Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Val Parnell Room

Outside the Palladium - Guess who they're off to see   ©2011 Steve Ember

A couple of professional honors led to a trip to London earlier this month to attend an awards gala. As it was a major honor, I wanted the trip to be really special – an early birthday gift perhaps. And it was.

These London Vignettes relate some of the “special” parts of my visit, including a couple of theater evenings in the West End.

There is something so enchanting about letting a London theater speak to you of its rich history.  And sometimes, all it takes is open eyes and a mind that may have been genetically engineered to collect trivia. 

I hasten to add, while I do often refer to my own collection of gray matter as a veritable repository of trivia, much of it related to music and the arts, there will be nothing trivial about the talents referred to in this little account, occasioned by my first visit to the London Palladium.
                 Inside the magnificent London Palladium               ©2011 Steve Ember               

During the interval (“intermission” to my fellow Yanks) in the enchanting new production of “The Wizard of Oz,” being in a celebratory mood, I headed for the theater’s attractive bar for some refreshment.

On the way there, I passed the men’s room.  Someone had just entered, and while the door was open, I spied a photo on the wall.  Frank Sinatra - one of the entertainment legends to have performed at the London Palladium – in a tux, with that famous smile. Not surprising, of course, but “special,” as one visits this legendary West End palace of entertainment for the first time, and opens oneself to any and all manifestations of its rich history.

But what really stoked up the trivia synapses residing somewhere behind my eyeballs and between my ears was the “Val Parnell Room.” Hmmm, the Val Parnell Room….

Val Parnell…Val Parnell...

Now, while I have been known to live and breathe Musical Theater, including having been an active broadcast proponent of the best of the genre for many years, I’ll admit to ignorance regarding Val Parnell.  Well, sort of…

You see, one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films was his 1956 remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” starring James Stewart and Doris Day with a superb British and European supporting cast.  I saw it for the first time in one of Baltimore’s grand old movie palaces as a kid…followed by countless times on TV…and now it is a staple of my DVD collection.

Now, when I love a film, it takes up permanent residence in those dendrites and synapses of the aforementioned gray matter trivia processing center.

Val Parnell – Of course! When Dr Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and his wife Jo, a former musical comedy star, who, by the way also “played the Palladium” (Doris Day) come to London to track down their son Hank, who has been kidnapped in Marrakesh by an innocent looking British couple, the Draytons (Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie) and brought to London as insurance against some important information Dr McKenna picked up regarding an imminent assassination of a diplomat coming to the attention of authorities….

Well, as you may recall if you are a fellow devotee of this wonderful film, Dr McKenna phones ahead to London to Jo’s old Palladium friends, “the Parnells,” for assistance with booking  a hotel.

Back to the “real” Val Parnell (and this is what I didn’t know), he was a London impresario from the mid ‘40s through the ‘60s, in charge of some of the city’s most prestigious theaters, including the Palladium. He was also a famous television presenter. And, if you take away nothing more from this ramble, next time you listen to the original cast recording of “My Fair Lady” or “Camelot” or watch “The Sound of Music,” you may wish to raise a glass to Mr. Parnell’s memory.  He introduced a twelve year old Julie Andrews to her manager.

And, yes, I will now respond to Wikipedia’s “Personal Appeal from Founder Jimmy Wales” with a contribution.

So, to draw up that connection between my first enchanting visit to the London Palladium and a favorite Hitchcock film – and say “thank you” to my trivia-collecting gray matter neurons…

Hitchcock’s resourceful screenwriter for “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956 version), John Michael Hayes, paid a most appropriate homage to Val Parnell (and his wife Helen) while giving added facets to the “back story” of  Doris Day’s character, Jo McKenna, by making Mr. and Mrs. Parnell characters in the screenplay. 

Veteran British actor Alan Mowbray played Mr. Parnell, I daresay making the impresario’s name even more widely known, and the very lovely American actress Alix Talton played his wife Helen.  Together, they create some charming moments with two other gals who played the Palladium with Jo, including, of course, their repartee over “Ambrose Chapel” (“It’s not a man; it’s a place!”) and speculate as to whether all the running about over the Chapel thing isn’t part of some sort of American gag. To which, Val says, “I’ll ask Danny” – apparently a reference to American entertainer Danny Kaye, another star who appeared at the Palladium around the time of the movie.

See the movie…take it down from that dusty VHS shelf…rent it or purchase a new DVD …oh, yes, and visit the Palladium. Now would be a good time, so you can enjoy the new production of “The Wizard of Oz.” It enchants.

During the interval, look in on the Val Parnell Room.

Oh, and do remember, if your back yard has been overrun by snails, there’s always a Frenchman.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall put Doris Day’s recording of “Que Sera, Sera” on my trusty Technics turntable, while I enjoy the photos and memories from my first night at the London Palladium.

Oh, yes, then ‘twill be time for another viewing of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

©2011 Steve Ember

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

I Often Think It's Comical...

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament from South Bank promenade along the Thames       ©2011 Steve Ember

As I write this, my studio monitors across the room are reproducing the robust London/Decca sound of the New Symphony Orchestra of London, being conducted by Sir Isidore Godfrey, in the majestic music of Sir Arthur Sullivan that opens Act Two of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe,” one of my top faves among the G&S comic operas.

The setting is the Houses of Parliament, at night, and in a moment the imposing baritone Kenneth Sandford of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, as Private Willis, will sing “When all night long, a chap remains on sentry go to face monotony,” in which the self described “intellectual chap” will muse upon matters of British politics. W.S. Gilbert took some deliciously pithy playful jabs at the Hereditary Peerage in “Iolanthe,” one of my favorites being Private Willis’ commentary, containing the lines

When in that house MPs divide,
If they’ve a brain and cerebellum too,
They’ve got to leave that brain outside,
And vote just as their leaders tell ‘em too…

Just imagine the fun Sullivan would have had writing about present day U.S. politics…

If you’ve read any of my own musings about music and photography, you’ll not be surprised that, on this magical first night in London earlier this month, this particular music was on that “gray matter gramophone” that often plays behind my eyes and between my ears when I’m out with a camera in some inspiring location.

Actually, on this particular night, the senses were so engaged that the GMG would have had to be (apologies to fellow audiophiles!) a multi-record changer. For vying for attention were numerous themes by Elgar…Pomp and Circumstance (and not just No.1)…the stirring final movement of the Enigma Variations…the opening strains of the Second Symphony…and, of course, the Triumphal March from “Caractacus!”

Oh yes, and a lush instrumental from the early stereo era called “In London, In Love.”

So what were you expecting from ol’ Thunderflakes, Lady Gaga?

You see, while this was not my first visit to London, it was a very special visit, in terms of what occasioned the trip, but also to find – on my very first night – such inviting conditions for photography.  Hard not to be inspired by such a scene at any time of the day, but on a night with dampened pavement and just enough moisture in the air, oh, my goodness…I’m living right!

And while not my first visit to London, it was the first involving night shooting…and falling in love with the city, both for its vibrancy and the friendliness I found in the people I met there.

I would not call this visit extensively planned, as the decision to go was made literally days before the trip, but I was intent on making it very special, in terms of music and theater.

Surrounded by applause...Charles Dutoit and the RPO
So, for the first night – knowing I’d somehow rise above the jet lag – I’d reserved a seat at the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank Centre for the Royal Philhamonic concert. Irresistible program for my first time attending a concert by this wonderful orchestra, including my first time seeing Charles Dutoit conduct…and my first time for a live performance anywhere of Samuel Barber’s ineffably beautiful Violin Concerto, superbly played on this occasion by Canadian violinist James Ehnes.  And when a concert opens with Berlioz’ “Le Corsaire” Overture and devotes its second half to Tchaikovsky’s powerful Symphony No.5, well, guess you could say this concertgoer was in a state of sheer delight.

And what a lovely modern concert hall. Oh yes, and the bar provides panoramic views across the Thames, so even the interval was enjoyable.

On left-handed applauding…

The things one learns from being observed…After the concert, a very nice lady who was sitting next to me asked me if I knew I applauded “left-handed.”  Must say, I’ve done a lot of applauding in my time, but never gave much thought about whether I was doing it left-handed or right-handed.  I mean, don’t you just slap both hands together and make noise? Apparently not. At least, not in my case.

Margaret pointed out that I was definitely attacking my right palm with my left hand!  Perhaps not a surprise, as I’m left handed, although I’m told I do everything – except write – like a right-hander.  Anyhow, she said she noticed because she is left handed as well.  Well, y’know what they say about us “creative” people ;-)

Always nice to learn something new and unexpected, but especially so to have a friendly conversation struck up by a stranger on what will be remembered as a truly magical first night in London.

On rehearsing the “Schub”…

 Found myself smiling at a sculpture of the great conductor Sir John Barbirolli just outside the concert hall.   

Story goes, Barbirolli was rehearsing one of his English orchestras for a concert that included symphonies by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert, when the concertmaster, a violinist with a very thick Italian accent, asked “Eh, Maestro, we gonna rehearsa da Moz’?"

Barbirolli, without missing a beat, said, “No, my friend, we gonna worka next on-a da Schub.’

After the concert, more magic…

 The London Eye looks across the Thames to the Houses of Parliament                                                     ©2011 Steve Ember

I had taken along a small tripod that would fit in one of the deep pockets of my trench coat when I checked it before the concert, in the event conditions proved conducive for some night photography after the concert, and was happy that I had done so as I reached the promenade that runs along the south bank of the Thames. Some intermittent drizzle had dampened the pavement, creating great foreground interest, and there was just enough moisture in the air to make the view across the river to the Houses of Parliament quite evocative. 

By now, I’m guessing I’d been up for perhaps 32 hours, adjusting for the time change and a two hour cat-nap I grabbed at the hotel before setting out for Southbank Centre. But I was so energized by the concert and the opportunity to do my first London-by-night shooting in such great conditions, sleep was definitely the last thing on my mind.

Golden Jubilee Bridge                                 ©2011 Steve Ember
A good thing, too. As I went up on the Golden Jubilee Bridge to check out the sight lines for more photos, I met two lively lassies from Scotland, and we decided to spend some time together. The intent was to find a quiet spot to chat, enjoy a drink and perhaps a late supper. So, off across the pedestrian bridge over the Thames to the Embankment and on past Charing Cross, in search of that quiet place. Well, the sought after quiet proved elusive, but we did wind up at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho. I’d known of this establishment for years and there was once again magic on this first night in London in discovering it…even more so enjoying it with new friends. 

Guess I finally got back to my hotel around 3 AM on Wednesday morning, and must say it felt good to tumble into bed.  Let’s see, started Monday morning at around eight East Coast time and hit the sack at 3 AM London time Wednesday.  So, adjusting for the five hour time-zone difference and deducting two hours nap time…how many hours awake was that?  Who’s counting!

As Noel Coward once told us in song, “London is a Little Bit of All Right!”

Photos and text ©2011 Steve Ember
I'll be making several of my London by Night and other images of London available as custom printed Photo Note Cards in time for the Holidays, as well as in archival gallery prints. For more details, please contact me at emberphoto@hotmail.com and to see higher definition versions, please use this link to my Foto-Community pages. Once there, just peruse the London folder for images as they are added.

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