Tuesday 24 September 2013

What a day!

Some people say blogging is no different to writing in a diary so is therefore indulgent.  I disagree.  Many bloggers explore and develop a theme, sometimes cleverly, so as with much digital media it’s different strokes for different folks.

Today, however, I confess my post is little more than an enlarged journal entry.  

The day started with fog.  You wouldn’t believe how white and wintry it felt.  I had the central heating on for hours before 11am, drying the washing as I sipped coffee and addressed miscellaneous emails and tinkled on the piano which my lovely friend Adam has kindly loaned me for the winter after my last keyboard gave up the ghost.  By lunch-time the air cleared and I had the windows wide open as I searched for summer clothes again.  

 Around 2pm I was trotting down the Kings Road enjoying the designer shops, when the second stranger in less than a week stopped me unexpectedly, saying: “excuse me, I love the colour of your hair”.  This man was also a red-head, keen to explain his restaurant policy was to offer red-heads a free drink.  Well, can’t argue with that.  But as I was on my way to an audition, which have been rather thin on the ground lately, I had to take a rain-check.  It made me smile anyway.  (And he was more stylish than the guy who spun me on the pavement late last Friday only to say: “ooh, I love a ginger… do you want to come with us?” and pointed to his straggly collection of drunken friends.)

After a happy exchange in Chelsea I skipped off to the appointed venue and from 2.30pm to 4.30pm took part in what could only be described as a workshop.  A dozen actor/singer/musicians worked with the Director around various themes, musical and dramatic, to elicit our ability to play a diverse range of characters.  It was great fun – challenging and stimulating.  We played theatrical games, improvised, moved around the space working scenes, imitating animals, and doing jazz-vocal scat.  I far prefer being ‘put through the hoops’ and really working my craft, than arriving with a ‘party piece’ which may or may not hit the mark in five minutes.  It was tiring, hot work on a surprisingly sunny day for late September in London, but I felt one hundred percent in the moment.  That doesn’t mean every improvisation was balanced or successful, but it does mean I was relaxed and in my element.  I thoroughly enjoyed the process. 
After waiting outside the theatre for fifteen minutes I then discovered I had been recalled early evening to meet the Musical Director.  So I scooted back up the Kings Road to relax in one of its many appealing cafes and watch the beautiful people walk by.   It was hard to resist the pull of the pub, in the lovely warm afternoon a cold beer would have been perfect, but I couldn’t possibly drink alcohol before a performance.  Eventually I returned to the theatre and went back into the studio, to sing a prepared jazz ballad and play the piano.  Then we improvised around a jazz chart.  I was asked about my ability to bluff/make-do on various other instruments… which I tried to answer with a balance of honesty and optimism… and then we rehearsed a new scene.  I had been playing a fox and an owl in the afternoon session, so was amused to now be playing a jazz-singing walrus!  The script said this walrus was glamorous so I searched for some husky, sexy sounds and by the smiles in the room things went rather well.  Again I enjoyed myself.  The script is new, imaginative, perfectly geared for a young audience, and probably plays well to my varied strengths as an actor/musician.  Yet the point of the audition was to flex my creative muscles, and by 6.45pm, when I left the theatre for the last time, I felt it had done just that.  What happens next is anyone’s guess – I’ve long since learnt if you’re a walrus and they want a whale, or you’re an apple and they want a pear, there ain’t a thing you can do about it.  That’s showbiz.   It was, anyway, a fulfilling afternoon.  
Back up the Kings Road I found myself at the door of the restaurant where I’d been spotted by the lover of red-heads.  The second I appeared Butch called out to me and within minutes I was embraced, introduced and made feel part of the friendliest bunch of Italians I’ve met since leaving Tuscany.  Almost immediately I was given my complimentary G &T… then I was in the kitchen meeting the Italian/Australian chef Domenico, and his assistant Danny (with kisses all round)… then I was meeting the restaurateur’s extended family (including the nice, single brother?!)… then the woman who had booked the large rear table for her book launch (an occasion I took straight to heart)…all the while loving the chance to practise my Italian… and somehow those exchanges morphed into more kissing, more greetings, and a seat at the bar eating exquisite seafood pasta, drinks, and a cross-over conversation between a stand-up-comedian who was barracking for his football team, Swindon, playing against Chelsea on the television, and a rather boastful police-officer who wanted me to know that if he wasn’t waiting for his date "I would really like to count every one of your freckles”.  It was just that kind of day. 
Isn’t London lovely when the sun is shining and everyone feels happy?  I certainly bumped into people in the same mood as me, and post any audition (like post a good hair-cut) I’m always a bit pumped and loved every minute of the play, the flirtation, and the food, wine and bonhomie.  For those few hours – as with the play as owl, fox and jazz-singing walrus – I was exactly where I was supposed to be.  And I wandered back down Beaufort Street to admire the Albert Bridge shining on the Thames and felt all was right with the world.
Tomorrow I go back to being a responsible Project Manager, though happily that’s dealing with a new entertainment company, so as with many an artiste it’s one hat off and one hat on and I’ll be all the better for the variety. 
To prove it’s been a remarkable day, I then returned home to an annoying email about a potential new contract which I’ve been carefully considering for several weeks but just this moment decided to decline… and another email, out of the blue, from an international recruitment company saying “your CV is excellent and well-suited to blah blah” and asking me if I am interested in a senior event management job for nine months on the other side of the world.   I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when you’re not in favour, and your luck is not in, you can’t even get arrested… when things change for the better, everything comes at once and suddenly you feel you have some bargaining power.  I won’t let it go to my head.  But it has been a good day.
Buonanotte.  Sogni d’oro! 

         Frantoio, 397 King's Rd  London SW10 0LR (Ph: 020 7352 4146)

         For the children's show The Ballad of Rudy book online at: www.chelseatheatre.org.uk


Saturday 7 September 2013

You'll Never Walk Alone

We all know the song.  The Liverpool Football fans know it word for word.

Recently I was standing outside Liverpool Football Club looking at the memorial to the Hillsborough tragedy and reading these famous words “you’ll never walk alone…” enthroned on the gate.  It was a moving experience, even more so in the light of last year’s revelations that the fans were not to ‘blame’ for the disaster but rather that the mismanaged crowd had been allowed to enter the stadium until well over capacity, drastically breaching safety standards.  Having carried responsibility for public events many times myself I shuddered at the atrociously poor judgement which led to such an enormous loss of life and suffering for hundreds, if not thousands, of families; all of which was made worse by the infamous cover-up.  Over days in Liverpool filled with enjoyable experiences this was one of only two moments of melancholy.

Why was I there?  Well, laugh if you like, but I was there as an invited VIP – booked for a Close Protection training course so the students had someone to practise on.  I was met at the train station by two cars and a team of five security professionals: what is known as a PPO, a Personal Protection Officer, two drivers and two additional bodyguards.  Bodyguard, I believe, is the old-fashioned term, but forgive me for using it.  I like its hulky, sexy, ready-to-do-anything-for-you inference, which frankly applied well to my attractive, healthy team of two women and three men.

I travelled in the first car with my PPO and driver, behind in another dark car were the other three.  It was just like you see in the movies: alert, athletic people with ear pieces and exceptionally good manners, watching my every move and meeting my every need.  Car doors opened and closed, people greeted me, guided me, glided beside and behind me like I was the President: “watch your step Madam”… “can I get you anything”… “are you comfortable”… “would you like to go to the hotel… yes, it’s on the waterfront…. or would you like…”  the options were endless.  I had a few days in lovely Liverpool – which I hadn’t visited for more than a decade – under warm blue skies to do exactly as I pleased while being exceptionally well cared for and made to feel special.

Clearly the team were being watched from somewhere by the managers assessing them.  I wondered if it was a helicopter or a telescope, as texts occasionally arrived which revealed they knew what we were doing, but they were incognito and wouldn’t tell me their position.  Maybe when that stuff happens in the movies it isn’t as much fiction as I thought?

If you read this blog or www.blogjuliearts.com it won’t surprise you to learn many of my activities were arts-related but still I was impressed that whenever I arrived anywhere – a museum, a theatre, a bar, a restaurant – a group of people near the front doors discreetly, but carefully, appeared ready for my arrival.  I think my team had ‘cased the joint’ in anticipation… having previously given them a list of places I might visit… but only after direct questioning did I learn Close Protection standards means plans are put in place for escape routes and damage limitation.  Other security guards nodded to my guys with respect, acknowledging their job to look after the chatty, pint-sized, red-head was important or challenging or both.  This made me laugh but also stand a little taller.  Hmm, maybe it was an omen?  A come-back looming?  It reminded me anyway, of the height of my fifteen minutes of fame – which around Neighbours lasted some years – and I couldn’t help but think how much better this ‘protection’ was to what I’d previously experienced.  Perhaps the industry has come on a pace?  Perhaps the right people hadn’t always been appointed before?  But I clearly remember many occasions when there was such a mini-riot in places around London that once I had to hide in a red telephone box in Leicester Square while my loyal Deputy Stage Manager did what he could to move the crowd away who were intent on banging on the door and doing anything they could to get in and touch me.  Seriously, I am not exaggerating.  So once you have experienced such highs of hysteria, anything about fame makes you always consider the perceived elements of success with something of a rye smile.  To be up, then down, in fortunes and fame is a good leveller.   It’s a shame the millions chasing instant profile on the likes of the X Factor don’t realize how flimsy a goal it is.  (But don’t get me started on that subject as I detest reality television for more reasons than boredom.)

Anyway, back to my story.  I was amused when I saw people watch me moving around Liverpool with my team – steering me in such a way that even in a busy museum or shopping street the crowd had no choice but to part – and sometimes a spectator would turn to the other with an expression like “who’s she?”  I felt guilty sitting in the sun with a beer on the pretty Albert Dock while my lovely bodyguards drank nothing but water, but not sufficiently guilty not to do it.  Whenever I was delivered to my charming hotel room in the Radisson, a time was agreed for me to be picked up again, and sure enough at exactly the appointed time there would be a knock on the door.  The lift was opened and held, other people had to wait to go down as my team and I took up much of the space, and when we emerged from the foyer, the Radisson staff nodding at me with indulgence, there was always the two cars waiting.

Ooh, I felt spoilt.  I only wished I’d brought a much higher pair of heels – for in London I tramp home at night so regularly from the tube that often it isn’t practical to wear my best shoes.  Here, however, I could have worn five inch heels as the car was always going to be waiting to deliver me door to door.  One evening I was having dinner in an Italian restaurant called Piccolino, the table reserved, I happened to overhear, in a pseudonym so as to disguise “the Principal’s” identity.  I was seated by a large window with my host from the company delivering the training.  He sweetly maintains “you will always be a VIP to me… videos of you in Neighbours got me through the Gulf War”.  Of course he is too kind.  Nevertheless, to my delight after years living and eating well in Tuscany, Piccolino provided me with the best assortment of seafood I have eaten in two years.  It was absolutely delicious and with great service from a genuine Italian guy waiting on tables as he makes his way around the world.  At one point I moved toward the stairs to find the bathroom, and suddenly two of my protection team appeared at the bottom to check on my well-being and point me in the right direction.  But how did they know I was coming?  I thought they were on a break?  Secret cameras?  Telescope?  No, I think that’s just how clever they are: alert, but not alarmed (to borrow from a slogan Australians will recognise).

Later that evening we went to Liverpool’s stunning Anglican Cathedral to admire the city lights from the top of the tower.  An over-used word perhaps, but our experience was magical.  The moon seemed to have received the memo that a VIP was in town… for at exactly the right moment she came slowly through the clouds… little by little, a partial moon peeping increasingly over the top… the silver lining glowing like a story-book… until suddenly she POPPED above the clouds… FULL and BLUE.  Yes, I wasn’t imagining it.  My PPO googled and we discovered it was indeed the night of a precious blue moon.  For those glorious minutes as she shone blue and golden we fell into silence, a shared sense of hope and awe.  When Nature is that glorious it feels anything is possible.  It was a bonding moment.  I was becoming very fond of my bodyguards.  And go figure, when my PPO is not being a terrific tour guide and companion, she is also an actress.  So we managed a little rendition of Blue Moon and various other snippets of romantic conversation before climbing down the tower’s many steps to explore the rest of the Cathedral with a private guide, another person who’d been hood-winked into treating me like a VIP.

I enjoyed many things about Liverpool: the fearless Mersey River; the interesting history of the docks and the effective redevelopment of waterfront spaces; the elegant Three Graces, one of the buildings topped with Liver Birds from where the city gets her legend; the well-designed Museum of Liverpool and Merseyside Maritime Museum; the scattering of colourful sculptures known as “Lambananas”; Beatles memorabilia; the Liverpool International Music Festival; Sefton Park; Albert Dock; and the Green Room on Duke Street.  Cabaret Lounges are all too rare around the world these days, so I was very pleased to find one thriving in Liverpool.  I managed to meet two of the three partners, including the big man himself, Ricky Tomlinson.  I was happy to discover Ricky’s warmth and humour in conversation and performance is as bountiful as his determination to contribute to society and make his voice heard on many a political topic.  In his down-to-earth style I recognised what I really like about Liverpudlians: a no-nonsense, independent attitude.  Aussies are at home with a straight-shooting, no bull-shit approach, so perhaps that’s why we often get on well with northerners. 

Perhaps too it’s the Celtic influence which makes me appreciate this quote from the wall of the Museum of Liverpool: “If you ask a Scouser to do something for you you’ll get all the co-operation in the world… but don’t tell them to do something for you...” 

Liverpudlians have spirit.  I like their accent too – originally born from affection for Shirley Valentine.  One of my more humorous observations is that the women in Liverpool really like to dress up.  I mean, really dress up; as in make a tremendous effort.  London by comparison is low-key.  High fashion and towering heels are deployed sparingly, selectively.  Even in regular visits to the Royal Opera House most of the audience will be dressed smart-casual to professional-formal.  (Of course West End Opening Nights and Film Previews are an exception, or anywhere one is expecting the paparazzi.)  Yet in Liverpool on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night you will be surrounded by the highest heels you have seen outside a Russian mllionaire’s party and hair dos to match. The hair-dressers must be making a fortune.  To my mind the hairstyles and glamorous dresses are more suited to a lavish wedding than a bar or nightclub… but far be it for me to criticize girls putting their best foot forward, even if, personally, it seemed a little over the top.  I tell you what though, next time I go to Liverpool, bodyguards or not, I’ll be packing high-heels and a chiffon number.

I should end on a particular highlight: my visit to Crosby Beach and the zone called Another Place.   I wanted a pre-breakfast jog and my bodyguards obliged by arriving early and escorting me from the hotel to a beach-side car park.  Ear pieces were set in place, plans discussed and confirmed, one protector jogged beside me, another behind, and a car followed on the road until sand-dunes made it impossible to continue.  Mile upon mile the team stayed in radio contact and at one point my former driver suddenly stuck his arm out from the dunes to offer me a bottle of water.  Talk about funny.  How did he get there at just the right time?  I felt like Madonna.  And not only on the jog did I get to know a little better the charming bodyguard who had previously been driving the back-up car, but I was surrounded by a stunning view, fresh air, and Anthony Gormley’s startling art installation.  Scattered across a wide expanse of sand there were a hundred bronze figures staring out to sea - some half covered by sand, water or molluscs, but all so lifelike that in the still, eerie glare of the sunny morning I sensed they were waiting for something monumental to happen.  The subliminal message was part science-fiction, part spiritual and definitely artistic, and I felt glad to be starting my day with salty air and invigorating exercise.  Like the statues my bodyguards were standing ready to drive their car onto the beach to save me, or scoop me up in their arms if I hazarded a torn muscle.  How could someone with a larrikin spirit not enjoy every step of such a journey?!   As my friend Fiona would say, “it was too funny”.

When finally the training exercises were complete and my team took me back to the hotel, I emerged from the lift on the ninth floor and for the first time in days I was alone. 

I felt an inexplicable wave of sadness.  No.  I felt lonely.  I was without their care, their company.  I had so quickly gotten used to someone watching out for me… someone, a team in fact, making me feel special.  For those days we’d been a little family and instantly I missed them.

Of course I adjusted fairly quickly to being alone again.  A five star hotel with a view and a mini-bar helped ease the blow.

Yet it reminds me that whatever happens in one’s life or career, we should never forget to be grateful for the people who support us, back us up - whether a Close Protection team, a husband, wife, lover, friend, parent, relative, acquaintance, stranger, colleague or unseen angel.   We are all poorer if we take this care for granted.

Thank you Liverpool.  Thank you my Close Protection team.  Travel safe and whenever I hear “eyes on” I’ll remember you.