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Creatively Alienating Mainstream Audiences

July 17, 2019

“Colour / gender blind casting.” A hot topic in the theatre industry for a while now. Let someone from the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community play someone “white.” Let a woman play a Shakespearian King. It gives people a chance at jobs they’ve never been considered for before.

To be totally clear before anyone reads any further, both this writer and website are 100% behind it, totally supportive and won’t have it any other way. That’s the stance, stated with absolute clarity here from the start.

What follows is discursive about how to bring others into line with that thinking – and is in no way whatsoever critical of it. A disclaimer felt necessary in a climate where discussion isn’t always welcome when it is needed and should be so.

As a theatre professional, I’ve now seen a fair selection of productions cast in this manner. Sometimes (Glenda Jackson as King Lear) it’s utterly thrilling. Sometimes alas it’s very evidently a desperate craven attempt to correct an imbalance by tokenistic “virtue signalling” – horrible to watch as the actors themselves are so clearly uncomfortable in unsuitable roles, and the director has left them hanging without a vision to justify anything at all. Mostly, though, it’s as it should be – un-noticeable, unremarkable and it’s a troupe of actors just going about their jobs. As life for everybody should be, all the time.

What worries me, the middle “tokenism” one aside, is wondering if those working in theatre totally lose any awareness that mainstream audiences in particular are not only not as “woke” as they are, but are actually feeling repelled by something they don’t fully comprehend.

In other words, they genuinely don’t understand why casting has happened in that way, and see only something they find plain peculiar, unsettling and just plain “wrong” in a way that not only ruins their evening, but puts them off going to the theatre again for life – even if they are currently happy “twice a year, wife’s birthday and Christmas” stalwarts on which box offices rely.

My reason for highlighting this is reading feedback about shows on the Londontheatredirect.com ticket agency website. The website takes a feed from “Trustpilot” the huge consumer reviews website. It’s a genuinely informative read, and quite an eye-opener in how the ordinary ticket buying public perceive the shows they see and how they buy tickets. Quite surprising nobody within the industry really takes notice – there’s plenty of useful stuff out there for absolutely all.

Anyway, the biggie which made me write this blog was the recent casting in “Les Misérables.” The Cosette at the time was played by a young black woman. Earlier in the show, however, the child playing Young Cosette was white. Personally, that doesn’t bother me. Provided both actors can perform to the highest standard the West End demands, get on with it, I say… and I was annoyed that I wasn’t able to see that casting when I went last week, as I’d heard excellent things.

From Trustpilot, though, it appeared that the general theatre audience felt very differently. They turned up for a night at a show, to relax, enjoy maybe a repeat visit or experience a musical they’ve heard a lot about for the first time – and were seemingly feeling alarmed, cheated, or just plain confused that skin colours change half way through a show and nobody explains why.

One of theatre’s major tasks is to examine and commentate on society at the time, and it’s a powerful tool to dissect ideas and attitudes. By presenting totally inclusive casting, it’s a way to confront attitudes and maybe normalise change. After all, at its baldest, “Mr Humphries” in “Are You Being Served” arguably made being overtly “camp,” the label “gay,” acceptable in almost every home at a time when his sexuality was (and how crazy it seems now) illegal.

My question is simply, do current theatre-makers need to sometimes be more aware of the wider picture? It’s obvious that they are on the right path – the Royal Shakespeare Company in particular really know what they are doing, I feel – but is there a risk of too fast, too soon and a massive “stuff the P.C. brigade” backlash that will harm not only the box office take but society itself by dividing rather than bridging, as intended?

What’s normal within the theatre bubble may not be so for some audiences. In reaching out and trying to be inclusive, there may be a danger of which those already “clued up” are unaware. It is vital to act as shepherd, bringing the flock together and leaving nobody behind, no matter how slow. A point to consider, to ensure that not just good work is being done, but being understood as well.

Death of a Salesman: Young Vic Theatre

July 10, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th June 2019).

Rarely has a production of this Miller classic explored with such bleak clarity the inner mind of salesman Willy Loman. The impressive jagged grey Anna Fleischle set is exploited by co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell to shed entirely new light on the person worn out by the system and his responsibilities (and assumed responsibilities) towards it.

There’s fine work from the entire cast. Wendell Pierce is a Loman on the edge. His grip is allowing the final sands of his life to slip ever more quickly through his fingers, and there is startling numbness where there should be pain.

That pain is transferred all-to-visibly to wife Linda (Sharon D. Clarke). Her final moments are such that she needs a real “moment” to recover at the final curtain. Before that, her good-natured indulgence of her ill-used husband descends into unbearable blackness when he leaves for work.

The difficult roles of Biff (Arinze Kene) and Happy (Martins Imhangbe) are cast with fine young actors. Kene gives Biff rare intelligence, not just the usual football meat. The revelation of his self-inflicted defeat builds until the last moment, with Imhangbe providing both the questions and calibration of the event. Their meeting with a pair of “ladies” (Jennifer Saayeng and Nenda Neurer) is also a fittingly sordid one.

In smaller yet pivotal roles, Joseph Mydell is the mythic Uncle Ben, whose ethereal appearances do much for both atmosphere and dramatic pace. Maggie Service plays her part in Loman and son’s downfall with conviction, Femi Temowo is the father who sets the wrong direction from the start, while Matthew Seadon-Young and Trevor Cooper as Howard and Charley are perhaps what could and should have been.

By opting for inner dialogue, there is a possibility that the rawness of the story is slightly glossed over. The significant musical element is perhaps overly soothing what should be nerve-jangling – though there is also an argument it in fact lends an underlining contrast.

What is certain is that the play has not just been revived, but re-thought with a unifying concept, and not just for the sake of exploring characters from an angle dreamed up by a directorial vision. This takes the well known people and attempts to understand the leading character and just what he represents to those around him, and to the nation in general, to the great satisfaction of the audience.

5 stars.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs): Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

July 3, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 8th June 2019).

According to the programme, this is a deliberate attempt to take John Gay’s 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera” back to its roots yet updated to the present. The original reflected a real-life world audiences could relate to, and so in the 21st century should they to this new version.

The title comes from an urban myth spread by the internet. The characters come from Gay’s imagination, slotted into Carl Grose’s new script and augmented with music in a variety of modern styles from ska to rap by Charles Hazlewood.

New ideas include the corrupt election of a corrupt mayor (in which those, like myself, in the front corners of the stalls voted – the other options being a dead man and Nigel Frottage, hilarious) and the actual dog causing havoc.

Mr Punch (Sarah Wright – sadly no swazzle, so the voice really wasn’t there) is our master of ceremonies for a different romp through politics and theatre history.

Michael Vale gives us scaffolding, moving platforms and a slide on which offices, factories, prison cells and nightclubs appear. There’s puppets of all types and actor / musicians playing everything from electric guitar to washboard.

Dominic Marsh is his usual commanding self as cock-sure Macheath, never going to be caught for long either by police or women. As the former, Giles King’s manic Scottish officer Colin Lockit is amusingly competent though inaudible more often than expected. On the other hand, he has delinquent daughter Lucy to deal with. Beverly Rudd plays her to perfection as always, comedy and dramatic timing faultless as her fans expect.

The strings of Macheath and Lockit are pulled – via unlucky factotum Filch (lovely Baldrick-work from Georgia Frost) – by the Peachum family. Head of household Mrs Peachum (Rina Fatania) is scary enough to run the bent election already mentioned. Husband Les (Martin Hyder) is a satisfied wide-boy who misses the bigger picture. Together, they are the most recognisable of the modern characters. Daughter Polly (Angela Hardie) has a sweet singing voice and wide range as an actor, with notable transformations as required.

The trouble is, the show was written in 2014, and rather feels its age. Theatre has moved on, and it’s very obvious how wonderful ideas back then have now become common-place, so that viewing the original seems a little stale at times. The puppetry in particular seems a little lazy now, and if you aren’t going to produce the correct voices (which would have given a real edge to proceedings with the painful screech the material deserves) then why bother?

The musical styles are now familiar too, overly so. Events have inured us to corrupt politics as well, and the rigged election seems almost mild compared to the current fallout. The result is something in itself heading towards museum status.

Still, it’s well cast and never dull, and fresher than both the original source and indeed the last “Threepenny Opera” the National Theatre produced. If you happen to be near the tour, it’s well worth checking out. You might even want to take a milkshake along to enjoy with it.

3 stars.

King Hedley II: Theatre Royal, Stratford East

June 26, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 1st June 2019).

One of August Wilson’s “The American Century” cycle, this uses descendents of characters first seen in “Seven Guitars.” A son, King Hedley II (Aaron Pierre) is trying to re-build his life after prison.

Living with mother Ruby, he schemes with friend Mister (Dexter Flanders) to corner the stolen refrigerator market, and move on to higher things.

When wide-boy Elmore (Lenny Henry) turns up to woo his mother, and Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) arrives, things take even more sinister turns, portents commentated on by Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer) who lives next door.

The entire cast have poor black Philadelphia nailed, with Claudette Williams a fine dialect coach and a remarkable Peter McKintosh designed backyard set.

It’s a strikingly long play – 3 hours 30, with just 20 minutes interval. There’s no disguising that there are longueurs either. Life for these people meander, and sometimes it does for the audience, as relationships are not always clear and connect – with obvious significance, but not always clearly for audiences – to off-stage back-stories.

Strong acting overcomes the most part, and the audience that afternoon was enlivened with a mis-firing gun causing much hilarity. Even better, an exchange early in the second act required reference to the mal-functioning weapon, to the joyous laughter of all present. That this all lifted the action does rather underline the lack of raw humour to lighten the pain.

For this is about unrelenting pain, and the various ways of dealing with it. Education, “you need to know” about your environment, even if from donated old newspapers. Scamming, crime, repression, religion: all are explored as options and each shown clearly for what it is in the scheme of things, the beauty of Wilson’s writing intertwining them.

Whether there is a sharper play here, if it were to lose some of what gives the unique texture, this monkey isn’t sure. It does know that this is a play to be seen if only for the acting and sense of something deeper that lingers long after the curtain falls. It’s significant, and deserves to be treated as such.

The fact it deals with the 1980s USA, when the issues it raises are relevant to London, particularly London’s Black community in 2019 is vitally important and truly upsetting. One for every politician to view, for certain.

 

4 stars.

The Spice Girls: Wembley Stadium

June 19, 2019

(seen at the performance on 13th June 2019).

For various reasons during the 1990s when the quintet were at the height of their fame, I was a little side-lined by it all. Personal stuff and not really liking the zeitgeist, I went so far as every other heterosexual male between 8 and the grave in picking a favourite Spice (and she still is) and knowing what to do if you wanted to be her lover (still isn’t, the instruction is too hard to follow as I don’t know any of her friends). That, and knowing what they really, really wanted and when to stop thank you very much was about as far as it went.

Still, I was curious when the reunion tour was announced, enough to invest – and it was a pretty hefty investment – in a ticket. Turns out, it re-paid every single penny, with interest.

By contrast with the horrible O2 visitor experience, where concert attendees were an inconvenience to be fleeced and abused at every opportunity, Wembley Stadium made everybody feel like a special guest, and I lost count of the staff wishing me “enjoy the concert.” Few lines, sensible and effective security, friendly stewards, clean loos, what more could you want? So, already in a good mood before the show even started.

The mood was even better as Jess Glynne took to the stage for a 40 minute set. Such is her ability, Ms Glynne could have been the headline act herself (and I’ll happily be there when she one day is, as she will be).

Kicking off with “Hold My Hand” (yes, please), and “No One,” a cover of Rudimental’s “These Days” followed. My personal favourite “Thursday” hit every corner of the stadium and changed the tone to lead into “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself,” a faster version of the previous introspection. “One Touch” of course had the crowd excited before the early and wonderful “Take Me Home.” A triple of “So Real (Warriors) / Real Love / My Love and Rather Be” ran into “All I Am.” She is. Finally, the biggie “I’ll Be There” sent us into the break with something special to remember her by.

Main event, and a clever “pre-show” saw mini-versions of the quartet wander around the stage and passerelle (is that even relevant at a pop concert – a stage runway encircling the lucky few standing in the “golden circle” in front of the stage?) either way… other members of the backing dance team joined them until, about ten minutes later, the famous 4 were there in person.

Each had their own “backing team,” Emma’s in pink, Mel B’s leopards, Sporty’s track-suited posse and Gerri’s Royal Household. They posted and postured and showed off a real highlight of the evening – the first of many, many exquisite costumes, details visible even from a seat near the half-way line where I was.

Even better, few signs of the sound issues seized on with vicious glee by the press. Sure, once or twice a little reverberation, and the odd microphone coming on late, but that was all. The vocals themselves were strongest from Mel C, with Emma managing the odd decent solo. For those who live without sound, it was hugely impressive that there was a sign language interpreter for people at the front of my block. Massive applause to all for thinking of them.

The Spice Girls themselves must have spent hours in the Spice Gym because they were all spectacularly “match fit” with energy and bags of stamina. Opening the only way they could, “Spice Up Your Life” lead into “If U Can’t Dance” before their first chat with the audience. The banter and bitching between them was hilarious, and if (again) the press were stirring it perceiving a rift – it wasn’t one I noticed. The ladies did well alone, in pairs and as a group to keep moving around the stage, reaching out to all in Spice World.

“Do It” and “Something Kinda Funny” went down – first fireworks and confetti cannon of the night – well before the first major costume change was covered by dancers (wish they had been real acrobats) to “Move Over.”

One of the few moments showing their age came with the next sequence “Holler / Sound Off.” The phrase, “Just girl power is all we need. We know how we got this far. Strength and courage in a wonderbra,” in huge letters running across the screens and encouraged to be chanted by the crowd just seemed anachronistic in the #metoo era. Woman, thanks partly to this group, are slowly working on and finally getting beyond that now, and it seemed a detrimental throwback.

Another dance break “Queer Tango” united us, before “Viva Forever” kicked in. “Let Love Lead The Way” lit up the crowd with phone-torches, and as the evening light dimmed, wrist bands handed out free came into play. Each equipped with multi-coloured LED lights and linked to the lighting designer’s computer, the effect was special as the crowd’s lights changed colours – sometimes just a single section at a time.

No digs at anyone, “Goodbye” was up next, this time a simple and honest expression of loss. One more gap “Car Wash” before the team were back to tell us “Never Give Up on the Good Times.” More banter, before they reminded us that “We Are Family” in a short and pretty amusing Sister Sledge cover. “Love Thing” was an appropriate response.

Bitching at its best between them as we met the band and sang along with “We Will Rock You.” The slightly obscure “The Lady Is a Vamp” (with great backing projection of ‘old time movie theater canopy’) before “The Last Waltz” dance break covered the penultimate costume change of the night.

The big hits, “Too Much,” “Say You’ll Be There” and “2 Become 1” were fired at us, and landed squarely.

Several minutes of close-up video, with the women expressing thoughts and ideas gave them a chance to rev up one more time and smash the closing 15 minutes. An entire audience enacting “Stop,” before we were reminded that they are all now parents (but were not when they wrote) “Mama.”

Brilliant direction thus ensured the crowd’s mood and pace were right to close the evening with “Wannabe,” fireworks breaking as we swore that friendship would never end.

Goodbye my friends indeed. Two quality hours of entertainment, enough “Girl Power” to run a city for years – hopefully until they consider another reunion (jack dress or four) in fact.

 

5 stars.

Hugh Jackman In Concert: London O2 Arena (and touring)

June 12, 2019

(seen at the performance on 4th June 2019)

First visit to the O2 Arena, first time seeing Hugh Jackman live in concert. Want to guess which was the more impressive? You got it.

18,000 seats take some filling for a one-off. For a week, that’s quite a feat even without a recent mega-hit movie and stellar career. And he pretty much lives up to the billing of “The Greatest Showman.”

That title opens the show, with great use of a centre floor runway bringing those in the corners of this vast auditorium an inch or three closer. Inventive video doesn’t just follow the show on side screens, but takes the entire back wall of the stage, “Come Alive” it does as a talented team of 20 dancers augmented by a local Gospel Choir take to the floor as required.

A neat “Beauty and the Beast” tribute (great animation on screen, fun live choreography echoing the movie); and back to a fabulous Jerome Kern cover of “The Way You Look Tonight” for his wife. A little “Little Richard” up next, before “You Will Be Found” is an accurate career thought.

Wonderful story about his father leads into “Soliloquy” from “Carousel.” Truthfully, not the sincerest rendition ever, but interestingly the very young ladies in the seats next to me were as mesmerised by the older songs as the new, wonderful to see.

Keala Settle herself brings the house down with “This Is Me,” and it really is. Huge personality, even bigger voice, even more enormous spirit.

A “Les Misérables” interlude has West End favourite Jenna Lee James delivering “I Dreamed a Dream” as well as anybody singing an intimate internal monologue in the centre of an aircraft hanger can. That her meaning hit the back wall is confirmation enough of her abilities, and the white dress is a triumph. The man himself takes on “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “One Day More” to take the show into a well-timed (literally) interval.

Second half kicks off with a tribute to writer Paul Allen, with “Not The Boy Next Door” and the wonderful “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” With “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “I Honestly Love You,” “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on Stage” and “I Go to Rio” – complete with the best costumes of the night – it’s a nice interlude and insight into Jackman, the man.

Best song of the night, “Tenterfield Saddler,” Peter Allen’s biographical work is a moving moment of truthful peace, before “A Million Dreams” takes us back to the present in sparkling fashion, with beautiful signing throughout.

The golden movie musicals are celebrated with “Luck Be a Lady,” “Singin’ in the Rain,,” a particularly well done “I Got Rhythm,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and “Sing Sing Sing” perfectly choreographed and lit with a lovely nod to the times.

A tribute to Australia has Native Australian visitors deliver “Art Song” and “Inhibition,” before Jackman gives us “Over The Rainbow.”

A slightly under-powered “Mack The Knife” goes to the ‘two song warning’ (you had to be there) and “From Now On” gets the audience up. Closing on “Once Before I Go” the lights from phones provide a twinkling universe as the night sky falls.

There’s no doubting the charisma, energy and skill of the man. With the sound reverberation too noticeable, and the greed of both the promoter (£25 for a programme, you are “‘avin’ a giraffe,” as locals would put it) and venue owner noticeable at every turn, the honesty of the leading man and cast shone through.

A fine event, and hopefully we will see Mr Jackman again in London some time, maybe in a more intimate setting. Either way, I think I’ll be there.

 

4 stars.

The Flying Theatremonkey

June 5, 2019

No, nothing to do with “Wicked” (though it keeps Uncle Wilberforce – RAF, retired – in work), we are talking “bucket list” here. To explain:

I’m not much of a flyer. Partly, as Noel Coward said, “the noise, the people.” Mostly, with a background in charter flight operation, I know too much about what goes on – and the list of commercial airlines I trust is shorter than a “42nd Street” showgirl’s costume.

Still, for many years I’ve hankered to find out what it feels like to ride in a helicopter. With a milestone in view, I finally got around to researching the perfect flight over my beloved home city, London, and the West End Theatre district I adore.

It became apparent quickly that the choice is both broad… and limited. Broad in as much as there are quite a few companies offering the experience. Limited in that many don’t exactly provide much “bang for your buck,” and a few websites show photographs of aircraft that would have made Buddy Holly re-consider his travel options.

The choice seemed to be £300 for 15 minutes leaving from an undisclosed location near London, with about 5 minutes over the city, or trailing out to Biggin Hill and coming back in for less cash but even fewer minutes of air-time.

Eventually, though, I got lucky when an expired online offer site provided the name of a company quite local to me, vvb-aviation.com. An excited phone-call later, and a £149 ticket for a 30 minute experience was mine.

PRE-FLIGHT:

On the day, a lift to Elstree Aerodrome (only drawback – that isn’t on a bus route and they won’t swoop down to pick you up from your back garden, so don’t bother asking) and a smart reception hall with grinning staff awaited.

Quick fill in of the “disclaimer form” – basically “I promise not to be an idiot and won’t blame the company if I ignore their advice and act like one” stuff, and a short wait with 4 others before being shown through a door into a small aircraft hanger, and along the wall to another door and “pre-flight briefing.”

Unlike those shown on a plane, this 5 minute video covers even how to approach the helicopter. Forget the “Miss Saigon” bending double while charging towards the side of the craft (not through fear of the Viet-Cong, more knowing that Kim will sing again shortly after). That’s all “Hollywood.” Reality is that you don’t need to bend – the rotor is way above you – just don’t put your arms in the air if you still require them after the flight. Likewise, in order to (literally) keep your head, stay away from the helicopter’s tail rotor. Don’t worry, they won’t let you near it anyway.

Golden rule: approach from the front of the helicopter at all times, so that the pilot knows where you are. Obviously, if he sees you below him during the journey that’s your fault for not paying attention to how the door closes and locks.

Oh, and step on using the step indicated. Don’t step on the floats on the ground runners (the grey squishy things attached to the rails the helicopter lands on). If you do, that’s several hundred quid up someone’s jumper – yours.

The good news is that you can take both photos and video. It’s in the comprehensive PDF they send you beforehand, but I did check again that my elderly video camcorder was acceptable. Call me cautious if you like, but I wanted the film premiere to be on YouTube, not Coroner’s Court TV.

Sensibly, you can’t take pictures as you are lead out onto the actual airfield apron itself (friends and relatives can film you from the café overlooking the field, though). That ensures you are concentrating in a dangerous environment… and the sooner it applies to all public streets and the London Underground, the better. Again, the ground team guide you in a tight pack so nobody is at risk as you wend your way past light aircraft and onto a short narrow path to the actual helipad.

A tiny dot between the trees became a “turbine engine Bell 206 LongRanger” as VVB’s website has it. Not as noisy as you’d think, it landed smoothly and the delighted previous passengers disembarked. Our time had arrived.

As the team re-fuelled (helicopters run on “Jet 1” – a sort of kerosene mix, I wanted to check it wasn’t the bar’s keg beer going in accidentally), we were called forward according to group size for a solo or double photo in front of the helicopter. Ready framed and available to buy for just £10 on landing, great souvenir.

Back to the path, and finally the big moment. Called forward again – first, the person who paid extra to sit in the front seat (fair enough, bit more space maybe, but you still get views everywhere), then a young German couple… then myself.

The interior is a bit like a luxury limo, with seats facing forward and back. The seats are really low, as in the old Leyland Mini, but leather and thick, very comfy. Belts are as on a plane, with the option of a shoulder belt too. Best of all, a headset each, with microphone so that you can hear your pilot, air-traffic control and other passengers.

The MAIN EVENT:

Cleared, and welcomed by Captain Steve, almost time for take-off.

These helicopters fly at around 120 knots (138mph, according to Google), at 1150ft, about a hundred feet higher than “The Shard” building. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like it. The video can’t show (in the same way photographs in a theatre can’t show) distances very well. What looks far away on camera is in fact close enough to make out car makes and models, even read some signs.

The day was slightly grey, the very best, according to the team, as you fly below the clouds. Rainy and windy, they can’t fly; too sunny, London haze gets in the way. Remembering that there’s no need to try and dodge side-to-side to see both views, as you get the other side on the way back, first see Elstree (see the famous film studios), my own suburb and those I grew up knowing.

Follow the M1 motorway and North Circular Road over Wembley (spot the Stadium arch) towards Wood Green and Alexandra Palace “Ally Pally,” then Hackney and the Olympic Park – West Ham Stadium – and looming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

This isn’t just a total “joy-ride.” Being up there, there’s a whole new perspective on both history and geography of London. You can see how individual packets of land were developed, the styles, layouts and density changing with each era. It’s also true just how green London is, and how varied the landscape in hills and valleys with many more lakes and rivers than I’d expected.

Pilot Steve alternately spoke with various control towers and pointed out the sights. There’s thankfully no professional commentary, just friendly comments when he can, and cheerful replies to questions he’s heard a million times before.

Only thing he forgot to mention was, well… helicopters stop. As in (actual thought process recorded here):
“Whee, we’re flying. It’s not too fast or too high, and really smooth, it’s brilliant.”
“We’ve stopped.”
“Hang on. WE’VE STOPPED. Flying. Flying means forward. WE HAVE STOPPED.”
“!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“Oh, hang on, this is a helicopter.”
“Helicopters can ‘hover.’”
“I think this must be that.”
“Oooh, we are just ‘hanging around’ (some kind of lonely cloud)”
“Oh. Now I get why helicopter pilots want to be helicopter pilots. Hanging around just staring about at 1150ft is breathtaking.”

As Steve explained, we pass through 3 Air Traffic Control (ATC) airspaces. Elstree, Heathrow (who know we are there, but we don’t bother them, so they don’t bother us as they are busy) and “London Controlled Airspace.” That’s the bit in charge of who and what can fly over the capital area itself.
We had stopped as there was a plane taking off from London City Airport, and two other helicopters in our immediate vicinity. Enough to constitute a sky-high traffic-jam. Typical Whitsun bank holiday Sunday – everybody hits the, er, sky.

Fortunately, some good luck. Apparently, ATC have two choices. They can either make you wait or – if they know and trust your particular operator – they will allow your pilot to make his own decisions. It was a very good time indeed to find out that ATC have utmost confidence in VVB. TG.

So, on to the “11 O’Clock number” of the trip. Helicopters must follow the Thames, and we did so, from the O2 Arena, over Tower Bridge and the rest, passing the Strand – Novello, Aldywch, Duchess, Drury Lane, Vaudeville and Adelphi (Mr Lloyd Webber, do fix the gutters) and to the edge of Green Park, looking to and indeed over Buckingham Palace itself. Wow.

Second new flight sensation, as the helicopter banked hard to Port (you feel it, a little like a fairground funhouse floor) and around for the return along the Thames.

This time, the Royal Festival Hall, National Theatre, Globe and Bridge Theatres in view. Down along the Thames back to the Isle of Dogs, and home over Hackney, this time buzzing the plutocrats of Totteridge Lane (the rising hill and trees may cause turbulence, I didn’t notice) and shufty at their swimming pools – no privacy for the wealthy with a helicopter around – and the beautiful (must be protected) green belt. Through the trees ourselves and a home landing, soft and gentle as a butterfly on a leaf.

Worth the money? Too right. Magical experience? I’d do it again in a heart-beat. One ticked off the bucket list… now… wonder if Madonna is ready for our duet at the Palladium next year?

P.S. Forgot to mention: we picked up a hitch-hiker who made its presence known about the time we stopped for traffic. Either we found the brightest bee on the planet – or the laziest. Can’t decide.

Tempted? Vvb-aviation.com or 0208 953 0584 (10am to 4pm Monday to Friday) is the place. It could be you…