RIP AA Gill, 1954-2016

 

AA Gill at the Invite the World to Dinner event, Hobart, Tasmania, November 2014. Photo: John Corbett

AA Gill at the Invite the World to Dinner event, Hobart, Tasmania, November 2014. Photo: John Corbett

Anyone who has lived a decent span of years knows that sayings such as “The good die young” aren’t true. Whether we are good or bad, rich or poor, noble or base, death takes us whenever it damn well pleases. We know this and grudgingly accept it, but sometimes death’s visits seem unnecessarily cruel. That is certainly how I feel about the passing on 10 December 2016 of the famed British food and travel writer, AA Gill.

His death was also swift. Barely had his fans around the world learned in one of his last columns for Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine that he had become “a patchwork quilt, a smorgasbord, a litany of malformed cells” than he was gone. Sixty-two years of age is young these days and if fate had been kinder we could have enjoyed of his peerless work for several more decades.

Not everyone will be sorry to see him go, most notably the inhabitants of Dubai whom he once famously described as being  lazy, stupid and titanically rude. The place itself, he added, was a monumental example of what money can do when it is left to its own devices and is completely divorced from taste. But remarks like that are one of the reasons why AA Gill had such a huge following: you read him for the singularity and acuity of his vision and for his refusal to be shackled by political correctness. Like his 18th-century predecessor Alexander Pope, of whom he reminds me strongly, he had a piercing intelligence and wit, and a command of English that conveyed “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”

I had the privilege of meeting AA Gill  at a Tourism Australia event in Tasmania in 2014. “Invite the World to Dinner brought 80 food writers and influencers from around the world to a gala dinner at the futuristic Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. The evening began on the Hobart waterfront with a high-speed run up the Derwent River in a fleet of Naiad vessels belonging to Pennicott Wilderness Journeys. Although it was November the weather was cool and when the guests reached a riverside staging-point at  the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park, a freezing wind was blowing. A number of guests wrapped themselves in blankets taken from the boats and clustered for warmth around several braziers and cooking stations where two courses of the evening’s dinner were being prepared. The blanketless majority sought shelter in the entertainment pavilion.

The food and wine flowed freely and so did the parade of famous culinary faces from around the globe. At one point I turned around looking for a server for a drink refill and found myself face to face with AA Gill. I asked if I could take his photo, “In a non-stalkerish way, of course.” He chuckled, posed and asked where I was from.

“I’m a gastronomy writer working on a book about New Zealand cuisine.”

“Oh, that sounds interesting,” he said. “I was there a few years ago. A rather strange little country. Oddly Presbyterian.”

I nodded in agreement.

“And very repressed about matters of sex,” he continued.

“Yes,” I replied, ” but secretly licentious.”

We chuckled.

“Please send me a copy of the book when it’s done,” he said, moving off. “I don’t have a business card. I’m at the Sunday Times.”

And with a wave he circulated back into the crowd. I didn’t see him at the MONA event further up the river that night but the next evening he arrived at the end of a long table where I was dining at Garagistes, a now-defunct Hobart restaurant that served avant-garde food.

AA Gill was in the company of his partner, Nicola Formby, and I discreetly pointed them out to my Tourism Tasmania minder and said that I had chatted with him the night before.

“Go and say hello,” he said.

“Oh God. no, I never do things like that. I always leave famous people alone.”

I never saw what AA Gill thought of Garagistes as his review appeared behind the Sunday Times’ pay wall, but I think that he would have found it interesting, and hopefully not in a piercing way. He will now never see my book but I think he would have found it interesting too. At the very least it might have given him a chuckle. #RestaurantAustralia

* Click the links below to read my articles about Tourism Australia’s Invite the World to Dinner event. Magic moments and A Taste of Tasmania first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times:     

http://alimentary.co.nz/magic-moments/
http://alimentary.co.nz/a-taste-of-tasmania/
http://alimentary.co.nz/alice-and-us/
http://alimentary.co.nz/licensed-to-thrill/
http://alimentary.co.nz/fun-at-jamies-italian/
http://alimentary.co.nz/jewel-in-the-crowne-plaza/
http://alimentary.co.nz/trend-alert-butter-is-back/

 

 

 

 

Turandot – when you can’t be there

Turandot - Opera Australia 2012

Turandot – Opera Australia 2012

Editor’s note:
Much as I would enjoy seeing the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot – it’s on until April 24 – work keeps me on this side of the Ditch this week. I’m consoled by the fact that I have seen Puccini’s last great opera twice in Sydney, and here is a review to share with you.

What’s this about opera in a food and travel newsletter, I hear you say? I’m really not being too much off-topic as my Alimentary website coverage also includes “the good things in life”; for me, Italian opera is one of the most beautiful things in the world.

A change or two has occurred since this review appeared on theoperacritic.com website: Australian celebrity chef Guillaume Brahimi has moved from the Bennelong Restaurant at the Sydney Opera House to Bistro Guillaume in Paddington, NSW. I’m sure though that the Yarrabank Cuvée Guillaume I enjoyed before Turandot still tastes just as good.

Fire and ice – and greasepaint

Turandot
Opera Australia
Sydney Opera House
Sydney, Australia
16 March, 2012

By John Corbett  Of all the opera houses in the world, Jørn Utzon’s splendid creation on Sydney Harbour is surely the most iconic. The swooping, elegant, sail-like shapes of its concert chambers (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) are the perfect complement to a spectacular natural setting where, during the intervals in performances, you can enjoy ravishing night-time city- and waterscapes that are often complemented by a big Australian moon.

For an even more serene pre-performance experience, contemplate the view from the Opera House’s chic Bennelong Bar while sipping a flute or two of 2007 Yarrabank Cuvée Guillaume, named for the distinguished French-Australian celebrity chef (and proprietor of the Bennelong Restaurant), Guillaume Brahimi.

It can take quite a bit of opera to match such surroundings, but on a recent evening a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, directed by the Australian designer and choreographer Graeme Murphy, with Kristian Frederickson, proved largely up to the task. It wasn’t its first outing by any means – the reviewer saw the same opera, by the same duo, in the same house some 18 years ago – but in the intervening time the stage values, and very likely the budget, have improved immeasurably.

This staging of Turandot sets a further stamp, as if any were needed, on Murphy’s stature as one of Australia’s premier opera designer/directors. From the outset, when giant golden fans part in a vaguely Mandarin Oriental Hotels logo-type way to reveal the set, it’s a gorgeously costumed and lavishly decorated visual feast. Scarcely no Oriental trope, from jam-packed, banner-waving street scenes and processions, to opium den-style murkiness, to the gilded opulence of the court of the emperor Altoum, seems to have gone unreferenced. No mention of visual treats can also fail to omit the strapping muscle boys in the Executioner’s retinue who paraded around in Spartacus-style next-to-nothings.

All of the eye-poppingness however serves a good purpose. Murphy’s cinematic-style choreography helps to keep the production moving along at a good clip and a sensitive attention to visual moods effectively evokes the dark, dystopian world created by Turandot’s icy and murderous will. The visual treatment of the opera also gives the arch-bureaucrats Ping, Pong and Pang (sung excellently by Andrew Moran, David Corcoran and Graeme MacFarlane) the sinister weight they deserve. Too many productions play this trio for broad comedy, but here, as they note in one of the arrestingly beautiful pieces of stage business that Murphy has created for them in Act II, they are truly “Ministers of Death”.

Amongst the many visual treats: muscle boys

Amongst the many visual treats: muscle boys

Occasionally though, all the visual gorgeousness tips over into excess. Murphy’s swirling choreography in particular becomes wearing at times, and worrisome: like the people next to me I fretted about cast members running perilously close to the lip of the orchestra pit during some of the crowd scenes, and later about the heavily begowned Princess Turandot standing with her toes poised on the edge for several long minutes. Other minor distractions included the Executioner’s big round axe repeatedly catching an ill-placed spotlight and a hellish glare from upstage at the end of Act I, when Calaf announces his suitorship of Turandot, that half-blinded the audience.

The principal performances also had uncertain moments. As Princess Turandot, Anke Höppner gave a tentative (and probably insufficiently warmed-up) rendering of In questa reggia in Act II. Like all below-par performances of this admittedly daunting aria, it cast a pall over the rest of the evening. By the next scene, when she posed her riddles to Calaf, her solid talent as a dramatic singer was well in evidence, as was her ability in her later arias to really project her voice. It’s a real pity though about In questa reggia.*

As Liù, the Korean soprano Hyeseoung Kwon fared better overall with a competent and vocally accurate performance of several arias that are capable of stealing the show, but on this occasion didn’t. Her acting was proficient but her voice was noticeably less powerful than those of the two other principals and on one or two occasions the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of Aubrey Murphy, drowned her out. The New Zealand baritone Jud Arthur also gave a good performance as Timur, the exiled king of Tartary; never mind that his beard and robes channelled Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.

If there was a suitor for the role of star of the show, it was the Australian tenor Carlo Barricelli, whose fine Italianate voice can fill a theatre beautifully when needed. His thrilling Nessun Dorma in Act III produced shivers down the back and a storm of bravos and clapping from the audience, although he also had his wobbles. When called upon at other times to sing in full voice from silence, he twice wandered uncertainly onto the note.

Just as the riddles of Turandot may be three but the answer is one, the star of this production was the production itself. Meticulously conceived although overenthusiastically brought to life at times, it even carried the work lightly through the several rocky minutes of the ending added by the composer Franco Alfano after Puccini’s untimely death in 1924; when the fire of Calaf’s kiss quenched Turandot’s icy resolve, the audience tittered only mildly in disbelief. What, then, does an occasional whiff of greasepaint matter when such a transformation occurs? And especially when you emerge afterwards, full of Puccini’s ineffable melodies, into the matching splendour of a warm Australian night.

This review first appeared on theoperacritic.com website.

* PS: Here’s how to do In questa reggia properly:

Photos: Opera Australia, Branco Gaica

 

 

RIP Jackie Collins, 1937-2015

 

 

Jackie Collins (1937-2015). Photo by Greg Gorman. Jackie Collins.com

 

 

Jackie Collins (1937-2015).
Photo by Greg Gorman. Jackie Collins.com

 

Editor’s note: Back in the day, Alimentary was a bit of a celebrity journalist. To be more accurate we – or rather I – was a literary journalist (my original training), but since I worked at the time for one of New Zealand’s leading consumer glossies I perforce saw a wide range of writers who “came through” New Zealand on publicity tours. I was also loaned out at times to other magazines in the group, and regularly flew off overseas to interview famous writers. Which is how I came to meet Jackie Collins.

“What was she like?” people asked me at the time and subsequently, to which I replied, like a long line of interviewers before me and since, that she was nice. Surprisingly, genuinely nice. I am very sure about that. One of the requirements for success in journalism is the ability to “read” people: you have to be able to tell, from a sometimes fleeting acquaintance, whether someone is a liar or a fantasist or an asshole or whatever. What I thought about Jackie Collins was that, underneath her glamorous public persona, she was down-to-earth nice. That’s not something you encounter too often in the dog-eat-dog world of Tinseltown where media is fodder along with everything else, but Jackie Collins stood out for it. (Her sister, Joan, whom I have also interviewed, is nice too, but that’s another story).

And yes, Jackie Collins was a polished act and you cannot discount it. Look at any of her interview clips on YouTube, or my interview or countless others, and you can see how relentlessly “on-message” she was about her writing and her role in Hollywood throughout her 50-year writing career. Her distinctive personal style, which she kept right to the end despite a (concealed) six-year battle with cancer, also never wavered. In becoming as much of a star as any of the ones she wrote about, she was one of her best creations.

Our interview took place on a warm September morning at the St James’s Club, a swish Deco-era high-rise on Sunset Boulevard then favoured by the English expat celebrity crowd. When I arrived I was discreetly “screened” in the lobby by a chat with her senior PR minder – this despite weeks of letters, faxes and phone calls already having gone back and forth – and then escorted upstairs to the interview.

“Ooh, we’re in a banquette,” said Jackie Collins, settling into some U-shaped seating around a table that had been chosen for good sound quality.

“I love banquettes.” She twinkled her eyes at me. “They’re so gossipy!”

I have loved them ever since.

After the interview it took me 30 minutes, in dense LA traffic, to get back to my hotel in the Wilshire District. Waiting in the lobby though was a messengered parcel containing a signed copy of Lady Boss, the novel we had just talked about, and a handwritten thank-you note on her personal stationery. When the article appeared a couple of months later, I sent her a copy of the magazine. Another hand-written note, on even heavier gilded and embossed paper, promptly arrived in the mail. That’s polished, folks.

Looking at the following article again after the passage of (I hate to say) 25 years, I have the usual cringes about things I wrote when I was younger. But the story doesn’t seem dated to me at all. What Jackie Collins has to say about Hollywood, and how it treats women in particular, is still very true. The article appeared in the December 1990 issue of More magazine.

THE RAUNCHY MORALIST

Jackie Collins writes best-sellers about money, power and lust – but always, she says, with a moral message. Now, as John Corbett discovers, her career is moving in a new direction.

“We’re lucky we planned this interview well ahead,” says Jackie Collins, “because things are really HECTIC!” Collins is busy redecorating her Beverly Hills home, which she says is “overrun” with three dogs, three daughters, their boyfriends, and ceaselessly ringing phones. We’ve therefore arranged to meet down the road at the very posh St James’s Club – an Art Deco-inspired tower on Sunset Boulevard.

Collins’s domestic situation isn’t the only busy part of her life. Directly after our interview she is scheduled to tape a piece for Japanese TV and then fly to Chicago and New York to promote her new novel, Lady Boss.

Despite the pressure, the woman who walks into the meeting room at the St James’s Club looks very cool and composed. She’s already made up for the TV cameras and she is wearing her trademark Cartier Panther jewellery: huge, priceless orbs of burnished gold at wrists and throat.

“And these are emeralds,” she says, pointing to two heart-shaped stones, each the size of a toffee, which dangle beneath her ears. Her hair, a lacquered black mane, is set off by an ensemble of tight, black, stretch pants and bodice top, cream pumps, and an over-sized, double-breasted mauve jacket made by her dressmaker.

“I don’t have time to shop,” she laughs.

Since January, Collins has been involved “every step of the way” as scriptwriter and executive producer for a six-hour NBC mini-series of two of her novels, Lucky and Chances.

“The Executive producer keeps an eye on everything,” she says, sounding efficient. “Last night, we finished the scoring session for the soundtrack and the series goes to air in two weeks.”

To add to the pressure, Collins is busy writing a movie called Married Lovers – “It’s about relationships,” she says succinctly – planning her next book, Hollywood Kids, and setting up her own production company to produce movies and mini-series of her novels. The projects will include Hollywood Husbands, Lovers and Gamblers, Rock Star and Lady Boss.

Jackie Collins may look terrifyingly rich, chic and important but she is surprisingly nice.

“I think I’ll sit a bit closer,” she coos helpfully, as I check the sound on the tape recorder. She is professional too, apparently an interviewer’s dream – until you realise that some of her conversation sounds very well-rehearsed. Earlier that week, at another interview with a Hollywood director, he told me: “I’d be surprised if you get to see two centimetres of the real Jackie Collins. She’s a real polished act.”

FOR A NUMBER of years, Jackie Collins’s image has been an important part of the marketing of her books. She embodies the Hollywood glamour she writes so successfully about, looking and sounding exactly like a megastar author. It gets results: over 100 million copies of her books have been sold, in more than 30 countries, and Collins says that her books “have never been out of print. Not one of them.”

The image is not without its drawbacks. It seems, when you go through the piles of press clippings that her fame has generated, all that interviewers are allowed to see. The articles nearly always run along standard lines, packaging her past as neatly as any of her plots. Any suffering or disappointment she may have encountered along the way – such as her tragic first marriage or her early failure as an actress in Hollywood – are smoothed right over.

The well-burnished Collins image also hides the fact that she is a more serious writer than her publicity suggests.

“People read Jackie Collins novels on a number of levels,” she says. “A lot will read them because oh, it’s a raunchy blockbuster, etcetera. And others because there are sexy bits. But my true readers – and they’re very loyal – read them for their humour and perhaps for the insights I might have.

“There is a moral edge running through my books which says: ‘If you take drugs, you’re going to come to a bad end. If you screw around, why shouldn’t your wife do it, too? Marriage isn’t for that.”

I ask if she sees herself as an entertainer or a moralist.

“Well, Louis Malle – who, you know, is married to Candice Bergen – when we were doing Hollywood Wives, he called me a raunchy moralist. I kind of like that description. It sort of fits.”

Even without the assistance of her movie-star looks, Jackie Collins’s books would probably still walk out of bookstores in droves. When she is in form, as she is in Lady Boss, the novels are hugely enjoyable page-turners serving up a racy mixture of sex, humour, glamour and intrigue along with barely-concealed real-life scandal about the rich and famous.

Jackie Collins thinks she is successful though because she is honest.

“The public wants honesty. They know when it comes from the heart and you’re not just doing it to make a buck. The proof is in the fact that people like me, who have been around a long time – John le Carré, Wilbur Smith, Sidney Sheldon, Judith Krantz – we’re storytellers. We really know our characters and we love what we do.”

These days, the stories Collins loves doing are steamy, tongue-in-cheek tales of life and lust in Hollywood. Although internationally successful ever since her shocking 1969 debut, The World is Full of Married Men, she gained real prominence in the 1980s with a series of blockbusters about the entertainment industry: Hollywood Wives, Hollywood Husbands and Rock Star.

Such is her knowledge of the Hollywood scene, and her forthrightness in writing about it in a thinly veiled way, that major stars, producers and power-brokers reportedly lose sleep every time a new Collins novel comes out. Lady Boss, the third book in the trilogy begun with Lucky and Chances, is no exception: it is a scathing attack on the widespread chauvinism and sexism of Hollywood producers and studio bosses.

Collins insists that the novel is a toned-down version of real life.

“I live here and see and hear things you just wouldn’t believe: the way men talk about women, the way they talk about actresses, the way they use them, the way they want to sleep with them for a role.

“Of course, you won’t hear from the stars, because they’re not going to say: ‘Yeah, I screwed my way to the top’. They say: ‘Of course it doesn’t go on.’”

Collins manages her role as a Hollywood tatler and satirist with surprising ease. She thinks the reason she still has many good friends is “because they like success… Or perhaps they don’t read?” A more accurate explanation might be that, beneath her megastar image, Jackie Collins seems to be a very likeable, down-to-earth woman.

Her eyes light up, for instance when I ask, knowing her books as I do, whether her mini-series will show plenty of male flesh.

“Oh certainly – there’s certainly not enough of it around. I mean, is Mel Gibson’s butt and a quick flash of Richard Gere meant to keep us happy? I really object to seeing movies all the time where women take it all off and men are fully clothed or clutching the sheet. It’s so ridiculous!

“You know,” she continues, looking mischievous, “I was recently in England and the first thing all my girlfriends said when I arrived was:

‘Have you seen the athletics on TV?’

“And I went: “What do you mean?’

“And they said: ‘Watch the athletics!’

“And there were these guys in these little, little shorts and everything was like, swinging in the breeze – and it was great! Because women have traditionally been told by men that women do not enjoy seeing naked men in the newspapers or taking their clothes off. That’s absolute bullshit! Women enjoy it just as much as men do. I mean, they don’t get off on it – it’s just kind of exciting. It’s a kick. And I’ve always promoted that in my books.”

ALTHOUGH SHE IS FAMOUS for fudging about her age, Jackie Collins was born in London about six years after her sister, Joan, who is now 57. Their father, Joe Collins, was a well-known theatrical agent and a one-time partner of super-impresario Sir Lew Grade.

If Joan’s autobiography, Past Imperfect, is to be believed, Jackie devoted her early years to being a troublesome kid sister. As a teenager she showed a rebellious streak similar to the independent-minded heroines in her novels. She played truant and generally misbehaved, until she was expelled from school at the age of 15.

She says knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer – and to do that, she had to live life.

“I was a wild child”, she says, “and if I were doing it today I would probably be dead, because I would have experimented with anything and anybody.”

Shipped off to Hollywood to stay with Joan, who was then a starlet at Fox Studios, the troublesome teenage Jackie began a short, undistinguished career as an actress. It was, she says, mostly notable for many attempts to get her onto the casting couch.

“I never succumbed,” she says, “because I was too smart. But every man in the business that I seemed to come across was interested in saying, ‘Let’s have dinner, we’ll discuss the role – we’ll do this, or we’ll do that.'”

She pauses for a second and her eyes move to the left – a reliable tell that someone is saying the truth.

“It was great research. I never wanted to be an actress; I always considered myself an out-of-work writer. And that’s why I wrote my first book, The World is Full of Married Men – because I was so fed up with being hit upon by married men.

“I’d say: ‘What about your wife? And they’d say: ‘My wife is different.’ I almost named the book that! I’ve continued to write about the double standard because I’ve seen a lot of it.”

After a brief first marriage at 19 to Wallace Austin, a manic-depressive who later overdosed on prescription drugs, Collins returned to England where she met and married businessman Oscar Lerman. She has lived happily with him for well over 20 years and the couple have three daughters.

A firm believer in marriage, Collins credits her husband with giving her the confidence to complete Married Men and then pursue her writing career.

“He’s always said, ‘You can do it.’ Mind you, he hasn’t said it lately! But he used to say to me, up until a year ago, ‘You haven’t even started’ – which is a very encouraging thing to say to someone who has achieved great success.”

THE POINT TO WHICH COLLINS has now brought her career, with control of her own TV and movie projects, must surely be gratifying because she is on record as having been less than impressed with the mini-series of Hollywood Wives.

“I was creative consultant,” she says with a laugh, “but they never consulted me. And they missed the humour in the book. So, by becoming a producer I’ve protected my interests. I don’t think I’ll ever write anything and walk away from it again.”

On the other hand, her enthusiasm for the just completed mini-series of Lucky and Chances bubbles over.

“I’ve had the best time. It was so wonderful to bring all the characters alive and get actors who were right for the roles. I think I’ve become addicted to the process,” she says.

I observe that her own triumph over the male-dominated Hollywood system mirrors that of Lucky Santangelo, the heroine of Lady Boss who sets up her own studio to make movies the way she wants.

“I don’t know whether I’m getting more like Lucky, or she’s getting more like me,” she reflects. “I do notice, in this book, she’s much more like me than I conceived her in the early years… I think it’s probably me getting more like her! She’s obviously my alter-ego and she’s going on to bigger and better things.

She leans forward and taps the table top with a manicured nail, hard enough to leave an audible pop on the tape recording afterwards.

“There’s one final thing I want to say about that. My novels say to women: ‘You can do it’. They give encouragement. My women have certainly never been sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for some guy to say, ‘Baby, I’m going to marry you – isn’t that great?’

“My message to women is that you should have a terrific career. Make a terrific life for yourself, don’t wait for some guy to give it to you – because there’s so much to do out there. If you really work hard, I think you can achieve anything.”

Photo by Greg Gorman. Jackie Collins.com