The Audience Is Always Right!

Audiences in Shakespeare’s time were much more rowdy and directly involved in the show than we are today. They would move around, buy food and ale in the theatre and dance at the end along with the characters onstage. 

– from

If you run a theatre and the audiences don’t come, it’s on you. Not the weather, nor the match on the telly, nor the reviews, good or bad. It’s your show. That’s why people turn up and also why they don’t.

It follows – from this admittedly one-sided view – that pretty much anything the audience does in your theatre, the place where you set the circumstances, is your responsibility.

Last month, police riot vans were called to Manchester’s Palace Theatre. Several audience members were forcibly removed during a performance of The Bodyguard because they were trying to sing over the cast.

That incident isn’t isolated; at the Peacock Theatre, London a performance was halted after talking, swearing and singing disrupted the show. Maybe the clue was in its title – Bat Out of Hell. In February, the director of Edinburgh Playhouse decried audience members who choose to sing, dance and talk throughout the show in a manner that disturbs others.

Like a good drama, the issue has built to a crescendo, involving disputes between different sections of the audience, abuse of front-of-house staff, mini-riots and, inevitably, a heated debate in the press and on social media.

I’m the first to Shsssh! at the mere rustle of a sweet wrapper and I sympathise with people who dislike their carefully planned, expensive night out being upset. I feel especially for the ushers, often the most put-upon and worst paid members of staff. 

And yet, I’d say, none of them – paying public and underpaid workers – should be put in that situation in the first place.

When the audience is part of the action 

Audience participation is part of live show business, often encouraged by the theatres themselves. A Christmas show needs everyone yelling out, singing along and butting in. I’ve seen polite pantos and they’re dismal. 

I knew a guy who worked as foreman on a building site by day but, several nights a year he’d get into tails, tights, spats, suspenders, fake hunchback and bald wig and head off to the Pavilion, Glasgow. He and hundreds of others loved The Rocky Horror Show – not just to cosplay but to take an active part in proceedings with rude gestures, responses and stuff thrown onstage. I just hope the cleaners and ushers got extra money.

The trend of jukebox musicals has grown in recent years. These are expressly staged to milk the public’s familiarity with the songs. 

We Will Rock You, Ben Elton’s implausible plot hidden by brilliant Queen numbers, was one of the early back-catalogue shows. Motown the Musical features 50 infectious tracks from Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, the Supremes, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder – surely you’d itch to join in? 

You could, for The Bodyguard incident, blame Dolly Parton.  If she hadn’t written such a fabulously infectious number as I Will Always Love You, people might not have joined in so heartily!

When &Juliet, a mash-up of Shakespeare and 28 karaoke tunes, opened in 2019, the Guardian declared it “misguided”; the show kept packing them in.

Sunshine on Leith is a great hybrid of well kent numbers and moving drama. As each tune started, a woman in front of us stood up, singing: When I wake up… But 500 Miles is the finale, so her number didn’t come up until the end – and then we all of us danced, laughed and sang together.

Shows that encourage people to join in 

Other shows go out of their way to include the audience in the action. Jacob Collier, musical prodigy, thrills his public with mass participation harmonising in complex, multilayered singalongs. The Harvard Crimson wrote that he fostered a truly unique experience that allowed his fans to feel like they were a part of something bigger than themselves.

This coming November, Gareth Malone plays the Pavilion with Sing-Along-A-Gareth-Two. He and his band compose songs with the audience on the spot in a feast of collective rhythm.

To welcome people who find a theatre visit daunting, many playhouses now offer relaxed performances, mainly for those with autism, sensory communication or learning issues. Presumably this could spread to other paying customers.

Some shows are including dance and standing areas. ABBA Voyage, all the hits performed by digital avatars (or Abbatars), has eight dance booths and a spacious dance floor in front of the stage.

For Guys and Dolls, currently running at London’s Bridge Theatre, you can stand, move around ever-shifting rostra and be immersed in the action. ( )

A new way to make theatre more accessible? 

All these shows and venues are of course different, but the idea of audience engagement has clearly moved centre stage recently. The pandemic blitzed audience figures – post-Covid, are people inching their way back, looking for more communal fulfilment?

Many theatre buildings are old, suited to a different age. The Italianate structure – seats on different levels, all facing a proscenium arch – dates from the 17th century and still holds sway in many auditoria in 2023.

Are audiences, in their desire to sing and dance in the British aisles, telling us something? Is it time for a new configuration of spectators, performers and action?

Paul Bassett


May 2023

Scotland needs more musicals!

STAGE LEFT on the success of Guys and Dolls in London. Why not in Scotland?

Musicals have become the leylandii of theatre, strangling everything in their path.

  –  David Hare

One evening I am sitting in the Bridge Theatre, London and I am more than somewhat wondering why their new Guys and Dolls is the hottest ticket in town. I venture many potatoes at 6 to 5 that it is because it is the best show in town! The way it is staged, it is called immersive theatre.   

So immersed do I get that I find myself, as I leave the theatre, echoing the snappy patois of Damon Runyan’s fabled New York characters. 

With names like Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Harry the Horse, Brandy Bottle Bates and Good Time Charley Bernstein, you are in for that very thing – a good time.

Nicholas Hytner’s new production is an absolutely knock-out winner in all departments. The performers give it laldy – acting, dancing and singing their hearts out.

The main roles of the two couples – Miss Adelaide (Marisha Wallace) and Nathan Detroit (Daniel Mays) plus Sarah Brown (Celinde Schoenmaker) and Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson) – play off each other beautifully, bringing a tingle to their show-stopping numbers like Luck Be a Lady, Marry the Man Today, Sue Me and Adelaide’s Lament (“a person can develop a cold…”).

The hits keep coming

In the Havana interlude, Schoenmaker and Richardson counterpoint the rest of the the frantic action (cops, gangsters, Hot Box showbiz glitz, soul-saving and wildcat dice games) with a dreamy tenderness, giving heart-tugging renditions of If I were a Bell and I’ve Never Been in Love Before. 

And the hits – like Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat and Take Back Your Mink – keep coming, delivered with breathtaking gusto and whip-smart synchronicity by an ensemble cast of 35, switching scene-to-scene with enough pizazz to light up Times Square. 

The catchy songs and incidental tunes are powered by a rhythmically taut 15-strong band, sitting in a dress circle glass cube studded with showbiz lamps.

The costumes (Deborah Andrews) – gorgeous gowns, loud check suits and two-tone shoes – are as bright as the neon signs which fly in and out. Choreography is by Arlene Philips, a nod to Strictly in the sassy silver skirts of the Hot Box chorus line.

In the round makes it special

What jolts this talented revival of a cherished treat into originality is the staging. 12 lit rostra move up and down, an articulated maze of different configurations at contrasting heights to become garage, mission, newsstand, nightclub, sidewalk and sewer (where the craps get rolled).

The really bold idea from Hytner and designer Bunny Christie is to drop this ever-shifting grid into the middle of a promenade audience who, like Shakespeare’s groundlings, are pressed up against the action, every movement policed by stage managers (literally: they’re all in cops’ uniforms).

It’s a joy to see the rapt delight on the faces of the mostly young audience, cheek-by-jowl with the performers, in the cheaper, standing areas. The rest of us, like John Lennon’s royal audience, just rattle our jewellery.

This version updates with an added frisson; the Havana night club steams with such gay abandon that Sarah’s beau has his head turned by the boys in tightly clad gear and starts to wonder if he’s Sky or Bi.

The buzz and bliss of a hit musical

As an ex-theatre manager, I also get a buzz from the sheer logistics of a huge production like this: the mingle of so many different people, the meticulous planning, the schedules, the attention to detail, the money, all lovingly coordinated.  It’s like watching the intricate mechanism of the Peacock Clock in St Petersburg’s Hermitage – on speed!

Yet the true bliss of a successful musical comes from seeing something give such pleasure to so many people. It’s the same with other shows I’ve loved, like The Lion King, Anything Goes (,The Book of Mormon, Les Miserables, West Side Story and Hamilton (due in Edinburgh from next February).

It’s hard to share veteran playwright David Hare’s dismay as he notes, in The Spectator, that “it’s a crushing defeat to see Wyndham’s, the most perfect playhouse in London for the spoken word, without a straight play”. But it is showing a smart, imaginative and attractive musical comedy, Oklahoma!, in a revival so far from folksy, they’re calling it Wokelahoma! 

As if great plays were threatened by great musical theatre – of course there’s room for both. 

Musicals are special; they use every element of theatrical experience – light, movement, rhythm, sound, story and light – to play on the full range of our emotional and mental receptors.  They endure and succeed because they stir our deepest feelings, pluck the heartstrings and strike a chord in our very soul.

They make us cry, laugh and feel. Fewer musicals? I’d say we need more!

Scotland – ideally suited to musicals of its own

Seeing these lavish spectacles sparks, in me at least, another yearning – why don’t they happen more often, here in Scotland?

The public appetite is there – Hamilton will play Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre for 9 weeks, 70 performances, a total of 134,050 seats. Ticket prices go up to £100 each. 

The talent is there. We’re lucky to have such versatility: performers who switch acting, music and other skills, plus many actors who can pick up different instruments with alacrity, working on stages across the country. Scotland’s performance style also tends to a non-naturalistic straight-to-the-audience approach entirely suited to musicals.

Scotland is home to some first-class training, encompassing acting, dance, filmmaking, music, singing, technical skills, costume and design, plus writing for the screen and stage. The list of alumni, as well as performers who’ve come up through experience, could run and run.

The traditions are also here – the major role played by Variety and Pantomime; the crossover from comedy into theatre and the strength of all kinds of home-grown music.

Such rich potential to be realised – but it takes money, time and thorough dedication to make productions that have something to say in a way that audiences will be excited to watch. 

Scotland’s capacity to create great popular musical shows would surely benefit from a renaissance. It could do all of us – audience and performers – a power of good.

Paul Bassett


April 2023

Scottish Opera’s sensational new Puccini show – love, death and laughter…

Puccini understood how to get the maximum voltage out of the human voice – Denis Forman, The Good Opera Guide

How to thrill an audience, make them weep and then fall about with laughter?  Give them three shows in one, with strong plots, captivating characters and beautiful music. For his 1918 triptych (Il Trittico), Puccini knew all the tricks and, over a century later, so do Scottish Opera.

Their new production of this trio of hour-long operas is a triumph. The singers, the orchestra and sets make the most of each gripping story, powered by sweeping, spellbinding melodies.

The company is faithful to the composer’s wish to play all three pieces together. Though separate mini-sagas, the themes are common: betrayal, rejection, passion and – always – death. The whole evening is a great coup of stagecraft with three distinct settings (a Parisian canal; a seventeenth-century convent and and a sprawling bedroom in Florence). The scene shifting makes for long intervals, so I was glad of some M&S sandwiches.

The first piece is Il Tabarro – the cloak. This garment keeps the bargee Michele warm and, later, his victim hidden. The production team (led by Glasgow-born and trained David McVicar) hold everything – colours, costumes, movement – tightly focussed on the tragic unfolding of this intensely emotional love triangle.

Second is Suor Angelica, which features more nuns and babies than Call the Midwife, but with no hope of a happy ending. Sister Angelica, curing others with her herbal brews, yearns to hear of her family. But the harsh, punitive Catholic culture drives her towards a fatal remedy.  Puccini’s syrupy sounds pull out all the emotional stops and, again, Scottish Opera’s cast and crew stress exquisitely the pure intensity of the bereft nun’s plight. I was wiping away the tears, thinking of John Boyne’s book The Heart’s Invisible Furies and Peter Mullan’s film The Magdalene Sisters.

Finally comes the laugh-out-loud Gianni Schicchi. A bit like Harvey Keitel’s Mr Wolf in Pulp Fiction, Gianni is summoned to sort out a messy death. The still warm corpse is patriarch Buoso, who’s only gone and left all his worldly goods to a monastery. The family – hilariously dressed in 1970’s kitsch – are heartbroken by their loss: they might miss out on his money! Gianni and his daughter fix it, but – cuter than the crazed relatives desperate to claw back their inheritance – they reap the rewards and the last of the umpteen laughs.

As well as his glorious melodies, Puccini shows his gift for comedy and this version makes the most of the fast, frenzied farce.

The orchestra, conducted by Stuart Stratford, plays superbly, supporting breathtaking performances from Sunyoung Seo (the lead in both Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica) and Roland Wood as the cuckolded bargee, then the title role in Gianni Schicci.

Glasgow’s Theatre Royal was packed and it may be impossible to get tickets for the few performances left in the current run (Saturday 18 March, Glasgow; Wednesday 22 and Saturday 25 March Festival Theatre, Edinburgh).  But this is a major success for Scottish Opera and when they revive it in future, rush to get a ticket.

Paul Bassett


March 2023

Florence – terrific trip, terrible tripe!

The land is idyllic, the art is devine and the food is out of this world.

– Stanley Tucci on Tuscany

Towards the end of 2022, four of us wanted to take a trip abroad. Where to break a fast of three homebound years?  It was my birthday, so I got to choose.

“Why Florence?”

“Something I read in a book.”

The book was Still Life by Sarah Winman (2022). Set mostly in Florence, it’s a love letter to the Tuscan city.  As well as its fabulously original characters – outsiders all, united by humanity, humour and love – what stayed with me were the descriptions of the floods which blighted the area in 1966. 

I’d never heard of them. They left thousands homeless and devastated the city.  The swollen waters of the River Arno swept at lightning speed, swamping – with tonnes of mud – countless works of art. Winman evokes these true-life scenes so vividly. Most poignant is her account of the mud angels – hundreds of young people who descended on the city, saved paintings and books and fell in love.

This fired my desire to see some Florentine cultural bounty up close. We’d visited Florence before on a summer day-trip, but it felt as hot as a pizza oven and – jostling through the ancient streets, joining the crowds gaping at Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria – we failed to explore treasures like the Uffizi Gallery and the cathedral, marvel of 15th century engineering.

The oldest gallery in the world

The Uffizi was HQ of the Medici family, but belies its meaning (the offices) because, like many buildings in Florence, it’s a palace.  Open to the public for 300 years, it’s the oldest art gallery in the world.  Even now, in autumn, though we’d booked in advance, we had to join a line which snaked around the elegant courtyard.

Once inside, you still feel huckled along, so tight is the throng keen to view the artworks in vaulted rooms off the splendidly frescoed corridors. Inching forwards to get a swatch of the Botticellis felt like trying to view the Mona Lisa in the Louvre – you need your elbows as much as your eyes.

It’s worth it. In the flesh and up close, The Birth of Venus (1485), is spine-tinglingly beautiful. The central icon stands in a giant shell, blown by zephyrs of wind. 

She is born from the sea foam, the guidebook says, coyly. I prefer Stephen Fry’s account in Mythos: Kronos slices off his father’s genitalia, tosses them over the sea, sperm spills into the waves from which arises Venus, originally Aphrodite. Greek mythology, representing divine love and rebirth – or maybe it’s just another cock-and-balls story. 

Fitting, perhaps, that Botticelli used tempera – diluted egg – to test new pigments and achieve such brilliant lasting colours.

Just as striking is the nearby Primavera (1480). A vibrant rainbow of a panel, it teems with the scantily draped flesh of mythological figures: Venus again, another Zephyr, the three Graces, Mercury and a nymph, topped by a wee plump Cupid, all surrounded by an abundance of flowers, foliage and fruit. The figures are busy, not still – the embodiment of Spring, fertility, desire and love.

The classical source of these tableaux stands out amidst a sea of biblically inspired scenes. The preponderance of Christian iconography is overwhelming – Oh, god, not another room of Madonna with Child pictures! 

Rarer still are paintings by women. Bloody and beautiful, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) by Artemisia Gentileschistill shocks. A determined Judith cleaves with a sword the neck of an invading general – more retaliatory slicing – his blood soaking the bedsheets. Was Artemisia avenging her own rape by another artist? She was tortured to verify her story, while his sentence of exile was never carried out.

A delicious history lesson

We didn’t confine ourselves to pure aesthetics, but widened our cultural horizons to include buildings, drink and food. The Eating Europe walking tour was enlightening and mouthwatering, but for one local delicacy.

The tour started just over the river. Like Paris’s rive gauche, Florence’s south bank – the Oltrarno – was once seen as the more authentic, home to workers and the poor. 

First stop was the formaggioteca where the proprietor – wearing a beatific smile and an apron saying King of Cheeses – gave us a taste of creamy ricotta, pecorino and other local products.  Next came a pasticceria: cake, pastries, and crisp, nut-embedded cantucci biscuits which we dunked into sweet Vin Santo, the booze used for Mass.

Dodging motorini scooters,  a dander through the tight side streets, two more shops and a wine degustation and we were sated, ready to say ciao to all this heavenly chow.

But there was one more dish, served from a van, smothered in parsley, garlic and anchovy sauce  and stuffed into panini (bread rolls): lampredotto. The name derives from lamprey eels – once fished out of the Arno and considered a delicacy – which it resembles in colour, shape and, maybe, flavour.

We know it as the aptly named tripe. We valiantly gave it a go, but none of us could finish it. It was, as we say in Glasgow, boggin’!

We’d had a tip about Florentine food, thanks to the Tuscan episode of Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy (BBC iPlayer), a charming watch full of local colours, tastes and sounds. Having lived part of his childhood in Florence, he focussed on cucina povera – peasant food, using cheap and plentiful ingredients like pasta, beans, tomatoes (Ha! cry the Brits, now) and stale bread in Tuscan dishes like panzanella salad, pappa al pomodoro soup and ribollita stew.

Tucci gave us our first-night, good-value restaurant – Osteria Cinghiale Bianco, White Boar Tavern.  After the failed tripe trial, roast boar seemed really appetising. So were the desserts like tiramisu and bignolini, cream in choux pastry.

Stanley’s programme also showed the buchette del vino – wine windows, first sprung during the seventeenth-century plague. Some reopened during Covid as the safe way to get a drink. We scoured the ancient walls and eventually found one – though it was quicker to queue at the bar!

Books and Florence

In Still Life, the fictional Evelyn, a brilliantly perceptive art expert, meets a version of real-life author, E.M. Forster. She gifts him her Baedeker guide to Florence and feeds him bomboloni alla crema (custard-crammed Tuscan doughnuts).  

Evelyn’s ardent affair with the hotel maid hints at same-sex love and Forster, stuck in his English closet and ruled by mother, has his eyes opened. Such passionate scenes in and around Florence  figure in Forster’s A Room with a View (1908). 

Another bestseller set in the city is Brunelleschi’s Dome. Santa Maria del Fiore’s huge cupola – largest of its type in the world – dominates the city and panorama from kilometres away. Not only is it free of visible support, it was also built without scaffolding. Ross King’s book details the technical genius of raising huge blocks of marble as well as the aesthetics, morals and politics of 15th-century Florence.

Towards the end of our last day, we climbed south of the city to the Piazzale Michelangelo. Sarah Winman takes Evelyn and her lover there: the views across Florence and the Arno plain were ravishing. The afternoon light had turned the valley gold and the roofs shone vivid red. And of course, that dome.

Paul Bassett


March 2023

David Hayman is brilliant.

A full blog post is coming later this week but just have to put up a brief ‘quickie’ to say I saw last week the most wonderful performance of a great script and production.

It’s Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland at the Tron, a play first done at the Royal Court, London. This Glasgow version comes as the whole N. Ireland situation is once again at a crossroads. Although, given the history and depth of the conflict, in a way when isn’t it?

The play cleverly takes to the limits of absurdity and beyond the cruel logic of Ulster Unionism (No… No .. NO!). This is personified in the main character, Eric. It’s this performance of the lead by David Hayman which blew me and, I’m pretty sure, the entire audience away.

How to make a murderous Orangeman nuanced and sympathetic? David pulls it off so powerfully, quietly and patiently building up the layers of insecurity and bigotry to make a scarily plausible portrait.

It’s a tour de force of such acting depth rarely achieved or seen in my experience. When I first joined the Citizens’ Theatre way back in 1979, Hayman was the company’s lead actor. He was so welcoming I won’t ever forget it. I’ve seen him in various roles over the years and of course he’s been in loads of TV and films, as well as keeping his stage abilities up to scratch.

But even with all that, this is exceptional, as if all his experience is distilled into this profound representation. I don’t need to urge you to see it because it’s likely to be sold out so – grab a ticket if you can. The rest of the five-strong cast and the design are also first-rate.

Paul Bassett


March 2023

Le Vent du Nord blows Glasgow away!

Celtic Connections – what a generous, open-hearted and exciting festival.  Its internationalism rings out with every chord played and every note sung.  Where better than Glasgow for this inclusive feast of diverse musical roots to thrive in 2023, its thirtieth year?

World-Class Quebec comes to Glasgow

A highlight for me was a concert last weekend from Quebec’s Le Vent du Nord, a quintet of multi-instrumentalists – accordion, violins, guitars, keyboards, hurdy-gurdy plus percussion from the fiddlers’ tap-dancing feet. 

No matter if we don’t catch all the heavily accented Quebecois lyrics. The rhythms are infectious, the performers charming and the songs universal – drink, farewells, reunions and lost love. 

The musicianship is world class – they weave tunes flawlessly, swapping instruments with dazzling versatility.  Several numbers feature exquisite vocal harmonies, as sweet as the maple syrup brandy they sing about – Dans l’eau-de-vie de l’arbre.  Intoxicating stuff.

The gloriously upbeat reels and riffs got the crowd dancing, cheering and singing along. The Old Fruitmarket was hoaching – there must have been about 900 people, clearly having the time of their lives.

The affection is reciprocated on stage; there was much talk of missing Scotland during the pandemic years; the five friends – celebrating two decades together as a band – looked delighted by this triumphant return.

They attracted a rare bunch of fellow travellers, suitably diverse for a Celtic Connections gig.  The support group, Dallahan, primed the crowds with a brisk, spirited set, striking the perfect genial tone for the evening.  Le Vent du Nord, mirrored by a five-strong brass section (adding some Scottish North Wind), expanded with players from Scottish folk band Breabach and accomplished guests like Julie Fowlis.

By the end, I counted 20 people on stage – an exotic ragout of music, talent and pure joy.

Pakistan meets Scotland

A couple of days earlier I saw an even bolder international fusion – this time between Pakistan and Scotland, at Cottiers Theatre.  When Mountains Meet is a delightful mixture of music, song and theatre based on the true-life experience of the band’s violinist, Anne Wood.  It tells the story of how she crossed continents to track down her real dad (a bit like Scotland’s former Makar, Jackie Kay, in Red Dust Road)

Four singer/storytellers play out the journey, switching roles and narrating us across the country from Peshawar to Lahore, each stop on the way evoked by moving images projected on to a mountain range of bedsheets.

The band play throughout, traditional Scottish instruments – harp, violin, drums – beautifully spun with tanpura, tabla and sarangi.  On sitar, Rakae Jamal’s plangent sounds cut straight to the heart.

Not all international connections go smoothly; Anne’s father and family, bound by a stricter culture, reject her.  The show doesn’t duck such complexities, but still accentuates the joyful crossover of music and humanity at the heart of the story.

Global rhythms

The common strand in the amazing range of musical styles celebrated by Celtic Connections is the fiddle. Unique, ubiquitous and universal, it embraces a huge variety of ethnic traditions, each with its own peculiar sound.

I remember the festival starting in the wake of Glasgow’s Year of Culture (1990).  I was at a meeting where the then director of the new Concert Hall, Cameron McNicol, worried about audiences after Christmas: “Nobody wants to go to a concert in January.” 

From small beginnings the event has grown to its present 18 days, 300 events, 2000 musicians, 30 venues 130,000 audience and 30 years.  No wonder a special whisky, Grace Notes, has been released to mark the anniversary.

Christmas has gone, steep bills are mounting up, it’s cold, wet and miserable.  How to beat the first month blues?  Dry January?  It’s a long time. Veganuary?  Mebbees aye, mebbees no.  Next year, try a diet of Celtic Connections music – life-affirming, joyous and fabulously democratic!

Paul Bassett


February 2023

And the winner is …

After the Golden Globes, the BAFTA and Oscar Awards will soon be upon us. STAGE LEFT has been watching some of the main contenders.

The Banshees of Inisherin

A terrible beauty is born

 – Easter 1916,W.B. Yeats

Martin McDonagh has a thing for place names. His plays have Galway locales – Leeann, Inishmaan, Connemara, and Inishmore – in their titles. The hit films he’s written and directed – In Bruges (2008) and Three Billboards outside Ebbings, Missouri (2017) – continue the knack. 

The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh’s latest movie, is set on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. It shows the individual and the idiosyncratic, the world in a village. Achingly beautiful sky and seascapes contrast with dank interiors – cottages, farmhouses and pub.

It’s as much about the banshees as Inisherin. The peculiar foursome at the heart of the tragicomic plot are memorable as characters and for the performances that bring them to life. 

Barry Keoghan, one of Ireland’s best film actors gives a subtle depiction of the savvy village idiot, Dominic.

It’s April 1923. So stunted are prospects on the island that the clever, bookish Siobhan – a beautifully measured Kerry Condon, a McDonagh regular – sets her sights on the mainland. But her brother, Padraic (Colin Farrell) has simpler ambitions: to keep his cows and beloved donkey, deliver his milk churns and go to the pub every day with Colm (Brendan Gleeson, reunited with Farrell from In Bruges).

Musically gifted Colm, weary of fruitless drift, resolves to ditch the mundane, starting with Padraic. Gleeson, mad-eyed and moody, is wonderfully dour. You wouldn’t go drinking with dullard Padraic for the craic, but Farrell’s interpretation, a poignant mixture of humour and pathos, tugs at the heart. 

The uncoupling of Colm and Padraic sparks a vendetta of deception, drowning, self-mutilation and a fierce inferno. 

The lengths the pair go to beggar belief. How far can male brutality go? Does their caustic feud – five years after the First World War and two years into the Irish Free State with Civil War reprisals raging – echo not just the mainland explosions, but also the desperate clashes of early twentieth century Ireland and beyond?


Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) is a prodigious talent – a high-profile conductor (orchestra, not bus).  You expect the familiar rubric based on a true story to appear, but she and the plot are fictional.

Lydia leads a life of phenomenal pressure – composing, conducting, teaching and keeping her tumultuous personal life together. 

She is imperiously at home in the top-down world of classical music. In a rare case of shared decision-making, she was elected chief conductor by the players of the Berliner Philharmonic (as happens in real life). But, with Lydia on the podium, democracy doesn’t count – she crowbars an item on to the programme (Elgar’s Cello Concerto), naming her favourite as the soloist. 

During an interview at the start of the film, during which Lydia is addressed as “Maestro”, she claims she can stop time when she conducts. Later, her genius tainted by manipulation of the people around her, we see – ominously – a metronome being wrenched to a halt.

Like Lydia herself, the film moves at an intense pace between encounters, both professional and personal. The imagery is rich, with alternating shifts of colour and monochrome, amplified sounds and silence, harsh backgrounds and dream sequences, reflecting the complex layers of Tar’s mercurial life.

She wants to nail the definitive recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The exquisite fourth movement was played over Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice. Vergessen Visconti!, Lydia commands the players. Personally, I can’t forget it – hearing it always makes me cry.

As she strives to rise above the cracks in her relationships, her attempts to separate art from the artist come back to haunt her. During a New York masterclass, she humiliates a student who refuses to play Bach because “dead, white, male CIS composers are not my thing.” Anti-Tar protests go viral, threatening her artistic triumph.  

Tar is a fascinating story about art, power, talent, cancel culture and love, with a blistering central performance from Blanchett. She’s scarcely off-screen and learned piano, conducting and German for the film. Her supreme attention to every detail makes her portrayal utterly convincing. It certainly puts her in contention for her third Oscar and fourth BAFTA.


Who better than Bill Nighy to go from pinched bureaucrat to benevolent rebel? There he is, with a coterie of bowler-hatted civil servants, umbrellas tightly furled, crammed in the regular steam-train commute into 1950’s London. Then, his carefully routined life upturned by a terminal medical diagnosis, that ferrety face gradually breaks into smile.

From the story of Mr Williams (Nighy) – an epiphanous shift from desiccated widower to playful hero – Living might at first seem another take on classic British Passport to Pimlico eccentricity. 

Not quite – the film’s contributors include Leo Tolstoy (wrote 1886 novella), Akira Kurosawa (directed 1952 film), Kazuo Ishiguro (scripted this version) and Oliver Hermanus (directed), all these sources distilled into a tale of reflection, soul-searching and understanding. The camera lingers mellifluously; the palette of colours is beautiful, the soundtrack haunting and spare.  

Mr Williams pleads the case of a group of women refused a playground, politely persisting until it happens. We’re used to seeing Nighy, in films like About Time and Love Actually, use comedy to show pathos. Here the pace is more glacial. He delicately suggests what it means to recapture a lost humanity, to forge an authentic, compassionate life – what’s left of it – from a sterile one. As he sways on a swing, in the snow, gently singing Oh Rowan Tree, he is smiling. It’s a pleasure to watch.

Other ones to watch

Babylon gives a 2022 picture of Hollywood in the roaring 1920’s. It includes a homage to Singing in the Rain, 1952’s vision of that same decade.  

This new take on the shift from silent films to talkies, with Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, could not be less like the Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds classic. Everything in Babylon is excessive, including its length (three hours and ten minutes).

We see an incontinent elephant amid cocained, naked bodies; a fight with a rattlesnake and a brown-skinned trumpeter forced to darken his face with burnt cork. But these are spectacular sketches in what can feel like Elvis – another awards contender described by The Guardian as a film-length trailer, a relentless, frantically flashy montage.

The deeper narrative of Babylon belongs to two outsiders: the trumpeter and a Mexican wannabe producer – a brilliant performance by Diego Calvo – who survive the hedonistic burn-out party. But what a party!

The Good Nurse is a true-crime thriller, with great performances from Jessica Chastaine and Eddie Redmayne. Chastaine plays Amy, both medic and patient. Redmayne is Charlie, her colleague and helpmate – or so she hopes. 

The shocking reason behind deaths at the New Jersey hospital creeps upon us. There’s an incidental shock for those of us still lucky to have (just about) free health care, when Amy has to pay almost $1000 for a diagnosis, never mind the treatment bills to come. To insure these, she has to keep working, but who will keep her illness secret as well as look after her daughter? 

The focus stays tightly on Amy’s home and the hospital – complicit in its failure to screen employees – as the police try to catch the killer. The underlying questions loom larger – not just who did it and why, but what sort of health system is so cruelly unaccountable?

If you hate pretentious restaurants, your milk of human kindness will curdle at first sight of the private island restaurant in The Menu, run by top chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). But director Mark Mylod has decided – on behalf of all us anti-foodies, maybe – that revenge is a dish best served bold.

In a whizzed up foam of increasingly grotesque courses, each solemnly introduced by a smug Julian, the ultra-rich guests are told that they’re about to “ingest entire ecosystems”. The bill looks likely to cost an arm-and-a-leg, at least.

If food is theatre, this is the cruelty and absurd kind. After the breadless bread basket, the fawning diners should save themselves and leave, but only the rebel Margot  (Anya Taylor-Joy) has the sense to order cheeseburger and fries – to go!

A brief mention of four other films worth catching if you haven’t. My Old School blends facts of Brandon Lee’s return, aged 32, as a pupil to Bearsden Academy with the fiction of Alan Cumming lip-syncing Lee’s confession.  

Young Plato, also set around a school – a Belfast primary – is a documentary about an inspirational head teacher who uses Greek philosophy to boost the boys’ confidence. 

Nitram has a riveting performance by Caleb Landry Jones as an unhinged young Tasmanian fired up, in part, by the Dunblane tragedy. When you learn he went on, in real life, to shoot dead 35 people, it becomes almost too disturbing.

Finally for pure eccentricity, try Brian and Charles, the tale of a lonely inventor building a robot companion. Their daffy adventures in rural Wales are the most charming slice of whimsy you could hope for.

Paul Bassett


January 2023

A version of this blog post has been published on Bylines Scotland.

Scottish Panto is still the best!

It’s a great year for pantomime in Scotland. STAGE LEFT enjoys three shows in Perth and Glasgow.

Hiya Pals!

It’s panto time – again. 

I love panto. I loved it when I used to helped make it happen, years past, at the Citizens’, Glasgow. I still love it now, when all I do is watch, laugh, shout and sing along.  

Pantos that are truly Scottish – oh, yes they are!

Scotland has developed its own panto tradition, glorious and popular, with straight-to-the-audience style, smart-but-daft gags, over-the-top costumes, music, simple morality tales and larger-than-life characters. And stappit fu’ – stuffed – with broad Scots patois.

I’ve just seen three splendid examples of the quintessential panto, one at Perth Theatre and the others in Glasgow, at the Tron and the Oran Mor.

Both Perth’s Jack and the Beanstalk and The Wizard of Oz (Tron) are directed, written by and star a man as the dame  – Barrie Hunter at Perth, Johnny McKnight in Glasgow. Both shows fondly respect the custom of a family entertainment with jokes, songs and a heartwarming story.

They are bright, colourful adventures where good thwarts bad. In Jack and the Beanstalk the good is green, its sets’ verdant foliage and snowy peaks (Middle Perth, naturally) menaced by the evil Baddie (panto doesn’t do subtle).

The Wizard, too, is awash with light amidst the storm, its smart design and bold costumes adding to the joy as Dorothy Blawna-Gale, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Wummin find the goodness inside themselves to get back home to Tronsis (we’re not in Kansas any more).

At the Oran Mor, Rab Hood and the Sheriff of Shettleston is written and directed by Morag Fullarton, Scotland’s prolific princess of popular panto productions at A Play, a Pie and a Pint. It’s a brilliant hour-long distillate of comedy, music and sharp political zingers. Rab Hood, of course, steals from the Rishi to give to the poor.  

There are more laughs per minute than ever – this being Fullarton’s sixth original Christmas creation, having wowed the mostly adult audience with classics like The Lying Bitch and the Wardrobe and Cinderella – I Married a Numpty.

These irreverent, noisy spectacles are rooted in their community. You’re “at your aunties”. They’re hoaching with local allusions. Oran Mor references Byres Road and Waitrose. The Tron, a few miles to the east, takes a swipe at the trendy West End and when Dorothy faces a scary, horrible place, she’s not afraid – after all, she’s been to Asda in Toryglen! 

Taking the fun seriously

For all its sense of fun, a good panto is not a flip, makeshift affair. It should have first-class script, sets, costumes and performances. In each of these three shows, you can tell, from the audience’s engagement, that the team takes it seriously.

From a theatre’s point of view, the pantomime has to do well for 3 reasons.  

First, it’s the best way of getting people to come to theatre who otherwise wouldn’t. For thousands of children – and grown-ups – it’s their first, or maybe once-a-year, chance to see a live performance, an introduction to an imagined world.

Second, it’s often the main source of box office income, helping to support the running of playhouses the rest of the year. As public subsidy of the arts is likely to be squeezed further, they’re going to need a sure earner even more. 

Third, it’s fun!

Keeping it lean, but not clean

With panto, financial necessity can be the mother of theatrical invention.  

When I started at the Citizens’, the panto (in 1979, Puss in Boots) had a long-established format of 9 principals, 7 chorus and 4 musicians in the pit. 20 performers on the payroll for nearly 2 months? Unthinkable for most theatres nowadays!

We honed the numbers down in the eighties, starting with Babes in the Wood (written by John Byrne, with a memorable cast of 10 including Roger Allam, Robbie Coltrane, Pat Doyle and Gary Oldman as Daniel the Dog).

There’s a line-up of eight in Perth’s Beanstalk; the Tron is even leaner with seven and Oran Mor’s Rab Hood has just five actors on stage.

Bodily functions get healthily aired. At Perth, it’s not the beans that make the stalk grow tall – it’s Maggie Moo the Coo’s magic poo. Our grandson, 8, was even-handed in his verdict – he liked The Wizard of Oz for the fart gags but Jack and the Beanstalk for its poo jokes.

Let the people sing!

The showbiz maxim: “Always finish with a song” surely applies to panto. And what a great Scottish tradition – everyone yelling “Bring Doon the Cloot!”. At Perth, the cloth with the words glides down from the flies. The Tron, an ex-church with no flying system, makes do with a banner bearing the lyrics. On the pocket-sized stage in Oran Mor, also once a church, it’s “Unwind the Blind!”, and we all join in with the raucous chorus.

You can’t beat – or follow – the audience singing along, at the top of their voices.  Just time for the walk-down, curtain-call and home. And on to the next performance.

The audience participation, the hoorays and boos, isn’t just a bit of fun, it heightens the solidarity and engages us in the moral outcome of the story (“Children, will you all shout out together and help Jack?”). Imagine it happening in other dramas – as Hamlet contemplates suicide in his famous soliloquy, we could all cry back: “To Be, Hamlet, To Be!”

Lots more pantos to enjoy

My panto fix isn’t quite done – there’s still the Citizens’ Little Red Riding Hood at Tramway to come.  Other shows around Scotland include Beauty and the Beast, at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre with Elaine C Smith as dame; the main offering in Edinburgh is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Festival Theatre, the King’s being closed for redevelopment. In the same city, the Royal Lyceum is presenting A Christmas Carol.  

Elsewhere, Charles Dickens’ classic has become commonplace. In London, there are at least twelve stage adaptations, including the Old Vic, the Bridge, the Rose and Leicester Square.  There’s even, at the South Bank Centre, Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol.

None of them can surpass the best version ever – The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. To mark its thirtieth anniversary, the movie is screening in filmhouses again.  We’ve made a party booking.

Yet something will be missing in the cinema: that wonderful heady feeling only a live theatre can give as the panto comes to an end. There we all are, singing at the top of our voices, warm, together and – for a couple of hours at least – not a care in the world.

Paul Bassett


December 2022

You’re gonna need a bigger vote!

Should Scots determine on independence, no English party or politician would stand in their way – Margaret Thatcher

STAGE LEFT looks at the rallies held on the day of the Supreme Court ruling and ways forward for Scotland 

We can’t hear you!

The biggest demo last Wednesday was In Edinburgh, outside the Scottish Parliament, addressed by Nicola Sturgeon.  I trust it was well-organised and had a decent P.A system.  At the Glasgow gathering – about 1500 people surrounding the Donald Dewar statue by the Concert Hall – the main chant, as speakers tried to address the crowd, was “We can’t hear you!”

These impromptu protests are bound to be a bit rough-and ready, but there was no doubting the anger in Scotland.  It’s not just this latest “No, you can’t have what you voted for” decree, the sweep of history shows how far Scotland has been sidelined.  

Scotland ignored

The Scottish people last chose a UK Tory government in 1955.  Of the 67 years since, the Conservatives have ruled at Westminster for 43.  At Holyrood, the Scottish Tories are the only main party never to have held power.

Scotland voted against Brexit and attempts to soften it have been ignored.  All four Scottish elections since 2007 – under proportional representation – have been won by the SNP, the most recent producing a clear majority of MSPs who support a second referendum.

A plebiscite and persuasion

How to move forward?  Is it by persuading an overwhelming majority to vote in a plebiscite election – a would-be referendum – for pro-independence parties, so that Scotland’s will can no longer be spurned?

This week’s rallies, though fair expression against legal confirmation of Westminster’s disdain, don’t seem to be the kind of engagement likely to turn things round.

Demos, protests, rallies and marches hardly featured during indyref1.  The emphasis was on campaigning at local level, mass canvassing, meetings, street stalls and discussion.

Later, pre-pandemic, AUOB (All Under One Banner) organised regular huge marches to keep the YES momentum and morale going.

But the converted waving Saltires at each other is not going to cut through.  An even gentler, more understanding approach than 2014 may be called for, as the undecided are given every opportunity to find their voice.

No more consensus, just hostility

The obvious difference now is that the vote, in whatever form it comes, is no longer consensual.  David Cameron and Alex Salmond signing the Edinburgh Agreement, under section 30 of the Scotland Act in 2012, feels like a generation ago.

The tone last time was set by an unfailingly positive YES campaign, promising a better Scotland,versus a Project Fear NO.  And YES lost. Now the process is likely to take place in an atmosphere of greater hostility. 

Practical challenges lie ahead 

There are also practical difficulties in trying to make the 2024 General Election a plebiscite or would-be referendum.

Ideas about Scotland’s status risk being marginalised in the battle between the main parties in England, by unionist parties in Scotland and probably by the media as well. What’s more, Labour may have its best chance in years to win at Westminster; some SNP voters may shift allegiance.   

TV debates might exclude Scottish voices.  The Tories plan to have voter ID – likely to disenfranchise younger voters – and exclude 16 and 17 year-olds and EU citizens.

Unionist parties also face challenges.  The year after indyref1, Labour’s Scottish MP’s  were all but wiped out – 41 down to just 1, the same number as now.  There are just 6 Tories and 4 LibDems.  Paradoxically, Westminster’s preferred first-past-the-post system tends to work in the SNP’s favour; in 2019 they won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats with 45% of the popular vote.

The SNP can be a formidable election machine, getting out the vote with great efficiency.  But in a plebiscite election, even if the unionists don’t accept it it as such, there’s bound to be dispute over what constitutes a majority – percentage or seats? 

Labour’s demise north of the border is attributed not only to their refusal to engage with Scotland’s democratic deficit, but also their readiness to get into bed with the Tories under the Better Together banner in 2014.  How will the anti-independence forces combine?

Scotland’s situation stays ambiguous

In short, we’re in a guddle.  It may be as nothing compared to the permacrisis facing the UK as a whole but, for Scotland, the way ahead seems as ambiguous as it did before Lord Reed made his clear and definitive pronouncement.

Paul Bassett


November 2022

The state of Scottish democracy

Democracy values everyone equally even if the majority do not.

 – Lady Brenda Hale

Professor James Mitchell gave the inaugural State of Scottish Democracy lecture, hosted by the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, in Glasgow last week.  Professor Mitchell, Chair in Public Policy at Edinburgh University and an expert on the constitution, assessed the health of democracy in Scotland today.  STAGE LEFT was there.

James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh (left), with Willie Sullivan, Senior Director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland.


25 years since devolution legislation was presented to the Westminster parliament, the UK Supreme Court is due – this Wednesday 23 November – to announce its decision on the independence referendum case brought by the Scottish government.  

The ruling is bound to excite strong reaction from all sides of the debate.  So, before we are all consumed – again – by the seemingly perpetual stalemate between YES and NO, it was refreshing to hear a more nuanced voice aiming to broaden the debate beyond the issue of our country’s constitutional status.

Mitchell began his talk by showing some recent examples of over-dramatic approaches to the subject.  Book titles combining the words crisis and democracy seem to abound. 

He also noted a recent unwelcome trend towards curtailing democracy as if the people – some with ugly opinions – can’t be trusted: demophobia.  Yet, he argued, this is the very point at which we should increase the engagement and involvement of people in their electoral systems.

Crisis – what crisis?

Looking more closely at the messy reality of Scotland’s democratic journey, Mitchell saw both progress and failure in the state’s accountability to the people.

His starting point was the 1990’s and the Constitutional Convention, the alliance of parties and civic groups that framed the devolution settlement, paving the way to the Scottish parliament.

He praised the openness and radicalism of their deliberations – a rich debate on representation.  It was especially important that the new set-up should be proportionally elected; that it should bring equality for women and be more inclusive ethnically; that it should offer better scrutiny and that, unlike the antiquated Commons, it should work in modern conditions.

In contrast, the UK Conservative government of the time was patently unable to provide Scotland with proper representation – demands from north of the border were neither heard nor met.  He thought this wasn’t just the Tories – even if a party sympathetic to Scottish interests had been in power at Westminster, there would still have been a lack of accountability inherent in the system.

And then came Holyrood. A great milestone but it was not, as Donald Dewar, its founding father, put it, an end in itself but a means to a greater end.

The improvement on first-past-the-post and the value of each vote counting would not magically lead to a more democratic society.  Has Holyrood, since its inception, been able to advance the notion of democracy as not just an event but a process?  

For Mitchell, the main weakness has been at the local level. The Scottish government has introduced powers to itself but failed to enhance those of city and rural government.  The great hope in early stages of Holyrood was to empower local representation, but the promised parity of esteem hasn’t happened.  Instead there’s been a reluctance, to the point of disrespect, to share power and resources with non-centralised institutions.

Votes count, but resources decide the outcome in the end – Stein Rokkan

Our practice of democracy has to go further and examine why power is limited, why it fails to engage more of the population.  Several key factors are evident: we cannot expect a society unequal in terms of wealth, health and education to be equal in representation. Also, certain interest groups have private access to power while others are pushed out.

Mitchell referred to the verdict of Nigel Smith (the most influential political campaigner you’ve never heard of) in his posthumously published pamphlet on the Scottish parliament: Partial success, could do better.

The professor ended his pithy and punchy lecture with a call for an audit of democracy to keep fresh ideas coming.  If not, he feared, those with undemocratic intentions will control the agenda.

A democratic event in itself

The event itself was suitably open and accessible – Mitchell spoke for a little over half an hour, allowing lots of time for contributions from the floor.  

These included Bob Thomson of the Jimmy Reid Foundation who said he couldn’t see how democracy could begin to flourish under a state with a hereditary monarch as its head.  He went on to decry the narrowness of views acceptable to the SNP leadership, adding that Nicola Sturgeon’s regime suppressed divergent opinions with a zeal Stalin would have envied!

Another speaker wondered if Holyrood’s reluctance to share funds and powers was a forced echo of Westminster’s domineering, parsimonious and begrudging attitude towards Scotland in general.

Others wanted to mark the crucial role of housing in local engagement and how tenants’ involvement has been steadily eroded.  When most people lived in a council house they had more say than with present-day Housing Associations and private landlords.  There were also calls, echoed by the main speaker, for our universities to pioneer new ways to regenerate Scottish democracy.

The undemocratic elephant in the room

Whilst it was good to focus on our own back yard, I felt the lecture downplayed the autocracy of Westminster.  Apart from his refusal to recognise Scotland’s right to choose its own future, our unelected Prime Minister is planning to put before the Commons the Retained EU Law Bill.  This will do away with consent from Cardiff and Edinburgh for laws which have been key to the devolution settlement.  It comes on top of the UK Internal Market Act which allows the Tory government to unilaterally neuter the remit of the devolved parliaments.  These kinds of attacks are far more damaging to the health of the Scottish state than any internal matters.

Finally, I was taken with the evening’s surroundings, which trailed a kind of democratic ambience of their own.  The main hall of Govan’s Pearce Institute exudes an aura of faded civic participation not often seen these days.  There we were, in the frayed splendour of a shared municipal zone, with echoing acoustic, draughty space and wood panelling, dominated by a magnificent rank of organ pipes, listening earnestly to a speech and giving our thoughtful responses.   How charming; how old-school!

Not so old – it brought to mind, just eight years ago, scores of such events in such places held during the indyref1 campaign.  Now that, I’d suggest, was democracy in action!

Paul Bassett


November 2022

A version of this post was published on Bylines Scotland:

Scotland’s Cultured Capitalists

The only reason to buy a painting is that you like it – Sir John Richmond (1869 – 1963), Scottish businessman and collector of Impressionist art

What makes a painting beautiful?  The painter’s talent, naturally.  But, as the National Galleries of Scotland’s exhibition, A Taste for Impressionism, shows, that’s just the start.  STAGE LEFT looks at some of the people whose vision and generosity made art desirable – and accessible.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Orchard in Blossom was painted in 1888, one of several works by the artist of fruit trees in bloom.

Matthew Justice, who ran a Dundee furniture business, bought the painting, as well as works by Bonnard, Matisse, Monet, Sisley and Vuillard.  Justice sold Orchard in Blossom to a director of Keiller’s (of marmalade fame) and it was later acquired by Rosalind and Alexander Maitland, son of a Dundee jute merchant.  

In the early twentieth century Dundee was renowned, along with Glasgow and Edinburgh, as one of the major art centres of Britain (  Jam, jute and Impressionism. 

Taste and generosity

The Maitlands were typical of Scotland’s industrialist-connoisseurs of French modern art for two reasons.  

First, their collection was extensive and pioneering: Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Van Gogh and many others.  

Nowadays these artists’ works draw massive crowds and eye-watering bids.  But, at the outset, the impressionists were outsiders.  Their rebellion against the Paris Salon fired their radical aesthetic. Well into the 1900’s, as Scotland’s pioneering collectors sought out their pictures, they were still considered style revolutionaries.  By dedication and discernment, Scotland’s entrepreneurial collectors were ahead of the curve before a curve existed.

Second, these collectors were peculiarly selfless when it came to sharing their beautiful works.  Alexander Maitland presented their collection to the National Galleries in Rosalind’s memory and they had always chosen pictures to complement public acquisitions. 

The world-class range of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in Scotland derives from this kind of generosity.  The first major bequest, in 1911 from Hugh Laird, enabled the Edinburgh galleries to amass a range of nineteenth century French paintings.

Other philanthropists included Isabel Davidson, a music lover, who left not just Monets, Pissarros and Vuillards to the National Galleries of Scotland but also her house and Bechstein piano to St. Mary’s Music School and Anne Kessler – fortune from Dutch oil – who gave her favourite painting, Cezanne’s Big Trees to Edinburgh.  

By 1995, NGS held the most significant range of Surrealist art, thanks to 170 works bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller (marmalade again).

Glasgow’s dealer, Vincent’s twin

Paintings found their way from France to Scotland due to the keen eye of dealers, one of the shrewdest being a Glaswegian, Alexander Reid. 

Reid worked with Theo van Gogh, who introduced him to his brother Vincent.  The three of them shared a flat in Paris in the 1880’s and Vincent painted Reid’s portrait.  The two looked so alike, it was first thought to be a self-portrait. Frances Fowle, the Taste for Impressionism curator, dubs Reid Van Gogh’s Twin. (

That Portrait of Alexander Reid is one of the best-loved pictures at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. (

Reid promoted the colourists Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell and other Scottish artists like William MacTaggart and the Glasgow Boys.  He sold works by Degas to William Burrell (still in the eponymous Collection) who said that Reid introduced more fine pictures to Scotland than anyone else. (

The name’s Gogh.  Van Gogh.

What’s the connection between Van Gogh and James Bond?  Were Vincent’s oil paints shaken, not stirred?  No.  Evelyn Fleming, inspired by her lover, bought French art, including Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman.  Evelyn was mother of Ian Fleming, 007’s creator.

A brilliant piece of spywork, using X-rays, sparked a frisson just before the exhibition opened in July this year.  On the back of the canvas, under a sheet of cardboard, a self-portrait was discovered.  It took the number of Van Gogh works held by the galleries from 3 to 4.  This happens once or twice in a lifetime, says Senior Conservator Lesley Stevenson, it’s very special for a collection that belongs to the people of Scotland. (

A communal past and an uncertain future

Whatever you feel about the art, perhaps the best thing about these exceptional works is their public accessibility.  We can only admire the faith of Scotland’s early entrepreneurs in a shared civic realm for such treasures.

They would, I imagine, be horrified that our public art institutions are now struggling for survival.  The NGS has closed its Modern Art building till 2023, with the director-general citing costs – heating especially – and the worst funding crisis imaginable. (

Can our cultural sector survive the coming struggles?  Scotland’s going to need all the qualities of its artistic pioneers: invention, taste, zeal, and a staunch devotion to public service.

The exhibition A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse is at the Royal Scottish Academy, National Galleries of Scotland
The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL until Sunday 13 November 2022.

Paul Bassett


October 2022

Charles III and the f-word

The bitch that bore him is in heat again. – Bertolt Brecht

STAGE LEFT looks at lessons from history and fiction on monarchy’s relationship with right-wing governments.

An edited version of this blog post has been published on Bylines Scotland:

King Charles III and the f-word

The authoritarian creep of the UK under the Tories led SNP MP Mhairi Black to deliver a blistering speech in the House of Commons in May.

She warned that Westminster policies are leading us slowly towards the f-word.  Fascism, she said, happens subtly.  It arrives through the othering of people, the normalisation of human cruelty.

Edward VIII and his support for Hitler

This month, the queen’s death led me to The Crown, Netflix’s dramatisation of Elizabeth’s life and reign – a handy and entertaining source for matters historical and regal.

One particular episode is titled Vergangenheit – the past, in German. Does it have echoes in the present day, for all of us, including the new king?

It’s 1957.  Queen Elizabeth gets a visit from the abdicated king, Edward VIII, now Duke of Windsor.

Exiled and bored in Paris, the duke wants to come home and find a new role – a roving ambassador, perhaps? The queen is inclined, based on her Christian faith, to forgive her uncle.  Until, that is, she learns that his past links with the Nazis went far deeper than anybody knew.

Not only did he consort with Hitler and pals, he even tipped them off about the Allies’ plans and encouraged them to keep bombing London.  What’s more, the duke colluded with an enemy plot to usurp his brother, George VI, and get himself reinstated as a pro-German king.  Such treason makes it impossible to allow him back into public life.

The Crown is, of course, fiction. Yet, at the end of the drama, real-life footage of the duke – Nazi salutes and all – confirms the story.  There’s also, in German Naval Office papers of 1940, clear evidence of the duke’s advising the Nazi war effort.

Lessons from Italy and Spain

History offers further insights into the relationship between ruling kings and despotic regimes. Victor Emmanuel III’s support for Mussolini led to the end of the Italian monarchy with a 1946 referendum (in favour of abolition: 52%).

In Spain, by contrast, the king was in exile during the Franco years and a constitutional monarchy was restored in 1977, after the dictator’s death.

Back to reality – the UK, September 2022  

Prepare, writes Andrew Marr, for the most right-wing government of our lifetimes.

We had a slew of draconian laws from Boris Johnson and ministers to criminalise protest, outlaw asylum-seekers; disenfranchise ID-less voters and overrule judges’ verdicts on the government.

Now, the Truss regime’s priority is already painfully clear: the enrichment of the wealthy and the suffering of the poor.  We are in for much more.  More extreme, reactionary policies against trade unions, benefits, migrants, Europe and devolution.  

Suella Braverman – keen to ramp up the policies of her predecessor as Home Secretary, Priti Patel – wants the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.  This will help her double down on the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.

As heir to the crown, Charles privately thought the idea appalling.  Could the fact that we got to hear about his view mean that the late queen herself favoured his opposition to this divisive policy?

Can Charles afford to stay silent?

In his first speech as king, Charles stepped back from issues.  Yet he confirmed that he will uphold the precious traditions, freedoms and responsibilities of our unique history and our system of parliamentary government. 

With the Truss administration, we can expect an onslaught against the environment (fracking, anyone?), the NHS, the BBC, parliament and our whole system of civil liberties.  As the Tories take us further down the road towards the f-word, how will our new head of state react?

Constitutionally, the answer is clear –  he is bound to be politically neutral.  

The deep mourning for Elizabeth showed how much people shared the values of tolerance, respect and decency she came to personify. Many seemed to find the pomp and circumstance of monarchy a kind of comfort, a reassurance that all would be well.

Come the first King’s speech, that same paraphernalia will be deployed to strengthen this government’s grip on people’s freedoms.

Could Charles stay above the fray?  Would he risk the future of the monarchy on its consent to an assault on democracy itself?

If so, we might draw on the title of another TV series charting the fate and fall of a royal house: The Hollow Crown.

Paul Bassett


September 2022

Great Acting

The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted.

Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

 – Walt Whitman

A version of this blog post is published on Bylines Scotland:

What makes a great actor?  There are theories – Stanislavski and the method, Brechtian alienation, classical acting or know-your-lines-and-don’t-bump-into-the-furniture (Spencer Tracy).

Unlike other aspects of theatre – script, design, lighting and sound – it’s hard to define superb acting.  Maybe the best guide is by illustration.  You know it when you see it.  And feel it.

I’ve watched 3 performances recently, each a stellar example of astoundingly good acting.


The first is Jodie Comer in Prima Facie, a new play by Suzie Miller.  It ran at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London and was live-streamed to cinemas globally in July.  I saw a recording of that screening, via NTLive, at the Grosvenor Picture House, Glasgow in August.

Comer’s interpretation is the most powerful one-person show I’ve ever seen.  Technically it’s a marathon of control, energy, focus and stamina for 100 unbroken minutes.  She creates a host of people – cocky witnesses, legal colleagues and students, friends, posh lawyers, jurors, police officers, a barrister who becomes a rape victim, her mum and brother – switching coolly and swiftly from one to another.

But one-person show doesn’t do it justice.  Her use of body and voice to inhabit each different character as they interact is so adept, you forget there’s just one woman on stage.  We know from her Villanelle in Killing Eve that Comer is a versatile mimic.  Here she goes deeper, peopling the story with layers of distinctive attitudes and perspectives.  It’s a brilliant performance.  NTLive may well show it again – catch it if you can.   

Another bout of acting brilliance comes from Sean Bean – early career at the Citizens’, btw – in the BBC four-parter, Marriage (still available on iPlayer).  I hesitate to praise the programme since I recommended it to a friend who says she’ll lock me in a cupboard for 4 hours as payback for the time she wasted watching nothing happen.

True, Marriage is a bit like one of those French movies – long, dialogue-free shots of people standing still or doing mundane tasks, with no music.  If you played a drinking game of a swig each time the dishwasher gets silently loaded, you’d soon be loaded too.

In fact, quite a lot happens over the piece, but it’s not big on narrative thrust.  It’s mostly a tender yet piercing observation of human beings desperately clinging on to life and each other.  Within this, Bean’s portrayal of a broken, bewildered husband is exquisitely sad.

He uses his incredible hulk of a body to convey his confusion and upset. He hovers awkwardly, not knowing what to do or say, his lined face a contortion of pain and love.

It’s a remarkable spell of taut, measured acting that cuts through to your soul.  I can see how it might all seem unbearable, but that’s the point.

My third instance of a heart-wrenching depiction of a character comes from the recent BBC2 showings of Bette Davis films, specifically as Charlotte Vale in Now Voyager.

Again, it’s neither fast nor cheerful.  Yet it cuts through like a knife, thanks to Davis’s flawless possession of the role: a woman, abused, fights to emerge into the world to find love and happiness.  Like all great actors, her technical abilities – utter command of body, voice and facial expression, a limitless grasp of character and plot  – are at their peak.

But she gives something more – not just inhabiting the role, but knowing, instinctively or otherwise, how to connect with the audience to make us feel every iota of pain, longing and joy.  I’m intrigued, ignorant of how exactly she does it, but by the time she utters the final words – Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars. – she’s reduced me, at least, to a sobbing wreck!

Finally, a couple of other gems of fantastic screen performances currently available – both stronger for being a double-act between two great actors.  Marriage writer/director Stefan Golaszewski also created Mum (BBC iPlayer), a comedy about a widow and her family.  As Cathy, Lesley Manville is sensational, a beautifully underplayed depiction of an older woman beset by son, brother, their partners and hilariously eccentric parents-in-law.  But it goes to a higher level when Manville is joined by Peter Mullan – Scottish accent used to great comic effect – as her would-be new partner.  The will they/won’t they tension is unbearably poignant, thanks to their stunningly smart performances, mostly unspoken, as they play off each other – heartbreaking and funny at the same time.

The other fabulous pairing is in Endeavour (ITV3 is currently working its way through past episodes and a final, ninth series is being filmed right now), the prequel to Inspector Morse.  The rapport between young brainbox Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) and hardened warhorse, Fred Thursday (Roger Allam, also once at the Citz, as Sheriff of Nottingham in panto) is magnificent.  It’s as much a reason to watch as the operatic plots.  Once more, the relationship is enriched by a tacit synergy; Evans’s muted show of Endeavour’s unrequited love for Thursday’s absent daughter is echoed by Allam’s subtle rock of a desolate father, doomed to keep quiet and soldier on. 

Paul Bassett


September 2022


 One of the greatest changes in Scotland is that people have grown bored with moaners and naysayers. Don’t grumble — get it done

Irvine Welsh

Last November, this blog said:

Unless we fight back, Tory chaos and disruption will destroy us all.  One thing could move us on.  Name the date now for an independence referendum. 

And then, this May:

We need to aim for the higher goal of independence and we need a target date to get things moving.  ‘Mon Nicola, name the day – now!

Just seven weeks later, the call was answered.  The First Minister announced that Scotland will vote in an independence referendum on Thursday 19 October 2023. 

Watch out for more prophetic demands from STAGE LEFT: the new PM agrees to Section 30 of the Scotland Act, transferring to Holyrood the power to hold the referendum; the YES side wins with 70% of the vote; Scotland votes to become a republic. 

You never know, but file those – for now – under wishful thinking…

Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement was bold and surprising.  She didn’t merely give the date, but also a route map with Plans B and C – a pre-emptive pitch to the Supreme Court, plus the backstop of a plebiscitary election.

This takes the initiative, shifting the power of decision to the Scottish people.  It also puts Westminster and the Unionists on the back foot. They can no longer bang on about process and London not allowing the Scottish government to realise its mandate.  They might even have to make the case for the Union to continue – if they can.

The move didn’t only confound the NO side.  Many pro-indy voices failed to see it coming. The unexpected always happens when you least expect it. 

Even sceptics have responded positively to the gumption behind the move. Craig Murray, for instance, urged all independence supporters to drop any grudges and get with the programme. Now is the time to work wholeheartedly for Independence; criticism from armchair generals is not helpful.

Smart as Nicola’s gambit is, it’s bound to need a massive grassroots campaign to empower a shift from the status quo and create a better Scotland.  

Bereft of a positive argument, the NO side will play dirtier than ever.  We need to persuade undecided or soft NO voters of the essential normality of independence.  Our case turns on hard specifics on currency, industry and the economy. 

But it also needs vision, ambition and creativity to lift us out of the present deadlock and into the future.  We must strive for a Scotland not just free of the UK, but also fit to challenge the gaps in power and wealth.  As Tony Benn often reminded us, radical change comes only through popular struggle and extra-parliamentary activity. 

We can’t simply look to Holyrood and the party system to win independence.  We know from 2014 how vital campaigning, canvassing and conversations on the streets, doorsteps and halls are to engaging people in the push for a new, potent and democratic settlement.

Bring it on!

Paul Bassett


July 2022

Don’t think – just watch!

Top Gun Maverick has hit its target, busting every block, playing cinemas only – smart.

It’s a great spectacle, the aerial tricks and dogfights especially thrilling, a cinematographic feast.  The dialogue, not so much.  Stuffed with cliches and coated with nostalgia, the script had me supressing giggles.  Slogans like Don’t think, just do! and It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot! strafe the exchanges between the ace fliers, the support crews and the armchair generals.

The other phrase that Tom Cruise, who plays veteran PeteMaverick Mitchell, seems to have been waiting for since 1986 – year of the original Top Gun – is Taps Aff!  At 58, he’s as keen as the buff jocks 30 years his junior to flash his abs and pecs to the max, as they play ball on the beach.

Maverick flies around, destroying millions of dollars’ worth of US government equipment in his zeal to keep America great.  Why Cruise at a mere Mach 9 when you can push your luck and your Darkstar prototype up to 10.2 and wreck it?  Later, trying to destroy a nuclear plant in another country (the enemy is never named), Maverick trashes his F-18 jet to save Rooster, son of Maverick’s doomed BFF, Goose, from the first film.

Brilliant and thrilling to watch, but, says the Aerotime Hub website, quite absurd… for the sake of drama, excitement, and lingering shots of military hardware glistening in the sun, the aircraft do tricks they would not attempt in real life.

In between the riveting flight-and-fight scenes, Maverick meets Hammer (admiral trying to shut him down); Cyclone (mission leader playing it by the book); Iceman (another old pal, dying of cancer) and a former girlfriend, Penny (Jennifer Connelly).  Charlie, love interest in the first movie, was played by Kelly McGillis but, she says, they didn’t get in touch – I’m old, fat and look my age.

Many of the encounters in the new film include lingering regrets at what-might-have-been and overwrought yearning for bromantic camaraderie across the generations.  Maverick risks all for Rooster to honour his dead parents.

If the US fighting forces are really this reckless and sentimental, no wonder they got their asses whooped by the Viet Cong, the Taliban and the rest.

Whatever tricks Tom and pals soar through, the test that Top Gun Maverick totally fails is the Bechdel one.  Phoenix is the token woman pilot, while Penny and her daughter mooch around, ever-ready to pick Maverick up when he stops doing the serious piloting stuff. 

Another male, pale American tale at the cinema recently was Straight Line Crazy.  I watched this NT Live broadcast, from the Bridge Theatre, London, at Glasgow Film Theatre.  Though some have doubts about screenings of stage shows – – it’s easy, cheap and better than nothing.

This new play by David Hare, directed by Nicholas Hytner (ex-National Theatre boss and now joint head of the Bridge) stars Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses, who dominated the layout of New York for nearly half a century.

It’s a titanic performance, brilliant, energetic and imperious.  Fiennes hardly leaves the stage, like Moses himself, who only quit as urban wizard when forced out by newer, more democratic forces.  As with the Bridge’s previous show, Hytner’s staging of The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage, the action is played out on a long apron forestage thrusting into the stalls, giving the scenes greater immediacy.

And yet, though highly accomplished, it feels strangely old-fashioned.  It could have been produced ten, twenty, thirty years ago. In a way it was, in Pravda (1985), Hare’s satire of a Murdochite media baron.  He seems to hate/love such sacred monsters.

Now, in 2022, it all seems a bit solid, stodgy even, and emphatically male.  Hytner commissioned Hare after reading the 1300-page doorstep by Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

So, a story about an overbearing man by a man, read by another man, dramatized by a man, starring a man, directed by a man and designed by a man, with a creative team of mostly men (10 out of 14).

There’s a hint of complacency from Hare, talking with Fiennes and Hytner just before the screening, when he says how much he prefers working with them because he knows how they work and it’s simpler that way.

Hytner carries on, says the Guardian, as if he has the budgets and resources previously available to him at the National.  Even so, Straight Line Crazy’s cast of 13 is a lot larger than most theatres outside London enjoy.

Finally, a recommendation for a really entertaining TV comedy, The Outlaws (BBC1 and iPlayer).  12 episodes over 2 series, it’s the brainchild of Stephen Merchant (he writes and directs some episodes, as well as playing Greg, a nerdy lawyer).  Greg and six other oddballs are doing community service for minor offences, but they get drawn into a much darker world of drug-dealing, dirty money and the threat of harm or jail – a sort of Carry On Breaking Bad.

The plotlines intertwine and careen ahead, though the main delight comes from the bunch of diverse, quirky characters, each colourfully backstoried.  One, Frank, is played by Christopher Walken, with all the impish glee he showed when he danced in that Fatboy Slim video.  My favourite is Diane (Jessica Gunning), the hopeless but ambitious supervisor; the episode in which she gets high on hash brownies is priceless.

It evokes just the right mixture of farce and menace, of desperation and warmth, to be both funny and thrilling.  The Bristol setting is beautifully matched by Merchant’s wicked Victoria Wood-like specificity for language.  As it dawns on him that he’s been sent to pick up drugs, Greg says: I’m beginning to realise it’s not Gaviscon Extra.  He’s seen Breaking Bad, and worries they’ll end up digging their own graves in the desert – well, Minehead beach.

Great stuff.

Paul Bassett


June 2022

Dutiful Losers?

Did you catch, last week, Nicola Sturgeon in the US alongside the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi?  Not on BBC Scotland.  They couldn’t be arsed showing our country’s First Minister starting a major international trip; they were too busy covering ounces of trivia around Rangers’ trip to Seville. 

Who knew BBC Scotland was such a nest of bluenoses?   We already know how many brown noses there are from the coverage of the upcoming Platinum Jubbly, but the Beeb’s examination of every insignificant detail of the Europa Cup final – to the exclusion of other important stories – was excruciating. 

Watching Sturgeon and Pelosi, it struck me how polite and slightly old-fashioned it all seemed.  Sure, it’s great to see such leading women being so proficient, compared to bumbling BoJo and stumbling SloJo.  Unscripted, no missed words, not an um or an er,nor a fluffed line.

I suppose such opening exchanges are bound to seem platitudinous – later, Nicola got down to brass tacks in her speech to the Brookings Institute in Washington.  Ukraine, NATO, energy and, especially, the environmental crisis post COP26 – all featured in another class-act delivery. 

Thank goodness we’ve got a smart, coherent and finger-on-the-pulse leader to represent Scotland abroad.  But, like those articulate greetings with Pelosi, does this approach actually cut much political ice these days?

Of course, it’s a big step up from Boris & co.  And, though conventional, it doesn’t suffer from the craven conformism of Keir Mr. Rules Starmer.  So concerned to be seen – in stark contrast to Boris – to obey regulations, the Labour leader forgets to put any substance into his message.

At least the SNP have some policy lead in their carefully sharpened pencil.  Yet, whenever Ian Blackford, SNP leader in the House of Commons, tells the PM that Scotland will not stand by while one more democratic outrage is inflicted, or some further havoc wreaked, we can see that Boris is really thinking: I think you’re confusing me with someone who gives a fuck…

Pelosi was deeply concerned that the UK’s plans to discard the Northern Ireland Protocol and urged constructive, collaborative and good-faith negotiations.  Nancy – this is the UK government, in full Trump mode, you’re talking to.

A couple of days later, meeting Michelle O’Neill – would-be first minister at Stormont and Sinn Fein deputy president – Nicola said: We’ve got to be careful about drawing parallels between Sinn Fein’s success in Northern Ireland and the case for Scottish independence. 

Careful?  Why?  The parallels are clear. Both countries voted against Brexit, both now question the future of the UK.  Aren’t these a further spur towards a referendum – or two referenda, even – either side of the Irish Sea?

Johnson, Patel, Cummings, Farage et al have, like Trump, trashed mutual norms.  Negotiation, compromise and consensus have all but vanished from the UK’s lexicon of political discourse.

All the more reason, you might think, for Scotland to stick to the traditional codes.  But in 2022 does anyone get very far politically by honouring inherited customs. formalities and manners?  In the teeth of crises and disruption, is respect for the rule of law – that overworked phrase – still apt, distinctive, and effective enough to cut through and change anything?

And, when it comes to negotiating with Westminster over independence, how can we expect the kind of respectful reciprocity we used to take for granted?

I’m not saying for one moment that we should sink to the level of dirty, fake and rogue tactics practised by the populist right.  But it’s beginning to feel as though our time-honoured and benign political currency needs a more trenchant additive to break through and actually win.  Otherwise, we might remain dutiful losers, noble but impotent when it comes to getting shot of our rotten rulers.

Other than a change of style, I’m not sure what that would mean exactly.  Maybe we saw, also last week, a hint of more potent messaging in Mhairi Black’s brilliant, if scary, speech in the House of Commons.

Forensically listing the Tories’ recent record – crushing protest, ditching human rights, trafficking asylum seekers to Rwanda, cutting pay and pensions – she demonstrated how, economically and culturally, Westminster policies are leading us slowly towards the f-word.  This, she said, is Little England elites, drunk on the memory of a British Empire that no longer exists.  And she added: Fascism happens subtly.  It arrives through the othering of people, the normalisation of human cruelty.

She didna miss and hit the wa’! 

Paul Bassett


May 2022

The Power of the Dug

Time makes fools of us all; our only comfort is that greater shall come after us.

– Scottish mathematician and writer E.T. Bell. 

Is today’s movement for Scottish independence more divided than the forces that almost got us over the line in 2014?

Yes (!), you might say, when you see pro-indy voices at each other’s throats.

Given the disproportionate unionist bias in the mainstream media, the internet often seems the best way to understand what’s happening in Scotland.  Yet some online sources bring their own negative tendencies: differences amplified into stark contrasts; dismissal of alternatives and anyone with a divergent point of view dosed with invective.

On the other hand, some commentators manage to play the issue not the person, use measured language and focus on the essential need to fight unionism, rather than other independence supporters.

Step forward the Wee Ginger Dug, who’s been blogging since 2013.  The blog is not actually written by its canine namesake, a rescued mongrel from Spain.  And Ginger died last year.  The blogger is Paul Kavanagh who fights on, dugless, supporting pro-independence parties and not going down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.

Kavanagh’s patiently practical bulletins are clear and accessible.  He aims especially at soft NO voters, making the detailed, nuts-and-bolts case for indy.  He examines everyday events and persuasively builds up the reasons why things happen as they do in the UK, showing how divisions between rich and poor, the entitled and the people, Westminster and Scotland, are symptoms of our constitutional set-up – and how it could all change with independence.

A linguist, he’s articulate, erudite and funny.  He uses humour to critique the true enemies of Scottish self-determination: the Conservatives and the British Government and other apologists for British nationalism.

Until recently, he also walked the walk, attending demos and giving talks to various YES groups all over Scotland.  Sadly – just as Ginger ascended to his immortal kennel – Kavanagh himself suffered a massive stroke.  This has curtailed his campaigning, but not his written combat, adding daily political analyses in The National (The REAL Scottish politics) to his blogging.

His doggedness (duggedness?) in dealing with his own immobility is matched by a resolve to stick exclusively to promoting Scottish independence. For below-the-line comments, he rules: If you want to mouth off about how much you dislike the SNP leadership, there are other forums.

So, let’s hear it for the dug – I’d say his unfailing positivity offers a better way forward than online sniping. 

There are other commentators who keep an inclusive, open-hearted attitude as they write about Scotland, like Joyce McMillan, Lesley Riddoch and – except on the gender issue – Ruth Wishart.

That said, none of us can pretend that everything in the YES garden is rosy and harmonious.  How do we disagree?  Let me count the ways…

Perhaps the biggest divergence is between the SNP and Alba, the party set up by Alex Salmond just in time for the May 2021 Holyrood election.  Salmond proposed a super-majority of pro-independence parties but, in the event, Alba got just 1.7%of the list vote.  The SNP leadership will have nothing to do with Alba, while many in the new party are at odds with some SNP policies, especially on gender reform.

Imagine Salmond and Sturgeon still together.  The brilliant strategist and the consummate tactician united, leading the drive for independence.  And more than that – all those disenchanted with SNP inertia who’ve joined Alba, or just drifted off, working alongside the loyal foot soldiers who’ve stayed, slogging away for the cause.

Dream on.  Not going to happen.  Yet don’t the SNP need a partner or partners to challenge and push them on the core aims of the movement?  It’s not just that they’ve been in power at Holyrood for years; they’ve also done it single-handed. 

Admirable in many ways, but now both these factors seem to be a disadvantage in moving forward.  So, if not Alba, who?  The Greens have priorities even more urgent than getting out of the rotten-to-the-core United Kingdom.

One piece of proposed legislation – The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill – has become not just its own blazing row, but also a proxy for other rifts.

At the heart of all this is the pace of progress towards independence.  The unionist jibe – get on with the day job – is now, for many restless indy supporters, the main problem.  The SNP leadership is consumed by managing the system.

And why wouldn’t it be?  Mitigating the worst ravages of Tory rule and coping, hands tied by the constitution, with the day-to-day running of a country.  It’s more than a full-time job.  Besides, this was always part of the plan: gentle persuasion of waverers by deeds rather than words.

What’s more, it’s worked.  Most people think Holyrood has made a better job of things than Westminster. 

We’re 8 years on from indyref 1 and fifteen since the SNP started to govern.

Nobody’s perfect. There have been a number of own goals – the ferries fiasco, Bi-Fab, Prestwick, underselling offshore wind etc.  Piecemeal public investments have been, as George Kerevan wrote, reactive rather than strategic.

Add in events like Brexit, Covid, Ukraine and inflation plus the Tory demolition mob and we can see that we’ve come as far as devolution can get us. 

For months, if not years, now, polls have shown how evenly divided the people of Scotland are.  We’re stuck unless we get to choose independence (or not).

It’s no longer enough to govern; to break out of this impasse we need to aim for the higher goal of independence and we need a target date to get things moving.

‘Mon Nicola, name the day – now!

Paul Bassett


May 2022

Craig Murray – flawed champion?

Craig Murray’s blog gives a profound interpretation of the political world, but does his strategy for independence ignore the reality of everyday political change?

Where, if you’re independence-minded, do you go for serious political analysis?

You’re unlikely to find it in the overwhelmingly unionist press.  Of30 or so titles available in Scotland, only one, The National, is pro-indy.  As Paul Kavanagh, Wee Ginger Dug, says: The biggest obstacle to Scottish independence is our truly lamentable media, which is grossly unrepresentative of the views of the country it purports to serve.


Except for a few columnists – like Joyce MacMillan in The Scotsman – newspapers don’t bother to explore beyond their bias, hostility and – especially from London-based papers – ignorance towards independence.  Other writers who purport to offer insight into Scotland’s situation – like Chris Deerin, Alex Massie and Kenny Farquharson – have become their own echo chamber, cleaving to unionist faiths, however strained the reality of the union becomes.

My own political reading is mostly online – particularly a handful of bloggers – in order to try and understand where our nation is going and how well, or badly, it’s getting there.

Of the internet writers who tell it like it is, ex-ambassador Craig Murray is the intellectual heavyweight.  His background as a member of the establishment adds heft to his subsequent career as a whistle blower, activist and author.

His dissection of major political events is knowledgeable, shrewd and thorough.  He cuts through the surface aspects and reveals the deeper political motivations of those in power.  His recent pieces on the Russian invasion of Ukraine are typically forensic and provide a fuller picture than most other commentators:

At the same time, he goes out of his way to support campaigns and report on court cases, notably of Julian Assange and Alex Salmond.  For the former, he queued every day, from the early hours, for hearings in Belmarsh prison.  He produced uniquely valuable reportage on this deeply troubling example of British justice heavily influenced by the US government.

His accounts of proceedings in the Alex Salmond trial offered an alternative to most of the press, who seemed to have decided the former First Minister was guilty of the charges on which the jury then acquitted him.

Craig Murray himself ended up in the High Court in Edinburgh, charged with jigsaw-identifying some of the complainants in the Salmond case.  He was found guilty and sentenced to 8 months’ imprisonment.

Personally, I found the grounds for his conviction weak and I contributed to his legal costs’ crowdfunder.  Many people protested vigorously at his sentence, while some pro-indy voices were noticeably silent. 

Whatever your view, is incarcerating someone like Murray, just for what they write, a good look for twenty-first century Scotland?  Given that he’s in his sixties, has young children and poor health, the decision to put him in jail, rather than some other sanction, seemed positively vindictive.

But – despite all that – I feel that Murray can be too intolerant of those pursuing a different path, especially when it comes to independence.

A recent post, is an example of this cavalier attitude.  He writes: The UK government is reeling like a boxer knocked unconscious before hitting the floor (this was at the depth of partygate).  He urges action while our opponent is at their weakest. 

He calls for a string of moves – declare independence; hold a plebiscite, convene a National Assembly and repeal the Act of Union.  (Simples!)  He immediately goes on to attack the SNP’s cowardice and their preference for the gravy train ofgovernance inside the UK, rather than attaining Independence.

Murray’s to-do list culminates with Scottish MPs (he doesn’t say which party!) walking out of Westminster.  He declares: it should be simply unconscionable for any genuine independence supporter to do otherwise.

We have, should, and will argue whether these specific steps are the best way forward.  My problem here is with his approach.  However brilliant the strategy he advocates, they’re just his own assertions.

Is that how political change happens?  Progress tends to come in concert – a multiple of people and actions.  Of course, we need an overview, a vision, but the fulfilment of independence is bound to take in a broad range of moves and players.  It’s as if Murray, in declaring his own strategy, has little time for the equally necessary gradual tactics being pursued by others.

The broad radical sweep shouldn’t cut off the tiny steps, sometimes unsung, of political persuasion.  These engage thousands of activists who chap doors (when doors can be chapped), fill envelopes, hand out leaflets and run street stalls.

It also encompasses politicians, at all levels.  Though they get paid, working away in councils, Holyrood and Westminster is still an uphill task.  They also serve who strive and wade through long boring meetings.

Our route to national liberation is manifold.  There are so many ways it will come about.  We need them all – from the flourish of a grand vision to the nitty-gritty, painstaking detail.  The key, it seems to me is how all the disparate approaches and activities combine to form an effective political movement.

That movement is bound to include the SNP.  To repudiate Scotland’s mass party is fruitless.  But the wider independence campaign is just as vital.  Murray has made his position clear: that some leading SNP politicians and apparatchiks, are not really interested in independence and are even working to frustrate it. 

He’s not alone in finding the leadership too timid, too cautious and too wedded to the existing system – though it must take Amazonian grit to keep the governing show on the road, whilst maintaining a radical view for the future.  These are real political disagreements which have to be hammered out.

Yet Murray seems prone to attack rather than reconciliation, and sometimes makes his objections personalised, blaming those who think otherwise.

Beyond such rancour stand hundreds of thousands keen to achieve Scotland’s autonomy, plus many others open to persuasion.  It’s not enough to be brilliant yet heedless or snide towards others’ efforts.  You need to be tolerant and consensual enough to make ideas work on the ground, over time and in tune with other people’s efforts.

From my own experience, I’d prescribe 4 wet Wednesdays out canvassing.  Not only does this essentially human exercise reach out to voters, it also helps you get a sense of perspective, a feeling of common cause and a taste of camaraderie.  I have every respect for the people, including elected politicians, who put hours into this kind of campaigning.

I also respect Craig Murray’s trenchant grasp of what we’re up against, as well as an inspiring picture of what could be ahead.  The essential challenge for the independence movement is how we can empower everyone to reach that future – together.

Paul Bassett


March 2022

Comments and feedback welcome, here or:

The first feminist novel?

Reader, I wish I’d never married him.

Heathcliff’s soul and mine are the same.  But I pray he’ll go away, the sullen misfit!

Can you imagine the women in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights responding to their deep, dark, mysterious men in those terms?

What would Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s most celebrated works be without the romantic love of a misunderstood anti-hero?  If they’d shown men as they really were, would their novels have become such classics?

Step forward the third Bronte, Anne.  (There were 5 sisters in all; 2 died as children.)  She wrote just 2 novels, one more than Emily and two less than Charlotte.  I’ve just finished her second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

Like previous STAGE LEFT posts on Mary Shelly and Daphne du Maurier, –  and  – this is a recommendation for another great read from a writer ahead of her time.

I picked up on it from a Melvyn Bragg In Our Time broadcast last September, which suggested Wildfell Hall is the first feminist novel. 

The main story is framed by a conventional romance between a young farmer, Gilbert, and the mysterious tenant, Helen.  No Rochester, nor Heathcliff – here, it’s the woman whose enigmatic past is key to the narrative. 

The core of the novel is much darker, showing – in unflinching detail – Helen’s struggles with an abusive, alcoholic and unfaithful husband, Arthur.  Against her highly moral, better judgement, Helen falls for him, hoping she can correct his boorish ways.

But he just gets worse, hunting, partying and bolting to London to screw around.  He becomes increasingly violent with his dogs, servants and Helen herself.  Tired of her attempts to refine him, he literally throws the book at her.   

The arrival of her son, young Arthur, only makes things worse; as he grows up, his father forces him to drink and swear, just like daddy.  Helen’s determination to save her son toughens her to defy convention: I’d rather he died than be brought up a man of the world.

Arthur humiliates Helen, brazenly parading his infidelity in front of her.  Bronte shows mercilessly just how trapped she is – though selling her paintings helps Helen survive the unrepentant Arthur. 

Anne Bronte’s depiction of domestic violence goes deep – the couples who visit Arthur and Helen are unhappily wed, with a nasty hint of just you wait till we get home from some of the brutish husbands.

Not all the men are bastards – 2 of Arthur’s badly behaving pals reform.  As for Gilbert, he’s mostly meek; it’s Helen who coaxes him to maturity.

The Brontes had to adopt men’s names (Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell) to get published.  It was still as Acton that Anne wrote her defensive preface to the second edition: Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life… or cover them with branches and flowers?

This was her defence against the torrent of criticism against the novel’s coarseness.  It was judged unfit, revolting and disgusting by contemporary critics (all male, of course).  Even Charlotte called the subject of her sister’s best-seller an entire mistake whichthe author was not qualified to handle.

Anne had, at least, the consolation of popularity.  That second edition was due to Wildfell Hall selling even faster than Jane Eyre had.  Jalouse, moi? – as the francophile Charlotte might have said.

The first feminist novel?  You could claim that Wildfell Hall’s theme intelligent woman denied opportunity by patriarchy echoes Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).  But Anne was writing from her own imagination and observation, if not experience.  Like Emily and her brother Branwell, Anne never married, though she saw, at first hand, Branwell’s drinking and affairs.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a brilliant read because it’s so vivid – the story intricate, the characters authentic and the situation compelling.  Until recently, Anne’s books haven’t attracted the kudos of her sisters’. 

When you hear of the Met policeman writing to a female officer: I’d happily rape you and countless examples of disgusting misogyny in 2022, you realise that Anne Bronte’s evocation of male domination, and women’s struggle to break it, seems more urgent than ever.

Paul Bassett


February 2022

Comments and feedback welcome, here or:

Scot Goes Off?

Since 2008, Scot Goes Pop! has effervesced as the pro-indy opinion pollster.  But, with a flawed survey on gender reform and the promotion of Alba beyond its vote share, has James Kelly’s blog lost its sparkle?

Done right, opinion polling is an accurate science with strict rules about sample size, selection of participants and margins of error.

 – Dave Roos How Political Polling Works 

  (A version of this blog post is published on Bella Caledonia: )

Are opinion polls objective?  You can’t argue with numbers.  If a poll shows a greater percentage in favour than against, doesn’t that prove the more popular option?

In the case of Scotland’s future, it couldn’t be simpler: literally a Yes/No question.

Yet unionist media interpret polls according to their own political tilt.  Last April, the Sunday Times was disappointed at its Panelbase survey which showed nationalists on course to win a supermajority.  The recent 55% Yes from Ipsos Mori was headlined by the Daily Express as not necessarily indicative of what’s going on

The BBC, who claim to report trends not single polls, pronounced a No lead decisive, but played down the run of Yes majorities throughout 2020.  In 2017, Ruth Davidson crowed over a supposed 60% against indy, based on a ridiculously leading question, phrased to beg people to say “no”.

Step forward, Scot Goes Pop!  The pro-indy blog, run by James Kelly, is a corrective to the slew of No-friendly papers and broadcasters.  The site doesn’t pretend neutrality – instead it steers a forensic analysis of polls, parties and press.

As well as reporting and interpreting results, Scot Goes Pop! drills down into the methodology – probity of the questions, weighting of the samples, how and when the poll was run and who by.

More, Kelly has an exhaustive grasp of different electoral systems.  Defying flak, he’s made it his job to explain how Scotland’s voting schemes – first past-the post, d’Hondt and STV – work in practice.

When he thinks there’s a gap – say, a long while since Yes/No has been tested – Kelly crowdfunds and commissions Scot Goes Pop’s own research, giving the initiative to a pro-indy voice.

Last October, SGP’s political journey took an interesting turn when it commissioned a poll about gender reform.  Past SGP! pollsfocused on independence and related matters, like a plan B for indy, Brexit and the handling of the pandemic in Scotland and England.

Panelbase (who ran the poll) shows that 23 questions were asked, 9 on gender and the rest on voting intentions, broadcasting, the EU and the royals. ScotGoesPop-Full-Tables-for-publication-261021.pdf 

While the questions on voting etc. are short – as few as 9 words – the gender questions are long, up to 155 words.  Some are hypothetical.  Others ask respondents to pick the most persuasive from a range of set answers.

According to Kelly, his poll asks straight-down-the-line questions.  But is that true of this one, for example?

If a woman requires an intimate medical examination after being sexually assaulted, do you think she should have the right to ask to be examined by a doctor who has been biologically female since birth, or should she only have the right to ask to be examined by a doctor who is legally regarded as a woman, regardless of that person’s biological sex at birth?

How likely is that situation to actually play out in the way this question supposes?  Does it reflect reality, or is it phrased to evoke an uneasy reaction in respondents’ minds as they try to answer?

The questions and answers on voting etc. are straightforward (Which party will you give your first preference vote to?) and give the respondent a choice from simple responses (yes/no/don’t know/wouldn’t vote/a political party).

The gender questions are circuitous.  They start with a contentious point-of-view (Some people argue that…) and end with an open question (Which point of view do you find more persuasive?).  The set options are not the respondent’s own and use emphatic phrases like it is wrong; should and it is unacceptable.

Some of the gender questions set up a split between two strongly worded points of view.  For instance:

Some people argue that it is bigoted or transphobic to ‘misgender’ a transgender person – for example to refer to them as ‘he’ or ‘him’ if their preferred pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘her’.  Others argue that forcing people to use particular pronouns when referring to a transgender person is an unacceptable attack on free speech.  Which point of view do you find most (sic) persuasive?

So, on the one hand bigoted or transphobic, on the other forcing people and an unacceptable attack on free speech.  But do these stark terms chime with the natural impulses of people trying to use the right word?  Again, the question bludgeons real-life experience into hard-line contrast rather than engage respondents in a thoughtful and authentic reply.

In answer to that question 29% said they didn’t know.  Don’t know responses to the gender questions are strikingly higher than the number of neutral replies to voting intentions.  (There’s no well, it’s a complicated issue, it depends option!).

Previous SGP! polls raised the money needed fairly quickly, yet – despite constant appeals on the site – funding for this one sticks at just over £4000 of its £6500 target, 3 months after it was run.  Kelly used his own money to cover the shortfall.  Future polls won’t happen until the funding is fully nailed down.

Kelly describes running this poll as an extremely stressful and bruising process

He says he’s heartbroken by the way the SNP leadership’s obsession with this issue has needlessly opened up a rift in the independence movement.  He claims his poll on this thorniest of questions aims to point the way to a much-needed resolution

As if this particular Gordian knot could be untied by 9 loaded questions! 

Summing up the results, Kelly writes: The Scot Goes Pop/Panelbase poll has convincingly demonstrated the public are strongly opposed to gender self-ID.

I, for one, am not convinced.

Another interesting turn in Scot Goes Pop’s political journey came in March 2021.  Kelly, antsy (like many of us) for indyref2, quit the SNP and joined Alba.  In September, Kelly was elected to the new party’s national executive committee.

This isn’t just personal.  The site has long weighed the case for another party to spur the SNP.  It charted the fortunes of the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity, Rise and others trying for electoral success in the Scottish parliament. Only the first, led by pre-perjury Tommy Sheridan, managed it.

Since 2003 – apart from the SNP, the Greens and individuals like Margo MacDonald and Dennis Canavan – no pro-indy group has won representation at Holyrood. 

Scot Goes Pop! has consistently argued that such a party needs one thing to make a breakthrough: a weel-kent face. 

Step forward, at the eleventh hour, Alex Salmond.  In the 7 weeks between its launch and the 2021 Holyrood election, Alba got plenty of coverage on SGP!: Alba ascendant on course for 6 seats. Campaign hard and make sure that Alba reach at least 5%.  Seven good reasons to vote Alba.  The site urged its co-belligerent, Wings Over Scotland, to stop wasting time on trans rights and campaign for Alba.

Alba won no seats at Holyrood.  Its vote share was 1.66% of the regional list.  The low result may in part be due to Alex Salmond’s exclusion from all 5 TV debates; SGP! argues that outcomes hinge on these set-pieces. 

Despite the setback, the blog thinks it would be realistic to persevere and pressurise the SNP because Alba boasts two MPs and a good number of local councillors.  But all these were defections from the SNP, none elected under the Alba banner.

Kelly stayed open towards his former party, urging people to vote SNP on the constituency ballot, an attitude unreciprocated by Scotland’s dominant party.  The SNP ignored Alba.  Or, in some cases, spat venom at it.

Now, nine months after the Holyrood vote and three before local government elections, SGP! still thinks Alba could be a mainstream party. 

He’s surely right in seeing space – and need – for forces more radical than the SNP, in power for 15 years and with enough to do keeping the show on the road.

Maybe such forces could come from a schism in Scottish Labour who finally realise how dead-end their party’s position has become.  The grassroots independence movement, wings clipped by Covid, might produce a group to stiffen the SNP’s resolve.

But a party led by Alex Salmond?  Whatever your view, there’s too much baggage.  Perhaps if a less Marmite figure – say, deputy leader Kenny MacAskill – took over, the party might cut through, but, as things stand, it’s hard to see how Alba will gain many council seats. 

As a seasoned pollster, is Kelly’s optimism an accurate reflection of the likely results?  Or is he kidding himself?

We’ll find out in May.

Paul Bassett


February 2022

Comments and feedback welcome, here or:

Tales of brave Ulysses – part two

Do it on the radioEducating Rita’s fix for staging Peer Gynt isn’t just succinct; it also suggests that each work of art has its own best format.

I’ve long wanted to read Homer’s Odyssey.  I bought the Penguin paperback years ago, but never got round to it. 

Though it’s the first work of literature – as in writing and reading – I think Rita might say: Get a talking book.  Thanks to the audio version – all 14 hours of it – I’ve just finished the whole epic saga.

I’d listened to the 42 hours of Stephen Fry’s version of the Greek myths – Mythos, Heroes and Troy

Troy ends with the Greeks’ genocide of the Trojans, using that early weapon of mass destruction, the wooden horse.  It was the brainchild of the shrewdest Greek warrior: Odysseus – or Ulysses, as the Romans renamed him.

This being a Greek myth (did it really happen?), Odysseus had divine help.  His mentor was Zeus’s daughter, Athena, goddess of war and wisdom.

Troy (or Illium, hence Homer’s The Illiad) predicts that Odysseus will be away for 20 years.  The war grinds on for 10, but how does it take another decade for him to get back to Ithaca?

The answer is The Odyssey.   Battle, blood and brotherhood; death, defeat and despair; vengeance, victory and violence; life, love and, finally, home. 

It teems with incident – the lotus eaters who rob Odysseus’s crew of purpose; the nymph Calypso who promises him immortality if he stays with her; the one-eyed Cyclops who eats his men; the sea-god Poseidon who wrecks Odysseus’s boats; the sirens, luring him to his doom, plus the restless spirits of his mother, Achilles, Agamemnon and Hercules in the underworld.

And there are the heinous suitors who, hoping Odysseus never returns, try to seduce Penelope and kill their son, Telemachus. 

Homer’s feat was to write the story down, 24 books of it, in about 700 BC.  Yet the events it describes took place at least five hundred years earlier, around the twelfth century BC.  How on earth did the stories survive all that time?

They were passed down through a long oral tradition.  They lived through reiteration, rhetoric and rhythm.  Homer keeps these in his penned version.  The Odyssey is a poem, to be read out loud and listened to.  It’s in dactylic hexameters – six beats to the line.

I feel lucky to have found the 2018 version by Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate Homer into English.  It’s accessible, direct and moving.  She uses iambic pentameters (five beats to the line) which keep you hooked to the imagery and narrative drive.  The narrator, Claire Danes, also gives a different voice to these muscular tales.  

Wilson finds appealing ways to vary the repeated epithets (wine-dark sea, rosy-fingered dawn, cloud-gathering Zeus etc.).  Like Homer (apparently) she adopts short, powerful words to evoke the characters’ emotions, as when Odysseus says: I miss my family.  I have been gone so long it hurts.  A slaughter describes the victims lying in blood and dust like fish hauled out of the dark grey sea in fine-meshed nets.

Her translator’s note shows the care she takes in not adding moral bias to the original, as some have.  For example, she shows empathy with the executed slave women, unlike translators who use words like sluts and whores to imply they deserved their fate.

Similarly, she eschews terms like savage for the Cyclops and other strange beings, to avoid the legacy of colonialism.

It’s a big responsibility to interpret such a great work.  A classics graduate tells me that he finds Homer’s language intricate and beautiful and loves how words foreshadow events to come. 

 A translation may not be as rich as the original, but Emily Wilson’s interpretation made me cry several times.

Yet The Odyssey is also barbaric, macho and violent.  A desperate Telemachus vows to kill mercilessly, like his father, to prove he’s a real man.  The thrust of the saga inclines us to want Odysseus to get back home, but how to accept his slaying so many and his abuse of women?

Have we left all that behind?  In his appendix to Troy, Stephen Fry says:

Rage, lust, envy, pride and greed energise Homer, but they’re balanced by love, honour, wisdom, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice.  The same unstable elements constitute the human world today.  Dark human passions of selfishness, fear and hatred counterbalanced by friendship, love and wisdom.  The field’s open for someone to portray all that better than Homer.  But I’ve yet to see it done.

Read the first part of this post here:

I’d like to revisit a third Ulysses, James Joyce’s novel set over 24 hours in 1904 Dublin – another classic I’ve tried to read but never finished.  What would Rita say?  Perhaps I’ll give it a listen instead…

Paul Bassett


December 2021

Comments and feedback welcome, here or:

Tales of brave Ulysses – part one

When, at the start of Sarah Winman’s 2021 book, Still Life, you meet “two English spinsters” bickering over Botticelli, Giotto and Rubens, you might think you’re in for a tale of artistic snobbery.  But Evelyn Skinner could not be more human, alive and fascinating.  The other woman, not so much; Winman cheekily names her Margaret someone, then drops her from the story.

There’s a hint, in this opening chapter, how fascinating Evelyn will turn out to be (and how beautifully Winman writes); she tears open a fig and presses her thumbs against the soft yielding skin – the erotic sight of its vivid flesh.  In the unseen, most guarded part of her, a memory undid her, slowly like a zip. 

It’s the end of WW2 in Italy and art historian Evelyn is heading for Florence to rescue masterpieces lost and damaged in battle.  The first she discovers in a stinking villa (the Germans shit everywhere before they retreat) – a prized altarpiece of Christ lowered from the cross. 

Evelyn‘s trick, throughout the book, is not just her deep knowledge of the objects but her ability to impart to other characters – and the reader- how art touches real life.  It’s about feeling, she says, that’s all.  People trying to make sense of something they can’t make sense of. 

Evelyn’s intriguing in many ways, strung through shifts of period and place, mostly central Italy and London.  The final chapter, All About Evelyn, goes back to 1901. Twenty-one years old and unchaperoned (!) in Florence, she embarks on a thrilling secret affair – the hint in Chapter 1 – with the pensione’s pretty maid.  She offered me a door into her world.   Priceless.  She also offers a lot of sex, described with passionate intensity.

Evelyn emboldens an awkward E.M. Room with a View Forster to get out and experience Florentine life.

The other great character in the book, with whose equally unconventional story Evelyn intertwines, is Ulysses Temper.  Heroic name, heroic guy.  We first meet him, a London working-class private in the Eighth Army, with Evelyn in Italy as he drives her from villa to albergo in his jeep.  Kindred spirits from the off, their paths keep almost crossing until they find each other again as Evelyn joins Ulysses’ found family in 1966.

This clan, a mismash of exiles from Ulysses’ London local and a few Italian mavericks, muster in Florence where Ulysses – thanks to an incident in the war – settles.  These wonderfully original characters, bound by mutual humanity, make a web of enchanting relationships.  There’s even a magical parrot, Claude, who doesn’t just talk and think, he influences the plot!

The third great character is Florence, the Renaissance city itself.  If you’ve never been – or.can’t go thanks to Covid – reading this book is almost as good the real thing.  Like Thomas Mann’s exquisite portrait of a diseased Venice, Winman’s evocations of the 1966 floods which devastated the Tuscan capital are heart-wrenching.

Best read in ages!

Paul Bassett


December 2021

Comments and feedback welcome, here or:

Coming up next – Part Two: the original Ulysses – Odysseus, and his Odyssey by Homer…

Spanish gold

It’s the common people who pay for our plays, so we should speak their language

 – Lope de Vega (1562-1635), Spanish playwright

Studying theatre at uni, we spent ages on Shakespeare.  We read, researched, wrote, experimented, acted and workshopped Elizabethan drama.  We did a Clockwork Orange-flavoured presentation of the Scottish play.  I played Alex/ Macbeth, egged on to violence by my droogs/thanes.  It was probably terrible!

But only now, nearly fifty years on, have I discovered the Spanish golden age of theatre.  I’d heard of it, but have no memory of its being on the syllabus – nor experience of it since.  Is it me – or, even after all these years, are UK courses and repertoires still insular?

The Spanish and English periods overlap, with the two countries at war, culminating in the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588).  England’s victory – says – led to a surge of national pride

Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett, in the 2007 film, in shiny armour) declared: If the best arrangements are made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home, if necessary alone”.  Remind you of anything?

I tried to read Don Quixote (1605), the first great European novel by Cervantes, but couldn’t finish it.  I enjoyed the tilting at windmills, which comes early on, but grew tired of the silly episodes of fake chivalry.  Maybe I need to try again.

I visited the Prado in Madrid and loved the huge, intense paintings of El Greco and Velasquez.

I knew a bit about Lope de Vega, because his most famous drama, Fuente Ovejuna (1619), was political – a cry for democracy.  I read about its first British production, in 1939, by Manchester’s Theatre Union, by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl. 

Based on a true 1476 incident in the village of Fuente Ovejuna, the people kill their raping, despotic commander.  The king and queen try to force an individual confession but, Spartacus-like, the villagers declare: Fuente ovejuna lo hizo (the whole village did it).

Our theatre studies also mentioned the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina, because he invented the character of the arch-womaniser, Don Juan (1616) – later dramatised by Moliere, Mozart, George Bernard Shaw and many others.

Two of Pedro Calderon’s plays, Life’s a dream (1635) and The Mayor of Zalamea, get produced in British theatres now and then.  But I’ve never seen them.

Until now.  Thanks to Edinburgh Lyceum’s opening show of their autumn 2021 season, there was a chance to see an escudo of Spanish theatrical gold. Originally to be staged pre-pandemic, Life is a Dream finally opened this October.  It was worth the wait.

As we entered the auditorium, everything had changed.  The actor-audience configuration was revamped, with the stage floor extended out over the stalls, so that we sat and watched, on four sides, the action in the middle. 

It reminded me of a similar in-the-round set up we devised on the Citizens’ stage whilst the façade – then new, now demolished – was built.  It inspired the creation of 2 studio theatres front-of-house.

This Lyceum Calderon was anything but small-scale.  They kept the whole auditorium open; the show’s reach exceeded its grasp.  The actors darted round the wings, aisles, circle, seats, pit, traps, drapes and two proscenium arches (one real, one fake) to evoke a world from Moscow to Poland, encompassing global ideas: reality/dreams; authority/popular rebellion; family feuds; free will and love.

It’s the antithesis of domestic drama and this version made the most of it.  Design, costumes and Wils Wilson’s direction all captured the broad, epic sweep of the play and its times.  They abandoned the confines of naturalistic theatre and made it exciting to watch.

The actors echoed this.  As the shackled prince Segismundo, Lorn Macdonald’s fuck-you, unconventional acting style was electrifying.  Like him, Alison Peebles, Laura Lovemore and the rest grabbed their roles by the scruff of the neck and made them spring into life.

As jilted Rosaura, Anna Russell-Martin made her character the feisty agent of change, reclaiming not just honour, but the rightful order of things.  I love it when, in a universal situation like this, an actor makes the most of her Scottish voice.

Calderon’s era, apparently, shared a lot with Shakespeare’s.  Open-air playhouses.  Prolific output of plays. Diverse sources, stories and styles – religious and secular, classical and current, comic and tragic.

As Lope de Vega’s quotation above shows, they also appealed to a broad audience; their theatre was probably more democratic than today’s.  At the Lyceum, the £52 for 2 concession tickets on a Tuesday may not be in most people’s price range (though they are streaming the show for £10 each).

And they had plagues.  As Lyceum director David Greig wrote in his (free) programme note: The 1600’s were plague years all across Europe.  In 1605, London theatres were shut.  With 22 plague outbreaks in Spain during that century, it’s almost certain that Calderon would have experienced a total theatre shut down like ours.

Contemporary relevance, right there!

Paul Bassett


December 2021

Comments and feedback welcome, here or: