News Archives: view stories from Year One of the Club (October 2006 to October 2007), Year Two (October 2007 to October 2008), Year Three (October 2008 to October 2009), Year Four (October 2009 to October 2010), Year Five (October 2010 to October 2011), Year Six (October 2011 to September 2012) and Year Seven (October 2012 to September 2013)
Motorcycle madness seizes Club
5th March Our March meeting featured a lecture by Mr Stephen Myhill entitled Thrilling the Million: The Lure of the Speedway. "No brakes, no gears, no fear," Mr Myhill explained by way of introduction. "I will entertain with stories of the early days of the dirt track. Motorcycle speedway racing in the UK is nearing its 90th birthday. In the boom years either side of the war, speedway riders were among the highest-earning sports stars. So drop your clutch, twist your throttle and go elbow-to-elbow with the kings of the cinders." My Myhill was true to his word, and we learned all about the birth of the sport (in Australia, where a promoter desperate to get the punters in to his athletics events, decided to include some motorcycle racing) and the specifics of the bikes—engines that run on methanol at absurdly high revs with only really two speeds (on and off) and prone to exploding. We heard about the high-earning stars with unlikely names (Split Waterman, Sprouts Elder, Acorn Dobson, etc), and the chap who arrived at the track fresh from Savile Row in a new bespoke threads but couldn't resist showing off on a bike—with his suit jacket billowing over his head he inevitably crashed, ruining the entire outfit. Many thanks to Mr Myhill for his oration.
Double bill of love proves too much
23rd February In recognition of St Valentine's Day earlier in the month, our February Film Night was scheduled as a double bill of films about love, the (perhaps odd) pairing of Harold Lloyd's silent comedy Girl Shy (1924) with John Huston's sepulchral last film The Dead (1987). However, come 9.30 when we were about to show the second film, it transpired that a number of people who were keen to see it would not actually be able to stay till the end—so we decided to postpone it till the following month.
Harold Lloyd made over 200 movies and is most remembered for his hair-raising stunts. In fact in an accident with an exploding prop he lost a finger and thumb on his right hand, which he would subsequently disguise with a special glove (and watching Girl Shy I did notice how it is always his left hand that is to the fore). His later films were more character-based—usually a character called Harold in his trademark round spectacles (which were just plain glass), a hapless but determined Everyman. In Girl Shy he plays a small-town naif who is terrified of women and stammers uncontrollably when under stress, yet who (rather inexplicably) writes a treatise on The Secret of Making Love, in which he documents his fictitious conquests. In fantasy sequences we see two of these, telling glimpses into the obsessions of the time—the Vampire (the man-eating Theda Bara type, a term later shortened to “vamp”), against whom the correct technique is indifference; and the Flapper, shown as dizzy and silly, drinking and smoking ostentatiously but also strangely girly, playing with dolls, etc. (Interestingly, we tend to picture a flapper with a Louise Brooks bob, but here she still has the Mary Pickford curls.) The way to win her, by the way, is to unleash your inner caveman (see picture above).
On the way to the city to find a publisher Harold meets a girl and they are smitten with one another. But when the publisher laughs him out of the office her realises he could never support her so he pretends that he was never interested, that she was just another conquest. However, the publisher then realises he could make a fortune selling Harold’s book as a joke (The Diary of a Boob) and offers him a hefty advance. Now Harold must race across town by a series of unlikely vehicles (cue all the hair-raising stunts we expect) to stop the girl marrying a rotter. We tend to think of silent comedies as broad slapstick with exaggerated expressions and gestures, but I was struck by the naturalism of the performances. Although it is silent you can often see what the actors are saying—and it is ironic that key plot points revolve around the fact that under stress Harold’s stammer prevents him from speaking! Thanks to David Pile for suggesting the film.
Plucky few make their own entertainment
5th February Members found themselves relying on their wits and inner resources at our February meeting, as strikes in London dealt a body blow to the public transport system, meaning that our scheduled speaker, David de Vynél, was unable to make it. Those Members who did struggle in were treated to a quiz by Artemis Scarheart, reprising some questions from a full scale NSC pub quiz he organised some years ago, and also a game proposed by Craig Young, something apparently devised by C.S. Lewis, wherein players take it in turn to read poetry by Amanda McKittrick Ros without laughing—Amanda is widely considered one of the worst writers in the English language. To give you an example, here are some lines from "Visiting Westminster Abbey":
Holy Moses! Have a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer,
Some of whom are turned to dust,
Every one bids lost to lust;
Royal flesh so tinged with ‘blue’
Undergoes the same as you.
Famous some were—yet they died;
Kings—Queens, all of them do rot,
What about them? Now—they’re not!
Unwelcome guest makes for a welcome screening
12th January For our first Film Night of the new year, Isabel Spooner-Harvey, currently exiled to the former colonies, suggested the comic caper The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), concerning an acerbic radio personality, Sheridan Whiteside, who, while on a cross-country lecture tour, slips on the icy steps of Ohio couple Ernest and Daisy Stanley. He invites himself to recuperate in their home—which he promptly takes over and dominates from his wheelchair. The film was originally a stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who wrote it as a vehicle for their friend Alexander Woollcott—on whom the character of Whiteside is closely based—inspired by a true story. Apparently one day Woollcott showed up, unannounced, at Hart’s Bucks County estate, and proceeded to take over the house. He slept in the master bedroom, terrorised Hart’s staff, and generally acted like Sheridan Whiteside. On his way out he wrote in Hart’s guest book, “This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent.” Hart related the story to Kaufman and, as they were laughing about it, Hart remarked that he was lucky that Woollcott had not broken his leg and become stuck there. Kaufman looked at Hart and the idea was born.
In the end Woollcott was too busy to play the role himself in the Broadway run. For the film version Bette Davis wanted to play Maggie Cutler against John Barrymore as Whiteside. But Barrymore was allegedly too drunk to handle the rapid-fire dialogue. Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, Robert Benchley and Cary Grant were all considered, but eventually the part went to Monty Woolley, who had played it on Broadway. He was unknown to screen audiences, but Time gushed that, “Woolley plays Sheridan Whiteside with such vast authority and competence that it is difficult to imagine anyone else attempting it.” Critical approval was universal, with the New York Times summing it up as “unquestionably the most vicious but hilarious cat-clawing exhibition ever put on the screen, a deliciously wicked character portrait and a helter-skelter satire”.
Sadly Isabel couldn't be there to introduce the film, but it played to a full house and went down well (despite an early hiccup where the film kept playing with dubbing in Spanish—the only Region 2 DVDs available are from Spain!).
Club subjected to exercise regimen
2nd January As the first Wednesday in the month was actually New Year's Day, we though it shrewd to push the meeting back a day (pushing it back a week was not an option as there is a regular booking by someone else), which inevitably confused a number of people. However, we had a reasonable turnout for Gillian Greenwood's unusual talk on sorting out aching backs and necks, using the principles of pilates, developed in the 1940s. Many of us are deskbound these days and poor posture can lead to all kinds of chronic problems. Once the awkward business of finding our pelvic floor muscles was out of the way, Gillian gave use some simple exercises to do. I must admit I had expected a level of scepticism and was surprised by how interested the audience was and how willing to engage in the exercises Gillian gave us to try out. Many thanks to Gillian for the talk and the years of pain-free slouching, sloping and mooching we have ahead of us.
Traditional ceremony to check Menders is not dead
20th December It has long become a tradition that the New Sheridan Club gathers at the Dover Castle public house, in Weymouth Mews, on the last Friday before Christmas, as a final bout of mutual shoulder-clapping before we all go our separate ways for Crimbo. As much as anything it is traditionally the one point in the year when we see Lord Mendrick (above), who spends the rest of the time teaching the children of the rich in Araby or the Orient. This year was no exception and was, as you can see, enlivened by some curious treats that Suzanne Coles brought back with her from Germany, including garish Teutonic meat products and various things dipped in chocolate, such as fresh chillis and a banana. (As you can see on the right, Matthew Howard lost no time in menacing everyone with his sausage; Mrs Palmer-Lewis is holding a chocolate-coated banana on a stick.) The wood-panelled back room that we think of as ours had actually been reserved by another party, but for some reason they spent all their time in the main bar and we quietly annexed the back room. Huzzah. Happy Christmas to one and all, and I'll see you in Hell. Sorry, in the New Year.
Festive gathering celebrates German celluloid classic
15th December Our December Film Night was an ambitious attempt to show a subtitled version of Die Feuerzangenbowle (1944). This German film, the second of three adaptations of a 1933 novel by Heinrich Spoerl, occupies a special place in the hearts of all Germans, it seems. One online commentator explains, “To Germans this film is like It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca and Citizen Kane all rolled into one. Lines from it are like proverbs.” Birgit Gebhardt tells me that screenings are like Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings here, complete with props and rote voicing of lines. Sure enough I caught Manfred Kronen singing along to the song of the hiking schoolchildren in one scene. No official version with English subtitles exist but Manfred found a subtitle file and we managed to sync it with the video.
Set in the 1930s, the plot concerns a successful young writer who joins some friends around a Feuerzangenbowle, a communal yuletide punch, essentially mulled wine, over which a sugar loaf soaked in high proof rum is placed on a rack and ignited: as the sugar melts and caramelises it drips into the vat of beverage. (For the occasion Hal made up a batch and Manfred was able to source the sugar loaf: see picture right.) The men reminisce about the pranks they got up to in their schooldays, and our hero Pfeiffer reveals that he was home-tutored and experienced none of this. He begins to feel he missed out on something, so he hatches a plan to go to a small town high school where no one will recognise him and disguise himself as a new pupil. (The actor, Heinz Rühmann, had played the same role in another film version ten years earlier, so he was really a bit old for the part this time round.) All goes to plan and he leads his teachers a merry dance with japes and pranks aplenty.
But his urbane girlfriend catches on and comes to persuade him to stop messing about: he is on the brink of heading back to Berlin but, as he passes the school, realises he would rather stay in that homely town with those homely people. In the meantime he has taken a shine to the headmaster’s wholesome blonde daughter. The story ends with his revealing his true identity, having secured the heart of Eva. Oddly, at the very end in voiceover Pfeiffer reveals that the whole story was made up: “Everything but the very beginning. The only true things are the memories we carry with us, the dreams we spin and the desires which drive us. These are the things that should keep us content.” So the message is that you can’t change your past, but should focus on changing the future? Interesting sentiments for a film produced in 1944 which would have had to get past the Nazi board of film censors.
The film also considers the different teaching styles and attitudes of the teachers, which the cool, efficient, authoritarian Brett (a character not in the book) coming across as effortlessly commanding respect. A sop to the film board? But one of the boys, dramatically depicted as keen to “denounce” our hero, is despised by pupils and teachers alike, so it is hard to say exactly where the film’s attitude to authority lies.
Thanks to Manfred and Birgit for their help.
Tommy and Fritz call a truce for Xmas party
14th December As a nod to the impending First World War anniversary next year, we themed our party around the famous truce in No Man's Land on Christmas Day in 1914. Thanks to sponsorship from The King's Ginger, we offered a gingery Christmas Punch, and one lucky raffle winner took home their own bottle of the Ginger Nectar. Our traditional shooting game this time had a remote-controlled zeppelin as the target, while our other game reproduced the famous No Man's Land soccer matched using a lovingly modified table football table. Musical entertainment came from Patrician Hammond and her band playing pop tunes from the WWI era, which proved enormously popular. God Save the King! (More pictures here.)
Club soothed by music of the Orient
4th December Instead of a lecture, this time Member Charles Tsua treated us to a recital of tunes on the guqin, or "ancient zither". Made from a single piece of wood, shaped and hollowed out at the back to create a sound box, the zither was originally strung with strings of silk, although metal and nylon are more common these days. Originally there were five strings, representing the five Chinese elements (wood, metal, earth, water and fire), but I gather that various princes added a couple more for good measure. Charles filled us in on history the guqin, telling us how it became usurped by the intelligentsia, who swathed it in symbolism and philosophy and declared that poor people shouldn't be allowed to play it; certainly by modern standards it is a very quiet instrument and better suited to being heard in a small, private room rather than a bawdy alehouse. There is written music for it, some quite ancient, but the instructions tend not to details things like rhythm, which leaves modern players plenty of leeway for their own interpretations. Many thanks to Charles for his performance.
Expeditition to map the public houses of the City of London
20th November Every year NSC Member Mr Ian White, a stalwart of the Campaigns for Real Ale and Real Cider, organises a pub crawl for us in some district of London, showcasing fine ales and fine pub archi-tecture. This time it was in the City. Because many of these pubs are typically closed at weekends, we moved the crawl from its usual Saturday night slot to a Wednesday evening. And a most agreeable night it was, as these photos attest. Many thanks to Mr White for organising it once again.
Club hears tales of a benign dictator
6th November Our speaker this time was Mr Mark Gidman, whose subject was 'Marshall Tito and Yugoslavia: The Communist Bourgeoisie Republic?'. Mr Gidman examined Tito's origins and early inclinations towards Socialism, but mostly focused on the ways in which he differed from other Communist leaders—in fact he split dramatically from Stalin, to such an extent that it seems lucky to have avoided invasion. But was it luck? Tito was skilled at sculpting his public comments and responses, and his soft approach to Communism made him popular with the West. (Indeed he loved visiting other heads of state.) He seems to have realised early on that a purely state-run economy was doomed, and instituted worker-run businesses that were allowed to make and share a profit. When other Communist states had closed borders, her allowed Yugoslavians to leave freely—with the effect that they went abroad to work and sent the money home to Yugoslavia, boosting the economy. Mr Gidman was at pains to point out that, while Tito did have a secret police, there were not the show trials found in other regimes; overall he can be seen as a fairly benign dictator. He was lover of fine living and fine tailoring, and although he owned little he was always delighted to accept lavish gifts. When he died his was the largest state funeral in history.
Club delivers double-whammy of celluloid terror
21st October For our October film night we went with a Halloween theme and offered a double bill, starting with the original 1922 horror classic Nosferatu, based closely on Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed by F.W. Murnau, starring the extraordinary goblin-like Max Schreck as the vampire, and full of breath-taking lighting effects and Expressionist camera angles. Then after a short break we showed the much more recent humorous horror romp Shadow of the Vampire (2002), which tells an imagined version of the making of Nosferatu, starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck, in which members of the crew start to vanish mysteriously during production. Ed Marlowe kindly presented, introducing the films and explaining just how much of an impact Nosferatu has had on cinema in general, and the horror genre in particular. (For example, in Stoker's original the vampire can tolerate to walk around during the day, while the horror convention that a vampire is actually destroyed by the sun's rays was invented by the Nosferatu film.) He also insists that the dance in Michael Jackson's Thriller video is based on Schreck's claws-up sideways movement…
Very little is known about Max Schreck as a man, other than that he was a bit of a loner. Shadow of the Vampire takes this as a starting point to suggest that he really was a vampire, discovered by Murnau while he was scouting locations. Short of funds and desperate for a hit, Murnau enters into a grisly pact for the vampire to play an actor playing a vampire—in return, the vampire gets access to the prima donna of a leading lady… Although I had seen both films before, there is no doubt that itwas very valuable seeing them together, especially as Shadow of the Vampire makes playful references to actual shots from the original (in some cases splicing original footage together with reshot versions using Dafoe), and we can see how much Eddie Izzard does resemble the actor he is playing, Gustav von Wangenheim.
Thanks to some vigorous marketing by the Teahouse Theatre, we had a goodly turn-out. However, owing to a bit of a cock-up with an online listing we were obliged to delay the start till 8pm to make sure everyone had arrived, but even so there was a hardcore who stayed until the second film finished at 11.30—and gave it a round of applause. Many thanks to Ed and to all who came.
Manfred leaps into breach and breech
2nd October Sadly our scheduled speaker at the October Club Night had to pull out at the last minute. Fortunately, however, Manfred Kronen volunteered at short notice to tell us all about how to drill a rifle barrel (he works as a gun designer). He brought in various lumps of metal to pass around, to illustrate the various stages of drilling a whole through a metal bar, polishing the drilled surface, cutting the spiral "rifling" grooves inside (which cause the projectile to spin as it leaves the barrel, stablising its trajectory), then honing away the outside to get the finished barrel down to the desired weight. One gets the impression that the barrel is the heart of the weapon, but we learned that it is at the point that the chamber is attached to the barrel that it becomes a licensable firearm. We also learned that, contrary to what you might hear on CSI, a bullet cannot necessarily be traced back to the gun from which it was fired, because by the time another hundred rounds have been put through the barrel its profile will have changed anyway. (A handy tip if you're planning some murder.) Many thanks to Manfred.
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