Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, English Classics with Julian Lloyd Webber, November 27th 2011

English Classics with Julian Lloyd WebberA welcome return to the Derngate for the RPO with what was for us our inaugural concert of the season (as we missed the first concert in September), a programme of English Classics. Our conductor was Barry Wordsworth, looking most amiable in his trendy black shirt. I like the way he brings the best out of the musicians in a calm and considered manner, rather than leaping about like a maniacal March Hare. He’s much more dignified.

The first piece on offer was Delius’ Walk to the Paradise Garden, which was new to me and was full of lush strings and cosy chords – a musical version of comfort eating. It felt warm and summery, unashamedly self-indulgent, and was a very enjoyable introduction to the evening.

Barry Wordsworth Next was Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with the soloist Julian Lloyd Webber. When I originally heard that he was to be performing in this concert, I was extremely excited at the prospect. He is, after all, a Big Name. Would he live up to his reputation?

He has a great physical presence when fronting the orchestra; very tall, with the wildest of hair that’s surely never seen the inside of a Toni and Guy, nevertheless sporting a discreet headband to keep it out of his eyes during the more passionate cadenzas. He wore a Bohemian blue shirt that would not have looked out of place on an 18th century shepherd. And it’s a slightly bizarre sight to see him walk on and off the stage, going sideways up and down the steps one at a time, carefully and gingerly, so that he doesn’t accidentally trip and smash his “Barjansky” Stradivarius cello from c.1690 (which would be an awful shame).

Julian Lloyd Webber His playing is, as you would expect, a complete delight. It’s soft and warm, mature and emotional. If his cello were a fine cognac, his music would be the deepest, finest, most delicate tasting that you’ve ever enjoyed; no cheap Metaxa here, this is your yummiest Camus at the very least. I particularly enjoyed the way he interacted with the lead violinist. Some soloists can appear rather aloof and retreat into themselves; Mr Lloyd Webber, however, seemed to act simply as another member of the orchestra, constantly eyeing the lead violin and the conductor for mutual reassurance that they were happy everything was going ok. He seems to me to be a great team player. I admired that.

After the interval we had Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, which was also new to me. I really enjoyed it. Would it be banal of me to say that was because it was full of lovely tunes? That’s how it came across. I particularly loved the Cor Anglais in the third movement, beautifully played by Leila Ward; and also the combined sound of the strings just seemed to swell out to fill all the available musical bandwidth the Derngate can offer. The RPO doing their version of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, maybe?

A wonderful evening, perhaps more relaxing than stimulating, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Here’s to the next one!

Review – Strictly Northampton 2011, Derngate, Northampton, 26th November 2011

Strictly NorthamptonNicely spinning off from the best Saturday evening entertainment show on television at the moment (yes, we’re strictly a Strictly family), this charity event at the Derngate encourages local celebrities, business people and dignitaries to strut their funky stuff on stage in fabulous costumes, impressing knowledgeable (and suitably kindly) judges (including Strictly Come Dancing’s Brian Fortuna no less), to the texting approbation of the audience (50p per text, at least 20p goes to the charity) and all held superbly in place by BBC Radio Northampton’s Bernie Keith as the masterful host.

Rob White and Ruth Supple My absolute admiration goes out to all the dancers for the effort and sheer guts to get up on the stage of the Derngate – on a packed Saturday night – to dance in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. Some of them were remarkably good! One or two of them were not quite so twinkle-toed, but who cares? Stephen Church and Jane HolmesIt was also impressive to see how well our young local talent can perform; the show was mounted by the Step by Step Dance School and they are obviously great at developing young people into skilful dancers.

Pete Cooper and Laura CatchpoleThere were eighteen contestants, and each had to do a waltz, a jive and a freestyle. The waltzes and jives were performed first, three at a time, so there was plenty to watch on stage at any one moment. The freestyles were then performed individually, so every couple had their minute or two under the lone spotlight. Terrifying. I couldn’t even have done the ensemble marching around the stage that all eighteen couples did without colliding into each other.

Caroline Pugh and Kieran CherryThe winning contestant was Northants Cricket Club’s Rob White and his partner Ruth Supple, and in my opinion he was a worthy winner. Whether it’s because sportsmen and women are simply more competitive, Suzette Davenport and Adrian Laittor because they are more physically fit I don’t know, but they always seem to do well in this sort of contest. His freestyle dance was performed to the tune of the BBC Test Match Cricket show, and was a perfect mix of choreography and humour.

Faryl Smith Other really entertaining freestyles included Stephen Church’s “Always look on the bright side of life” dressed as a tramp; Radio Northampton’s Pete Cooper dressed like Olivia Newton-John in her “Physical” video; Northampton Chronicle’s Sports Writer Tom Vickers as a nerdy superman doing “Holding out for a hero”, Ann Timson Barclaycard’s Caroline Pugh doing eye-popping lifts in “You Can’t Stop the Beat”, and Northants Police Deputy Chief Constable Suzette Davenport nicking her dance partner Adrian Laitt with his bag of swag and handcuffing him to a lamppost. All the other competitors were magic too. It was great that these people entered into the spirit of the fun like this for charity.

Preston Hedges Primary School KidsOther highlights included a couple of songs from Britain’s Got Talent finalist and local girl Faryl Smith, and a guest appearance by “Super Gran” Ann Timson who saw off the jewel thieves in that failed smash-n-grab robbery attempt in Northampton earlier this year. There was a super display of dancing from the kids of Preston Hedges Primary School as well, showing that even tiny tootsies can weave fancy footwork.Bernie Keith Overseeing and presenting the whole thing was the wonderful Bernie Keith, with a couple of fantastic over-the-top outfits and a very very funny script. He should do more stage stuff – he’s brilliant! A thoroughly enjoyable and escapist evening that the whole town could support, and that raised over £30,000 for Macmillan. We look forward to next year’s show!

Review – Reginald D Hunter, Sometimes Even the Devil Tells the Truth, Derngate, Northampton, 25th November 2011

Reginald D Hunter I booked to see this Reginald D Hunter show months and months ago, on the strength of his occasional appearances on Have I Got News For You, where he always seems to be extremely wry and perceptive. One of the points he made early on in this show was that he wanted to get one thing straight – Stand-up is Art, TV is Business. So I wondered whether his stand-up persona would be any different from his TV one.

The answer is, no not really. He comes over as extremely thoughtful on TV and I found his stand-up routine enormously so. He takes philosophical thoughts and explores them through comic material as though for the first time he’s ever thought about them. The result of this is not so much a guffaw-packed, non-stop-laugh-out-loud evening, more a personal feeling-one’s-way-step-by-step session about all the frustrating and negative aspects of life.

He frequently employs a very effective comic device of departing on a long, sensitive and thought-provoking assessment of a particular subject, which you go along with, actually making you think along with him, and either agreeing with him or coming to your own conclusions; only to have it punctured by an unexpectedly funny/ inappropriate/ nonsensical observation at the end. That doesn’t sound very funny on paper (or on computer screen, I guess); but it does work really well.

A gauge I sometimes adopt to decide to what extent I like a performer is, would I like to go out for a drink with this person? The answer is yes, I would definitely like to go out for a drink with Reginald D Hunter. It would be intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking as well as having a light humorous touch. Unlike some other comics I’ve seen recently, I think he would be really non-egocentric.

One thing about him, which I feel I ought to comment on, is his regular use of the “N” word, despite the fact that he says he doesn’t want to offend middle class white people who normally quake if they hear it. It’s great when someone takes a taboo and, through the means of drama or comedy, forces you to consider it in a different way. There is no way that I would use the “N” word, but I quickly felt comfortable with his use of it, because he took the time to, rather innocently, explain what he means by it. For him, it means no more or less than “chap” or “guy”. So if you’ve read that he’s offensive because of this word, and you feel you might not have the stomach for the experience, I would happily suggest you think again.

If I were to be critical, I could suggest there is almost slightly too much philosophy and not quite enough comedy. As a result, much of the evening is spent in thoughtful reflection about what he is saying as opposed to constantly laughing at them. But it’s an interesting and unusual approach, and it works, more BBC4 than ITV2, if you get my drift. I found him likeable and honest, and all in all it was a very entertaining evening.

Steve HughesHe is supported by comic Steve Hughes who very much reminded me of my Australian brother-in-law, whom you probably haven’t met, so that might not help you much. Imagine you have an Australian brother-in-law. Well Steve Hughes is like him. I enjoyed his observations about life in hotels and service stations, and his nostalgic account of how Australia took to Boy George in the early 1980s goes along with Mrs Chrisparkle’s own childhood recollections. Steve Hughes came across as a good laugh and served as an excellent comedy chaser.

Review – The Go-Between, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th November 2011

The Go-Between How to make it different from the film? That must have been the burning question facing the team devising this new stage version of L P Hartley’s The Go-Between. It’s a moving book; and a searingly superb film. I first saw it at my school’s film club one evening in 1973 and it connected with me instantly. I very much identified with the character of young Leo; reasonably confident and chirpy, but a fish out of water in a foreign environment populated with characters out of his league. Leo spends the school summer holidays staying at his friend Marcus’ grand Stately Home, with his grand Stately Family, which Leo’s recently widowed mother thinks will be beneficial in gaining status, influence and maybe indirectly wealth. In reality, Leo becomes involved in a moral game-plan outside of his understanding and ability. “He flew too close to the Sun, and was scorched.”

Of course the film has the superb cast of Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Michael Redgrave and Margaret Leighton; and is backed by the haunting soundtrack of Michel Legrand. Comparisons are going to be odious, so it makes sense for the production team to visualise this in as different a manner as possible. The famous opening line “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, when spoken by Michael Redgrave, is full of resigned sadness, overflowing with Colston’s powerlessness to secure an emotional life after the psychological trauma of his childhood. In this new production directed by Roger Haines, James Staddon’s Colston is angry and bitter. He shouts the line, wretched and petulant, whilst the ghostly voices of the past beseech him to let them go, to release them back into history so that they can rest in peace and so that he can finally move on; but it’s not going to happen.

I found this opening sequence extremely dramatic and effective; and it sets the scene for how the adult Colston will be constantly surrounded by the other characters of the past as if they were there today. Thus the story is still palpably real to Colston, as he watches the other players act out the inevitably ghastly consequences of that summer; still affectionate to the young Leo and Marcus, still besotted with the young Marian, still admiring of the war-wounded Trimingham, still uncertain as to how he should behave with the unknown quantity that is Ted.

But to go back to that opening question, the chief way they have made this show different from the film is to remove the suspenseful and ominous soundtrack and make the whole show into a Lloyd Webber/Sondheim style operetta. In part this too is very effective. The ethereal feel of the music adds a poignancy to the story. By adopting singing instead of speaking, it also distances the story one stage further from reality, which is entirely in keeping with Colston’s nostalgia and inability to differentiate yesterday from today.

The downside to that is that the music itself is all recitative and no aria. Not strictly true; there is one individually identifiable song equating Leo to a butterfly. The rest of the libretto is just sung conversation, so you don’t get the feel of having seen a musical, it’s actually more artificial than that; and I found myself getting frustrated at the lack of a decent tune.

James StaddonI also didn’t get any sense of why the events of that hot summer should have left Leo such a scarred personality that he was unable to come to terms with life thereafter. Yes, no doubt it would all have been very disagreeable, and with many unpleasant aspects when recalled to memory – but why is Leo so incapable of moving on? Many well-adjusted people will have had much harder things happen to them in their childhood. My recollection of the film is that you don’t question this aspect of the story – the use of the music, the juxtaposed extremes of weather, the bitterness of Margaret Leighton playing Mrs Maudley, the way the family turn against Leo, all hit you as psychological hammer blows. In this stage production you see Colston wincing and suffering as the tale unfolds but you kind of get the impression he’s just a big girl’s blouse; and that doesn’t do credit to L P Hartley’s original. This is not to detract from James Staddon’s performance, which is clear and honest; an accurate portrayal of a dishevelled post-World War 2 middle aged man haunted by idealistic depictions of late Victorian upper class decency and working class virility. He looks suitably world-weary and indeed a complete failure of a man; yet you can’t help feel that the problem could have been cleared up with a couple of sessions with a knowledgeable counsellor.

Adam Bradbury On the night we saw the show, young Leo was played by William Miles and he was most impressive. An excellent blend of confident and insecure, eager to please the influential grown-ups, desperate to take a moral stance, willing to do anything to please Marian, it was the kind of performance where you forgot you were watching an actor; William Miles he really was Leo. His Marcus was Adam Bradbury, another young actor giving a confident performance, relishing the delivery of some of the most amusing lines of the play. They made a very credible double act.

Richard KentOf the remaining members of the cast, I very much enjoyed the foppish but slightly underplayed performance of Richard Kent as Marcus’ brother Denys, rooted in the class structure during the cricket match or when observing Ted swimming; and Stephen Carlile’s Trimingham was the epitome of reserved decency in his dealings with Leo and Marian; Stephen Carlilekindly, traditional, wearing his scar as a symbol of nobility.

I was a little unsure of the other major roles. Sophie Bould played Marian as a nice enough girl but I got none of the sense of why Leo would find her so bewitching. I didn’t feel much conviction in her anger when Leo refuses to deliver her letters, Sophie Bouldand I wasn’t sure there was much inner turmoil going on in there. Similarly, I wasn’t convinced that Stuart Ward’s Ted had an irresistible rough charisma; he seemed to me to be just another character in the landscape, but with a rural accent to make him appear different. In the chorus scenes he was made to blend in with the Brandham Hall bunch and therefore he didn’t stand out as the ghastly lower class chap amongst the toffs, to the extent I suspect he should. Stuart WardGemma Page’s Mrs Maudsley had very little of the superior air and bullying intimidation that I think the role needs in order to shame Leo into revealing the truth about Marian and Ted’s relationship; and you sense she’s only the Grande Dame of the family through accident of genealogy rather than by means of strong character.

Gemma PageI think these under-realised roles account for why I feel Colston’s plight fifty years on really should be more molehill than mountain. They needed to have some element of larger-than-life to them; to be honest I found them smaller-than-life, and I think having them all communicating in the same musical style with no individual leitmotifs creates a homogenous mass rather than giving them their own personalities. Additionally, Ted’s suicide is only lightly touched on, whereas in the book I think it is a major influence in Colston’s decline and fall.

So whilst there were some very good aspects to this production, I felt that it wasn’t a patch on the film and not terribly convincing in the storytelling department. Rather than using the musical format to enhance and illuminate the story, I feel the story has been controlled and shaped to suit the format.

The Real Chrisparkle meets Nicki French!

Nicki FrenchIn the first of an occasional series of interviews, I recently had the pleasure to interview the one and only Miss Nicki French (Total Eclipse of the Heart, Eurovision, Annie, and much more) for the Home Composed Song Contest website and I hope you enjoy our chat.

RealChrisSparkle: It gives me great pleasure to introduce to the visitors to the Home Composed Song Contest website the one and only Miss Nicki French! Hi Nicki, how are you doing? Is this your first contact with the Home Composed Song Contest?

Nicki French: Hi Chris – lovely to be here, and thanks for asking me! Yes, this is ‘virgin territory’ for me, so please be kind….

RCS: Of course I will be kind! I guess, as a singer, you hold the skill of song writing in high esteem?

NF: Oh definitely!! I try to write songs, and have done a few that have gone out to the public, but I’m in awe of those who find it so easy! I’m better at co-writing I think – but it’s a great feeling when something works.

RCS: I bet it is – I certainly couldn’t do it! So when you’ve co-written songs in the past do you tend to do the lyrics or the music, or doesn’t it work that way?

NF: A bit of both – the rhyming tends to get a little beyond me from time to time!! But generally I think of a few phrases – of both words and music together – for a song, then work from that.

RCS: Do you have a favourite song that you wrote or co-wrote?

NF: Ooooh that’s difficult! There are a few on the ‘French Revolution’ album that I’m pretty proud of – but I wasn’t the main writer on those really. I don’t know – they all tend to be quite different I think – but hey, perhaps the best one is yet to come…. watch this space, as they say!

RCS: That sounds very promising! How closely do you work with songwriters in general? And have you worked with any Famous Names?

NF: Well Katrina and I did write a song together some years ago, which we entered for Eurovision! That was back in the days when anyone could submit a song to BASCA. It didn’t get past the first round though unfortunately! I’ve worked with Hussein Ramadan quite a bit in past years (I often use his studio to record vocals), and we’ve discussed recently the prospect of writing together. Hopefully that will happen quite soon.

RCS: Fingers crossed! Did you get to meet or work alongside Jim Steinman at the time of Total Eclipse of the Heart?

NF: Not then, no – although he DID send a message via the record company (Love This Records), saying he loved our version, and wished me continued success, which was amazing! A few years later though, just before Eurovision 2000, HE approached ME to record a couple of tracks for his new company, Ravenous Records. There then followed quite a surreal experience – I was recording the vocals in London, he was then listening to them over in the States via a ‘down the line’ type setup, making comments and suggestions, and we did two songs that way – ‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’ and ‘Lovers Again’! It was strange having the executive producer commenting by remote – but it seemed to work! Sadly he couldn’t commit to working with me for at least another two years, so nothing really came of it. A great experience though. As my ex-husband said to me at the time, ‘You’ve always dreamed of being a backing vocalist for Meat Loaf – now you’re singing LEAD vocals for the man who MADE Meat Loaf’!!!

RCS: How fantastic to have that endorsement from such a major figure in modern music! It’s a shame nothing further came of it but it’s still a real honour. Maybe we have the new Jim Steinman lurking undiscovered in this year’s Home Composed Song Contest! Some previous contestants have gone on to extend their careers in song writing, maybe within the framework of the Eurovision Song Contest. Have you got any advice for aspiring songwriters?

NF: All I can really suggest is that they should never give up trying. We all know of so many people who have been writing songs all their lives, with limited success, then that one break comes – and everyone wants them to write for THEM! Also, accept that what may be the perfect song for one person or act won’t be right for another. That’s not to say you should write specifically for one style or act – but be careful you choose who you think it suits best. Then again, I’ve had times before where I’ve been given – or have written – a song that I think makes a great ballad, then someone else will take it on and it becomes a dance-floor filler, so I guess it’s always good to have someone else’s opinion too!!!

RCS: Total Eclipse is a good example of that – Bonnie Tyler’s version was always regarded as a classic, and then you came along and recreated it in a totally different style and showed how it can be done! Thinking back to the “older” songs – it’s now twelve years since you graced the stage in Stockholm and sang “Don’t Play That Song Again”. Do you still enjoy performing that song?

NF: Oh, always! I’m frequently surprised at what a great reaction it still gets – and I love singing it to an enthusiastic Eurovision audience particularly!

RCS: Don’t be surprised – it’s such a feelgood song! I think everyone knows you are a great supporter of the Eurovision Song Contest. How did you enjoy this year’s show? What did you think of the songs? Any favourite songs or performers from this year?

NF: I really did enjoy this year’s Contest, not least because I was there the night before the Final (performing on the Euroboat)! I thought it was all SO well put together this year, and the standard was pretty high too. I have to say, I absolutely loved Romania’s entry (‘Change’) – Hotel FM performed at the UK’s Preview Party in London, which I co-hosted with Paddy O’Connell, and I decided then and there that it was my favourite! There were some really good performances all the way through – I even have to hold my hands up and say I enjoyed Jedward!

RCS: I think Jedward surprised many! I did too, although I really didn’t think I would. Those preview parties are fun, aren’t they! Would you like to have another stab at performing in Eurovision yourself?

NF: Oh absolutely, definitely – just tell me where!!! I would dearly love to be a part of the whole Eurovision experience again. I hated being officially ‘the lowest ever placing’ for the UK until (thankfully) Jemini came along, and would love the chance to do better. I would LOVE a nice big ballad to get my teeth into….!

RCS: Well let’s get those writers out there onto it! So whilst anticipating your next Eurovision entry, what else have you been doing in recent years?

NF: Well, I’ve been trying to move more into the theatre world, as well as keeping up with the live singing gigs. I was part of the UK tour of ‘Annie’ the musical for nine months, which was great fun – playing seven different roles, most of which required me to wear varying degrees of hideous wigs! In previous years I have taken part in a couple of pantomimes in the UK, and this year am set to play the character of ‘Dandini’ in Cinderella at Kettering, Northamptonshire. Nicki French in BrazilHopefully I will be off to do a short tour of shows over in Brazil towards the end of October – I always love going there, as I get to work with a live band, and Nicki French is quite a big name over in Brazil, which is rather nice! Apart from that I’ve just been working on my house – it’s never-ending of course! Oh, and I suppose I SHOULD really say ‘and taking time to sit and focus on writing songs at the piano….’!!!

RCS: That’s a very varied output! Don’t worry about the house – as soon as you’ve finished DIY it all starts over again, like painting the Forth Bridge. Theatre is one of my main interests – how do you find the change from “straightforward singing” (if I can call it that) to performing in musical theatre?

NF: I absolutely loved singing in ‘Annie’ because it was I was required to do a more ‘classical’ style of singing. I was using my soprano voice, and could do that with a cold, fever – anything! As Nicki French the singing artist, I’m known as more of a ‘belter’ – but I enjoy both. I tend to warm up my voice in a more classical sort of style, but then – anything goes (ooh, cue for another show)!!!

RCS: Ah yes – I’m sure you’d be excellent in a Cole Porter show! So do you have any new songs out at the moment? Any records we can buy? (he says, showing his age!)

NF: Ha ha! Me too!!! Well there are two quite recent tracks that are available – ‘Love to Call My Own’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’. The first is quite a solid, club-type number, and the second has quite a Latin-American, salsa-type feel. They’re quite different – but have both been pretty popular I believe. Both these, and I think all my previous releases, are available from Amazon/itunes etc. I’m hoping to go into the studio and record a few more tracks very soon – although with the trip to Brazil looming, then panto, I’m not quite sure when we’ll get the chance to sort it! By the way, thanks for the compliment – a stint in the role of Liz Imbrie in High Society would do me VERY nicely, thank you! Someone else mentioned about the possibility of putting on a production of ‘Gypsy’ recently – and wanted me to play Mama Rose – imagine that!!! WOW!

RCS: That would be great! And yes, I can definitely see you in High Society – or how about Kiss me Kate?! And as for Gypsy… that could lead to great things! Good luck for fitting all that in – I’m sure a tour of Rio will prepare you well for the audiences in Kettering! Finally have you got any message for the composers and indeed the voters in this year’s Home Composed Song Contest?

Dame Nicki FrenchNF: Well, first I’d like to thank them for reading this interview all the way through! Thank you as well Chris – you’ve been very patient!!! To the composers I would say I wish you all the very best of luck – and keep persevering! If you don’t win, it’s not the end of the world, and that lucky break IS just around the corner! To the voters – I recommend listening to a song at least three times. Some of the best songs I’ve sung and/or listened to have not grabbed me on the first, or even second, hearing – and many times my opinion has changed dramatically by the third listen. Don’t ignore your initial instincts, however give things a CHANCE!!! Good luck to everyone!!

RCS: Thanks very much Nicki for giving up your time to talk to us and we look forward to seeing you in panto and hopefully some new shows soon! And best of luck for Brazil too!

NF: Thank you so much!

South America – Argentina – Buenos Aires

Flag of ArgentinaAn early morning flight out of La Paz, via Santa Cruz, got us to Buenos Aires airport at a comfortable 2.30pm. I’d always wanted to go to Buenos Aires. As a child it sounded so exotic. And then, during the Evita years (the musical, not the lady herself), it took on a more magical feel. Look out Buenos Aires! Because you wanna know what you’re gonna get in me – just a little touch of star quality.

Hotel EmperadorOur residence for three nights was the Hotel Emperador. I’d read some not entirely complimentary reviews on trip advisor about the friendliness (or lack thereof) of customer service. Well in my experience, I thought their level of politeness and courtesy, together with their helpfulness, was exemplary. The only thing that narked a little – and with some of our intrepid co-travellers it narked a lot – was the unexpected charge for the daily bottled water in the room, free everywhere else so far, but Quite A Lot Of Money here. But the room was large and comfortable, the breakfasts were great, and the bar was very welcoming and comfy. It’s also in an excellent location, in the Plaza San Martin and Retiro district. It was an easy walk to almost everywhere you might want to go.

Torre del InglesOur guide had suggested we spend our first afternoon looking around the Recoleta park area. Therefore our natural inclination was to go somewhere else entirely. So our first afternoon’s gentle strolling took us round the corner from the hotel to the Plaza San Martin. Beautiful old buildings surround the main park area, with some attractive monuments and fountains, and an attractive view towards the Torre de los Ingleses. But the sight I really wanted to see was the Monument to those fallen in the Falklands War. Surprisingly, it didn’t appear on the tourist map we were given; but I knew where it was meant to be, and eventually we found it, tucked away at the bottom of a parkland hill just off the Plaza.

Malvinas MemorialIt’s a moving and solemn monument. Deep red, a curved wall displays the names of all 649 Argentine soldiers who died in 1982. You can walk around it, appreciate the peace, observe the soldiers in fine uniforms who stand on guard within it. I was 22 years old at the time of the Falklands War, and I remember there was always a worrying threat that if it escalated, there could have been some form of conscription; so it has always been a period in our history I have taken very seriously.

Falklands Memorial SoldiersAt 6pm, it was time for the soldiers to change guard, and march towards the flagpole for the daily lowering of the Argentinian flag. We thought we would stay and observe, in respectful silence. And then we witnessed a most unexpected and bizarre sight. The soldiers themselves had completely no respect for what they were doing. They marched in a slovenly manner; they giggled as they folded up the flag; one soldier played with the cap on top of his comrade’s head, spinning it around in silly angles like a nine-year-old; they back-chatted with themselves and with the senior officer in command; frankly they couldn’t give a toss about what they were doing. 649 soldiers died – it’s not a laughing matter, they should be respected. Amazing. Perhaps this is a good moment to mention, that I had wondered in advance of our journey whether there would be any anti-British sentiment because of the ongoing dispute about the Falklands. I have to say that I found the Argentinian people the warmest and most gracious of hosts; they spoke English extremely well; and I felt welcomed everywhere we went.

Recoleta Tango BuskersWe had a little wander up the Avenida 9 de Julio, which is Buenos Aires’ main thoroughfare, and boy does it see a lot of traffic. Something like twelve lanes carve their way right through the centre of the city and you have to cut some extra slack in your itinerary to find the time to walk across. In a strange way, though, it’s not unattractive. We found ourselves heading for the Recoleta park and thought we might as well take a look as it had been recommended. And I’m pleased we did, as the site had been given over to a very large crafts market, with all sorts of interesting stalls, which were offering nice little souvenirs – good quality useful and attractive items, rather than just tourist trash – and extremely good value. Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del PilarWe saw our first bit of tango – some buskers had put out a makeshift dance floor on the grass and were doing a few ganchos to some taped music. It was good! There was also a very professional sounding reggae band, doing some Bob Marley hits. Everyone was just sitting out, relaxing, having an entertaining late Sunday afternoon. The Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Pilar looked stunning as its illuminations started to light up. I think it was at this point that I fell in love with Buenos Aires.

We found a bar, and unknowingly, it was a good one! The Café la Biela used to be the haunt of racing car drivers in the 1950s and its décor still harks back to that period. Full of local families, local couples, local singles and even the occasional tourist, it was bustling but relaxed, smart but informal. We had a couple of glasses of wine and watched the world go by. The service was very Parisian, which depending on your point of view may be a good or bad thing. I love Paris, so I loved this place.

Arenales Café and RestoAfterwards, we went down a few back streets in search of somewhere authentic but not intimidating for dinner. We found a great place on the Calle Arenales called, unsurprisingly, the Arenales Café and Resto. Definitely a place for locals, but very welcoming to a couple of Brits, they helped us with the menu and encouraged us not to order too much – Argentine portions are massive! The food was great, as was the wine, and the price was extremely reasonable. We intended to go back there for at least one more meal whilst we were in Buenos Aires, but in the end didn’t as the city offers so much choice. We waddled back to our hotel room with contented tummies and a feeling that we had discovered a Really Super City.

Generic FloralisThe next day we were ready for our included organised city tour. First stop was to admire a beautiful piece of modern sculpture, the Generic Floralis in the Plaza Naciones Unidas. It’s like a huge steel tulip and its petals open and close at different times of the day. At 23 metres tall, it fair takes your breath away.

Our next port of call was the cemetery. Very much on the lines of Pere Lachaise in Paris, it’s a tightly packed village of ornate family tombs. Of course what everyone wants toEva Peron's tomb plaque see is Eva Peron’s tomb. You let down your people Evita, you were supposed to have been immortal. It’s impossible to underestimate the extent to which one person has captured the imagination of a country, even today. The Argentines either love her or hate her. Those who hate her go to great and rather undignified lengths to demonstrate it, which is why the Duarte family tomb is bomb proof, graffiti proof, and, dare I say it, necrophilia proof. As is always the case in such places, it’s enticing to get deliberately lost down rows of tombs and discover a wide range of statues, styles and inscriptions.

Plaza de MayoAfter the cemetery, we took the coach to the Plaza de Mayo, where you can find the Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the national bank and the Economic Ministry. It’s full of protestors sounding off about a wide range of grievances, most notably the Mothers of the Disappeared, the children who were abducted during the military dictatorship. But the best thing about the Plaza de Mayo was the crowd outside the Casa Rosada crying Eva Peron. Casa Rosade Actually it was a crowd of two, but Mrs Chrisparkle and I knew we wouldn’t be true to ourselves if we missed out singing that bit of our Evita pilgrimage. It’s a very lively plaza. Businessmen, tourists and protestors all vie for the most convenient bits of pavement. The Cathedral is very attractive; its main attraction is the tomb of San Martin, the country’s liberator. Everyone loves San Martin; whilst we were there loads of local people were queuing up to get their photo taken by his effigy.

La BocaOur last appointment in our city tour was to visit La Boca district. Famous as the birthplace of the tango, and infamous as a place where you will get mugged if you’re there in the evenings, we had a very colourful hour or so wandering around the Caminito area, with its brightly painted walls, amusing waxworks of Eva, La Boca TangoChe and Maradona on balconies, expensive cafes, fun shopping and tango demonstrations. I’m very pleased with the leather belt I bought myself there.

Back to the centre of town, it was time for lunch. I said earlier that the Argentines eat big. A simple piece of salmon was all I fancied for lunch. Desiderio RestaurantWhen it arrived it was the most massive aquatic being you’ve ever seen. Absolutely delicious too, and again incredibly reasonably priced. This was at the Desiderio restaurant, on the Avenida Santa Fe, friendly service with a largely business clientele.

Mrs C fancied some retail therapy so we took a walk in the main shopping area of the city, Calle Florida. It’s a good mix of smart and cheap’n’cheerful, with also some rather “unofficial” market stalls pitched up along the centre of the pedestrianised street. The Galerias Pacifico was dead posh. We treated ourselves to a couple of odds and sods. Eventually we made our way back to the Plaza de Mayo for more quality time with Eva Peron and San Martin’s ghosts.

Galerias PacificoA fun evening was in prospect – most of our intrepid co-travellers (ourselves included) were off for a night of tango at the Esquina Carlos Gardel in El Abasto district. Initially reticent, lest it turn out to be pure tourist trash, we were convinced by some hastily researched trip advisor comments and the fact that our guide who was recommending it seemed like a decent sort. I’m glad we went as it was great! It’s a proper theatre, but with restaurant tables and chairs as opposed to a traditional stalls and circle. The price includes food and unlimited wine. That would normally ring alarm bells with me – poor quality food and cheap plonk. But no; the food was sensational – and huge – and the wine was absolutely top quality. After you’ve eaten yourself to oblivion, and while the waitresses crack open yet more bottles of wine, you get to watch a fantastic tango show. The dancing is first rate, although some of the singing is perhaps championship as opposed to premiership. Funny, sexy, and very, very enjoyable I would definitely recommend it.

Puente de la MujerFor our final morning in BA (I wanna be a part of BA, Buenos Aires, Big Apple) we thought we’d take a walk around the newly developed dock area, the Puerto Madero. It’s an area full of skyscrapers, part New York, part Canary Wharf; but a lot of it is alongside the traditional Spanish colonial architecture. There’s an extravagant modern footbridge across the old docks, the Puente de la Mujer, which will celebrate its tenth birthday in December. I’d recommend a walk around the area, although getting to it is not for the fainthearted; Mrs C and I teetered along the edge of a narrow pavement whilst lane upon lane of commercial vehicles thundered past us – don’t attempt this after a bottle of Malbec!

National Congress buildingAfter that we went in search of the National Congress building. It’s at the end of the rather long Plaza del Congreso, and is modelled on the White House in Washington DC. The Plaza itself is a lively place, with a replica of Rodin’s thinker and a few makeshift encampments for the homeless and protestors. You can sometimes take a tour round the National Congress building – but our timing was off, so we missed that.

Puerto Montt Resto Lunch took us to the Puerto Montt Resto. Despite the language difficulties the rather lovely young Gothic Maitresse d’ looked after us brilliantly, making sure we had exactly what we wanted – and being very careful with Mrs C’s gluten-free requirements. Lunch was gorgeous, as was the wine; and we sat outside on the pavement in the sunshine and it was totally lovely. It felt slightly odd to be so close to the cemetery perhaps; but I’m sure the spirits were in a good mood that day.

Museo Evita Just a few more sights left. We had decided we must visit the Museo Evita, and it’s well worth it. It’s housed in a building that used to belong to the Eva Peron Social Aid Foundation. It gives you lots of fascinating little insights into the nature of her charisma, with good quality exhibits and plenty of news footage on screens. Excellent English translations too.

Botanic GardensThe weather was fine, so we decided to take a short walk around the Botanic Gardens. These were created by Carlos Thays in 1898, and it’s a charming oasis of greenery and statuary in the heart of the city. No wonder lots of locals choose to grab a few minutes peace on its lawns and gardens. We then went on to the Japanese Gardens, which are highly entertaining; elaborate and exquisite garden designs with pagodas, bridges, exotic fish and very colourful plants. You do have to pay to go in, but it’s worth it. Whilst we were there lots of young couples came to have their photos taken looking glamorous in the exotic surroundings. I’m guessing it’s a popular place for a first date.

Japanese Gardens On the way back we stumbled across the university district – the main building is rather grand but it is overshadowed by an ornately decorated footbridge across the road that is covered with flowers and butterfiles. Rather a nice touch.

We found a nice place for a quick drink on the way back to hotel, where they sold you wine by the penguin! It was actually a carafe styled as a penguin, but it’s a rather cute idea. The wine was good, as was the welcome, so we decided to return there for dinner.Butterfly bridge It was packed with locals! We had the most sensational Argentine beef and sumptuous wine and it was really good value. It’s the Parilla La Dorita, Avenida del Libertador 798 and we loved it. Beware you can only pay by cash or Amex.

And that’s two-and-a-half days/three nights in Buenos Aires. I absolutely loved it and would go back in an instant.

Review – Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation, Milton Keynes Theatre, October 31st 2011

Dave GormanHere’s another comic that we’ve never seen live before – in fact, I’m not sure I’ve really seen him at all before. I knew he had a good reputation from his Googlewhack concept – and he can be very entertaining on twitter. So I thought it was high time I broke my Dave Gorman virginity. And I saw at first hand that he’s hugely popular! The Milton Keynes theatre was packed out on a Monday night. All ages were represented, but I’d say there were many more boys than girls. It’s not often that the queue for the gents is that long in a theatre interval.

I was a bit concerned that the powerpoint presentation aspect to the show would end up crushing the spontaneity of the performer with the audience. When we saw Jimmy Carr last year, I really didn’t enjoy the sequences when he lectured us with accompanying powerpoint illustrations on a projected screen. It inhibits the comedy rather than releases it. And I’m afraid I think the same applied to Mr Gorman. His act is beautifully hand-crafted, like an exquisite Strictly Come Dancing costume; but (I’m guessing) everything he says has to follow his pre-ordained powerpoint sequence, and he hasn’t got much scope to deviate from his script. This is not a criticism, but never before have I seen such a major comic act hardly engage with the audience at all. He looks at us a lot, and talks to us, but he doesn’t meet us. The whole performance is not so much a stand-up, more a one-man comic play.

A good example of this is that a few seats behind us was a man who sat through the entire evening guffawing at the top of his voice, at times making the rest of the audience laugh at him, at other times really getting on everyone’s nerves. I am sure every other comic I have seen would have made some reference at some point to this extraordinarily noisy bloke. But Dave Gorman ignored it totally and kept on with the script. I sensed that if there were a fire in the circle he would have carried on regardless.

Dave Gorman's Powerpoint PresentationThat’s not to say the show isn’t funny, because it is. There are lots of amusing observations about the nonsenses of life. If you like your internet stuff, and are a facebook and twitter user, there are loads of references which will absolutely hit the mark with you. A lot of his material is rather egocentric, although not in a big-headed way; for example, there is a long sequence about the fact that he is often mistaken for being Jewish; he talks, and shows, the photographs people submit to him online that are meant to be look-alikes of him; he talks about his weight, and his experiments with odd diets; his twitter arguments; and so on. He doesn’t seem to involve other people in his observations much. It came across to me as being rather introverted comedy.

It didn’t help that he was over-amplified, a common problem at the Milton Keynes Theatre, so sometimes his speech sounded a little distorted where we were in Row A. When he spoke loudly and fast – sometimes very fast – I honestly couldn’t discern some of the words. At the end of the show he announced, I think, that he would be in the foyer doing some signing; but actually what I heard sounded like an angry dog refusing to let go of a chew.

Jay ForemanHe is supported by comedy songsmith Jay Foreman, who gives us a nice warm up act with some very imaginative songs. The next morning we were still singing about the Moon Chavs. He must have sold a lot of CDs in the interval, judging from the queue.

In conclusion, I was a little disappointed – but I readily admit I’m sure I was in the minority.