mr Paterson has recently completed a screenplay entitled Master of Lies for the film director Nic Roeg, and hopes that a film may attract funding. However, before his work finally hits the big screen, Hansel and Gretel, a second orchestral collaboration between Stevenson and Paterson, will be premiered this Christmas.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Europe's finest hotel - in the pubic triangle

Walk past Edinburgh's seedy Western Bar and turn left near the Burke and Hare pub - “lap dancing” is proclaimed above its entrance - and next door to an establishment called Hooters you will find what you're looking for, a gem among the filth.

Welcome to the Knight Residence, the hotel that has seen off rivals such as the Hotel Georges V, in Paris, the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, in Berlin, and the Mandarin Oriental, in London, to be crowned Europe's best.

The Knight Residence was proclaimed the finest following a survey of 160,000 visitors to the internet travel website Its nearest British rival is more than 200 places down the list of best places to stay, and only nine other establishments in the world are rated better than Edinburgh's winner. Yet here it stands, surrounded by these strip joints, a sauna and a sex-shop.

Talk about against all odds. Even the management of the Knight Residence admit that this is an unlikely location for a luxury hotel, particularly one that specialises in family accommodation.

It stands close to the heart of Edinburgh's notorious “Pubic Triangle”, where, lured in by tacky fairy lights and thumping music, many a stag party has foundered; it is rumoured that whole coach loads of visiting Welsh rugby fans have disappeared.

This a great story. Read more here: Don't blush.