26 July 2010

Justin and Juliet - a piece for Jet Moon's Speakeasy

On 25 July 2010, I performed the monologue below at Jet Moon's Speakeasy at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, London. The piece was written in collaboration with Jet Moon, who directed all five pieces in the show, which included performances by Greg Renegado, fellow Guardian contributor Natacha Kennedy, the sublime Jason Elvis Barker, Iris Abras and myself - Jet co-wrote every piece except for Jason's, where she provided some input. The show also included a monologue by Jet (who introduced each performer) and a dance by Josephine Wilson. My script, entitled 'Justin and Juliet', is below.

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Justin and Juliet

I was about 12 years old when my mum bought me a video: the one with Justin Fashanu’s goal of the season. Maybe you’ve seen it: Norwich versus Liverpool, the champions, in 1980, with Norwich, the underdogs, 3-2 down.

Norwich pass the ball round in midfield, pulling Liverpool’s defence all over the place. John Ryan passes to Justin, who has his back to goal, 25 yards out, and races out right, expecting it back. Justin flicks the ball over the defender, turns and hits this incredible curling shot between the goalkeeper’s hand and the post. There’s this split-second pause before the stadium erupts. As the commentator screams “That’s a magnificent goal!” Justin stands, one finger raised, as his team-mates run to kiss him. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

That was around the same time that I realised I was a cross-dresser – that’s what I called it back then. I didn’t have the word ‘trans’: I just knew that I liked dressing up in my mum’s clothes and that somehow this made me ‘different’.

Putting on a dress, I was floored by the surge of energy. Momentarily, I felt completely at ease: then total confusion. Why was I turned on? Was I a "transvestite"? Did I want a "sex change"? What if my family caught me? What if my classmates found out? Nobody must ever know, I told myself, panicking when my parents' car pulled up the drive before I'd covered my tracks.

The main reason I wanted to play football was because I loved it. The second was because it was a way to fit in. But I just wasn’t a team player. I wanted to get the ball and light up the game. But even when I scored with a 25-yard shot, I wasn’t one of the lads.

I just didn’t relate to football like my team-mates. I liked the art of it. Heaven forbid that I’d sound pretentious but when football is played well there’s real geometry to it: visionary movements in space, that sublime pass that splits a defence or the long-range shot that nobody saw coming.

The other boys didn’t care about that: they just wanted to win. They were more bothered about the camaraderie of the team, and that the girls thought they were fit. Nobody spoke about the homoeroticism. They just called anyone who didn’t tackle hard enough ‘gay’.

Isolated, I scoured the mainstream media for like-minded individuals, but it seemed the closest people to me in the public eye were objects of ridicule. I refused to admit how drawn I was whenever I saw the word "transsexual" - usually in my parents' Daily Mail. The coverage tended towards lurid stories, usually accompanied by cartoons of burly men in floral dresses with stubbly legs. But I knew I’d had it easier than Justin.

Placed in a Barnardo’s home when they were very young, Justin and his younger brother John were eventually fostered by a white family in a leafy Norfolk village, becoming keen footballers in their school – and Norwich’s youth team.

Justin broke into the first team when he was just 17. Before he was 21, he’d scored that famous goal – and dozens more, getting into the England squad and then becoming the first black million pound footballer. Meanwhile, his younger brother rose from a slow start to become the Gladiators host and notoriously tough Wimbledon centre-forward.

I knew all this about Justin when I was at school. I also knew that he was gay, as I kept seeing snide innuendos about him in football magazines. Here was someone who brought together two worlds meant so much to me. But by the time I was in my teens, Justin seemed to have vanished.

Once I was 16 I’d grown tired of trying to fit in. I declared myself gay and a cross-dresser: "gay" because although I felt attracted to males who were somehow female, I still considered them men; and "cross-dresser" because it seemed the most innocuous term. I picked an image off the post-punk peg and started cross-dressing with female friends, periodically scandalising the people of Horsham by wearing makeup and women's clothes around town. Mostly, though, I kept my femaleness private: I didn't want my gender to become sensational (at least, not all the time). But I still supported City and I still remembered Justin.

Then, Justin re-emerged. On the run from Interpol, who wanted him for sexual assault, he’d killed himself in a lock-up garage in Shoreditch.

Through the wave of media hate, I pieced together his life story. Manager Brian Clough found out about his trips to Nottingham gay clubs and confronted him:

“Justin, what do you get if you go to the butcher’s?”
“Meat, boss.”
“And what do you get if you go to the baker’s?”
“Bread, boss.”
“So why do you keep going to those bloody poofs’ clubs?”

Fearing for his future, Justin became a born-again Christian. But Clough hated religion even more than homosexuality, and banned him from training. So he joined Notts County, just over the road, and got back on track, until a knee injury forced him to retire, aged just 25. He spent thousands on surgery in America, but he was never the same. In the hope of recouping some money, he sold the story of his sexuality to The Sun.

Justin may have been a great footballer but being a tabloid celebrity is a much trickier game. Selling more of his private life to the tabloids He started playing football again and became a celebrity. But it wasn’t being a gay footballer that undid him: it was the realisation that he could make easy money from selling stories to the tabloids.

He finally came unstuck in 1994 when he claimed to have slept with Tory MPs. It wasn’t true: his club sacked him and no manager and no editor would touch him again. Wandering the globe, apparently considering Christian reprogramming to ‘cure’ his homosexuality, he finally re-emerged in 1998 after the sexual encounter with a 17-year-old American boy that led to his death.

Justin’s death was the final straw for me: football was a world that I would observe but couldn’t be involved with. But I couldn’t keep away from it: the more it conflicted with the highbrow genderqueer persona I was striving to create, the more I wanted to play.

In Brighton, aged 20, I went out as Juliet for the first time. A friend took me to Harlequins, where trans people were made especially welcome (its toilets were designated 'Gents' and 'Ladies/TV/TS'). Its music and decor resembled the campest gay clubs – there were drag acts followed by a hyper-cheese disco. Although I hated the playlist, I loved the atmosphere, and the liberation it provided: I'd never felt so myself.

After moving to Brighton, I found that Justin wasn’t the only gay footballer – even though he’s still the only openly gay professional player in history. There was a whole underground gay football scene: a national League and even a World Cup. I put my boots back on, joining the Brighton Bandits in time for the lesbian and gay World Cup in London in 2008. With me at centre-forward, we won one of the trophies. Now, I’m writing my own blog about transitioning for the Guardian. Yes, I’ve had a lot more advantages starting out than Justin: now, I’ve become the media. As The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the alternative media activists say: “Don’t dream it – be it.”

14 July 2010

Geoffrey Jones: The Rhythm of Film

A DVD review, originally published in FILMWAVES in 2005.

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The combined total of Geoffrey Jones’ cinematic output stretches to a mere 93 minutes. Jones, who died in June 2005, managed to cram an extraordinary variety into those minutes, making films for global corporations and national institutions (and for himself), documenting British industry and machinery, simple human pleasures and the activities of Britain’s wildlife in nine deftly crafted works, across which he developed a truly unique style.

Beginning in advertising, Jones attracted the attention of Sir Arthur Elton, who offered him the role of supervisory Director of Animation in Shell’s Film Unit. His first work, Shell Panorama (1959, not included here) was his only film with a commentary: this led to advertising commissions for Shell, one of which, Shell Spirit (1962) won the Golden Award from the Designers and Art Directors Association. It also interested Edgar Anstey of British Transport Films, whom (with Elton) had helped entrench the conventions of British documentary making with Housing Problems (1935).

Snow (1963), made almost by accident as Jones was shooting 16mm notes for Rail (1966), signalled Jones’ distinctive idiom, which deliberately reacted against the documentary style popularised during the Thirties. The film had no commentary, instead cutting shots of trains ploughing through snow and people shovelling to a score by guitarist Johnny Hawksworth. Skilfully combining images of mechanical power and human endeavour, Snow won numerous awards and gained an Oscar nomination in 1965.

Rail was Jones’ main project, commissioned by Anstey to celebrate BR design, which changed dramatically while Jones was filming in Trinidad. Jones decided to make Rail a celebration of Britain’s railways as they were, with three vibrant minutes on British Rail’s ‘new era’ closing the film. It is clear that Jones much preferred the aesthetic of the steam period, and much of Rail focuses on Victorian feats of station and locomotive construction, contrasting the pre-war rolling stock with the corporate blue electric trains of the Sixties.

It is Locomotion (1975), however, that represents the peak of Jones’ rhythmic juxtaposition of the industrial beauty of the railways and music. Commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Stockton-Darlington line, and set to music composed by Donald Fraser (and performed by Steeleye Span), Locomotion comprised archive drawings of mid-nineteenth century rail, fin-de-siècle photographs evoking the popularity of rail and the Tay Bridge disaster, silent film stock, shots of trains carrying soldiers to war and contemporary footage. Interspersed with images of the mechanics of locomotion, the music propels the film to an ever more frenzied pace as it progresses: combined with the dazzling array of images that detail the history of rail in fifteen minutes, the effect is mesmerising.

Trinidad and Tobago (1964) forms an alternative centre-point to the collection. Here, it is not the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution that is celebrated, but a society distanced from Western narratives of ‘progress’. Trinidad and Tobago was a travelogue like none other of its time, playing brief shots of wildlife, people and surroundings against each other before exploding into the life of the carnival. Again without commentary, Jones minimises the intrusion of its sponsor (British Petroleum), once again structuring his film around music, this time a recording of indigenous compositions. The film is colourful without being gaudy, and the aesthetic coherence between the pictures and the music, and the impeccable rhythmic agreement between the two, retain the interest.

Also included are This is Shell (1970), an eight-minute evocation of every aspect of the oil company’s business, and the more personal Seasons Project (1980), which moved away from Jones’ aesthetic of machines to focus entirely on the British countryside, and its attendant wildlife. There are numerous shots of birds – one of a dove in mid-flight is particularly arresting – and the closing shot of a spider weaving its web is masterful.

Finally, there are A Chair-a-Plane Kwela (2004) and A Chair-a-Plane Flamenco (2004), two rhythmic shorts built from footage compiled in the Fifties. These are accompanied by a 31-minute interview with Jones, made shortly before his death, and a booklet explaining the background to Jones’ key films.

This release should allow historians to reconsider the place of Geoffrey Jones within the avant-garde film culture of the Sixties and Seventies. In so far as they were (often) commissioned and funded by major companies with the aim of extolling a corporate image, they can be situated within a tradition that stretches back to the GPO films of the Thirties. However, the distinctive style that Jones established across several pieces was a definite reaction against the ‘poetic realism’ of the period, but his works are also distanced from the London Co-op films that dominate studies of the time. Jones’ films are, of course, captivating regardless of their context, and the decision of the BFI to make them available should be as welcome to the casual viewer as it is to the film historian.

10 July 2010

Two films by Wong Kar-Wai

Originally published in FILMWAVES in 2007.

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AS TEARS GO BY

As Tears Go By marked Wong Kar-Wai’s move into directing films after several years of writing screenplays that combined romance and action. It opens with low-level triad ‘big brother‘ Wah’s’ cousin, Ah Ngor, coming to stay with him in Kowloon; the plot alternates between Wah’s slow-burning, intense affair with her and his highly charged relationship with his ‘little brother’, derisorily nicknamed ‘Fly’, whose recklessness and inferiority complex spark a brutal cycle of violence.

As Tears Go By draws on a rich tradition of Cantonese action films, but despite the touching romantic elements that intersperse the plot (but never seem fully integrated), Wong’s debut will not convert many viewers to the genre. Whilst the violence is intelligently shot and well choreographed, its relentless over-employment means that the film’s most dramatic scenes don’t carry as much weight as they should.

The romance between Ah-Ngor and Wah suffers as a result, and his dilemmas regarding his brother’s behaviour are overly familiar as a narrative device: not enough of their backstory is provided, so their apparently complex relationship fails to engage the viewer as it should. It is never quite explained what activities Wah’s gang carries out, why his role within it is important, or why he is so desperate to remain involved in it.

As Tears Go By has its strengths: the pitch of intensity it reaches at its peak will captivate genre aficionados, and the central story has many twists without seemingly over-plotted. However, its script seems slightly underdeveloped, so As Tears Go By serves best as an intriguing indicator of how Wong would pursue a career that included such diverse works as Happy Together, In the Mood for Love and 2046.

DAYS OF BEING WILD

Days of Being Wild was Wong Kar-Wai’s second film, completed three years after his first. Yuddy (played by Leslie Cheung) learns from the drunken ex-prostitute who raised him that she is not his real mother, and his attempt to find his real mother interweaves with his difficulties choosing between two women – one a glamorous showgirl, the other working at a sports arena – who compete for his affections.

Days of Being Wild retains some of the violence that characterised As Tears Go By, but its eruption is far better paced – Leslie Cheung keeps Yuddy’s fury latent, hinting at an eruption occasionally (notably when one of his women asks about a break-up), which makes the eventual explosion after his cruel rejection by his biological mother all the more powerful.

Wong’s experience in screenwriting pays off more here, with some very touching dialogue (such as Yuddy’s insistence that the sports centre girl will dream about him, and his exchange the next day) and the establishment of several textual and visual motifs that hold his drama together. Yuddy’s voice-over monologue about a bird unable to fly, for example, is well employed throughout, often accompanied by simple, beautiful songs of a forest.

Wong also sets up an intriguing obsession with time: clocks can be heard ticking throughout several key scenes, and the opening dialogue has Yuddy telling the girl that they are “one-minute friends”. This theme is perhaps slightly underdeveloped: we get no sense of any character fighting the demands or ravages of time, or any overwhelming concerns about mortality.

Days of Being Wild is far better paced than As Tears Go By, though, and marks Wong’s transition from promising young filmmaker to internationally acclaimed auteur. For fans of his mature works, it is recommended.

Four films by Jacques Tati

Originally published in FILMWAVES in 2004.

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Jacques Tati is not a neglected director awaiting rediscovery: he is widely regarded as the greatest French comic actor of all time (despite having an ancestry drawn from across Europe), succeeding the tragic Max Linder, and his output garnered much critical acclaim during his lifetime, with his reputation undiminished since his death in 1982. Often compared to the greats of silent comedy – especially Chaplin, whose reputation has suffered somewhat recently, necessitating the high-profile reissue of his great films by Warner in 2003 – Tati was, and remains, much admired for his deft use of sound and dialogue, his impeccable comic timing and his hilarious command of the relationship between his characters and their surroundings. This BFI reissue of four of his most-loved films, then, represents an opportunity to see how well the films have aged and reassess their critical reputation.

Tati’s début, Jour de fête (1949) is an uncomplicated film, with a simple plot about a postman, François, who is shown a mock video documenting the efficiency of the American postal service and becomes obsessed with introducing US methods into his rural French village, despite only having a bicycle at his command. The result is an endearing blend of satire and farcical slapstick, with the humour derived from the most traditional source, that of the situation. A gentle, affectionate film, introducing the theme of the contrast between a rustic individual and urban modernity that ran throughout Tati’s work, Jour de fête stands up well both as an individual film and as an indicator of how Tati would develop his comedic style. Particularly noteworthy is the music that accompanies François’ frantic, ill-advised dash across the countryside to deliver his post, especially in the scene where his bicycle escapes him and dashes down a winding country road.

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) introduced the character with which Tati became synonymous. Less plotted than Jour de fête, Les Vacances features M. Hulot blissfully unaware of the havoc he unwittingly unleashes on a small French holiday resort. The most immediate of the four films, the humour of Les Vacances is derived from clever use of sound, particularly smooth and Dixieland jazz music (the scenes where Hulot interrupts relaxed chalet activity with a loud, incongruous gramophone record are a joy) and masterful sight gags. Tati’s characterisation of Hulot – a simple Everyman who speaks little, lost in a world that is modernising without him – drew many comparisons to Chaplin’s tramp, but Hulot is always disengaged from his surroundings, accidentally causing chaos and then continuing blind to its consequences, unlike the Tramp whose comedy is often derived from his exaggerated facial expressions and frantic interaction with his environment. This form of characterisation, in which many objects, especially Hulot’s car, are as deeply sketched as the people, works to great effect in Les Vacances, and confirmed Tati as a major directorial talent.

Tati gave Hulot a family in Mon Oncle (1958), skilfully exploiting the affection that women and children felt for Hulot with the impatience that he engendered in more dynamic businessmen and officials. Although the pace is slower than in Les Vacances (The Gold Rush serves as an interesting comparison, with its brilliant passages of high comedy constructed by long scenes building character relations and plot), there are plenty of comic set pieces involving misfiring machinery and tedious jobs that point towards Tati’s most ambitious project.

Playtime (1967) is generally considered to be Tati’s masterpiece. Conceived on a breathtaking scale, the film necessitated the construction of a massive set on the outskirts of Paris, which came to be known as ‘Tativille’. Although the set, the protracted filming and the refusal of American distributors to back Playtime bankrupted Tati, costing him his house and the rights to his films, he remained fond of the film, regarding it as his greatest work and describing it as “exactly the picture I wanted to make”. Of all four films, Playtime is the least suited to television, with several immediate and running gags unfolding simultaneously in single, often lengthy shots; it is undoubtedly meant for cinema. Watched on a large screen, Tati’s judgement cannot be questioned: Playtime is so subtle, so intelligently layered in its construction, and constructed with such architectural imagination, that it is fascinating on first view and increasingly hysterical with each subsequent viewing. The logical conclusion to his development, Playtime seems like a new form of comedy, eschewing character identification, plot, or the facial close-ups that made Chaplin such a star. Instead, the humour is derived from repetition (of comic riffs, sounds effects and repetitive scenery, particularly in the offices and streets dominated by skyscrapers), and from the subtle attempts of the people, usually playing themselves, to remain human in such an impersonal environment. Although best understood in the context of Tati’s entire career, it is Playtime that remains his most outstanding achievement.

As for extras, Jour de fête and Mon Oncle include three trailers, while Les Vacances features an interview with Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night and absurdist comedies such as The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959), visibly influenced by Tati’s earlier works. Playtime has the most enlightening extras, with a short documentary on the construction and fate of ‘Tativille’, a brief interview with Sylvette Baudrot on Tati’s directorial methods, a short film about Tati and a commentary by Philip Kemp, who wrote the sleeve notes for these delightfully packaged films. More information on the process that restored the colour to Jour de fête, originally discarded in favour of a black and white version when the untested Thomsoncolor negatives could not be printed, would have been appreciated; Kemp explains the origins of the process in his notes but we hear nothing from those who worked on the 1995 restoration.

Effectively transferred to DVD, although Jour de fête’s colouration is occasionally fragile, the BFI selection represents the high points of Tati’s oeuvre, charting his development from the charming simplicity of Jour de fête to the beautiful complexity of Playtime. They are a pleasure to see again.

An interview with Marcella Puppini

Here is an interview with the lovely Marcella Puppini that I wrote for 3Sixty magazine in 2008.

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After two albums, a world tour and a Gold Disc with her 1940s-style harmony group The Puppini Sisters, Marcella Puppini is (temporarily) taking a radical new direction. With the eight-piece Forget-Me-Nots Orchestra, Marcella is currently writing Chelsea Songs for the Chelsea Theatre’s experimental Sacred season: a fascinating fusion of music and theatre, where her love of showbiz legend meets ‘ordinary’ London life head-on.

“The Forget Me Nots was an idea I had three years ago,” says Marcella. “I wanted a group that allowed me to write more operatic, melodramatic songs, which the Puppini Sisters didn’t. We performed at [burlesque venue] The Whoopee Club and it worked perfectly. About a year ago, Francis from the Chelsea Theatre approached me, which inspired me to revive the Forget-Me-Nots to create Chelsea Songs.”

The songs are based on stories Marcella is still collecting from Chelsea residents, past and present, set to music with influences ranging from Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill via Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her soundtrack to Tom Waits and Nick Cave.

“What I love about Cave and Waits is that their songs are stories – they could be prose and they would be just as interesting,” says Marcella. “The Puppini Sisters have a song, And She Sang, which is like a mini-novel. So I decided to collect stories from people connected to the area – the Chelsea theatre commissioned me to create a piece of performance art, which I’ve never done before, which they wanted to include the Chelsea community. I really wanted to do a show like this – and I’m glad it’s about Chelsea because it’s an amazing area.”

Chelsea was crucial to the hippy and punk movements – British punk was born at the Sex boutique, run by Malcolm McLaren and Marcella’s former employer Vivienne Westwood at 430 King’s Road. Adam Ant, Chrissie Hynde and the Sex Pistols frequented the shop – alongside no end of fashion victims (parodied in The Television Personalities’ ingenious song, Part-Time Punks).

However, the King’s Road subcultures aren’t featuring strongly at the moment, says Marcella. “I tried to get Vivienne to speak to me but she has her manifesto and wouldn’t give me the time. I’ve not given up. I’m also speaking to Marco Pirroni from Adam and the Ants and Seventies and Eighties teens.

“Not all the stories I’ve gathered would make good songs. I heard some terrible stories: a Russian lady told me stories I couldn’t repeat. It’s still in progress, though, so it may be very different by early May. I entered the project with a completely open mind, so whatever comes to me will come.”

The Puppini Sisters have a huge gay following, even inspiring a transgender tribute act – surely Chelsea Songs will feature plenty of sexually diverse people? After all, Marc Almond, Quentin Crisp and Neil Tennant all hung out in West London, and gay, lesbian and transgender people were far more involved in London’s early punk scene than you might think – one interviewee in Jon Savage’s punk history, England’s Dreaming, said that for her, the movement was about “camping it up down Park Lane with a bunch of trannies”.

“Actually, there are no LGBT people in the show as yet!” laments Marcella. “I don’t know anyone who’s gay in Chelsea right now! I was really heartbroken to see my favourite shop in the King’s Road, Steinberg and Tolkien, had closed – the owners were a gay couple, who’d been going to the Chelsea Theatre for years. It was the best vintage clothes shop in London.

“It’s hard to get people to give up their stories. I’m scared – time is flying! The show is by no means finished, but I’m really excited about what I have, especially the song I wrote after reading Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. That struck me, because the Puppini Sisters are so immersed in Hollywood culture, past and present. I was captivated by the stories of girls going to Hollywood to make a fortune and it ending horribly – I was moved by the story of a girl who killed herself by throwing herself off a ‘HOLLYWOOD’ letter.

“Monster Mae is named after a chapter in Anger’s book about Mae West – the song’s not about her but I loved the title. It’s about a girl who gets sucked in and used, and becomes a raging murderer. I don’t know what it’s got to do with Chelsea, but I love it and it’s going in!”

However, Marcella has found one strong link between Chelsea and Hollywood that she hopes will become an important number. “I was told Ingrid Bergman died alone in Chelsea, and I’m trying to discover more – there’s something fascinating about her spending her last days alone here.”

Marcella hopes to involve another actress: Anita Pallenberg, who studied with her years after playing The Great Tyrant in Barbarella – and her love of fashion, classic Hollywood and performance art will produce a truly eclectic show, constantly evolving until its opening night.

Salvatore Ferrino, a talented opera costume designer and artist, made the costumes. I wanted a cross between Miss Faresham, from Great Expectations, and a futuristic warrior – he said he had just the thing! The Orchestra look like beautiful corpses – like those in my favourite novel, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.

“I’ve asked Marisa Carnesky, who started with Duckie, to narrate,” says Marcella, who played several parts in Carnesky’s Ghost Train ride, which took people through performances of stories from Eastern Europe migrants. “There were some horrific stories – people hiding in mattresses, or disappearing.”

Like The Ghost Train, Chelsea Songs will feature some thought-provoking tales. “One of the most interesting stories came from a girl at the Women’s Refuge. She was a 26-year-old Ghanaian, who’d come to London as a teenager, having been abused by her father. She worked as a lapdancer for years, but she still resembled a dreamy 16-year-old. She said, “I love Chelsea because it’s so rich.” Which is what I hate about it! The opulence gave her security, which I found fascinating.”

So whose stories will become the Chelsea Songs? To find out, you’ll just have to see Marcella at the Chelsea Theatre on the King’s Road, London, on 1-2 May. See www.chelseatheatre.org.uk for more details.

And now for something completely different: a football report

Below is a match report on a game between Southampton and Norwich City during the 2006-2007 season. I've posted it here as I think it's an interesting curio - a type of writing that I didn't pursue but maybe wish I had. It was submitted to the Guardian's Football section but not published.

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After watching Southampton deservedly triumph in this intriguing contest at St. Mary’s, the two managers will contemplate the impending opening of the transfer window with contrasting emotions.

For Norwich’s Peter Grant, it presents an opportunity to restructure and rejuvenate a tired Norwich squad that desperately needs both strength and guile in midfield and less pressure on Darren Huckerby to create chances for himself and Robert Earnshaw. For Southampton’s George Burley, it will represent a month-long struggle to retain Gareth Bale, the club’s most exciting youth product since Theo Walcott, ultimately prized away from Hampshire just under a year ago.

Bale, still 17, was crucial to Southampton’s victory in a match perhaps hyperbolically billed as “the most important game of the season” by the St. Mary’s PA. Whilst the match lacked both the significance and the intensity of Southampton’s exhilarating 4-3 win over the Canaries in April 2005, it was a keenly-fought affair that, while producing few genuinely clear-cut chances, remained open and engaging throughout.

Norwich went into the game having lost their last two matches; Southampton had ended a run of four straight wins with a defeat to struggling Southend. The surprising selections for both teams were in midfield. Burley opted to start with defender Pedro Pelé and Jermaine Wright ahead of Colombian anchorman Jhon Viáfara and playmaker Iñigo Idiákez, whilst Grant preferred the industrious Andy Hughes and the ineffectual Carl Robinson to Moroccan schemer Youssef Safri.

In the absence of any central midfield player capable of dictating the play, both teams attempted to attack through the channels, both threatening far more down the left. Still over-reliant on the man integral to their promotion three years, nearly every Norwich move involved Darren Huckerby, who gave Alexander Östlund a torrid time but frequently failed to provide a telling final ball.

The Southampton midfield did, however, manage to pin Norwich in their own half early on, and allowed Bale and Skácel, as well as Östlund and Andrew Surman on the right, plenty of space to swing in dangerous crosses, giving Burley’s side the better of the early exchanges. The threat of Kenwyne Jones and Grzegorz Rasiak was, however, well managed by a Norwich defence co-ordinated by Dion Dublin, twenty years older than Bale, who was Norwich’s best player and looks likely to be an important figure in Grant’s attempts to reverse the Canaries’ sliding fortunes.

As in 2005, it was Norwich who took the lead. After a Bale free kick had gone close and Jones and Rasiak had failed to convert intelligently-crafted chances, Earnshaw, given far too much space by Southampton’s centre-backs, latched on to a loose ball to fire past Kelvin Davis from 20 yards in Norwich’s first threatening attack.

Huckerby’s inability to end penetrating runs with incisive passes and the creative paucity of Norwich’s midfield prevented the visitors from asserting themselves more definitively, and Southampton gradually took control of the match. Another free kick from Bale went very close – the St. Mary’s scoreboard announced an equaliser to cheers from the home fans before they realised that the full-back’s shot had struck the post, gone behind and rolled across the back of Paul Gallacher’s net.

A genuine equaliser materialised from the inevitable source. Uriah Rennie decreed that Dickson Etuhu had fouled Skácel and Bale, at the third attempt, fired an unstoppable curling shot past Gallacher.

Both sides upped the tempo as the second half began, their attempts to play crisp, passing football still hampered by the workmanlike nature of their midfield talismen. Rasiak went close after a swift Saints counter-attack, taking advantage of Dublin’s instinctive decision to join a Norwich attack. The introduction of Lee Croft after 55 minutes, with Andy Hughes dropping to right-back to replace Jürgen Colin, gave Norwich more balance and more cutting edge, restricting Bale’s freedom to support Skácel and diverting the attention of Southampton’s centre-backs away from Huckerby.

As in 2005, it was Southampton who scored the final, decisive goal. One of the home team’s many corners was covered poorly by Gallacher and his defence, and Kenwyne Jones, otherwise ineffectual, headed home what proved the winner from close range.

The alertness of Kelvin Davis prevented Peter Thorne, desperate for a goal to kickstart his unhappy Norwich career, from stabbing home a deft Huckerby cross – the last effective contribution from the Canaries’ winger, who was surprisingly replaced by veteran defender Craig Fleming shortly after. Southampton’s defence managed to soak up late Norwich pressure, with Dublin joining Earnshaw and Thorne in an attack that was fed far increasingly directly; the visitors were limited to a long-range effort from Etuhu that sailed well over Davis’s bar.

Perhaps using his Scottish connections, particularly at Celtic, Grant will look to add both steel and creativity to a midfield bereft of ideas and technique, and a target man capable of feeding the ever-dangerous Earnshaw. Burley, who may well use his Hearts connection to bring Stephen Pressley into an often brittle defence, will hope that one of his late substitutes, Bradley Wright-Phillips, will use his brother’s example to warn Bale that he may derive more playing experience, and greater satisfaction, from starring in Southampton’s promotion push than in warming the bench after a move bankrolled by one of the Premiership’s foreign oligarchs.

Man of the match: Gareth Bale

The Southampton full-back displayed an astonishing maturity in dealing with Norwich’s right-wingers and never gave their right-backs a moment’s calm. An influential display was capped by a fine goal from a free-kick, fast becoming his trademark.