Saturday, 27 October 2018

Treasures of The Cinema Museum

One of the joys of London is the multilayered history found at every tube stop. 10 minutes from Elephant & Castle, The Cinema Museum transports its visitors back to the glory days of cinema, in a former Victorian workhouse which once homed a young Charlie Chaplin.

Founded by Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries in 1986, the museum is home to a staggering collection of cinema signage, seating, projectors, lighting fixtures, hand painted posters, usher uniforms, hundreds of film reels spanning back to the late 19th century and so much more. There are surprises behind each door which would fascinate everyone from technical enthusiasts to Old Hollywood glamour fans.

Both Martin and Ronald guided the visitors on the tour I attended. Ronald, who started his career as a apprentice projectionist in 1950's Aberdeen, started the collection by rescuing items from closed down cinemas which would otherwise have been destroyed. The Cinema Museum has been a lifelong work of love and dedication towards preserving an incredible collection and sharing vast knowledge and memories with the public.

The Cinema Museum has been based at its current location since 1998. Recently, the building was sold and there is a question mark looming over the museum's future. There is an ongoing campaign to save The Cinema Museum including a petition.

This year, The Cinema Museum won Time Out's Most Loved Local Culture Spot award as voted by readers. A small charity-run organisation beating a big player, like Tate Modern, to the top spot shows just how much The Cinema Museum means to the public. The tour I booked had impressive attendance with visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Some visitors enjoyed returning to their childhoods, while others were curious about a time long before they were born. Like a trip to the pictures, The Cinema Museum welcomes all.

For information on tours, events and support visit

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Fannying Around In Greenwich

Since my childhood obsession with flamenco, I have adored fans. Fans are effortlessly stylish, convey expression as well as being practical in the heat. I also have a life-long affair with Greenwich - I feel lucky to have been born in a leafy part of London rich in multilayered history. Based in a couple of Grade II listed 18th century townhouses, next to the immense Greenwich park, The Fan Museum satisfies two of my loves.

The only museum in the UK completely dedicated to fans, The Fan Museum provides a comprehensive guide to the materials and elaborate skills used to create these handheld accessories, from all over the world, spanning centuries. And, of course, the building and its countless exhibits are a treat for the eyes.

Apart from displaying fans from the past, including an exceptionally rare embroidered number from around the Elizabethan period, The Fan Museum also works towards reviving the disappearing craft of fan-making. Workshops are frequently hosted and recent campaigns include a collaboration between street artists and a leading fan maker.

The first floor has changing exhibitions. Until the 23rd of September, A Bird In The Hand showcases all things feathery ranging from the museum’s oldest item - a Peruvian fan circa 10-11th century with moulted and dyed macaw feathers - to the decadence of a game bird ensemble previously owned by a 20th century Lido showgirl.

With its passion for beauty, detail and preservation, The Fan Museum embodies the spirit of historical Greenwich, that locals and visitors love, combined with a touch of glamour.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Inspiring Movies: What A Way To Go!

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Bold and elaborate costume design exhilarates me. When I’m low on energy, I google images of Bob Mackie creations instead of buying chocolate as a little pick-me-up. What A Way To Go!, a star-studded dark comedy from 1964, is the visual equivalent to a freakshake-induced sugar rush.

Shirley MacLaine stars as small-town girl Louisa May Foster who desires a simple life. But Louisa ends up marrying men - played by Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum and Gene Kelly - who become incredibly wealthy overnight. The success, greed and vanity of the husbands kills them in outlandish ways leaving Louisa re-widowed, richer and sadder.

With costumes designed by the legendary Edith Head, MacLaine’s character is frequently reinvented as she moves from one doomed spouse to another. Before money enters Louisa’s world, she is as sweet as apple pie in frills and red polka dots. With each husband comes a different lifestyle as well as a more sophisticated image. Living in bohemian Paris, with Paul Newman’s American artist/taxi driver, Louisa dons a simple burgundy dress with a plunging neckline and hip-split skirt. This dress, suggesting European sexual carefreeness, is replaced by abstract evening dresses covered in paintings and sculptures as Louisa’s husband becomes a major celebrity in the art world. Back in the States, marriage to Robert Mitchum’s business tycoon means a wardrobe fit for a First Lady and Gene Kelly’s struggling performer Pinky accidentally gets his big break and transforms everything - including his wife - pink!

As well as costume changes, along with each husband comes fantasy sequences sending up popular film genres. Louisa’s first marriage to initially poor and humble Edgar (Dick Van Dyke) cues a black and white silent movie where the newlyweds slapstick their way through domestic blunders. In Paris, there are subtitles and barely concealed nudity. The most lavish fantasy - inspired by big-budget extravaganzas from the previous decade - accompanies Louisa’s marriage to Mitchum’s Rod Anderson. It is the Louisa/Rod fantasy where Edith Head doesn’t hold back on incredible Hollywood glamour that goes hand-in-hand with the decadent sets. Countless outfits of diamonds, feathers, fur and couture-esque surprises glide past the screen with a backdrop of limousines, gilded pianos and candelabras. And isn’t it everyone’s dream to make love in a giant Champagne coupe?

Everything in What A Way To Go! Is larger than life from start to finish. You could watch the film on mute and still follow the story. Louisa’s surroundings spell out how her relationships change as fortunes rise - in a Parisian studio, intimidating music-prompted machinery takes up entire spaces and towers over Louisa as it splatters paint over giant canvases and, in another marriage, Louisa chicly sunbathes alone in an entirely pink garden while her showbiz partner is busy making ego-inflating demands at meetings. Even before the demise of a husband, Louisa usually already feels isolated amid the wealth and indulgence.

What A Way To Go! is a film both a little silly and incredibly stylish. Impressive credits include Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin and choreography by Gene Kelly. But the highlight is Edith Head’s Oscar winning work, on Shirley MacLaine’s costumes, which are delightfully unpredictable and attention-grabbing while still telling Louisa’s extraordinary tale. A must for all old Hollywood and fashion fans everywhere.   

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Monday, 28 May 2018

Inspiring Reads: Auntie Mame - An Irreverent Escapade

Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade, written by Patrick Dennis (one of Edward Everett Tanner II’s many pen names), was published in 1955 and became one of the biggest American bestsellers of the twentieth century. Sixty three years later and the flamboyant Mame continues to capture hearts. In Italy, following a re-release, this comic novel topped Corriere della Sera’s general fiction list in 2009. Technicolor cinema fans, such as myself, would have instantly ordered a copy after watching the alluringly hilarious Rosalind Russell in the 1958 movie adaptation.      

The novel begins in 1928 where an orphaned (and fictitious) 10-year-old Patrick is sent to Manhattan to stay with his only living relative - aunt and bachelorette Mame Dennis. Despite the wish of the child’s late father for his son to have a rigidly conservative upbringing and education, Auntie Mame has more colourful ideas. The shy Patrick is thrust into a decadent world of larger-than-life characters, excessive glamour and intellectualism. Upon the boy’s arrival, Mame instructs Patrick to write down every word she says which he has yet to understand. Patrick also quickly learns that 9am is the middle of the night for his aunt.

Every chapter leaps from one adventure to another, as Mame continuously reinvents herself due to circumstances altered by the Depression or pure impulsiveness. But more important than Mame’s dabbling badly in odd jobs, hosting wild parties or maximalist dressing, is her sheer dedication to raising her nephew to be an interesting and open-minded individual. Mame battles with Patrick’s stuffy trustee throughout his childhood and then, when Patrick is an adult, devises a deliciously gleeful plan to stop his marriage into a dull antisemitic family. The novel feels very much ahead of its time as its sharp tongued heroine frequently tackles racism and snobbery rife in wealthy society.   

Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade is a light camp novel with tremendous heart and wit. It is a book that will leave you wishing you knew an Auntie Mame growing up or become a little more like Mame yourself - a bold woman who refuses to conform to societal norms while having an abundance of fun and looking fabulous. I thoroughly recommend throwing on your best frock and fixing a cocktail especially to read this mid-century gem.  

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Life: The OST

If your life inspired a film or TV series, what would be on the soundtrack?

Cinematic stories tend to exclusively feature songs released at the time they are set. But real life cultural influences are never straightforward.

I spent the 90s listening to the likes of Suede and Blur. Yet this was also the decade where I bought CDs of Dusty Springfield and Iggy Pop. My parents played Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. So how did I discover pop and rock songs, from before I was born, that were not performed by blokes with raspy voices and boring jumpers?

Being a weird only child guided my musical discoveries. I spent hours bingeing on VH1 which, pre-reality TV, was the auntie to MTV’s cool teenager. The Box channel, in its infancy, played decade-old videos by Cyndi Lauper and Blondie as well as the latest singles by East 17 and Salt N Pepa. My music television phase also coincided with the 90s’ embrace of nostalgia. This was the decade where Erasure, dragged up in lurex, covered Abba and Kula Shaker performed with an ablazed Arthur Brown on TFI Friday.

Cinema is a gateway to discovering music. The first time I heard a Roxy Music song, in all its bold decadence, was ‘Love is the Drug’ in a trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Casino. The eerie yet sentimental soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides led me to Heart’s Dreamboat Annie album while Todd Hayne’s Velvet Goldmine revealed an entire treasure of sexually ambiguous glam rock from both sides of the Atlantic.

Discoveries involve taking chances, or just being in the right place at the right time. The first time I bought an Os Mutantes album was triggered by reading a single article in Mojo. Latin-fuelled avant-garde psychedelia, a cross-genre I was unfamiliar with, just had to be heard. The Sonics burst into my life at a friend’s party where the dirty angry growls of The Witch played appropriately loud. I asked what that aggressive sound was and bought the Psycho-Sonic compilation at the earliest opportunity.

Social media and streaming lead to new sounds depending on who and what you follow. If it wasn’t for following drag queens, I wouldn’t have seeked out Trixie Mattel’s tender country album Stone. And if I didn’t follow pages specialising in retro cultures, I may never have heard Serge Gainsbourg sing in Russian (his parents’ native tongue) instead of French.

There are decades and decades of pop music, from all over the world, waiting for new listeners. Continue to make fortunate accidents happen by reading as many books, articles and blogs as you can. Watch as many films as you can. And just keep listening, open yourself up to possibilities and make your personal soundtrack even more uniquely you.